Thursday, April 30, 2009

Enjoying the Shade along Memory Lane

Writer and philosopher Wendell Berry of northern Kentucky is my kind of guy. He writes broadly about humans and the environment (What Are People For? is his masterwork in this vein), but it is the jewelled precision of his knowledge of his home country, the bountiful soil and the generations who have lived on it which I, and many others, treasure. His novels and stories are not only all set there, but the same characters (based on real people) reappear, to the delight of a constant reader. When one key family loses a son in World War II, Berry brings in the theme of brutal, senseless outside forces battering the seemingly isolated community simply but clearly when the father mutters, "It's always the war or the economy..." The gradual disappearance of small local schools and businesses and the barely understood damage these trends cause should resonate with most of us when we stop to think of it. The big highway changed everything -- as we were connected, we were fragmented.

The road my grandparents' house was on changed forever when it was widened and raised 12' in 1973. The water runoff then coursed down the hill and right into their basement, requiring two pumps running continually during downpours. School buses and tractor-trailers could now run blindly up and down at all hours rushing to the nearby town from the highway. On a summer Saturday night during the 50s, we'd see no more than five cars go by. I could identify them all by the shape of their taillights, and usually knew whose they were. The only entertainment was going to the A&W Rootbeer stand at Hogestown, a few miles away. With no air conditioning, that was a real treat. Now it's a convenience store, where a woman clerk was murdered a few years ago by her ex-husband. Due to years of water damage working its way up from the basement, degenerate tenants and the maintenance burden, the house was torn down several years ago. Trucks roar by, drowning out the crickets' sweet music.

What remains? Across the road from the house stands a line of Chinese elm trees, orphaned descendants of saplings planted in the back yard which had grown tall and wide in the 60s, now gone from wind and storms. My grandmother's sister and her husband brought those saplings from their yard in Buda, Illinois as a gift to provide, in their maturity, dappled shade over the wooden Adirondack chairs set in a semicircle underneath them. Do the roadside elms, now adults themselves, remember their parents' childhood trek from the midwestern plains? The storms will fell them too, in time, if the transportation department doesn't do it first. I will remember them all: modest people, generous trees and the sleeping 17-year locusts; it's all I can do.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Knowing Things

Brother Steve was here from New Jersey (remember the PA state motto: "At Least It's Not New Jersey!"), and we explored some family history just to the north in Perry County. We went to an abandoned cemetery up a hillside road, closed in 1937, where William Rice and many other 19th century Rices are buried. William built a stone mill around 1840 for the Bull family, beside Raccoon Creek, about 2 miles away in the village of Donnallys Mills (no one remembers where this name came from, but the Donnallys, Rices and Bulls are all comfortably resting together in the old cemetery). We revisited the derelict mill, now sadly used for junk storage by the current owner and quite overgrown. It has more bees and wasps buzzing around in irritation than any one place should. Old William is also credited with selecting the name for the county in honor of Oliver Hazard Perry, serving on a committee for its organization. The gravestones tell the sad tale of many of his children dying very young; they were born, surprisingly, in his wife's 40s and 50s. A thick file rests in the archives of the Perry County Historical Society about the family (while perusing it to verify some stories told by our grandfather, we found they were all true and documented), so these things will be remembered, if there is no fire or tornado.

Memories of things which have little consequence or resonance are not written down, but carried on by us while living; I think about how they evaporate when each of us frail vessels passes on. My grandparents had old friends, the Harlings, who had a summer house in Donnallys Mills (and a brick rowhouse in Harrisburg for the rest of the year); when I was young I perceived them as very old, but they probably weren't. They had a very long, peaceful and narrow back yard at the summer house, its most memorable feature being an apple tree upon which had been grafted three different types of apples. Their black Dodge was always put away in the garage. We arrived in Grandad's grey-and-cream four-door 1956 Desoto Firedome, a car so huge inside you could sleep two in the back quite easily. We enjoyed iced tea under the back yard trees, watched the songbirds and butterflies busy about their tasks, and I really did enjoy hearing their stories and memories. He always had a WWI-era "V" nickel for me. Everything was sure, slow and deliberate. People who drive black Dodges don't tend to be hyperactive types.

Their house is still there, unchanged. When I was older and didn't visit much, being busy with school and work, I heard that Mr. Harling had succumbed to dementia and committed suicide with a revolver, lost in paranoia. As a widow, Mrs. Harling showed a surprisingly lively side, buying a black and yellow Dodge Royal, the top model, and driving around unnecessarily. Good for her. The Harlings were childless, left little mark on the world, and there is no one left who remembers them except for Steve and I.

Where Raccoon Creek passes under Twin Ponds Road a few yards from this house, there stands a sycamore tree that my grandfather remembered from his boyhood. It's still there and pretty healthy looking; it gives me hope. We come and then go; may something simple and good remain.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Getting Better All The Time

A virtual heat wave rolls over the Appalachians and then us, raising our pasty white faces up to a blue rather than grey sky, driving the bees crazy, filling the rabbits with thoughts of...well, other rabbits.

It must be a tipping point, because on this most perfect of weekends for it, the Wegman's supermarket started selling 6- and 12-packs of 250 brands of beer, and even chilled singles to enjoy in their cafe. This is momentous for a state still half-locked into Prohibition, with many dry towns and townships and lots of state laws and rules, too complex for many young employees of restaurants who get fired for breaking one they never heard of or understood. We can still hardly believe we got a Wegman's, which is like the Ferrari of grocery stores. We have traveled to Maryland to shop at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, but no more -- foodie heaven is just two towns over. And goodbye to having to deal with the dull beer distributors (unless you need mass quantities, like the Coneheads).

This is for you, Rus: the Patriot-News debuted its new design today, and it's not bad. The headers are in a purple/dark blue, there's more spot color, and, it seems, less fill material. The younger staff is either punching up the layout, or they are copying easy reads like USA Today.

Today (this is added on 4/18), our Senator Arlen Specter switched from Republicon to Democrat, after being blistered and threatened by his party because of voting for the stimulus bill. Catch me if you can, says he!

Another encouraging development (rather than the revolting kind) is the near completion of a new zero-energy home in Palmyra (near Hershey). At 2300 square feet and 15 rooms, it's still way too big in my opinion, but that's a minority view, I suppose. A geothermal HVAC system, extensive solar roof panels, and insulated concrete form walls from foundation to roof, along with quality building envelope materials (triple the required R values) everywhere, means a net zero utility cost and a very tiny carbon footprint. It costs 7 - 10% more, but the owners will get rebates, tax incentives, and about $500 a month in commodity certificates from the utility company. Things I've been reading and thinking about for 25 years are finally, slowly, becoming a reality in Dutch Country, which is significant because if innovation can take hold here there is hope for everywhere.

I'd toast it with a cold one from Wegman's!

Friday, April 24, 2009


Wednesday evening JM (Camp Hill's foremost Grateful Dead fan) and I went to the Dead show in Wilkes-Barre. No big city problems, parked for free, no traffic jams to mar the experience. The vendor midway in the parking lot was amusing -- reminded me of the cantina scene in Star Wars! The stage was topped by discs circled with blue, teal and red lights -- and after a while they highlighted rising columns of pungent herbal smoke...
Warren Haines of the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule took Jerry's place; I couldn't see the keyboardist behind his warren of instruments. I did have a great view of Phil Lesh, though, and he had two black custom 6-string basses, one with blue lights all down the neck. They had a long S-shape, with the bridge hanging off the bottom end. All the instruments and voices were clear and distinct, as usual for the sound purist Dead Ones.
Of my two personal favorites, they did play "Me & My Uncle," but not "Friend of the Devil." Needless to say, only a few opening notes were required for the audience to identify each tune, and cheer it on. "Drums/Space" in the middle was a treat, with Mickey hammering away on the three giant suspended drums.
If it had not been so cold and windy outside, the midway would have been quite a party after the show. Some people obviously had the party spirit anyway!
The guys are still truckin', and that, as Martha says, is a good thing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Third Way

Emotionally-charged words such as "fascist" and "socialist" thrown around inaccurately in the performances of the baggy-pants media comedians recently should remind us that fanaticism about the means (the system, formula or "ism") to be employed by society shows great intellectual weakness. A few religious and economic thinkers have observed that successful life is the creative reconciliation of opposites which are always before us, not the exclusive adoption of absolutes. Those eternal opposites in the social realm are planning vs. freedom, managerial responsibility vs. untrammelled democratic participation, Stalinism vs. chaos, and so on. In this age of marketing and propaganda, our egotism and desire for simple answers are appealed to, and a formula like state fascism can be easily sold as libertarian, patriotic freedom (at a tea party rally).

Anything carried too far is destructive, but that is a truth we evidently didn't learn in kindergarten. Once in a great while, an individual or group in a moment of clarity develops a creative and practical approach, a third way, toward reconciling the opposites. Early in the Depression, leaders in Sweden looked around at the failure of capitalism, the horror of communism and the menacing Fascist hybrid of government/corporations/military and concluded, as so few do, that these existing ideologies were all highways to hell. The Social Democratic Party instituted reforms which incorporated effective compromises between these extremes, with the cooperation (believe it or not) of the private capitalist sector, based on a strong Cooperative movement (democratic participation), active government involvement in economic matters, and private ownership with a social conscience. Unlikely -- but a mix of monarchy with a socialist government in a healthy capitalist environment (accepting redistribution as a valid means toward shared prosperity) worked, based on egalitarianism and pragmatism.

People have short memories and are subject to mood swings, however, and influenced by the wave of "free market" thinking, a conservative Swedish government in the 1980's went the financial deregulation route touted by the Reaganites, which led to the usual bad real-estate lending frenzy. Inevitably, the bubble burst in 1992 and our Nordic friends woke up and remembered what had worked before they were duped into embracing the latest absolutist ideology.

Another rare example is the tale of one company in the United Kingdom you have probably never heard of (does any MBA program study this amazing story?? I'd like to know), Scott Bader Co., founded in 1920. By 1951, this plastics and polymers enterprise was prosperous and still privately held, but Ernest Bader was no one-dimensional non-reflective businessman. He was in a position to take some very original steps to change his firm to one "based on a philosophy which attempts to fit industry to human needs." He was financially comfortable, and recoiled from the prospect of becoming insanely rich; and had already wisely protected his company and employees from the short-sighted tyranny of stockholders and a board of outside directors. There had been profit-sharing from the very start, but the new Commonwealth arrangement of employee-owners with clear rights and responsibilities provided that the firm should remain a limited size, so that everyone in it was, and felt themselves to be, an essential partner and not a replaceable cog. Like Ben & Jerry's today, remuneration was limited to a ratio of 1:7 between the lowest and highest paid. Fixed percentages of profits were designated for taxes and self-finance, bonuses and charitable purposes in the immediate locale. Industrial organization was to be a servant of man, instead of its using people as a means of enrichment for outside owners of capital. I guess if you tried that here, the American Enterprise Institute would sue you.

Long ago the Buddhists distinguished themselves from theistic religions by their "Middle Path" approach. They say: look at reality from a neutral and unbiased position, concerning yourself with the relationship between your thought, your behavior, and the consequences of both. They do not attribute human suffering to perverted causes created by a god; no hierarchical system requires your unthinking obedience to defeat evil and misfortune. Once your perverted thought is corrected, wrong behavior will end and suffering ceases.

So, if you were a bright British chemist living in Sweden and practicing Buddhism, you would have already figured out that being an ideological true believer isn't the way to go.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Southern Fried Weekend

I very much hope electric cars are here before the liquid fuel runs out, because taking to the road with the promise of sun and fun on the horizon always gets us riled up and grinnin'. When Nancy and I were getting to know each other back in 1978, one bright morning I dropped the top of our Fiat 124 Spider with one hand, slid the shifter into first with the other, and we zoomed out onto Patterson Avenue on our way nonstop to Montreal. Nancy had her light blue Fun Hat on. Just for the hell of it.

A New York state cop stopped us on the New York Thruway with the question, "Do you know how fast you were going?" -- to which I answered, "Yes, sir. 85." Costly, but worth it. You're going to curb your enthusiasm while in an Italian roadster with a long-legged beauty on a perfect sunny Saturday??

Montreal in mid-June is a lovely piece of Europe within easy reach. We saw an outdoor art exhibition in a large park, Gothic and high Victorian buildings strewn with sculpture, a fast-food stop with the sign, Poulets Frites a la Kentucky -- but best of all was the outdoor table at a tiny bistro where we discovered Pinot Noir and Salade Nicoise. That was the door to a big world outside our limited suburban mindset, and we've been touring that world ever since.

This Easter weekend we headed south on a truck-infested I-81 to Richmond, in search of an elusive Spring, hoping to find sunshine, flowers, and old friends neglected far too long. It turned out we didn't need to long for the ragtop; a persistent cold front dragged its miserable self over the entire East. No matter; we were on a mission to find some craziness (and found Cliff in MansLand -- Dr. Demento yet lives!) and see the old haunts and hangouts again.
We met Bob Antonelli at American Bistro on MacArthur in Northside (what a menu!), then slid next door to Shenanegan's where the Bopcats were playing. Mason Wyatt and Jim Wark, whom I've seen on Facebook, were there; having been in the music scene in Richmond for decades, Bob knows everyone, and they made us feel right at home. Janet Martin was there, and in one of those spontaneous moments that make the night memorable, took the stage with Bob and her bass player to play two numbers. This August Bob is returning to France with the Martin group to tour -- how cool is that? Bob filled us in on some of the momentous events in his life in the past many years; if there was ever an indomitable spirit, it's his.
On Saturday we went back to Strawberry Street Cafe for a lively lunch, with Cliff, to relive our first date there. It's sad to see Bogart's gone, but how has Richmond kept almost all the old gold, while adding the silver all along Main, Cary, Broad St.? The Cafe, New York Deli, Farouk's, Crazy Greek, Robin Inn, Ciocca's, Shockoe, Westhampton Theater, The Phoenician, Cary Court, Agee's Bicycles -- all still there! Stuart Circle Hospital, the Little Sisters Convent, and Lee School reborn as condos. Grace Street at VCU is a wreck, and the old Village is a haunting sight; except for the lonely, elegant Victorian buildings left, VCU itself has lost its mojo. Carytown has got it, though; when I lived a few blocks south on Sheppard, it was Sleepytown and I would not have predicted anything like what I just saw.
The three of us wandered around the Fan, found Nancy's old place at 1405 Grove, Cliff's legendary original MansLand at 1024 Franklin, and the hulking former Asparagus Farm building (Richmond's Avalon Ballroom) behind where the Safeway used to be. The color may have faded a bit from our mental pictures, but they are vibrant...the music still plays.
We're all still here, still crazy after all these years.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Are most animals better than most people? Maybe they make us better people, and they have some hope we can continue improving.
You can overdo it with pets (look around a pet store), like anything else. We once had three rabbits at one time, which was pushing it. Even though many of that species lack personality, ours have been distinct individuals spanning a wide range of intelligence, vigor and quirkiness. The last one standing, B. B. Bunny, is over eight years old, never having been sick one day and still capable of leaping up in a twirling bunny dance of joy. He has the most balanced demeanor of all the five who have lived out their lives here: sweet, affectionate, and still crazy enthusiastic about his favorite foods (shredded wheat squares, banana, and pears). To crib from the musical Cats, fruit, to B.B., is what happiness is.
Destiny brought us Ms. Floppy, a solid black mini-lop rabbit with extraordinarily long ears, who was on display at a mall event held by the local rabbit rescue organization (Bunny People). I bent down to her cage to look at this handsome rascal and she ran up to the door and gave me a big lick on the nose. It was love at first smooch. Supposedly she had been found with many other rabbits and cats in a New York apartment after the owner had died, and boy, she had that big-city attitude.
Without a doubt, Floppy was the most intelligent rabbit ever. She could give you a sideways look that conveyed exactly what she was thinking; in fact, you could see her calculate. If that look said, "Bug off," you had better. Every Sunday evening she would be beside me on the sofa to watch The X-Files. She knew the truth was out there.
The first time I visited Nancy at her place, she introduced me to her beautiful Himalayan cat, Moonshadow, and I had the lack of grace to state I didn't much care for cats. Moonshadow regarded me for a while, took a sniff, and then leaped into my lap where she commenced purring and licking my face off. Her cat was an excellent judge of people, Nancy said, so things got off to an excellent start -- Moonshadow and I were best buddies after that as I quickly abandoned my ignorant opinion and was appropriately grateful to that fine feline.
That tuxedo tomcat in the photo above is Gilligan, whom we found as a fuzzy kitten yowling under our deck one summer evening, lost and hungry. We enticed him up with some grilled chicken, then held the back door open while he hopped in. He then went behind the entertainment center, got tangled up in the many wires, and I had to take the whole thing apart to rescue him. The poor guy has had his share of medical troubles, but now is in excellent shape, long, lean, muscular and pretty darned pleased with himself. He tries to pass himself off as a tough guy, but since he's always talking or purring, I think that lacks credibility.
Two last stories: Floppy was so bold, she once faced off a German Shepherd when I had her outside in a vacant lot nearby. The dog looked bewildered and just slinked off! And once, for a lark, we went to town in the convertible with her, with the top down, and she loved it. We sat on a bench in front of Coakley's Restaurant (the hub of New Cumberland), and people walking by would say, "Nice rabbit!"

Thursday, April 2, 2009

How to Build a Science Museum Exhibit, The Short Guide

Sometimes, you get to do exactly what you want to do, and if it doesn't later involve an apology or a fine, well, then you're in the zone, my friend. When I was exhibits director of the local science museum (grandly named Museum of Scientific Discovery) from 1986 to 1994, I even got paid to learn a great deal and have a ball doing it.
Small museums are limited either by a narrow focus or a lack of a style; however, we were in what I thought was the perfect position of having growth potential up to a regional level (and did expand from 10,000 square feet of public space to 32,000 on three floors). I saw an opportunity to develop a style, a "brand," under the radar of the amateur management.

I had a lot to learn about science, but had enough background in building, cabinetmaking, graphics and art to get going right away. Also I saw a great opportunity to recycle components and be radically creative in bringing new exhibits out at what turned out to be the lowest cost nationally (average individual exhibit, $1400; ours: under $100). An exhibition is a group of exhibits with a common theme. The first one I picked was called "Pennsylvania Science," because that allowed almost anything, and I surmised that visitors are most interested in (1) themselves, and (2) curious stuff they already understand the context of. Transportation technology is a subtheme I used several times, because PennDOT was two blocks away and a great resource, and PA has had some notable achievements in this area.

The beginning step is just being open to serendipity; forcing an exhibit out of your beleagured brain just to round out an exhibition theme never worked very well. Two things happened around the same time which inspired the third component of "PA Science." On the loading dock in the basment of the downtown complex we were situated in (where I went to scrounge), I found a welded aluminum display case base, formed at a 135 degree angle. Too good to pass up.
Then (here's the serendipity!), I was in the mayor's office for something, and saw a mid-19th century map of the Susquehanna River bottom at Harrisburg, the only such chart ever made, I later found out. The river bends here at about 135 degrees. You see where I'm going.

I thought that an interactive model of the river with flowing water, showing river and land transportation as well as accurate geographic countours and elevations, would appeal to all ages and be rather original, too. Another piece of the puzzle was already there: a while earlier, I had gone with a pilot friend to York Haven to scarf up some special solid foam material (Ethafoam), used in nosecones and wingtips, as the manufacturer was closing. We were going to use it in our working model airplane (like all planes, that exhibit turned out to be a maintenance challenge -- they ripped the propeller off the first day). I had just enough of the Ethafoam left to glue down and sculpt to make the river bottom, islands and the east and west shores. How to make a hard surface over it that would look realistic and survive water flowing over it? I had gone to R.C. Cook Co. when I worked in trade show exhibits to buy auto body supplies and paint, so I knew about chopped fiberglas, which is what they use to repair Corvettes. Mixed up and troweled on, that was the required surface. Sign-painters' enamel in the appropriate colors was brushed on, the towns and creeks were hand lettered in white, and the whole was covered with clear catalyzed vinyl (sort of like varnish on steroids). Trucks, cars, barges and boats were carved out of wood, model railroad gravel was glued down for road surfaces, bridges built, and a removable Dock Street Dam was made to demonstrate how the low water level without the dam impeded transportation by exposing the rocks (it had been there so long locals had forgotten what the true water level was like; this was the "aha" moment you most want with an interactive exhibit).
The water flowed in from an opening in the "north" end and emptied into one at the other; a submersible pump in my grandfather's metal bushel basket full of water hidden underneath the base moved the river along. Panels in the base opened up to show fossils and buried artifacts in the strata below ol' Harrisburg.

Before building it out, an idea has to be exhibitable, maintainable, educational and above all, safe. Slime and germs built up more quickly than I thought they would, so weekly scrubbing and water change was bolstered by bromine tablets in the water tub (you don't want chlorine in an enclosed space!).

I forgot to say where the germ of this idea really came from. Once on a junior high school field trip to the Smithsonian, I became so engrossed in a huge diorama representing the Korean War that the group boarded the buses and left without me. I had also seen the map of lights at the visitor center of Gettysburg Battlefield, and those two astonishing creations made me think, someday I'm going to make one of these. It's very satisfying to do exactly what you want to do.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Puffin' Away in Pee-Ay

If you aren't directly affected by some turn of events, your reaction can range from objective to just bemused. So it is with today's headline here in Pee-Ay (that's the way you better say it) about tobacco taxes rising precipitously: $2.94 on each pack now; retail total, $4.82 each. Why anyone would want to own a chimpanzee, live in North Dakota or smoke tobacco is beyond me, but they do.

"Stogie" as a slang term for cigars comes from the town of Conestoga (as did the Wagon Train mode of transport) in Lancaster County, due to its being the heart of PA tobacco country. The Amish raise a lot of it; why they regard electricity as a moral hazard and tobacco not so much is also beyond me. Harrisburg's airport is designated International not because you can get anywhere other than Charlotte, but because of tobacco exports. The convenience shop in the basement of the State Capitol where cigarettes are sold has been run by a blind man for 30 years, and he does a darn good job, recognizing his customers by voice (and maybe smell).

Heading south, a theory about why Virginia failed to continue producing Presidents on its soil after the first batch holds that the land was depleted and ruined after about 1790 due to a long run of tobacco farming; malnutrition followed and the quality of the population declined quickly. Those with strength and pluck (or a criminal record) migrated west, anyway.
Since we don't consume solely local food any more, this no longer applies to my peeps in the Dominion.

Now, if taxes on beer are also raised as dramatically, I'm going to have to care.