Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Hills Are Alive

(I can't find any info/pictures on the radar station nearby, but this one looks exactly like ours used to.)

Well, thanks, Irene. I'll have to admit, with some chagrin, that the recent hurricane has actually brought good things to this obscure spot, 17070. Lots of rain, which is so much better for the plants than chlorinated drinking water (and more cost-effective), a quiet day without electricity (but just long enough for the refrigerated food not to spoil), and now a string of beautiful, sunny, blue-sky days with that rare combination of comfortable temperatures and little humidity. The folks in Vermont don't have quite such a sanguine view of events, I'm sure.

So this morning called for a long walk over Leib's Hill to the Crimson Frog for an overpriced coffee and then to the library. When it's too hot/cold/humid, I pick a short route in the other direction. Returning by a different way, I crossed Radar Park, 8 acres of mercifully unbuilt-on land at the top of the hill -- and stopped short.

The passive use park had nothing on it but the remains of the 1950s radar site but is crossed by a winding asphalt path which helps prevent collecting ticks. I was quite amazed to see not just the two lonely trees that have struggled there for years but four groves of newly planted ones, with about half the park nicely mowed and the other half left to grow vigorously into meadow. A sign explained that this was done by the TreeVitalize project, a public-private partnership of the Department of Conservation and such groups as the PA Horticultural Society and the Western PA Conservancy. They have planted 280,000 trees by this summer in about 1/3 of Pennsylvania's counties, short of their one million goal due to funding cuts, but this is real progress considering that most of the hill has been shorn of trees over the past three years by mini-mansion development. All this was sparked by a study which concluded that the Delaware Valley to the east had lost 8% of its tree cover in 15 years -- that's 34,000 acres!

The new trees are lucky to begin their lives with so much rain and gentle sunshine this season. May they grow for generations to come. We don't need ONE MORE mansion!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hope You Like Zoggin' Too

On the two short but intense blocks of Rehoboth Beach's Wilmington Avenue ending at the boardwalk, there are about 25 restaurants (including the corners). No zoning, either: everything from expensive European (Espuma) to the terminally greasy (Gus & Gus) sits equably shoulder to shoulder. There's only one empty building, the former La-La Land, and since it's a pair of purple-painted Victorian cottages it looks just as good closed as open.

We only try one or two new places each summer, because the favorites are excellent just the way they are. But 2011's new entries, Planet X Cafe and Dogfish Head brewpub, were right up there too, which leaves us no open slots to fill next year. An embarrassment of riches!

The beer sign above has set the tone for Zogg's Raw Bar & Grill for years, as has Jimmy the multi-tasking musician, who says it's rare and goes for over $100 on e-Bay. He's the cultural memory for his summer home (weeknights except for Friday) at 1 Wilmington.

After a 13-year career as a travel agent (that was a great job back in the day), he has earned a living in music, at venues from Carnival Cruise Lines to Zogg's to his winter gig on Sanibel Island, Florida. He has an RV and, it looks like, no worries.

Jimmy looks more than a little like Ernest Hemingway and sings gentle songs while playing guitar, ukelele, and a steel pan hand-made by a Trinidadian friend (who for some reason lives in Pittsburgh). You wouldn't guess he was also a symphony trumpet player, but he says he's five years out of that and the politics will probably keep him away for good. I wonder if he still keeps his tuxedo -- just in case.

Zogg's has an inside which we've never seen because the long outdoor space between two buildings, with palm trees, bamboo and the fiberglass shark in a tropical shirt is just right. Like Cheers, they know your name and when you come in you head for your regular table and Jimmy ribs you a little. The hostess told us the owners researched around Key West and a number of Caribbean islands to get the look and feel right when they opened the place 11 years ago. I guess there are those who don't feel it, but there's always Bob Evans... To each beach bum, his own.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Don't Go There

Forbidden islands right next to the metropolises of New York and Venice? They're there, they're weird, and you can't go.

Looking toward the East River from the end of 141st Street, the Bronx, you can see a heavily wooded pair of islands, North and South Brother. The larger, North, is populated solely by a very loud gathering of birds, some of them quite rare in the NYC area. The nesting areas of the herons and egrets are protected -- very well, as it turns out. Since 9/11, you'll receive federal charges if you attempt to trespass on this island, and your chances of getting there and back are slim: the constant passage of large ships, the treacherous currents, and the watchful eye of the Rykers Island Prison guards, the Coast Guard and Homeland Security assure that.

The thirteen acres of North Brother contains the moldering buildings of Riverside Hospital, closed up in 1962. It was opened in 1886 to isolate and treat those with contagious diseases such as typhus and smallpox. In its later years, drug addicts were housed there as these outbreaks were controlled and then eliminated.

The greatest loss of life in NYC before 9/11 occurred here: a steamer caught fire in 1904, killing 1141 people, mostly immigrants, before it ran aground on the island's rocks.

The hospital's most famous patient, on and off from 1907 to her death in 1938, was "Typhoid Mary" Mallon, a cook who caused three deaths and 47 illnesses by being an unaffected carrier of typhus (which she vehemently denied).
Covered by poison ivy, watched vigilantly by the authorities, and rife with howling birds, this gloomy island will probably stay off the tourist map.

Populated back in the Bronze Age, Poveglia island in the Venice lagoon was first mentioned in history in 421 A.D. when it served as a refuge for Romans from the barbarian invasions. The number of inhabitants grew, and in 1015 a monastery was built, then the San Vitale church in the twelfth century rose, with a striking bell tower. Things went downhill with the Chioggia War between Venice and Genoa arriving in 1379; a still-extant fort known as the Octagon was built and the civilian population moved out. Napoleon took it over for a while and destroyed the church except for the tower, which became a lighthouse.

In between the Genoan and Napoleonic wars, the island was first used as one of several quarantine stations (lazarettos) to watch arriving ships and sailors for 40 days for signs of disease. Good idea, but the plauge arrived dozens of times anyway; that of 1576 killed the equivalent of today's total population of Venice. Bodies of the dead and those still alive but symptomatic were hauled to Poveglia, perhaps 160,000 in all. The scrawls of those housed in the large building known as the Tezon are still visible on the walls. One grave recently discovered by archaeologists contains 1500 skeletons. The quarantine station finally closed in 1814, but it's said half the soil on the island today is human ashes.

It got worse. In 1922, a retirement home was opened, but some of the buildings were also used as a mental hospital. Much like a Boris Karlov movie, Dr. Nikolvich (the Demon Doctor!) went mad himself, experimenting on the patients quite cruelly as he searched for an insanity cure. In 1930, he leapt (or was pushed?) from the bell tower into the clammy mists below, ending eight years of terror.

Boris, we need you to come back to make Islands of the Doomed! Last close-up shot, he turns to the camera and intones, "But it was all true. True!"

1. The mad doctor's house

2. Poveglia Island

3. Riverside Hospital, NYC

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Lost Colony of Texas

When people in Texas enjoy their barbeque and brisket, do they think to thank the Archduke of Nassau?

Southern American migration into Texas before and after the Civil War would have introduced barbeque as an excellent end use for all those longhorns in any case, but it got a real quality boost from some skilled German and Czech butchers who arrived in a colonization scheme known as the Adelsverein (the Nobility Society). Twenty-one German noblemen (the aforementioned Archduke, two regular dukes, nine princes, eight counts and a lone baron) met in Nassau's castle at Biebrich on the Rhine in 1842 and developed a plan to ease the pressure of surplus labor in the German states, while creating new markets and sources of raw materials, in line with 19th century mercantile colonial theory. The Republic of Texas was scouted; it had always been a destination for outlaws, filibusters and fortune seekers, after all, and its President, Sam Houston, could grant tracts of land to contractors who would colonize it. Old Sam only offered some frontier territory west of Austin filled with hostile natives, so the society purchased 4,428 acres of land in Fayette County at $.75 per. Twenty-five slaves were also bought.

The first immigrants, who'd paid $240 per head of household, arrived in mid-1844 at the port of Indian Point (now Indianola). They were short on shelter (there was no wood) and very short of medical care: 1,000 of the 1846 arrivals died of disease, exposure and starvation. By the end of the colony's official life in 1853 due to unpayable debt, 7,000 had made the journey, founding the settlement still known as New Braunfels and a second colony, Fredericksburg (both named after princes, of course -- naming rights have been around a while).

A signal accomplishment of Adelsverein beyond the excellent barbeque was a lasting -- because it was actually fair -- treaty with the Comanche. Indianola did not fare so well: two hurricanes, in 1875 and 1886, devastated it, the latter one collapsing the building pictured above, called Sophienburg, the former headquarters of the colony and in its last years just a store.

The flags (if they had any) of shadow states within the U.S. such as the Republic of Vermont, the State of Franklin, the Free State of Winston (Alabama), Scott County (Tennessee) and Adelsverein are furled and resting in the dusty closet of history. Little Scott County had the last chuckle: after seceding from Tennessee after it seceded from the Union, the plucky residents didn't officially rejoin the Volunteer State until 1986!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Are We Amused?

Like being a completely dark cave, we homo sapiens lose perspective quickly, even during the short tenure of a human generation or two. Despite being unnerved by Too Much Information -- and Everything Else -- we accept and adapt to the hugely exceptional, drastic change in our lives over the past 60 years (the normalcy bias). With huge energy inputs available as the Industrial Age accelerated and astonishingly increased efficiency in all phases of economic life, we have more discretionary time and money than we can handle well.

Leisure time was scarce when people were isolated and transportation slow, and there was much to keep everyone busy. Until WWII when other, higher-paying employment skyrocketed, there had always been servants; not only upper but middle class households worldwide had servants to handle the very time-consuming laundry and cleaning chores which took a lot more effort than they do now. Ask very old people what having a coal furnace and hand-washing then hanging out clothes was like.

Our culture has changed quickly from work-centered to entertainment-dominated. Television, that so-aptly named "vast wasteland," hit us along with good highways and a car in almost every driveway in a very short period. We liked it. Fun, freedom and a sense of individual empowerment. We were not on earth to serve, suffer and die, but to amuse ourselves -- formerly the province of the privileged.

Things started to get out of control (not that we noticed) with the advent of shopping centers, then malls. Buying things was no longer a well-considered choice, but seven-day-a-week entertainment. Then we had a blizzard of catalogs, followed by electronic commerce. Who knew we'd careen in relatively few years from huge computers in freezing clean rooms, running miles of magnetic tape, to mobile phones in individual hands worldwide. With apps. Lots of apps.

With all these choices, we're apt to get lost; manipulated into no real choices at all. You will buy junk from China and merchandise featuring Justin Bieber.

New product must be introduced daily, with almost 8 billion clamoring for it: from Hula Hoops on television ads and harmonizing chipmunks on radio a half-century ago to Silly Bandz, Pokemon and video games today, and movies about underground street racing. Disneyland Paris (with 15 million a year in attendance) is the number one tourist destination in Europe, where, ironically, they have the authentic stuff. It features a fabricated New York and American West (near Paris, remember). Don't get me started on the Hunter S. Thompson world of Las Vegas.

There are mental comforts to be enjoyed and skills to be developed in active recreation and hobbies. Passive entertainment, faked-up stage set environments and the world of the LCD screen is something different. The human eye evolved to view three dimensional images; its natural focal point is about 20 feet away. Computer vision syndrome results from working the eyes too hard when looking at a computer screen for more than two hours a day; what in the world does it do to our minds and spirits?

Have to go. There's a movie from Netflix waiting, and two things on DVR to watch.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Teenage Dropout Author, 33 Years Later

"After oxygen and carbon, humans are made up of stories." -- Paige Williams

Dolly Freed has done it her way.

She and her family were as typical as possible, living in a suburb of Philadelphia: Dad (an electronics technician), Mom (with a successful candle business), Dolly and her younger brother. Then things got unconventional. Father Frank joined his wife in the candle business as a way out of working all day for someone else, but she wanted bigger and better things and he just wanted to be his own boss and not work away from home all day.
So she left with the younger sibling, and teenage Dolly and Frank, being of similar dispositions, decided to follow their inclinations to be what they wanted to be: lazy, proud and honest. Not on a rural commune or in an ideological community, though; they just kept up the middle class facade and stayed clear of the law (Dolly was a truant -- and her name is a pseudonym adopted to keep her real identity anonymous. It still is.)
For several years, they did just that and lived well without jobs and almost no money (they earned less or more than $1000 a year at odd jobs). Their neighbor had five children to feed and Dolly wondered why he cut the large back yard of grass rather than growing food. With their garden, as well as fishing, rabbits and chickens, had more than they needed. Dispensing with school after the seventh grade, the surprisingly articulate and competent 18-year-old wrote and published her book about their adventure in suburban sustainability in 1978, Possum Living. I remember reading a book by a middle-aged woman doing the same thing in suburban Philadelphia; I wonder if they ever heard of each other.
When the desire to re-start her education struck, Dolly put herself through college and eventually became an engineer for NASA. If this were a Lifetime movie, you wouldn't believe it for a minute.
Now living in Texas, she's gone halfway back to her roots, making a small living as an environmental educator and following the low-impact lifestyle again. Her book was reissued last year, and there is a 10-minute film on YouTube made after it was first published. She says,
"possum living taught me that you need very few physical things to be happy."
Another feisty female story. I love 'em!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fight For Your Right To...Get Screwed?

Between 2009 and 2011, Bank of America tried to confiscate Chief Warrant Officer Charles Pickett's home three times. CWO Pickett was serving in Iraq (making it very difficult to defend himself; you can't just ask for personal time off from an armed forces assignment) and was current on his mortgage payments. He was only one of thousands of service members, many overseas, who have been illegally foreclosed upon during this time period. These actions were too numerous to have been a mistake, and were taken in direct defiance of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act of 2003.
While CWO Pickett finally beat BofA back, his credit was damaged. This can affect his security clearance, and thus his career, seriously. Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) addressed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about this ongoing criminal behavior of America's deregulated financial industry the other day. For many innocent people, it's too late.
Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase have been fined -- not prosecuted and jailed. Fined = wink, wink/you can do what you want, it's the Free Market!
Zach's mortgage is with Chase. Not our choice; it was sold and re-sold, to the slimiest bidder, I guess.
CWO Pickett is half-way around the world in Iraq to supposedly, somehow, bring it democracy, justice and the rights of man. But he and thousands of others are being ambushed and attacked on the home front by the well-educated, well-dressed mafia that can't be touched. Exxon-Mobil has not paid all its bills and fines for the Valdez oil spill so many years ago, and never will.
If any of those who lost their homes to illegal foreclosure are Apache helicopter pilots, here is the address to program into your missiles:
Bank of America, 100 N. Tryon Street, Charlotte, North Carolina.