Friday, December 28, 2012

You Could Probably Use a Good Year-end Laugh

There are 98 more pretty good ideas

I check writer/producer Mark Evanier's blog regularly to keep up on (1) amusing L.A. and entertainment stuff, old and new, (2) referrals to social and political commentaries he likes, which are almost always ones I like, and (3) stories and pictures of people and places in SoCal long gone, fondly remembered, or still around and full of it.  I didn't find this little treasure chest myself; writer/critic/bad boy Rus Wornom of Richmond had it on his blog list (at

Anyway, can't resist sharing this little visual book Mark found:
Unlike Heloise's fussy column in your newspaper, it actually has relevant, mostly free, recycling-intensive little projects to solve small problems in creative ways.  The one that recommends using a staple remover tool to open up those clam-tight ring key holders is worth a look, for your fingernails' sake.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Holiday Roaming

Nancy's favorite scene from her favorite movie
Our very own Holiday Inn -- the Warm Springs Lodge --  in Perry County, PA

We've had a tradition of watching the 1942 classic musical "Holiday Inn" for many years.  It (especially when Bing taps the bells on the Christmas tree with his pipe!) never fails to leave us smiling and feeling that way you want to during the holidays.  I think if my funny valentine of a spouse could take only three nonessential things to a desert isle, those would be this movie and our two wacky cats.  Well ... I hope that number could be extended to four, so that list would include me!

We possibly started a new tradition on Friday night by going to the annual Christmas dinner show at the Hershey Lodge.  We're on an e-mail list with the (marketing) powers that be in Chocolate Town and have been getting some irresistible offers over the past year.  Never having heard of this one, we tried it out, joining a packed house in (Hitchcockian face of horror here!) the Red Room.  Ever since the Red Room (redrum: murder spelled backwards) scenes in "Twin Peaks" we've been very wary of red rooms, white lodges, and slowly dancing little people.  And it was the evening of 12/21/2012, the supposed day of apocalypse.

But all was cheer and colored light inside as we took our seats at table #21.  The cast of nine powerful singers tore through original and standard numbers, dancing athletically and making impossibly quick costume changes.  They took a break for dinner to be served, and it was so well timed and stage managed I got the impression they'd been doing this for many years; the painted set pieces really looked vintage. I remarked that it was like "Glee" live, since we watch that while enjoying dinner, too.

A couple about our age next to us mentioned that they've been coming to this event since they moved to Hershey, and had also just enjoyed their annual Thanksgiving visit to the musical dinner show at Warm Springs Lodge in Landisburg, Perry County.  When they described where it is, we were surprised that we'd gone by it many times coming back from Spiral Path Farm and had never noticed it.  Hearing that it's open for special events and holidays only, our jaws must have visibly dropped -- just like Bing Crosby's Holiday Inn, and it's quite near by.  The next day I looked it up, and indeed it is only open for holiday dinner shows, weddings and artist retreats (there is a poet's cabin in the woods).  A long history going back to 1830 includes legendary parties, devastating fire, romantic dances, an outdoor bowling alley at one time and a deadly sword duel in the 1850s over a lady, which prompted the shocked state legislature to ban any more of that sort of thing.  The origin of all this was the nearby cluster of six warm springs which inspired a health resort lodging to be built; the bottled mineral water was sold world-wide.

The circle widens:  the movie was obviously filmed inside a studio (Paramount), but the area around the Village Inn in northern California's Sonoma County stood in for rural Connecticut outdoor scenes.  The hotel was renamed Holiday Inn for a while after the Oscar-winning film was released.  And in 1952, a new type of motor hotel on Summer Avenue in Memphis was named -- guess what.

I'm sure we're going to get an early reservation next Fall for the Thanksgiving show at Warm Springs Lodge, and if an amiable crooner performs "White Christmas" with pipe in hand, well, I know someone who will love it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sky, Art and Spirit

Everett Ruess and Curly the burro
Noah Purifoy's outdoor art
Art car "Bluewheels" at Burning Man
Fantasy city sculpture at Burning Man

Cadillac Ranch, best known Western outdoor art installation
One of my favorites, in faraway Australia
Really big art -- a churning baby star named Sharpless 2-106
Nomad artists seem to find an inspiring home in the arid West.  Poet and printmaker Everett Ruess was drawn to the quadrangle of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado in the early Thirties after exploring nature down the California coast and through the High Sierra.  From 1931 to 1934 he participated in archeology, learned Navajo, wandered and met with famous photographers such as Ansel Adams, trading his artwork as a living along the way.  Much older, wiser and experienced than his 20 years would indicate, his ideas and intense life can be appreciated today through two books assembled from his surviving letters and diaries (and illustrated by his own linoleum- and wood-cuts).  But his motto, "where I go, I leave no trace," turned out to be a prophetic self-penned epitaph after he disappeared in the Utah wilderness in November 1934, never to be seen again.
Everett's two burros were found near his last camp in Davis Canyon. 

Many others, including unlikely ones like D.H. Lawrence and Theodore Roosevelt, would be forever changed by their travels in the deserts and praries; some of them compelled to become folk artists and some who just didn't fit in anywhere else.  Fine art along with crazy self-expression and impromptu theater has found a home west of the 100th meridian.

Changes caused by harsh weather become part of outdoor artwork's life.  The rust color that develops in the dry climate gives Ricardo Breceda's large metal animal sculptures spread around the Galleta Meadows Estate at Borrega Springs, California, an aged leather look that is disconcertingly life-like.  There are bighorn sheep, wild horses, an extinct elephantine creature and a saber-tooth tiger attacking a wild horse that freezes a moment in time from long ago.

More whimsical, the images of "Cadillac Ranch" near Amarillo, Texas are well-known worldwide; there is also a "Carhenge," painted ghostly white, in western Nebraska.  As a European tourist remarked, "only in America!"

Going far beyond such ironic, static sculpture, there's Burning Man, a short-lived Land of Oz appearing each year in the Black Rock Desert of Arizona where art, costume, performance and astonishing temporary constructions swirl through the minds and around the bodies of tens of thousands of people; all is burned at the end or drives away.  The art vehicles roll around merrily in a Sergeant Pepper and Yellow Submarine world brought to life by unrestrained, uninhibited imagination.  When it's all gone and the dust settles, the chaotic energy rises and returns to the Sky, which has been home to a chaotic art show of its own for ages beyond knowing.

            "I have left no strange or delightful thing undone I wanted to do."
                                                     -- the conclusion of Everett Ruess' last letter

Friday, December 14, 2012

Party Like It's 1699

Who knew?  Newgate Prison, party central

The local venues are booked up with holiday parties and the caterers are busy.  Remember the office party scene a while back on the television series "Mad Men?"  I guess we can forgo the shearing off of limbs for excitement, but many around the world will have a middling good time, especially if there's an open bar and a conga line.

It seems that with the so-called Mayan Apocalypse looming on the 21st, one might be justified in partying with abandon.  Not necessarily with the abandonment of all hope, but maybe with anticipation that the ending of an age (the 5000-year plus baktun) and the beginning of another may be a positive reason to celebrate, if you tend to be an optimist.  What has this era been and where has it brought us?  The period that saw the development of  fixed human settlements and developing political entities is generally agreed upon as beginning centuries before 3000 B.C.; now, 5000 years later, we are at the peak of the Industrial Age.  We can take some pride in generally good progress despite cycles of collapse followed by dark ages. 

Cycles indeed:  the first well-known civilized state, that of the Sumerians, seems to have collapsed around 3200 B.C. due to long droughts, resulting in the depopulation of about 3/4 of cities, towns and villages.  The Mayans later built an impressive urbanized group of states, sometimes even united under the bully du jour, but after two hundred years of good rainfall and the resulting population explosion, they succumbed to drought also (400 years' worth!).  As to what the next era holds for us, we can consider facing similar climate disasters coupled, as always, with overpopulation and environmental damage, with something new in the mix: civilization's dependence on oil for the transportation of everything.  Other materials can supply electricity, heat, and even plastics, but there is no good all-around substitute for powering transport, and we are halfway through our supply.    The rest, in greater demand than ever, is increasingly harder and more expensive to retrieve and refine.  That in itself may be more of a change in history's direction that we can wrap our minds around.

So, what to do -- the year's running out and we just may be running on empty too.

Scene:  Newgate prison in the old City of London, five stories of unforgiving stone, steamy and rank in summer, cold and damp in winter, around the year 1700.  On the facade, rebuilt after the 1688 fire, stand four statues portraying Justice, Liberty, Truth and Mercy.  Ironically, none of these virtues were to be found anywhere inside by the hapless inmates.  The sheriffs officially in charge sublet their responsibility to "Keepers" who in turn extracted money from the prisoners, their families and friends.  Upon arrival, the accused criminals (career felons, petty miscreants, the falsely accused, or just debtors) immediately had to pay a bribe or were stripped of their clothes and shoes.  Iron shackles were removed only if that service was paid for. Any clothing, sheets or blankets they may desire could be bought.  A better accommodation or bed was also  available with payment; otherwise it was a group cell and a space on the floor.  Three to six pence a day per regular prisoner was provided by the government for food (stale beer and old bread); those who could bring money in could actually feast well and get what passed for medical treatment at the time.

But, despite a deplorable present and not much of a future -- there was somewhere, not unlike the aliens' cantina  in Star Wars, they could go to if they had "liberty" privileges and were not important political prisoners:   the in-house Newgate Tavern, where at all hours men and women prisoners could carouse and down as much rum, brandy, wine or beer as they could afford or cadge from friends.  The ladies of Newgate might sell their favors for coin or drinks and the possibility of pregnancy, since that could cancel an appointment with the hangman (the children stayed in the prison).

The licentiousness of the place is abominable; there are no Jests so filthy, or Expressions so vile and profane, but what are uttered here with Applause and repeated with Impunity...they are debarred from nothing but going out.  Their conversation is profane and wicked as Hell itself.  (Dr. Mandeville, An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn, 1725).

It was the Party Hall of the Damned.  (Richard Zacks, The Pirate Hunter, 2002)

On their very last day, the condemned prisoners were taken in a cart from the prison to the places of execution at Wapping or Tyburn, but the party continued on the way after "a substantial breakfast with seas of beer."  The night before in the Condemned Hold anything was available as long as it could be paid for (you're not going to be taking it with you, after all).  The three-mile trip toward the gibbets took two hours because of frequent stops to liquor up again, with tavern keepers and enterprising individuals offering bottles from baskets.  The rowdy crowd along the way was described as "one continued Fair for Whores and Rogues," with many pickpockets among them  -- some of those were trained monkeys!

I do hope your holiday parties are fun without the desperation, and that you arrive home safely avoiding any monkey pickpockets.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now

You recognize that phrase, of course.  You can probably recite the spare three verses of "All Along the Watchtower;" it's part of our shared Boomer memory.  (I always get them mixed up, but I do have a few songs memorized correctly).  A compelling story, really the outline of an epic like HBO's "Game of Thrones," is sketched out in it -- leaving much room for imagination.  And that's one reason why story songs are so wonderful.

After 242 posts, I've told a few tales here.  There are two original stories slipped in, only one of which is clearly a fiction.

Unlike tunes based on a beat, a hook or a clever turn of phrase, I never tire of finely crafted story songs.  Here's a few that come to mind right away:

"It Was A Very Good Year"  -- recorded by many from 1961 to the present, but the definitive version is Frank Sinatra's from his 1965 album "September of My Years."  My dad had that one and I played it over and over when I was listening to Dylan and PP&M and surf music.  Great is great, whatever the source or genre.  Off the subject, the instrumental arrangement deservedly won an award.  (William Shatner recorded a spoken-word version, intercut with lines from Hamlet.  Can't  you just hear him doing it?)

"Me and My Uncle" and "Pancho and Lefty" -- those dusty western ballads are riveting.  John Phillips allegedly wrote the first during one deranged evening with Joni Mitchell among the group present, and if it weren't for her it would have been lost since John had no memory of it at all.  The single most-performed song by the Dead, they say.  And "Lefty" is a laconic gem by the terribly underrecognized Townes Van Zandt.

"Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" -- I missed the Newsweek story from 1975 because we received Time magazine at home, and had never given a thought to the hazards of Great Lakes navigation in any case.  The haunting line, "the lake, it is said, never gives up her dead," sets the tone at the beginning of this fateful story, told in seven long verses.

"Molly O, The Lily of the West"  -- Mark Knopfler contributed and performed this old ballad-style treat on a Chieftans album.  When the record is forgotten, people will think this is a genuine 18th century folk song, it sounds so authentic.  Faithless love...

"Long Black Veil" -- I thought this, too, was a traditional song when I heard it on a 1963 Joan Baez album, but it's a modern product recorded by Lefty Frizzell in 1959.  Sounding so much like countless Appalachian murder ballads, it is chilling to the bone, like a Poe story.

"The Boxer" and others by Paul Simon -- this rings so true you have to think it was based on some real person, but even if not so specifically, it has probably played out that way for many poor souls over the centuries.  A classic is timeless, and true even if not factual.

So many by Scots-Irish chantreuse Loreena McKennitt:  "The Highwayman" (the Alfred Noyes dramatic poem set to her music), "Marco Polo," "The Mummers' Dance" (which explains the faraway, prehistory, roots of the Philadalphia Mummers Parade), and "Skellig," which tells, wistfully and with elegance, of an old monk on the isolated west coast of Ireland passing on his work and legacy to a novice:

O light the candle, John
The daylight has almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to Mass

Sit here by my side
For the night is very long
There's something I must tell
Before I pass along...

It was said, and so truly, that a song is more like a play than a poem.

A great one is.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Where'd That Come From?

Old masonry lime kiln
Portuguese merchant flag used in India
Red striped version of the above
East India Company flag from 1600 to 1707
Both the East India Company flag (1707 - 1801) and the American "Grand Union" flag

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.
             --  First century philosopher Seneca, quoted in the Semisonics' 1999 song "Closing Time"

Two blocks away from us is a heavily traveled but twisty old road called Limekiln.  I wonder how many people ever think about the meaning of that name?  History and architecture fans will know that lime mortar was used for centuries before the modern portland cement mixture was developed for the building boom of the Industrial Age.  Limestone was burned under hardwood fires, first in a pit and later in brick kilns, fractured and reduced to powder, and mixed with sand and water to bind stone and brick together, and to make plaster and whitewash or used alone as a needed soil amendment.

Like the other local industries in the 18th and 19th centuries such gunsmithing and distilling (there were over 50 whiskey makers in the nearby area!), lime manufacture was established early to meet people's needs by using the resources at hand.  But where were the limekilns -- shouldn't the structure after which the road was named still be somewhere nearby?  There was no historical or informal marker, so I assumed it had been taken apart long ago.

One day, a good while after we moved here, I noticed a beehive-shaped stone structure with an arched opening tucked away in front of a rise, revealed now only by the winter-bare tree and brush branches.  That had to be it, still there after all.  It is not mentioned in the only book of local history (I checked it again) and not pictured in any of the places where historic photos are displayed (the library, or Bob Evans, a half mile up the road, which has many good ones).

I wonder about the forgotten origins of a lot of things.  The name of cheddar cheese intrigued me, just because it's a strange looking word.  It turns out that history is known; the original Celtic word dwr ("sheer" or "brilliant" water) referred to an ancient and surprisingly well-documented spring in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, England.  Okay, one closer to home:  why does the U.S. national flag feature alternating red and white stripes?  I always thought that was an unusual design, but only had the explanation everyone else has, that they represent the thirteen original colonies.  It seemed more likely that it had come from something before -- and what a long, strange journey those stripes made.

The green and white striped banner above was used by the Portuguese merchants and their local associates along the coasts of India in the 17th century (can't find an origin story on it, though), and was later flown in a red and white version, which was adopted by the British East India Company (which existed from 1600 to 1874) with addition of a red St. George's cross in the canton (upper left corner).  After the union of England and Scotland in 1707, the new Union Jack became the canton.  In 1801 a red "St. Patrick's" cross was added to the Jack when Ireland was merged to form the United Kingdom (St. Patrick died of natural causes as a very old man, so he was not martyred on any cross).  But look at the 1707-1801 version, and you will see, exactly, the first United States national flag, called the Continental Colors (it was renamed the Grand Union Flag in an 1872 book, and the new name stuck).  The first flag for all the thirteen colonies, it was made in 1775 by milliner Margaret Manny of Philadelphia and flown by the flagship Alfred as a Navy ensign, before the declaration of independence.  After that declaration the British Jack looked pretty inappropriate and a circle of white stars on a blue canton was decided on.  But why was the flag of the East India Company adopted without change by the restless American colonies as their own?

This is the core of the question -- for the curious -- and no one has an answer.  There is no documentation or explanation extant.  The Company was not allowed to trade directly with the colonies, and if some of their ships ended up in colonial ports, with ensign flying, they weren't there often or long.  American sailors, merchants, and privateers would have seen it many times in the Caribbean, off Africa, or on the Indian Ocean, but of that group of travelers and adventure seekers, only an influential merchant would have consorted with those who made the decision to adopt the flag. 

So, for reasons lost in time, our first flag and most of the current one are based on that of the first global corporation.  Irony alert!  Well, as President Coolidge said, the business of America is business.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Well, I Never

A few posts back, the moral of the story was "never say never."  Sometimes that's a good guide, in that the most unlikely things could (and do) happen.  But you are not in control of random events or tides of history, so you're off the hook whether you say "never" or not.  As for yourself, where do you draw the line at things you will not do?  And do you suspect that the line drawn might have a shelf life, short or long, and you will have to admit that "never" happened and you were wrong/misguided/wishfully thinking?

If your memory's intact, the only sure thing is looking backward and stating the facts, as in, "I've never broken a bone."  True in my case, despite falling through one ceiling, off two ladders, and surviving several motorized accidents.  I have noticed people who transitioned into a family business after the school years, and have thought they should be thankful they've never had to apply for a job -- especially in situations or times when the competition is overwhelming or the choices are like Hobson's.  But we can't say anything about what happens from here on out, of course:  a vow never to break a bone is vacuous.

So it comes down to matters of will. We just saw Spielberg's movie Lincoln, depicting a time when many died or were maimed in the struggle to establish a definitive "never" about the expansion of slavery in the United States and a dissolution of the Union.  But right now tens of thousands of Texans are proposing secession again (I'd be in favor of that, except for the sacrifice of so many to remove that possibility, and also that the departure of the state's representatives in the House would not result in a non-Republican majority anyway).  We'll see if the line drawn in 1865 will stand.

If I can help it, I will never take another test.  The last one I submitted to was a Myers-Briggs personality test during an excrutiating job interview for the science center in Ft. Lauderdale.  I had to wait in a room alone while they computed it; the interviewers were so creepy I thought there was probably hidden video surveillance and they were also watching for suspicious behavior.  My main motivation was mostly just to move us to sunny Florida, and after that brief incarceration and unwelcome invasion of my psyche I'd decided I was no longer interested.  If they were not skilled or bright enough to size me, or anyone, up without CIA methods, who would want to work for them?  (I came in second.  The poor guy who did get the job moved his three children and wife there and was canned three months later  -- the director and her associates were looking for a fall guy to blame the expansion project's failures on.  I saw him at the ASTC conference the next year and he still looked shell-shocked).

A mathematics blogger, Tanya Khovanova, stated clearly the way I've felt about IQ and SAT tests for many decades:  "creative people get fewer points -- the tests actually measure how standard and narrow your mind is."  She had taken a test for non-native-English speakers and found it was based on culture, which left her at a loss:  objects were shown in a row and the odd one was to be picked out, but many of them she'd never seen in Russia and didn't know what they were.  That was only a starting problem, though; what really bothered her is exactly what bothered me.  I.E, which is the one that does not fit among cow, hen, pig, and sheep?  The expected answer is hen, because it is the only bird, but you can immediately think of several other valid filters.  I think recognizing those is an indicator of mental ability.  What of emotional, or even moral, intelligence?   Someone who scored perfectly might go to Dartmouth and work his way up in Wall Street, and have the morals, or soul, of a weasel (there are thousands of examples).  Also:  the standard "determine the number sequence" questions -- there are 1479 different kinds of integer sequences, not just one.  And while the tests hold that there is one definition of every word, I suggest that the writers of them take a look at a dictionary.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Oh No You Didn't!

Stan Pike says, kiss it, colorfully
Richardson house, 1882-1915
The Skinny House, Boston
Aerial view of the Montlake House, Seattle
I can sympathize with Stan Pike of suburban Atlanta, who just wouldn't take "no" from his dumbass Homeowners Association.  About a decade ago, he applied to build a rounded entry porch on his home in order to balance out the rounded addition already on its right side.  Somehow the development he lived in had historical preservation rules, despite being a "hodgepodge of structures" in all styles from Tudor to modern.  So, it was a resounding "no" to his reasonable request.  We are all familiar with those petty authoritarians who extend their tenuous power much farther than was originally intended, from experiences in school, at work, with voluntary organizations, or with HOAs (the worst of the lot).
Mr. Pike did a little research and found that the local rules lacked the usual restriction on exterior paint colors, and immediately applied a coat of bright green with purple dots.  Others were fed up with restrictive, arbitrary interpretations of the covenants, and rallied in support:  purple dots appeared all over the neighborhood.  I especially applaud the one resident who put out a pink flamingo.  Stan, you're the man.

Others have gone farther when personal animosities, money and perceived property rights are involved.  There's something called the "spite house," which is a narrow or odd building placed next to another exisiting one to block its view or exposure to sunlight, just for spite.  One of the most well-known is a four-story apartment building once at Lexington Avenue and 82d Street, New York, built by Mr. Richardson to irritate the owner of the building next door who had offered 1/5 of what Richardson wanted for his narrow lot.  It was 104' long but just 5' deep!  I'm assuming the the tenants (if there were any) of the eight suites had to travel sideways like a crab.

In 1874, two brothers in Boston got into a dispute over inherited land; one built a large home on it, leaving the other with a narrow strip.  Pretty upset, the losing brother built the Skinny House there, a four-story wood structure about 10 1/2' wide in front, tapering to 9 1/4' in the rear.  It stands yet today.  Presumably in the afterlife, the brothers still aren't getting along.

Legend has it that in the mid-1920s, as a result of a divorce, a judge awarded the husband and child their home, leaving the ex-wife the front yard; she proceeded to build an 860 square foot house on it in revenge(aerial view above).  It also has an odd tapering shape, going from 55" at one end to 15' at the other.  That's a good story, but the actual situation was probably the usual one of a low offer made on a strip of land and an out-of-proportion response.

The record-holder for skinniest commercial building is in Vancouver, where Sam Kee objected to losing most of his property (to street widening by the city) by building an odd structure with a 4'll" deep first floor and an overhanging balcony.  A steel frame holds it up, defying the laws of physics, and real estate, to this day.

Right now, here in Mudville, the HOA Landscape Committee had the landscapers cut all the Spirea shrubs down for the fifth time this year to 1" nubs, and rip out the daffodil bulbs that have been in the circle opposite us for over 20 years.  It seems someone "objected to not being able to see the stop signs" -- despite the fact that no one stops for them anyway; what about Marine-haircut-tall shrubs and dormant daffodil bulbs was preventing a view of anything?  This just after the Spring planting of 16 decorative grass plants in the four circles (not a cheap project) was pulled out two weeks ago for the same specious reason.  Any dissent around here (and there is none, believe it or not) is pre-stifled by provisions in the bylaws such as charging the owner-resident all the legal fees the HOA will incur in dealing with said dissent.  Plus the imposition of fines that will result in you losing your home if not paid.

Building a spite house in response to pressure is a tad extreme (and how would you even do it considering permits and building codes?), but those who did left us with some amusing history.    

Friday, November 16, 2012

Who Were You?

Once you know how libraries are organized in general, and the one you're in specifically, finding whether what you want is there or not is easy.  I can tell you from inside experience that going by the electronic catalog is only a start, because patrons, especially children, remove books and misfile them, resulting in a lot of "lost" items that are really there...somewhere.
In the research phase during my exhibit development-and-building days, I was fortunate to be in the capital city with the State Library, county historical society, and main city library all within a few blocks.  But with a limited amount of time per visit, I can't say I learned where things were or found what I wanted in most cases (except for a book on the delicious Romanoff version of the periodic table, which I used in the graphics for an interactive exhibit on the noble gases -- that was a complete success).
With the Internet, hallelujah! you can find what you want without going out, putting shoes on, or risking a mold infection in the stacks of the State Library (just kidding).  So, like a lot of people, I indulge myself and investigate all sorts of things that tickle my wide-ranging and slightly peculiar fancy, just for the heck of it.

For a couple of decades now, Nancy and I have been the caretakers of family gravesites at Rolling Green and Mechanicsburg cemeteries -- there's no one else anywhere nearby and we enjoy doing it.  Cemeteries were used as public parks before those were widely developed, and they still serve the purpose well.  Walking around among the trees and flower memorials, with little threat from automobiles, you can read the markers, speculate on them, and learn something about the people in the community who came before you.  (A legend I'll never forget on a really old one in Abbotstown: As you are, I once was/As I am, you will be.  Shivers.) 

Over those years, I've noticed which markers were maintained by the living, and which looked abandoned and friendless.  Last year, I cleared a few off with the clippers and broom I'd brought along, and noticed one (a Private Garcia from the WWI era) had flowers placed on it after it was visible again.  This summer, I saw a depression in the ground a few yards away from my grandparents' resting place, and removed the leaves to reveal the letters ERLO.  I thought that even if no one was left who cared anything about this person or persons, at least their names should be in the sun.  So next time I brought the garden spade and dug out years of turf that had grown over the bronze tablet in the ground, cleaned it up, and read:


MYRTLE I.          LAURIE C.
1903-1964           1888-1964

Now my curiosity was stirring.  Fifteen years' age difference -- were they spinster sisters, or possibly a mother and daughter?  The name looked like it was Dutch.  And why did they die in the same year -- or was it the same day? 

I went to work, but since I only use free web sites it took a good deal of time; if I could pay per use at I would, but they want an ongoing paid subscription.  Most of the genealogy sites using the word "free," by the way, are not and most are affiliates which lead you back to Ancestry, the WalMart of dead-people-finding.  One such,, is also part of the LDS Church/Ancestry enterprise, but is very useful.  The federal grave sites registry,, is also essential, but not infallible:  the name is misspelled Merloo, which cost me a wasted day.  What I found out about our mystery guests:

The name is indeed Dutch and is also expressed as Van Meerloo, with first names such as Joost, Hendrick and Tryntje showing up, as early as passenger lists in the early 1700s to the Dutch East Indies.  The big surprise was that the name Laurie M. was associated with both WWI and WWII draft registrations!  It wasn't an error -- Laurie was a male, and had to register (in Richmond, Virginia) in 1942 for the Fourth Draft at age 54.  It was called the "old man's draft" because it targeted people born from 1877 to 1897.  He was born to a Dutch-born father and a mother of German descent in Brooklyn on August 24, 1888.  His social security number was issued in the District of Columbia, and on the 1920 census he is listed still in Brooklyn with his (surprise) first wife, Selma (born 1896).  And the name, for both, was spelled Marlow.  By the 1930 census, the name was again misspelled as Meerlos, and Laurie was residing in Dauphin, Pennsylvania, listed as a 41-year-old widower.  Also in his home was a "housekeeper," age 27, named Murtal Fehl (born 1903).  She changed roles at some point, became the second Mrs. M., and Anglicized her name to Myrtle.  I came to dead ends trying to find out anything more about Selma or Myrtle, though, except that the latter was born in Missouri and her father was from PA.  Laurie's two younger sisters also left no record I could find.

As of today, Pennsylvania death records are only available without charge online up to 1961.  I have to remember to look in a few years to find out how L. and M. died in 1964 (probably around February 15 since they were buried on February 18, a Tuesday), to keep on unravelling the mystery.  There were no disasters that I could find in PA in the first half of that month; my guess is that they died in an auto accident.

What took Laurie from Brooklyn to D.C. to Richmond, then to Dauphin and wherever else?  Both Richmond and Mechanicsburg have large military depots (Bellwood in south Richmond and Navy Supply here), so he may have been a Federal employee.

Most of us won't leave a mark on history, but we all have our story.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Count on the Impossible

Pay no attention to what's behind the curtain
Superman Goran Kropp

During this past week, we might all envy those monks living isolated on the cliffside at Mount Athos, Greece, who did not have to endure groups of six political ads in a row on the nightly "news" (followed by a furniture store commercial, to add insult to injury).  So no politics here; you've had enough.
Except for a prediction (can't help it).  It will be the next tactic in the successful voter suppression campaign (the Supreme Court's violation of Florida's due process in 2000, the 37 states which now demand highly specific photo I.D. and right-wing control of electronic voting machine companies among others):  proportional allocation of each state's electoral college chips instead of the current winner-take-all system.  Sounds like a reasonable scheme to let everyone's vote count, which is the way it will be sold, but the winner of each Congressional district will actually get the electoral vote.  You can see that the "blue" districts are fewer in number, clustered around Lexington in Kentucky or Denver/Boulder in Colorado, for example.  Rural white voters will be in charge, thus counteracting the decline in the number of "angry old white guys" that the Republicans are concerned about.  The American Legislative Exchange Council, a Koch brothers-owned agency, will write the legislation to be introduced all over the country by their client state representatives, and George Will's oh-so-witty columns clamoring for support will show up concurrently.  No one thinks the Electoral College will be eliminated by Constitutional amendment, but it's going to be subverted, and the impossible will happen.

Human Power

Inspiring it is (Yoda says) that individuals driven by a challenge achieve the impossible.  In 1931, one American walked backwards across the country!  
Trained in climbing from childhood by his mountaineer father, Goran Kropp of Sweden set off on a bike pulling a trailer loaded with over 200 pounds of gear and food in the autumn of 1995 on a journey of about 8,000 miles to Nepal.  The load was probably the least of his problems:  enroute he was stoned, almost run over and assaulted with a baseball bat and guns.  He was determined to climb Mount Everest without oxygen or the help of Sherpas, believing such would "diminish the adventure."  He was successful, but eight climbers died during that disastrous month of May 1996, documented in Kropp's autobiography Ultimate High and the more well-known Into Thin Air.
Kropp later attempted to ski unassisted to the North Pole but turned back, frostbitten.  Before he could begin his planned solo sail to Antarctica in order to ski to the South Pole, he fell while climbing in Washington State in 2002 and died instantly.
The dream to accomplish what no one else has doesn't perish.  At the end of 2011 a British meteorologist, Felicity Aston, traversed the continent of Antarctica in 59 days, solo on skis, while pulling two sledges of supplies.  Inspired since childhood to challenge that giant ice cake by early 20th-century explorer Robert Scott's tragedy, Ms. Aston also endured 3 summers and two winters at the British Antarctic Survey station without a break.  "The psychological dimension was really interesting," she says.  No doubt!
You can never say "never."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Junk and I -or- From Scrounging to O.S. Design

The guy who got his people what they wanted
GiraDora foot-powered washing/drying machine
There they were in the moonlight, beckoning:  two large-size rectangular green plastic milk containers, in excellent shape.  Just about the most useful thing you can find for free after firewood.
The trash-collection night (Sunday) pickers have finally discovered our neighborhood, which can be pretty rich in useful items due to people moving in and out all the time and the old folks getting rid of things.  In fact, weeks earlier I'd scooped up two small oriental rugs, in perfect condition and just the size for inside the exterior doors.  One is even from Turkey (the other, probably Kohl's).  So, before the little pickup truck arrived on its rounds, I ambled over to do some primo recycling.
I had a similar Harrisburg Dairies square container that I had used for decades as a step stool and tool carrier (I think it's at Zach's place now), but these were stamped with New Jersey dairies' logos (imported!) and had more possibilities.  Soon there were attached end-to-end and mounted on the garage wall to hold all those plant pots that I'd tripped over before.
I do love scrounging and repurposing.  It's creative, definitely a treasure hunt, and provides the satisfaction of something homemade.  Over the years I've made a number of outdoor pieces, planters and tables, from leftover treated wood found nearby while they were still building.  To put them together, I dipped into the sizeable collection of fasteners and odd metal pieces I picked up off floors while on construction sites  in the communications biz.  I really admire the strong  furniture some craftspeople make from limbs and branches; there is a tool to make the joints easily.  Just might do that someday.
Toward the end of my eight years at the science museum, there seemed to be no money to design and build new exhibits (maintenance of the existing ones and a personnel structure heavy on overpaid chiefs using it all up), so I went into rebuilding with supplies on hand along with scrounging.  A friend knew the eccentric landlord of a three story Victorian apartment house with a chock-full basement nearby in downtown -- it looked pretty much like the Addams family's home --  so we went over and came back with a neon sign transformer, just what was needed to make a "Jacob's Ladder" exhibit.  The 1/4" clear plexiglas for the case to house it safely was picked from the store fixture trash pile at the loading dock in our building's basement.  Radio Shack had closed, so I also got enough plywood from their pile to make six bookshelves for myself at home, along with a dozen orange Formica-covered shelves to install in the basement.
Old industrial and agricultural metal parts can be remade into striking light fixtures which look and are a lot sturdier than what's sold at retail (and, yuck, made in China).  And going even further into working with existing components, people are developing "Open Design" projects like a bike-powered recycling machine to grind up and separate metal out of thrown-away electronics (see or  The principles of Open Design are usefulness, durability, low cost available parts, and above all, non complexity ("Any fool can make something more complicated, but it takes real genius to make things simple again").
More important than the well-publicized effort to provide inexpensive solar-powered laptops to the Third World (still a cool idea, though) is solving widespread problems concerning the availability and safety of water.  Two students from Los Angeles' Art Center College of Design went to a barrio of 30,000 people outside Lima, Peru to create the GiraDora, an under-$40 foot powered washing and drying machine.  People there were wasting hours a day hauling water up to hand wash clothes, which were then getting mildewy because drying was slow and space to do it limited.  The user sits atop this portable (making it possible to carry it to the water source) machine and turns the agitator with the feet to save back strain from bending over as in hand washing.  After emptying the water, the clothes are spun almost dry the same way.  What's intriguing about the GiraDora beyond its usefulness to those who are ground down by what are simple tasks in the developed world, is its easy adaptation to many other modes of life, be they onboard boats, at cabins or tiny apartments, or for RV living.  And if you are among the few already living off the grid, what a find this would be.
So go out and get your scrounge on.  Let me know what you find.


Monday, October 15, 2012

When New Gets Old

Steampunk search engine?
We made our annual trip to apple country (Adams County, PA) last weekend, specifically Hollabaugh Brothers Fruit, where you can dig into massive crates of apples that are refilled all day.  The new varieties like Honeycrisp and Nittany are too good -- I mean, just perfect.  Nothing wrong with the old ones either (except for the mass-market long-range shipping creation, the Red Delicious, which is the first but certainly not the second part of its name-- you won't find it here).
The cider makes me think a little while I'm enjoying a big cup of it and gazing out at the sturdy trees.  Still picked from ladders, still good for you just as they are without the ministrations of a multinational corporation...little round miracles.  An ancient once said you must respect the intelligence that a seed possesses.  Compared to the smart phone in your pocket, which can produce nothing, it is astonishing.

What things are best done in the old way?  What old objects and methods do you know that delight you?  A short while ago I had reason to use my 100-year-old jack plane to make a piece of pine fit.  It took three short sessions, and the paper-thin shavings piled up while the air filled with a fragrance as naturally perfect as the apple's.  I cleaned it off and put it away, on its side, not resting on the precious leading edge of the blade.  The handles are real Indian rosewood, the hardware solid brass.  It says "BAILEY" at the front, a name like many others respected back in the day and forgotten now.  There aren't many who could look at it and see that the blade is a "butcher weld" and that is why it cuts, when adjusted and sharpened correctly, better than anything made since.

We might rationally know what's best or just be emotionally attracted or attached to certain things.  We may be blinded by pride in our specialized knowledge or just by unexamined prejudices.  Feelin' ain't thinkin,' our Dr. Spock side might say; it is amusing to step outside ourselves and examine what we value and why.  A few iconoclasts still use straight or safety razors, can't abide automatic transmissions, or sport a fountain pen.  Some things have class above and beyond practicality; the mechanical watch or camera has history and shows great levels of artisanship.  They wrap function in beauty and can be repaired and used by subsequent generations, if those ideas warm something inside you.  Ansel Adams didn't need digital.

It took a long time for us to get rid of the dependable and inexpensive landline phone (because of unending spam calls), but the Asian-made instruments we've had for decades were all short-lived pieces of unrepairable junk.  You can call me over the hill, as Bob Seger sang, but the wall-mount rotary dial (OK, its pushbutton successor was good too) Western Electric model that graced most kitchens for decades was as good as telephones ever got.  Even if dropped on the floor, I never saw one in a home needing replacement or repair.  And if disaster or small children struck, you could get parts and rebuild them (I did that many times for an exhibit at the science museum that used two of them, and had no trouble restoring them fully). 

Except for the peer pressure, no one is actually stopping you from taking notes on paper with a wood pencil, holding and reading a real book, using paper maps, washing dishes with your hands, or cooking from scratch with real ingredients.  I read that LP records are being released in increasing quantities, but have never seen them for sale new.  Ironic -- you might have to order them online.  I don't miss checks or cassette tapes, but they were midpoint technologies; cash and LPs are solid old school.  And we miss our old Atari. 

I'm with you if you're thinking about slowing down to do some things the old way.  If you're driving by in a manual-shift car with crank windows, you'll warm one old but still servicable heart.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Buyer's Remorse

Can you spot the fatal flaw that made this a bad buy?
Mr. Carlin, a good buy in philosophy.
If you are living on limited resources, a bad buy hurts a lot more than one made when you're in a comfortable state.  The unfortunate fact is that the first condition probably describes your younger years when you are short on the experience and knowledge to appraise a decision wisely before making it.  I can think of two times when I really screwed the pooch in this area. 
In June of 1967 I decided that a VCU degree would be worth about what I was paying for it (not much), so I enrolled in the summer session at the University of Richmond to get a leg up on credits, knowing that paying for the full semester in the fall would strain my self-financed educational budget (i.e., 80% of income) to the limit.

Within a few weeks, I saw that what I thought I wouldn't like about UofR was looking to be all too true.  I had my motorcycle for transportation, an expense I couldn't really handle, but it was a long way from my Fan lodgings and there did not seem to be anything available in the nearby tony area.  I thereby learned that the parking situation mirrored American social structure neatly:  everyone but fraternity and upperclassmen dorm residents was relegated to a pine grove, far from any classes and a mess to navigate in bad weather.  I had a nasty accident due to wet pine needles, loose gravel and one of those big pine trees.  After repairs, I parked nearer classes in safe places and instantly got tickets galore.  And phys. ed. was a requirement (mandantory Baptist chapel had just ended, though), which was a waste of my already scarce time and money.  And I had thought the indifferent student part-timers one had to deal with during registratrion at VCU were bad -- the old biddies in the office at UofR were like the love children of Rush Limbaugh and SNL's Church Lady!

I'd decided on a philosophy major, which wasn't available at VCU at the time.  The initial class was on the English trio of Hobbes, Hume and Berkeley.  It's been decades, but I still can't see why the study of these fossils had not been relegated to the senior level of courses, where you could have avoided them by picking another specialized area you had some interest in.  Even at the time, ignorant as I was, I wondered why we weren't starting where it all started, with the Greek atomists, Thales first and foremost.  I was paying for this with my $1.15 an hour gross income, not a scholarship fund or parents, and I felt then and now that I'd made a lousy buy. 
Broke after the fall and spring 1968 semesters, I sold the cycle and returned to VCU after negotiating a payment plan.  Spending more for presumably a better product got me exactly nowhere.

Needing a car that provided both economy and carrying capacity, in the late 70s I bought a 1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3 Variant, known as the Squareback.  It was priced reasonably, looked like it had been pretty well cared for and not been in an accident, and more than fit the requirements.  Plus, it was dark blue, not one of those usual yeccch VW colors.  That was all I had to go on; today we have the Internet and Consumer Reports, and with little effort, can look past the surface and identify what is actually a good buy.
Those listed under "Worst Used Cars" are off the prospects list immediately.  Bullet dodged.
What I did not know (like the silent snake in the grass, that's what gets you) before it was too late was that VW's new "Einspritzung," or Bosch fuel injection system, was nothing but problematic as the cars aged (otherwise, all I replaced were a belt and a few light bulbs).  At 90,000 miles, the FI system's race was run, and it left me stranded in bad neighborhoods and rain several times.  I hauled new, valuable audio and videotape equipment that wasn't my own for my job at the public school system, so the car sitting in a desolate areas made me pretty nervous -- with no cell phone or AAA to the rescue.  That said, I did love the Squareback otherwise.  So simple, just enough room for everything, and nice looking, too.  That unreliable fuel injection system may be why you never see such an excellent old car around anymore.  Well, that and rust.

So we either learn the essential lesson that being unprepared and uninformed is going to cost us, or we don't.

I'll let Consumer Reports and CarFax guide you expertly on major vehicle purchases, and in the area of philosophy, I'd recommend either Mr. Carlin (now on YouTube) or a young fellow by the name of Michael O. Church, whose blog is more than well worth digging in to.  Look up for brilliant essays on American social structure, the three phases of the U.S. national identity, or an argument for the survivial of the spirit.  For the price of your Internet connection, that is a very good buy. 

Oh, and Smartwool socks for winter.  Great buy.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Problems with Miss Translation

Unless you never go to such places and haven't seen it, these days McDonald's has a Spanish translation for each of the chirpy catchphrases on their signage around the counter area.  This would give one a quick chance to brush up on his creaky school Spanish, except that they are mostly different phrases and not translations at all.  That is because idiomatic or colloquial expressions in one language are just about impossible to render in another.  But, bless 'em, people keep trying. 
Now, these McDonald's signs make me cringe a little, because they bring back an old memory, and those are almost always cringeworthy.
Within the great blur that was thousands of days of school, I remember one most clearly:  in Spanish IV (I like to stick with some things), we were assigned to write a mini-book of ten stories, poems and/or essays in Spanish; only two could be translations.  Having to hurry up this end-of-semester surprise (don't big homework projects always come at the same time?), I started the translations first, thinking them to be the easiest, with selections from The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. 
I have to mention that what syntax is, its definition and how essential its mastery is to translation, was never gone into in class.  So endeavoring to translate quirky American humor into correct Spanish (you're being graded on what you don't even know!) in such a fog of ignorance was like trying to repair a car without even knowing what the tools are.  So all ten efforts, when done, looked and sounded just like the English sentences I had in my head being replaced, word for plodding word, with ones sloppily covered in a Spanglish veneer.
Words and phrases from the Bible are often puzzling, because after going through Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenistic Greek, Latin and English, they really make no sense.  Take the statement about John living in the desert having only "honey and locusts" to eat.  True, they eat grasshoppers in Africa and Asia, but that is a strange combination, considering how difficult it is to get honey and how plentiful date palms are where he was.  Scholars have finally sorted it out, though:  the "honey" was probably pressed from dates, and the supposed insect portion of the menu was actually flour made from grinding the seeds of locust tree pods (still done today).
Of course, misunderstandings due to spotty education, visual error, ongoing changes in languages, original meanings lost and modern connotations attached should be assumed.  Often, as manuscripts were copied by hand, things were changed intentionally by individuals with an agenda.  Those people nicely referred to as "servants," for example, might more accurately be called indentured or slave laborers.  Incidentally, the Greek word for "servant," DIAKONOJ, has been transliterated as "deacon."  One word in Proverbs (26:10) has been translated ten different ways.  A ball of confusion, as the Temps sang.
He whom we call Jesus was either Yesh'yahu, Yeshua, Joshua, or even Isaiah.  Some say not Isaiah; some say Yeshua was never the Hebrew spelling.  Translating Semitic languages without vowels -- oy vey!
On a less cosmic level:  as General Motors found out to its corporate chagrin, the name of the Chevrolet Nova means "does not go" in Spanish.  The closest sound to "Coca-Cola" in Chinese, the Coke people found, was ko-kou-ko-le, which nicely means "happiness in the mouth."  McDonald's "I'm lovin' it" can only be put into Chinese as "I just like it."  Not quite the same punch.
I recently finally read the Roman Lucretius' On the Nature of Things, in which he regrets that he cannot express new scientific ideas in his limited "native tongue."  And you know how much the French hate to adpot an English term that can't be expressed in their Latin-derived language (but they can say many things we can't; and elegantly, of course).
I'll leave you with this, proclaimed by a newspaper in Chennai, India:  "Our editors are colleged and write like the Kipling and the Dickens." 



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Get Lost

The site of the stage is to Nancy's right, the hillside amphitheater to her left

The bucket list is shortening
Lovin' the Lazy Pond B&B
The Hog Farm Bus in the museum
Happy visitors to Grossinger's in 1950
The "Hawk Nest" overlooking the Delaware River
The traffic, light as it is, slows to a crawl as we approach Jeffersonville, Sullivan County, in the green countryside of  the southern Catskills in New York State.  We find that we've landed in the middle of the tractor parade, part of the Second Annual JeffFest -- more shiny red antique Farmall tractors than we can count, and a big beautiful Oliver (my favorite).  We exchange a look which says, "Of course.  We're the people who got caught up in the Gay Pride parade in Cleveland a few years ago, waving to the tighty-whitey clad fellows wearing cowboy hats on the float ahead.  Quirky must just be our thing."
Thanks to (1) murky Internet directions and (2) a completely missing County Route 114, we've gotten off track returning home from our trip to visit the Woodstock festival site and museum (on the bucket list for so long now), but we're not minding it since it's a beautiful near-autumn day and Jeffersonville (originally named Winkelried!), which we get a chance to see at a slow pace, is an astonishingly charming small town (under 400 peaceful souls).  Patty Hearst was kept captive here in 1974, believe it or not.
The Catskills have been an accessible vacation destination since the 1920s when autos got people out of the cities, and thus this small town has at least seven restaurants and cafes, several small inns and the inevitable antiques shops.  A busy creek runs through it, and it sports its own 23 acre lake -- the attraction of this area has been, in large part, its hundreds of ponds and lakes.
Getting lost got better as we entered the Minisink area along the upper Delaware River.  The road rises then tightly winds, hugging the steep cliff, providing lovely views of the river dotted with canoeists, kayakers, and rafters (we passed at least a half-dozen river outfitter places, where everyone seemed to be having a fine time).  It reminded us immediately of Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway.
We had spent Friday afternoon at the Woodstock festival site and its new Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (Woodstock itself is about 50 miles away and has its own museum, which I'm sure causes confusion).  The grounds are immaculate, and due to the end of the busy season after Labor Day, we pretty much had the lush outdoors and the museum to ourselves.  The ticket taker told me he was a local, who had wandered over to the festival site on the night of its first day (a Friday), not having even heard it was coming -- his father's gas station had seen more customers than in years combined and ran out of gas in mid-afternoon.  He grinned and said, yes, it was disorienting but quite an experience.  We had time to view the films and read all the signage; it is not filled with memorabilia but with quotes and memories.  The Hog Farm bus just made you smile and feel good. 
After reading about it in books and seeing it in films ("Dirty Dancing") I've always wanted to get a feel for the "borscht belt," as they affectionately called it, that wildly popular summer vacation destination for millions of New York City residents, mostly Jewish, from about 1920 to the 1970s.  The great hotels -- the Concord, Grossinger's, the Tamarack Lodge, the Laurels -- are closed or burned down now, and the summer camps with Hebrew names strung out almost every mile along country roads are forlorn, decaying and look disturbingly like old concentration camps.  Bungalow colonies were as popular as the camps; we saw two that looked new but were weedy and empty -- I guess the 2008 bust stopped any comeback that was beginning.  The auto, and a two-hour drive, brought millions of urban immigrant families to a little piece of the American dream where they felt they belonged, for many decades; the airplane and rising prosperity with a proliferation of choices spelled the end of the unique Catskills experience.  Every entertainer of note, and every single Jewish one, performed here:  Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, George Burns, Woody Allen -- even Larry Storch! 
And then, as unexpected as anything could be, Woodstock in 1969.
Quite a place, Sullivan County.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You Can Ride a Tron Cycle. Really.

The original.  Cool as the Batmobile, no?

LIT Motors C-1

A recent visitor to Shanghai noted that 80% of the vehicular traffic was electric bikes and scooters.  I've been casually researching this mode of transport, and, distressingly, despite one each high-quality American and  French entry into the field, pretty much all you see for sale locally or online is Chinese-made.  Do you think they're going to flood the Western markets soon after building out their manufacturing base at home?  Do you think the sun will probably rise tomorrow?
I'd pay no more than $40 for one, since it is going to last about two months until something fails and the thing is pushed to the back of the garage.  Meanwhile, the well-designed American and French brands are not available.
Let's say you too have been thinking about avoiding some of the average $8000/year cost of operating a gasoline car and want something that is more of a car substitute and less of a battle between you and the elements.
Just this month Mr. Danny Kim of LIT Motors announced the launch of his C-1 untippable enclosed motorcycle in San Francisco -- and I wish him all the breaks he can get.  At low speeds and in chancy situations, two flywheels gyroscopically stabilize his vehicle, removing most of the dangers of two-wheeled travel; an enclosure offers bad-weather comfort as well as air conditioning, airbags and power windows, things which people generally require these days.  With a 200 mile per charge range, there's no comparison with the tiny 25+ mile range of electric scooters.  And it will cost you about $1 worth of electricity to go those 200 miles --not $4 a gallon for liquefied ancient sunlight.  And it is a motorcycle, not a bike:  it does 0 to 60 in six seconds (electric motors have full torque at 0 rpm).
There is a need, a few of us think, for a one-person commuter vehicle (a solo driver piloting an Escalade or Range Rover to work just seems a little wasteful, don't you think?), and this may be it.  Cost?  Around $24,000 initially (2014 production start), declining to a projected $12,500 by 2018.
The amazing Mr. Kim is an automatic transmission expert, has studied architecture, and attended Reed College, UC Berkeley and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Finally, you can be ecologically responsible, economically prudent, and futuristically bad-ass all at the same time!

Monday, September 10, 2012

But Things Have Changed

It was a cool, pleasant evening at the Hershey Star Pavilion after a surprise afternoon rain, but it got hot when Bob Dylan and his band barrelled into "Route 61 Revisited," even though the lyrics were more in our memories than heard from the stage.  All I got that was recognizable was "bleachers;" for each song the music was pretty much made up and only, at times, were there faint phrases similar to those melodies we have known for decades.  After playing guitar for the first three numbers, Dylan spent most of the rest of the show behind the piano.  I'm certainly not qualified to judge anyone's playing, especially a 50-year veteran's, but I'm not sure he would have passed the audition at Miss Prunella's Music School.  He did perform one lead on the guitar, though, and it was sweet.
His voice started out as a shocking croak that would have frightened a raven, but loosened up at little further in.  The words came in short bursts as if he just didn't have the wind anymore.  Well, the Queen is quite old and not as lively either, but they're both still absolutely one of a kind and we're glad they're still here and doing what they do. 
The crowd  responded enthusiastically to his brief harmonica bits -- it is his signature sound, like screaming feedback is with Neil Young.  There were two other guitarists, a rhythm section (the bassist switched to a red Rickenbacker mid-way; loved that), and a versatile fellow in back who played lap steel, pedal steel, electric mandolin and finally, violin on the encore "Blowin' in the Wind" (he really should have played the keys also).  Speaking of which, I missed the rolling Hammond organ on the old songs, which had been piloted by Al Kooper way back in the day.  It's like Santana without Greg Rolie today.
The other highlight, predictably, was "All Along the Watchtower."  Whatever did Dylan have in mind when he sketched out that mysterious story?  We've all been wondering for quite a while, but he will probably go on keeping his secrets.
After writing and touring for so long, he's pared both down to the dry-bone basics.  There were only white lights on the stage, everyone was dressed in black, and not a word was spoken except to mumble the band members' names once.  The lyrics in recent years have been simple, almost commonplace phrases, and he's been mining and quoting outside sources; they're so unlike the inscrutable epics he penned in the 60s and dangerously close to what I think of as plastic top-20 "country."  As far as I could tell, all the numbers performed were the older ones.
Another icon opened the show, solo:  Bob Weir was barefoot and bearded, but full of energy and conviction.  The sound was loud and clear as he made his acoustic guitar work hard for a living; the old vet looked like he could go lots longer than the hour he performed nonstop.  I was really hoping for "My and My Uncle," and there it was near the end; "Not Fade Away" was just as good and got the crowd jumping and cheering.  Women of our age (who were about 17 when the Dead appeared) were dancing the snaky Dead dance with practiced skill and some certainty, I suppose, that their grandchildren would never see it.
Needless to say, there were great clouds of blue smoke drifting through the air.
As we left with old but great music in our heads, we passed a dreadlocked senior in bare feet, a group being hauled off by the authorities, and one fellow looking forlorn in the back seat of the police car. 
The 60s ain't over til they're over, bro.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Weather Report

The electric Karen Briggs
We were watching the storm front approaching all afternoon on channels 49 and 119.  Beep! beep! the banner started:  severe thunderstorm warning until 10:30 p.m. with probability of hail. Then the skies predictably darkened and a sudden rain hit the hard surfaces with a splash.
This evening we had really wanted to go to the jazz and wine festival at Ft. Hunter Park, but it wasn't looking good.  I felt bad for the many people who had planned to set up their booths, the organizers who had put weeks into it, and the local vintners, all family enterprises, who couldn't afford to waste time and resources.
At 3:30, sunlight returned and the disturbed, humid day seemed to settle.  Folding chairs in the car -- check; pets fed -- check; tickets in pocket -- check also.  Up Route 11/15 North we go, and suspicious looking clouds moving in from the west notwithstanding, we continue on and find a spot on the wet and slippery park lawn. The large tent in front of the Centennial Barn is already full of waiting music fans.  We had to stop by at least four of the winemakers' stands, of course, and I was relieved to find that Ft. Hunter had the good taste to hand out glass wineglasses instead of plastic.  You should only drink from plastic if you're desperate.
Local piano legend Steve Rudolph was first on, trading leads with the sax player.  One of the several singers who regularly perform with him soothed the crowd with "At Last" and several other standards.  She saved the fireworks for "Route 66," written by Harrisburg native Bobby Troup.  Mr. Rudolph has played downtown at the Hilton ever since it opened 20 years ago (we've been a few times) and as far as everyone's concerned, he has a job for life around here.
We went back to the Nissley Vineyards booth, which was too crowded before, and enjoyed their Vidal, the closest one we tried to California squeezins.  Next door at Tamanend they poured their new pumpkin-spice white wine and another quirky production, margarita wine.  Sounds strange, but it was oh so good.
After a visit to the sweet, smoky Camp Curtin BBQ truck (they've been around forever also) the main act, Lao Tizer's group, got going around 6 p.m.  This was the last stop on their East Coast tour and we were more than fortunate to have them, because electric violinist Karen Briggs was along.  If you remember that mind-blowing concert Yanni did at the Acropolis years ago (PBS showed it several times, and I'll bet you or someone you know has a VHS tape of it), Ms. Briggs was that volcanic violin soloist in red.  And she's in Harrisburg?  You can see why we were so apprehensive about the storm preventing this from happening.
By the middle of their first original piece, "Uptown," I was sure her strings would either snap or melt.  The crowd responded with excitement and respect.  Mr. Tizer allowed as how they should be enjoying some wine too, and before they started the second number, four glasses of white were brought up.
Ms. Briggs did her take on Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherezade  (with some gypsy violin improv), and they ended with another orignal that wandered from 70s jazz-funk to Latin (the drummer is Cuban) to Pink Floyd and back to earth.  They deserved every minute of the ovation.
Just as we got in the car, it started raining lightly.  Love it when a plan comes together.