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."