Thursday, April 25, 2013


Shafer Court as the Hibbs Building was being completed
First sudents of the Richmond School of Social Economy, 1917 (VCU Archives)

A little late, but our warm-weather travels are now planned.  Gardeners plot out their summer projects and order seeds in late winter; we, having only pots on the deck to plant, get serious about where to go and who and what to see.  And it's always that stark choice:  try some new adventure a little further out than we've been before, or go back to those favorites that only become dearer to the heart as layers are revealed over the years.

The old faves win in 2013.  Brother Ron called and asked us to house-sit and care for the new kittens while he and Claire explore the U.K. for a few weeks.  Glad to, bro!  We would have never gotten to know California's Central Coast without them; and there's always more to explore.  A page-long list has already been prepared.  It will all start as they catch a plane at the beautiful new Santa Barbara airport (across the US and the Atlantic?? a flight that long would end up with me in a straitjacket!), then begin the next morning at Java Station, finest coffee stop in the world.

Again thanks to a generous invitation, we travel to Richmond later in the summer to attend Joel and Margie's annual all-day-and-night outdoor party, the BARF (Bon Air Recreational Foundation).  We're going to make it a little longer visit this year and try to see everybody we can.  Again, a long list of new places to check out -- can we fit in all the old, well-loved ones too?

Recently, Cliff sent me a link to a book, now digitized in the VCU Archives, that I'd not heard of, but enjoyed so much I read it through in two days:  Dr. Henry Hibbs' 1973 The History of RPI.  It's the story of the little school that could, the runt of the litter who grew and thrived despite all the odds to the contrary.  Amazing what I did not know about that predecessor of VCU (a Frankenstein created by the merger with the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 to create a university)...  I can't decide to revisit the old city campus or not when we're there, because the big, shiny new buildings stretching miles out from the old, well-worn and compact center feels like being dropped in Beijing or someplace equally foreign.

Some things don't change, though.  This old editorial in the Richmond News Leader could be printed without much amendment today:

Those who live in Richmond's Fan District...are aware of RPI's vitality.  The red-headed stepchild of Virginia's higher education program is leaping toward university status...There are times when RPI gets a little too beatnik for the local tastes, and there are times -- especially when homeowners in the Fan are searching for a place to park -- that RPI gets to be a headache.

When it began in a few cold rooms opposite the State Capitol downtown, with a handful of students, early in the 20th century as a specialist professional school of social work, who would have predicted its association with prestigious William & Mary from 1925 through 1962, its gradual acceptance by the state system (and that long before any actual state funding came its way), and its sudden achievement of university status, all grown from one idea that occurred to Dr. Hibbs while in a Brown University class?  What he observed was that the sociology program he was in oddly enough made almost no use of the city's resources through field work. When some citizens of Richmond (later formally the RPI Foundation) saw the need for training public health and social work professionals, Henry Hibbs' idea found its place.  Despite ongoing discouragement of the idea of an urban campus, the Ginter mansion at 901 West Franklin Street became the core of a cluster of funky little schools in converted Victorian homes -- and even several stables -- which turned out teachers and practicioners who uniformly came from nowhere and went somewhere.  Art history professor Maurice Bonds (not only my, but every one's favorite teacher) said

Henry Hibbs invited experimentation and innovation in the classroom and frequently defended his staff and students against conservative outrage.

RPI boasted the largest enrollment of any Virginia college when I entered in the fall of 1965: 7,855.  Small by today's standards, but it was an exciting time when off-center but dedicated teachers and youthful energy burst out of the old buildings and swept along the cobblestone and brick streets and alleys.  And it wasn't just the usual academic beauty contest:  no perfect SATs, family connections or loans were needed.  One blogger said her four years (1963 to 1967) cost her $5,000, which she earned in the summers.  I worked all year, paying for tuition, books, a car or motorcycle and two raucous homes with roommates, graduating with no debt and memories you can't put a price on.  At the time, I felt I'd found life (conspicuously absent in the far suburbs whence I came) in the self-organized, anarchic community of students and their nearby hangouts, and was little interested in the history or direction of the school until the announcement of the merger in 1968.  That cold change was not our idea but came from above and beyond, and it was as inevitable as it was sad.

Several years ago, I revisited the two or so blocks of Grace Street between Harrison and Laurel which once was the irresistible commercial and social scene, and it looked dead beyond hope even as towering, shiny new university buildings blocked the sun in every direction.  So I'm ambivalent about visiting again this year -- even cozy Shafer Court has expanded beyond recognition.  It used to feel more like home than home.  I don't want to see if the cobblestones are gone.  Maybe there's no there there anymore.

(Update:  Cliff alerted me to the $100 million development of West Grace Street that is now going on.  I think the above "West Grace North" building going up is at the northeast corner of Grace and Shafer, where the Lum's (frosty mugs!) used to be.  Five-story buildings just don't seem to fit any more there than in your backyard, but this train ain't stopping.  Two more buildings are on schedule for next year, with the old Ukrop's lot beyond Harrison to be built on in 2015.  Sunless, hard urban canyons are the model now, replacing the old mode of reusing classic one- to three-storey buildings.  Even the ghosts of our memories are being chased out.)



Monday, April 22, 2013

The Real Doc Brown

If you see a DeLorean car, you can't help but think of Doc Brown's rather customized one in the "Back to the Future" movies.  Who knows, the original story author might have had ahead-of-his time inventor Nikola Telsa in mind when imagining his quirky character.  He does seem to be more a creature of fevered fiction  than a real mortal.

Zach and I used to race our RC (radio-controlled) cars around outside -- we even built a twisty track in an empty lot across the street --  and had a great time with them.  Snow, ice and puddles in the winter made for more of a challenge, but, alas, a shorter life for our speeding vehicles.  Maybe Zach learned something about mature driving, though; something it took me rather longer to acquire.  Little did we know at the time that the father of RC cars was the amazing Mr. Tesla.

He got approval for his patent for "A Method of and Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles" in 1898, and successfully demonstrated two four-foot long RC steel models in an indoor pond at Madison Square Garden to a dumbfounded crowd, some of whom said they had witnessed magic.  The vessels employed electric batteries to power a DC motor, lights and the rudder.  The radio signal from the wireless transmitter in his hand went across the air to the internal receiver through the whip antenna.  In his application to the Patent Office, Tesla stated that his "invention differs from all of those systems for the control of the that I require no intermediate wires...or other form of electrical or mechanical connection."  Imagine how hard this was to believe in 1898.  While the Wright brothers' demonstration a few years later inspired the world, no one in the U.S. or foreign governments or their militaries paid much attention to wireless control until after Tesla's patent had expired.  If the old boy could use a satellite GPS device today, he'd probably say, "Yes, that's what I had in mind! But can you get a pizza delivered using a hand device?"  We sure can, and thank you.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013


SanDisk USB 2.0 surfboard flash drive

For a while, I've been discussing with friends the tragedy of those graveyards of music we all have, lost on obsolete delivery devices like reel-to-reel tape and cassette.  Granted, some were wise enough to keep those machines, but I gave away all mine and the extremely nice Sony cassette deck broke a spring a few years ago and the holder/door just blew out on the living room floor, so that was the end.  The last of the reel tapes went at a yard sale about ten years ago, but the hundreds of cassettes still fill a drawer.

I got one of those Chinese-made digital turntables that can transfer vinyl records via Audacity software to computer, but I haven't because our computer is overfull and slow enough already.  So I just use it to play records using the CD input on a secondary amplifier.  Well, I did until the whole set-up was buried behind a big ugly chair.  Our furniture and decorating failures are a whole other subject.

Imagine my delight when, a few days ago, my brother Ron sent the above very cool flash drive loaded with about 10,000 songs and instrumentals.  The best part was that he'd saved those old tapes and so I finally have, in a device that weighs as much as a green bean, little treasures like the first Moby Grape album once again after decades of absence.  And Country Joe, Quicksilver, the Byrds...oh, wait.  If you didn't know I'm an old fart, you do now.

This wonderful part of the vast chip-based technological spectrum is no longer made, but you can find a new one in the original package on eBay (of course).  It doesn't have a light to indicate it's on, like some, but does boast 8GB, which is all anyone should need.  One reviewer said it would be a good "gift for a teen/young adult."  Or maybe someone, on the surface at least, a little older!

There's a wide variety of other novelty drives:  Iron Man, Batman, a USB bracelet, BMW key, Star Wars figures, even Lady Gaga on a motorcycle.  One of the rarest is Jack Skellington, and as you would guess, you remove his head to plug him in.  Elvira would make a good one, too.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

742 Evergreen Terrace

Home of the Simpson family
The Henderson, NV, replica Simpsons kitchen

How it looks today.  Homer sad.

 In 1997, Kaufman & Broad Homebuilders, Fox Network and Pepsi sponsored the building of a replica of the TV Simpson family's house in Henderson, Nevada, as a contest grand prize.  In all the sketchy history of human achievement, this has to have been a shining moment.

A little narrower than the "real" TV home, it closely duplicated it, at 2200 square feet and with four bedrooms and two bathrooms.  The exterior and interior colors (especially the kitchen!) were carefully copied and 1500 items of Simpsons furnishings were displayed, including Duff beer cans and the iconic sailboat painting on the wall.  Fans by tens of thousands went to see it.  The winner elected to take the cash alternative, however (why? why??), and the house was sold in 2001, when, to conform to Home Owners' Association rules, it was repainted in the forlorn non-colors you see in the above picture and all the interior goodies were removed.

The name of the subdivision where 742 was brought to three-dimensional life?  Springfield, of course.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Perfect Risotto

You know, Harrisburg could actually be a fine small city.  It's not, as everyone now knows, thanks to the ridiculously large financial hole they've dug themselves, while the consultants and lawyers got well paid to advise them to do it.

Tonight we went the the symphony in the fine old art deco Forum building, nestled in a corner of the state capitol grounds, to hear Respighi's "Pines of Rome."  We played that (on reel-to-reel tape, still a current technology in 1979) at our outdoor wedding, after the same composer's wonderful "Ancient Airs and Dances," so we couldn't miss a live rendition.  And it was spectacular.  How H'burg could have such a fine symphony orchestra with a world-class conductor, I do not know.  Said conductor, among his many other accomplishments, won a Tony for his orchestration work on Billy Joel's "Movin' Out."  He's comfortable with any kind of music and sells his enthusiasm with ease. 

We weren't certain about the second selection, 70 minutes of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, which followed that wonderful aural tour of Rome, but it was beautiful throughout and had the audience waiting on each new twist and surprise.  As conductor Malina said in his introduction, "they play the heck out of it!"

We rarely go downtown anymore for entertainment or dining due to the pervasive violence.  And with the daytime parking restrictions and relentless enforcement, going there on weekdays is never an option.  But we took a chance, since a Sunday would probably be less crowded and the daylight at this time of year lingers.  It was a perfect evening as we walked throught the Capitol grounds around the thousands of blooming bulbs and under the exhuberant flowering trees toward Carley's Ristorante, of which I've read very positive reviews for several years now.  It's in one of those old brick buildings that respond so well to tasteful restoration; the interior was candle-lit and lined with shiny old walnut planks and warm colors of tile. 

Somehow, despite being on foot and not hurrying, we were the first ones there out of the symphony crowd, except for a full complement at the bar.  This netted us the best table, despite our not being regulars (score!).  I had found out earlier that it was show tunes night, and the music started early, at 6:30 p.m.  The drink menu was one of those you wish you could try at least a half-dozen from -- and I like something new all the time; some prefer their favorite wherever they are.  Their take on the famed lemon drop martini was called the Cello Drop, featuring their own homemade limoncello.  Now we've had lemon drop martinis from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, and this was the best -- smooth as ol' Dino Martin.  I made sure to tell Alma the bartender so.

Our piano man singing the show tunes was young, but old school, as he had a two-foot high stack of printed music (everyone else has a laptop these days, don't they?).  He invited a friend to sing with him, and it was a delight.  Of course, martinis and after-dinner liquers always make the music better.

A fine evening is like the perfect risotto:  "just what is needed and nothing else."

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Turn, Turn

It just turned 50 degrees, after an almost record low for the date last night.  Out of the darkness...

The doors are open, with only the thin barrier of the storm doors in place, as well as one window.  The cats are very pleased.  For a couple of days, the woodpeckers have been very busy doing what they do, and a few bugs are zipping about.  The squirrel's back and the seedblock is taking big hits.  Daffodils all seemed to get the memo around two days ago, and white, yellow or miniature, they're giving it their all:  a large but whispering chorus singing hallelujah.  The crocuses beat them to it once again, but barely.  The fat red buds that should be on the maples are only a promise yet.  And I, not believing my luck at seeing the rare combination of sunshine without wind, set out in the still nippy morning for the first walk into town in a long time.  There must be more who went boldly on before me, because the thin path I take uphill along Poplar Avenue, outside the civilizing ribbon of sidewalk, is now flattened and wide.  Soon I'll be dodging bicycles, scooters and Harleys as well as SUVs and trucks.  But watch for where people "walk" their dogs!

In the late winter, other changes within view of our front door have been taking place.  In the past several months, at least a half-dozen of the old ladies have sort of disappeared, and their homes gone up for sale.  First you notice the lack of their cars coming and going, or no daily trip to the communal mail station, then you see relative's cars appear and the unloading begins.  After that, the realtor's sign is planted, while remodeler's trucks cluster as carpet is ripped out, and various accessories like outdoor lights and shelves are replaced or discarded.  Younger couples (younger around here means under 60) then show up a day after their moving trucks, usually with two or three cars to replace the old ladies' one.

I didn't even know their names.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Lucy's Football

I was briefly engaged, in high school, as illustrator for the "literary" magazine.  It didn't last long because I had to catch the first bus home to babysit, and when I stayed after school for the production sessions I had to walk home.  Not bad if it wasn't raining, but those books were way heavy.  Believe it or not, I toyed with doing something like the above based on what I was hearing but not buying in my constricted world, but could find nothing to pair it with -- there were mostly moral/devotional pieces or poems about rain -- and I knew it would only lead to bad consequences, without doubt.

I've since tried to remain skeptical without being cynical, not always with success.  It's a lonely corner.  They say about 40% of Americans believe that God is in charge of the weather.  A larger number also believes in angels than in evolution -- which makes no sense, because evolution theory is not something you believe in.  This week we're inundated with belief tropes, mostly religious:  "The Bible" miniseries on HBO is a huge hit, and all sorts of re-enacted ancient rituals swirl (in very odd costume) around Easter week and the new pope.  Belief is mixed in thoroughly but confusingly, like a mystery drink ingredient.  What evidence actually tells you this is a time of year to celebrate?  All I can find is that Spring, hesitantly this time, comes around again due to the observable mechanics of the solar system and our senses are about to be delighted with warming breezes, an explosion of flowers, and animals bounding about full of energy again.  Is that not sufficient?  Why roil your mind with savage Bronze Age stories, mixed up, added to, twisted to fit agendas, and raised to such a level of abstraction that people must simply believe, because there is no evidence or common sense left.  They say belief is just frozen thought; probably the remains of uncertainties and fears from long ago.

Remember Hans Blix, the U.N. expert with over 20 years' experience in his field, not finding any "weapons of mass destruction" in Saddam's Iraq?  The idea that the weapons were there anyway was successfully sold, and most Americans believed it.  Now, a smaller majority believes that the war was not worth it and was based on false premises.  After hundreds of thousands of casualties, a wrecked nation, and probably trillions of our dollars, the fine result of belief in action as opposed to evidence and common sense was that Iran and China won.  All that oil Cheney and the Texas oilmen and Bush friends were itching to get their hands on?  Eighty percent of it going to China now. 

A recent movie, The Master, provided a fictionalized portrayal of L. Ron Hubbard and his Scientology/Dianetics cult, and a fascinating window into what people will believe.  He was objectively a paranoid schizophrenic, but extremely charismatic and energetic, and after many failures and brushes with the law, quite successful.  In developing blind belief and sucking wealth from his adherents, that is, not in accomplishing anything useful.  Despite being based on an impressively large body of complete lies and made up baloney that are easily disproven, the organization has not evaporated but is as rich, powerful and secretive as ever.  We can think of a few others that were founded in and operate in the same way, but people believe, through every age, that the football is being held for them just as promised.