Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A First That Didn't Last

Johannes Kelpius, the "maddest of good men"

All that's left -- the "cave"

You dodged a bullet:  yesterday I spent about 45 minutes writing a way-too-long entry which went off, in detail, in about four different directions.  Some kind of mistake made by an inaccurate right pinky finger erased it all, though, and it didn't go to "Drafts" as usual.  Probably for the best.

What I was thinking about was prompted by coming across an essay, with copious pictures, about Pennsylvanian Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion concept automobile.  Back in my museum days, I'd noticed that people responded to exhibits about themselves -- their bodies or their local environment.  I had seen the effect on visitors of an infrared camera in the Baltimore science museum:  people couldn't get enough of seeing which areas of themselves were "hotter" than others. 

No possibility of the funds being available for such a camera and a big-screen projection system (this was way before LCD flatscreens, of course), I decided to make "Pennsylvania Science" a theme for an ongoing exhibition,  beginning with five units and being further developed over time.  I thought this would educate and engage visitors of all ages and sort of brand our museum as a regional museum with a unifying idea (other than anything we could cram in there, largely copied from others).

The only representation of Mr. Fuller's appealing oddness that ended up being made was a paper geodesic dome exhibit in which one could cut out, assemble and find how well it supported weight (and thus get a free take-home:  the children liked that for 15 seconds before they got bored with it).  I had rejected the idea of making a Dymaxion model which one could get into due to lack of good information.  And now I run across this article which provided all I would have needed.  That would have been a hit, and a good candidate for a newspaper publicity article and picture.  But without the internet back then, I was limited by how much time I could give to rooting out information from books or other static media, and how lucky I was in finding such things at all.

Another exhibit was a pretty large interactive light-up panel of Pennsylvania science-related facts and firsts.  Once again, what a dream it would have been to have the internet available for the research to dig up the about 100 of these I needed.  I would have had to stick with "firsts" that were relevant, and I did finally find enough of those thanks to publications by the State Museum and their fine library.   I keep running into so many others online, and it's a little frustrating knowing how much easier all this would be now.  But it's fun discovering fun facts and "firsts" just for their entainment value now. 

So, would you have thought the first communal living experiment took place in America before 1700, and in Philadelphia? 

German mystic, scholar, Pietist and pretty brave dude Johannes Kelpius arrived in that city in 1694 with 40 followers to build a site near the confluence of Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River (now in a park, then dark wilderness) to await the return of Jesus in a pristine place away from civilization -- and organized religion.  He had inherited this all-male group (called "The Society of the Woman in the Wildnerness" by others due to an obscure Bible reference) from a J. Zimmerman, and a generous grant of money and land from one of William Penn's sympathetic agents in the Netherlands.  It was not intended to be a commune with a future, however, as they (1) expected to raptured up soon and (2) it was limited to 40 maximum due to that being the number of days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai and Jesus spent in the desert, as well as the site being at 40 degrees latitude.  

When the event did not come to pass, this group employed their considerable education and talent in writing music, poetry, hymns, as well as collecting botanicals and pursuing astronomy.  In reaching out to educate and assist the small community of colonists (not too) nearby, and in establishing a school, gardens and orchards, they resembled a developing monastic order despite their intention, originally, of not hanging around very long.  They had quite a good reputation locally, despite their otherworldliness, and would trade, share or teach readily but not for profit. 

The year 1700 looked auspicious for a big cosmic event (like 2000 or 2012 more recently) and the group kept watch from their observatory for the physical descent of the Messiah from heaven.  I guess it's not a spoiler to reveal nothing much happened, and as Kelpius' health declined in the next few years, members began leaving to pursue semi-professional careers in the community outside, which was growing quickly and getting a lot closer to their woodsy hideout.

Go down Hermit Lane today, and all that is left of the Society's settlement is the "cave," which was actually a spring house also used for silent meditation. 

Wouldn't history be a little duller without people like Fuller and Kelpius inventing three-wheeled torpedo-shaped automobiles or mystic communes in the woods?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Stop Making Sense"

One of my favorite titles.  While "Embraceable You" or "These Boots Were Made for Walking" aren't of much use for further thought, the concept of the limits of what makes sense can be of daily use.  If only to bypass understanding on the way to acceptance.

Luxe World

We recently took a short trip to Atlantic City, a place that lost its reason to exist after the craziness of the Prohibition era, and stayed, as usual, at the Borgata.  Resorts have to be heavily used to generate a profit, and that means they are quickly physically degraded  and in these dizzying times, look outdated in a few years too.  Most hotels are sold at this point, exactly as planned by the original builders (too bad suburban developments can't be got rid of when they become more expensive to maintain than the revenue they generated in the first years of newness), and the deterioration is patched up by the second set of owners as minimally and cheaply as possible before the last slim profits are drained out and the project heads to the dumps.  After 10 years, the Borgata underwent a subtle but thoroughgoing renovation, bucking the usual real-estate investment trend, and is still as attractive, pretty much, as ever. 

The faux-Italianate design is paired with modern furniture and artwork, which works in not seeming yet another dive into nostalgia or over-stylish futurism alone.  The limestone-looking columns and ceilings are surely some fake substitute material, but the marble floors are real enough (of course, I could be fooled) and close attention is paid to such high-wear areas as elevators and restrooms.  Signage is actually updated -- something that often is neglected.  Of course, too much was built and sits empty -- cashier booths replaced by machines and storefronts in dark corners that look permanently abandoned. 

It's the stores and restaurants inside that seem such a jarring contradiction to your eyes, though:  how do all the high-end crystal, jewelry and clothing stores jibe with the resort clientele, who don't look like resort clientele at all?  Many families, even more very old and handicapped people, and, well, real slobs who dress far down from the U.S. mall standard.  Flip-flops, tee shirts, dumb hats, shorts -- is this crowd really going to spend $80 and up on an entree or buy $5000 jewelry?  The pizza place downstairs and the Starbucks always have lines, but the salespeople in the shiny places must be just short of falling over asleep.  What in the world is the WalMart crowd doing here? 


If you keep up with the damage being done to the developed world's over-financialized economy since it was completely freed from sensible restraint after the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (the unemployed and foreclosed-on thank you, Senator Phil Gramm), you have probably been amazed at the disastrous path taken by J.P. Morgan Chase megabank.  They have paid an $80 million settlement for their credit card malpractices, a $920 million fine for admitted wrongdoing (and jaw-dropping incompetency) tied to the "London Whale" trading fiasco (which had already cost the bank $6 billion), and are facing a possible $11 billion settlement with the Justice Department right now for their malfeasance with mortgage-backed "securities" (there's a contradiction in terms).

Yet we know someone who has had a home mortgage with Chase for several years who was recently approached by them with an offer to reduce his interest rate to the current pretty low standard, with no closing costs.  An offer that solely benefitted the customer, a.k.a. the usual victim!  It took many e-mails, calls and much paperwork, but it was all done as promised and within a very reasonable time frame.  The Chase people and their associated contractors made every effort to respond quickly and accurately, and even provided their superior's names and contact information if the mortgagee was unhappy with anything.  How could this possibly be the same organization?

Joisey Shore

Individually, folks from New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey can be great -- lively, talented, with it, funny.  They make you up your own game.  That thought is hard to keep in mind on the highways into that vast metropolitan area, as drivers around you become deadly missiles obviously devoid of any good sense or manners at all.  Crowding just drives people and animals crazy, I guess.  The rich are self-centered and greedy beyond belief, and the rest seem crude, ignorant and predatory.  People are like that everywhere, but the overcrowding raises the noise level beyond 10 far too often.  After fighting to just get around (never mind finding a place to park!), every visit, you swear, is your last.

So we were invited to visit our neighbor's condo, which she bought this year in Ocean City, NJ, and where she's been happily staying for months.  As we left Atlantic City for the day, we were pushed away from our exit onto the Parkway by a youthful moron driving video-game style, and had to double back and pay the tolls again.  You're not leaving a good impression, New Jersey.  We arrive in what looks like a very nice town, though -- much in contrast to A.C., obviously.  Our neighbor has a fine location five blocks from the beach, which in itself was far superior to A.C.'s wretched, eroded one.  Her family has vacationed there for many decades, and she knows it well.

She takes us on a short tour, and O.C. looks like it has what every town should have -- family-owned movie theaters, cafes and mom-and-pop lunch places, lots of nicely kept houses that don't betray their age at all.  Seventeenth Street is her favorite, and we saw why, with a fascinating array of architecture ranging from three-story manses to narrow quaint cottages.  One of the former was getting the finishing touches on a curved exterior stairway made of some beautiful wood.  The street bends around, Old World style, and faces the bay on the back side, most houses having a boat dock or mooring.  We didn't see one shabby area -- so is this a Disney Main Street without the sugary fakeness?  In New Jersey?

I just don't know what to make of these contradictions.  What makes sense?  What works, maybe.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Oh, The Places You Won't Go

A newspaper article and a disappointing can of paint prompted today's profound thought.

One of the few features of our local paper I enjoy are the restaurant reviews.  Years ago there were great (almost New Yorker - quality) movie reviews, but the author died too young.  And the fine political commentator (also female) left for bigger horizons -- or was sent packing by unhappy conservatives applying pressure.  So we're left, as readers, only with that third tier of journalism, food and beverage.  Could be worse: it could be the Washington Times.

Today's feature review was of a place of long standing, and revolving ownership, in Mechanicsburg borough.  It has a nice location among old buildings and a strange dual character.  One side, with a vaulted ceiling and large windows, has always been fine (well, varying over the years) dining, and the other side which looks out over a noisy parking lot full of pickup trucks, is a redneck smoking-allowed bar.  And thereby is our tale.

Picture this:  a group of librarians celebrating at said redneck bar -- how would that work out?  When I was working part-time at the Mechanicsburg library (across the street), we somehow decided to do that for some occasion; whether anyone knew what the place was like (there aren't any other choices in town) I don't know.  In any case, we tried to enjoy ourselves on this very rare outing, but it was impossible.  The smoke was unbearable (the review mentioned its presence), the crowd really drunk really early, and the song of choice played at 180 decibels was "Red Neck Girl," which seemed to get them even more rowdy if that was even possible.  I left early as any conversation or socializing was out of the question, and decided I would never, ever return.

Are there places in your own experience that proved that once was quite enough?  I can think of many: 

Route I-270 in Maryland.  This stretch of highway is just hell.  On wheels.

Gold's Gym.  The day care inmates screaming in the snack/lounge area is just wrong.  Wronger are the spaghetti-strap wifebeater shirts the meatheads all wear.  Yuck.

Downtown Harrisburg on New Year's Eve.  Twenty-two degrees and you're thinking more about pickpockets than getting buzzed.

OK, downtown Harrisburg, period.

Erie, Pennsylvania.  Actually our state doesn't have one good city.  Some small parts of Pittsburgh have their quirky charm, but it's not worth the confused drive to find them (check out a map of the greater city area).

Working with rednecks.  They have this strange over-the-top self confidence combined with vast ignorance which is eerily schizophrenic.  And they always go full speed or top volume on everything followed by longer periods of goofing off and jabbering about sports or NASCAR like a bunch of hens.  They will keep every tool of yours they get their hands on.

Sun City Center, Florida, where I just spent two months.  However, that's just the people.  Without them it would be quite nice.  The weather's great and the bay is so close the breezes are a delight.  I do miss the palm trees and exquisitely blue sky.

...Meetings, Home Owners Associations, broadcast news and opinion, math classes and school assemblies, school cafeterias, commutes to work, having to be broke when young, a Barry Manilow song, a used car with six-digit mileage that leaves you stranded, getting the flu every year (sometimes twice) before those wonderful annual shots, losing all your keys through the hole in your pocket...done with all of those except for the damn HOA.

And what about that can of paint?  This morning I walked down to Zach's house and had everything ready to start painting the concrete porch.  The weather was absolutely perfect and there was nothing else on the schedule.  OK, most people would not think of this as fun, but (as you would know from a post way back) I love a project of almost any kind and really enjoy painting.   Upon opening the left-over half-gallon from last year, I discovered it was useless despite being stored well.  With a car handy, could have solved that problem in 30 minutes, but our one vehicle was many miles away in Nancy's work parking lot.  So while there are a lot of places I won't go again, the hardware store was one place I wanted to go but couldn't. 

So I sat down on the steps of the (unpainted) porch and watched rednecks speeding by in pickup trucks, smoking, maybe going to a math class or a HOA meeting with Manilow crooning on the radio.  Ironic.