Saturday, February 22, 2014

Shadow Lands

"There is no there there," Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, beginning a long history of that city usually getting no more respect than the late Mr. Dangerfield.  I wonder if she knew anything of the long and ongoing history of places that were worse off than Oakland, in that they didn't, upon closer inspection, ever really exist.

There seem to be two main reasons for the perpetuation such geographical frauds, the first being the great dislike that cartographers have for blank spaces (when not making up mountain ranges and rivers, they usually filled those voids with fantastic animals and legendary oddly-formed people).  The second reason is explorers who found that writing up stirring tales of distant lands sold well and possibly influenced those back home with authority and wealth, and often made more money than seal hunting, so...they made stuff up.  Like Fox News does today.

For over a hundred years, beginning with a 1798 map, a huge mountain range was shown on maps of west Africa, stretching west to east from Sierra Leone to Nigeria.  They were given a name worthy of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel:  The Mountains of Kong.  The man who invented such a stretch of rock was believed because he was indeed credible:  he was a co-founder of the Royal Geographical Society, a fine surveyor and a pioneer in oceanography.  The idea that mountain chain was there is possibly due to coming across a 15th century geographer's vague account, but why would someone of such scientific bent take that as proof?  Ah, well, our local CBS TV weatherman is a big climate change denier, so I guess science can keep some people on a rational path only some of the time.  A Frenchman went to the Kong region in the late 19th century, and finding just a lot of flatness, reported the same to the folks back home.  Off the maps the fabled mountains went!

There have been a, uh, boatload of imaginary islands placed in the Pacific on maps; in 1875, Captain Sir Frederick Evans got a little steamed about this and removed 123 such islands from the Admiralty charts (including three that actually were there).  But an American sea captain kept his inventions on the charts and maps until 1922, escaping Cpt. Evans' keen eye.  Benjamin Morrell claimed to have discovered Morrell Island near Hawaii and New South Greenland near Antarctica in an 1820s published account of his otherwise unproductive travels over that great ocean.  People should have been a little more skeptical, though, since he reported birds of paradise (inhabitants of steamy tropical regions) on the ice of the South Pole continent.  Others got the fictitious islands of Isla Grande, Royal Company Island, Swain's Island, The Chimneys, Macey's Island and Burdwood Island on maps of the South Pacific, either to get their names in print or to make all that emptiness a little more interesting.

Whole countries have appeared with great detail in print, like those composing "Schlaraffenland," depicted on maps made in Nuremburg (1716).  Part of the long-lived "Land of Cockaigne" legend, the native people (and their scandalous behavior) were even visualized  in a 1566 painting by Breughel.  So if it was painted, written about and mapped, it sure looked to many like it was, if far away, definitely somewhere! 

The countries supposedly in Schlaraffenland

How about an imaginary land that was found (as we'll see, more or less) to actually exist?  California was imagined, long before it was found, to be a large mythical island at the edge of the world inhabited by warrior women.  It appeared on a French map of 1656 after a popular book of legend, a little history and fiction inflamed dreamers in the early 1500s.  Rumors of its existence and plenty of gold, pearls and griffins therein were heard and believed by Mexico's conqueror, Hernan Cortes; after the first exploration of Baja California the mariners still thought it was an island, and the popular imagination (and the cartographers) kept it that way long after subsequent explorers found the west coast pretty solid, with no watery strait between the Pacific and the north end of the Sea of Cortes.  And the griffins?  Just condors.  No wild women, either.

The Island of Warrior Women today.  Still no griffins.

So, with satellites, Google and science boldly advancing our knowledge, this sort of thing is now part of history, right?  Alas, the geographical con game goes on: as recently as 2012, Sandy Island (near New Caledonia), seen on charts, a worldwide database and yes, Google Earth, for 12 years, was found not to be there by some amused Australian scientists, as they sailed over 1300-meter-deep water where it was supposed to be.  And a custom globe maker in England discovered, to his chagrin, that a reputable 2008 world map he was using as a basis for his impressive 50" diameter "Churchill" model had the capitals of Israel and Tanzania wrong, along with 148 other errors.

I think old Gertrude Stein had the best answer to:
 "Are we there yet?"


Most of the above is from Simon Garfield's fascinating 2013 book On the Map.   


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bad Company

We got our newspaper this morning, thanks to the especially intrepid carrier who braved the already quite deep snow, and it was most welcome since we're not going anywhere for a while.

Ever since I once came across the obituary of a former co-worker who died in his early fifties, I scan those grim pages for anyone else I might have known.  I remembered he had been in the paper a few years previously for a big domestic blow-up at his trailer home.  Not out of character; probably just the first such incident to make the news.

I've given up wasting time reading the endless who-robbed-or-shot-whom stories about random misguided locals, but today couldn't help noticing one involving another former co-worker -- again, not at all out of character (people don't change, do they?).  It seems yesterday afternoon at a truck stop, one trucker got into a fight with another and he ended up getting stabbed.  The stabee, whose name I recognized immediately (and the age was right, too), said they traded punches after an argument.  Now, this guy was big, aggressive, loud and always right about everything, so I can see how a minor problem escalated.  The knife wielder was soon caught down the highway, but without knowing the exact circumstances I think he should have sensed this guy was volatile by his manner, walked off and avoided becoming the one sent to trial.  The first story my former co-worker ever told me was of the time he punched out a guy at a tony downtown gym and got away with it, of which he was quite proud.  He also stole from our company (which handled lots of cash) because he was trying to support a non-working wife and three children at the age of 28 at the time.  Not adept at good choices.

The owner of another company I worked for (quite happily; it was a good group) was sent to jail a while ago for bribing a school district official to participate in a computer-sales scam.  Now, this guy had everything and, as Bob D. said, he threw it all away.  He lived in a wonderful tree-ringed home in the excellent Forest Hills (Harrisburg, not Richmond) neighborhood, had a red-haired model girlfriend, a cool ride and he was as personable and well-liked as they come.  And our company was doing well.  So greed for even more lost everyone their jobs, and he lost his freedom for a couple of years and his reputation permanently.  Probably the redhead, too.

Once I gave a hard-luck co-worker a ride home after a very long day, finding out too late we were going to the 13th Street projects at 10:00 at night.  Two skinny white boys in a Toyota at that hour -- oh, yeah, we were about to become the subject of a "First 48 Hours" television episode, all right.  He was trying hard to move up and out, though, but also had a non-working wife and two small children, and was closer to desperation than even was apparent.  I forget why he lost his job there -- probably non-attendance due to transportation problems -- but within the year I saw him in the evening news, being carried out of a suburban home in a body bag.  He was surprised during a burglary and quickly shot dead by the homeowner.  It seems he went back to the same area time after time and both the residents and police were on alert.  I still feel bad for him and his family, despite his brief crime spree; he was enjoyable to  talk to and seemed brighter than most.  Sometimes people carelessly make bad choices and sometimes they seem to have no choices left.

Yes, there are more.  Another co-worker, who was at first a pretty entertaining character, acted like John Belushi, much to our amusement.  It slowly stopped being funny, as we observed him doing things like hooking up with a waitress during an out-of-town job (despite having a long-suffering wife #2), disappearing during the workday to have long conversations with anyone he could find, and shoplifting.  Once we picked him up at his apartment for a group trip for this same distant job, and he refused to get in until the football game was over and he had loaded up on drugs sufficiently.  He once explained to a visiting company higher-up that "I gots to be productive!," sending us reeling in laughter, because of all the things he was, that was never one of them.  A few years later, another former co-worker couldn't wait to tell me that guy was busted for crack near Pittsburgh but had escaped from jail.

Bad boys.  Whatcha gonna do?


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Technical Difficulties

I once tried to build a personal reference library, but became disappointed and stopped.  It seemed no matter what I wanted to find out, I didn't have the right resource.  Encyclopedias and dictionaries were incomplete or out of date, and even the NY Public Library's Desk Reference series only very occasionally had what I needed.  Probably because of the odd nature of what I was usually looking for.

After the advent of the Internet, I was a pretty happy clam.  Then came YouTube, and eventually one could find even the very oddest music-related stuff, which I especially like (Indonesian rockabilly comes to mind).  So imagine my distress when our Verizon equipment shuddered and died the other day, just as I was trying to find out about another obscure discovery.   Scene:  while Nancy was using the computer, I had been looking at a few magazines lying in a stack, spending a happy afternoon with last summer's issue of Shindig!, a dense magazine from the UK filled with things very old and very new, almost all of which you will never hear about.  They're deeply devoted to psychedelia there (just the subject of commercialized nostalgia here, and little practiced outside of major cities).

I was intrigued by a review of a new album by Ed Askew of Connecticut and New York, as he was described as "the quintessential acid-folk obscurity." Game on.  Even better, according to the reviewer, he hadn't issued anything since 1968 (I love that out-of-the-darkness return stuff).  As further digging revealed, however, he's been very active since 2000 (the reviewers are enthusiastic and creative with language, but a little lacking in the accuracy and grammar/syntax departments), but his multi-instrumentality also caught my attention. In particular, that he played along with guitar, keyboards, harmonica and ukelele, a Martin Tiple.


That's when the TV and internet connection made gurgling noises and died.  Nuts.

A traveling Verizon technician got our workorder and decided that since she was nearby and sensed our distress, stopped by several days before our scheduled appointment and promptly replaced the optical box inside (having already replaced four that day, she knew what the problem was immediately).  After some resets, we were back in business.  If it weren't 20 degrees and crusty with snow outside, we might have found other amusements, but in the dead of winter that fiber-optic connection with the world is worth a lot.

I found out that the Martin people made the Tiple (pronounced "tipple" here, but it is a Spanish word pronounced "tee-play," meaning "treble") from 1919 until sometime in the 1970s.  There were nine or more models, most with ten steel strings and some with eight.  You can spend years on Martin model and serial numbers and other production aracana, but you'll always finish more confused than when you started, so we'll leave it at that.  Except -- there was only a single T-45 model made, in 1922, and it improbably survived the car crash which killed its owner and player (today it's worth over $15,000!). 

So what is it?  Manufacturers Martin and Gibson responded to the ukelele and banjo craze after World War I with many models so well made they usually sound great today.  The Tiple was copied after a South American instrument that was solidly in the long Spanish and Portugese tradition; you can see the lute and those small gitarras in its look, but in Iberia, the Americas and Hawaii it evolved with a variety of shapes, sizes, sounds and tunings.  The strings are in four courses:  2, 3, 3, 2, and usually in a D tuning (a, D, F#, B).  Or so one site says.  I found a lot of misinformation (like the word "tiple" meaning "little guitar") and typos at various sources, but you have to love a mystery that stays a little bit of a mystery.

                                   (No, it's going to take a lot longer than five minutes to learn.)

Instrument maker Ohana is taking the place of Martin in the current resurgence of the ukelele family, and makes a model (TK-35G-10) out of mahogany for around $400.  Take a listen to some performances on YouTube; it's got the bright jangle of a 12-string guitar and harmonics that will keep you more involved than a standard ukelele.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Me and My Arrow

We're in the Polar Vortex here in PA (for a while), not the vortex of excitement (ever).  But we do have Hershey nearby, which is less crowded, less expensive and more real than Orlando.  Maybe just as many bugs in summer, though.  I have had enough of the amusement park, but everything else is handy and safe entertainment, and I'd put the Hotel Hershey up against most any heritage establishment.  Jimmy Buffett's places have margaritas, but after you try the chocolate martini here, you'll be a fan.  Feeling a little less Harris tweed and a little more rowdy? Troeg's craft brewpub nearby is now such a worldwide (believe it or not) draw, you'd best go on weekdays, not in the summer.

But our new love is the Antique Automobile Club of America museum, which has outdoor events, fine permanent installations and many changing exhibits over the year.  I don't join much, but we haven't regretted joining this, despite our non-millionaire status.  Next fall, the new Tucker hall opens, the museum having become heir to the best collection of Tucker Torpedo cars and parts in the world.  We just attended the new custom 'rods show, where, tucked away in the basement, sat one of my all-time favorite rides: a pristine green Schwinn Collegiate bicycle exactly like the one I owned and commuted to school and work on in the late 60s.  Now, I'll never own a Packard or a super custom tri-five Chevy V8, but I can finally say I owned something in this shrine to finely sculpted metal.

I just loved that bike, and put so many miles on it.  With the tire-shredding generator on the back wheel and headlight/taillight combo, I could return from my job at the Union Theological Seminary radio station (WRFK-FM) at midnight to my roach-infested home on Stafford Street safely and for free.  Once I waited for a bus since it was raining so hard, and of course it never came, so I got home on two wheels, discovering in the process that the worn brakes didn't do much when drenched.  Not much traffic out at that hour back in the day, fortunately.

I had bought it from a University of Richmond graduating senior during the year I went there.  He had found a job as a lexicographer, of all things, in a big city.  I wished him luck and thought myself even luckier to have this fine machine.  The long commute to U of R and the long one to UTS later were usually the best part of my day, on the Green Arrow (as I called it).  The 26" Collegiate was marketed to the college crowd, was the heir of the earlier Varsity line, and came in various speed varieties (I think I had a 3-speed).  The 70s ones like mine were made in Chicago -- from 1964 on -- and required little maintenance.  In the 80s they were imported from Asia (yuck), and they've been brought back with modern upgrades in reproduction versions.  Despite being in the museum, there are a lot of the originals left and they don't sell for much more than $100 even today.  I'd pay that in a second; they are still my style in that they're old-school, dependable, and ride really well.  Forget the imported reproductions.

I did have one car that might be featured in the museum one day, a 1958 180a Mercedes sedan with four-on-the-column and Lucas pencil-beam foglamps I had put on on either side of the oversized vertical grill to make it look a little more menacing and a little less teddy-bearish.  Hope the bike and the Merc are still around somewhere.