Friday, August 31, 2007

Mining the archives . . .

Going back through an older portfolio of paintings from nearly two years ago, I ran across a few that I'm willing to allow into the light of day for public consumption. When I look at these older works I see a hand that wasn't nearly as steady and a use of color that certainly wasn't as complex . . . although I've settled into a pattern of using a limited palette that's not too showy or bright. This painting is of my neighborhood subway stop, looking across the tracks to the just visible tile sign indicating the station name. I liked this view because of the geometry of the tracks, barriers and pipes, broken by the diagonal red stripes of the walls that divide local from express and downtown from uptown tracks.

When I see some of these earlier paintings I often wonder if I should return to those subjects and approach them anew, with two more years of experience on which to build. Certainly food for thought as I go through all of my images in anticipation of a group show in which I'm participating in November.

Vacation Photos: Great Wolf Lodge

A week ago our family was frolicking in the waters of Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos. As promised, here are a few photos from the experience. Going back through the digital camera I realized that I hadn't taken many still shots. Instead, I had taken mostly video. If I could ever figure out how to string some clips together and upload them to blogger with the new video feature, I'd share some of those moments. Until I have more free time, however, that project will have to wait.

In the second photo, my older son (left side, with the red hair) is contemplating a dive into the wave pool. Most of the time this was very popular and crowded. But on Sunday morning when I snapped this photo, it was pretty quiet. The wave pool was a good experience for the boys. It really bolstered their confidence in the water and made them more comfortable with going under the water. The third shot - in low light - shows my wife and the boys in the shallow pool that had several basketball goals. Although the boys loved the water slides, they kept coming back to this pool to shoot baskets. We were so surprised - NOT - that they gravitated to a sports-related activity. It was a great experience on what was really our first foray into the world of family resorts. We'll definitely return this winter for a much-needed respite from the cold weather.

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Finally, some good news . . .

Finally our doctor sees some improvement in my wife's condition and speculates that she'll come home on Monday, which is good news indeed. I'm worried that while her leg may heal her mind may not. With a tv inches from her bed, she's been surfing through Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Oprah Winfrey reruns. That stuff is ultimately more toxic than the infection which manifested itself in her leg. And antibiotics can't cure the mind-numbing stupidity that those programs peddle to viewers. Naturally the kids are starting to get antsy about Mommy's return, particularly with the new school year starting on Tuesday. Hallelujah!! Hard to believe we'll have a 2nd grader and a 3rd grader this year. I had grown so accustomed to that preschool/kindergarten environment and now here we are at 3rd grade. It's positively surreal. Thanks for the well wishes and kind thoughts during this time of crisis.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Flower District

Manhattan's "flower district" is one of the city's more interesting sections, with wholesale flower companies lining several streets in the upper 20s on the west side, between 6th and 7th Avenues. On some days it's hard to navigate the sidewalks through the palm trees, planters, and stacks of cut flowers that await shipment to the city's florists. I often walk through this area on my way home so I was bound to eventually find a subject for painting. This building is on 29th St., and I was struck by the unique lettering and the complex ironwork framing the windows. And as one sees in most of my paintings, there's that contrast between light and shadow, with the effects of the afternoon sun moving through the iron bars. In its original state the colors of the building were even more muted than shown here. I edged up the contrast on the window frames a little to enhance the visibility of the bars, while giving the whole work a little more color to begin with. As always, this is a 9x12" watercolor, with some bits of accenting pen and India ink to make the lines "pop" a little. This really was a difficult piece to finish and eventually took up about two weeks of working, stopping in frustration, and then attacking it again. I'm still not happy with the quality of the scan!!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Prayers for Our Family

For those of you who occasionally read this blog . . . I'll solicit your prayers for our family this week. My wife was sent to the hospital today with an infection in her calf that had started to spread upward. They'll treat her aggressively with IV antibiotics and we'll see what happens. She'll likely be in for several days so I'll be handling the kids sans assistance . . . not that this is a problem. I'm accustomed to going solo with the kids, just not under these circumstances. Plus, with the death of grandma, my wife's mother, back in June, they're a little wary of hospitals right now. I'll keep everyone posted.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Finally, Gonzales resigns!

From The New York Times:

"Embattled Attorney General Resigns"

WACO, Tex., Aug. 27 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose tenure has
been marred by controversy and accusations of perjury before Congress, announced
his resignation in Washington today, declaring that he had “lived the American dream” by being able to lead the Justice Department. Mr. Gonzales, who had
rebuffed calls for his resignation for months, submitted it to President Bush by
telephone on Friday, a senior administration official said. There had been rumblings over the weekend that Mr. Gonzales’s departure was imminent, although the White House sought to quell the rumors. Mr. Gonzales appeared cheerful and composed when he announced that he was stepping down effective Sept. 17. His very worst days on the job were “better than my father’s best days,” he said, alluding to his family’s hardscrabble past. “Thank you, and God bless America,” Mr. Gonzales said, exiting without responding to questions. In Waco, President Bush said he had accepted the resignation reluctantly. He praised his old friend as “a man of integrity, decency and principle” and complained of the “months of unfair treatment” that preceded the resignation. “It’s sad,” Mr. Bush said, asserting that Mr. Gonzales’s name had been “dragged through the mud for political reasons.”

Although one might feel compelled to laud President Bush's loyalty to a long-time friend like Gonzales, loyalty that masks unmitigated deceit and the possible illegality of Gonzales' actions is no virtue. Indeed, it once again shows Bush's unwillingness to place the interests of the American people - and the ideals set forth in the presidential oath of office - ahead of partisan politics. Bush's loyalty to Gonzales and the recently departed Rove only underscores the dangerous reality that this is an immoral president whose administration will have long-lasting negative consequences for the United States.

It's bad enough that the Bush cancer has eroded the government's ability to protect the physical well being of the people through agencies like the EPA and OSHA. However, it's altogether more frightening when one realizes that this White House has also diminished the possibility that citizens of the U.S. will receive fair treatment from a Justice Department that is clearly partisan and corrupt. Surveying the Gonzales empire in which partisan connections above - to the White House - and below - to members of Congress and state-level officials - tainted the historically independent stance of the Justice Department, one is reminded of the judicial systems crafted under the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. At least in those countries, the central government didn't peddle the pretense that their judicial systems were apolitical or non-ideological. One understood that the judiciary was a tool of the state, wielded to enforce party discipline and silence popular opposition. Given time, the Bush-manipulated judiciary would do the same in the U.S.

With the departure of Gonzales, the Congress - and the Judiciary Committee specifically - should continue to pursue the truth, the President's ridiculous claims of unfair treatment notwithstanding. It's clear that Bush's understanding of "integrity, decency, and principle" is based on a very different set of rules from those one usually associates with the judiciary. If the White House continues to resist congressional inquiries, Bush officials should be held in contempt. Moreover, resignation should not shield Alberto Gonzales from further scrutiny. He should still be held accountable for his conduct and prompted to divulge information which might shed light on activities at the Justice Department during his tenure.

I'm Baaaaack . . .

. . . and I survived. Actually it was incredibly fun. Great Wolf Lodge is certainly a great place for families - if you like water! Alas, I don't have my camera handy so can't upload lots of nifty pictures yet. I'll take care of that tomorrow. Still, a few observations are needed.

If one has body image issues, they can be set aside at Great Wolf. There is every body type imaginable, from super thin to very big, and there are all ages, from infants to retirees. To be honest, there were some guests who needed the fashion police to step in. For example, that 300 lb. dad from Erie should not have been wearing a speedo on a waterslide. And the rather large mom of four children under the age of 6 really should not have selected the skimpy bikini when packing her suitcase. With so many eyebrow-raising sights on display I had no problems parading about with my pasty, middle-aged body that's clearly carrying a few extra lbs. For adults, there's no surprise that there were plenty of out-of-shape and overweight bodies splashing in the pools. The news loves trumpeting the story of the obesity epidemic in America and it was certainly on display at Great Wolf. Most distressing, however, was the number of really overweight kids. My wife and I congratulated each other that despite our own girth we at least arrived with ridiculously fit kids.

Bottom line: Great Wolf is a great place to take a family. But it's expensive, and it can be physically demanding because of the steps and ramps one needs to climb to access most of the water rides. We were there for three nights, from Thursday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. With several restaurants on site, you don't even have to leave. When we emerged from the artificial atmosphere of the Lodge on Sunday, stepping into the sunlight for the first time in over three days, I felt like one of those compulsive gamblers who has just spent an extended period in a casino. (And seriously, my wife observed that it really was like a casino because one wasn't aware of the passage of time, a problem exacerbated by the lack of visible clocks in the waterparks. Next time I'm taking a cheap, waterproof watch along because I felt disjointed the entire weekend vis-a-vis time.)

We (the parents paying for all this) could have done only two nights and been happy. That would still give a family plenty of time to enjoy the waterpark. Of course, the kids weren't ready to leave and we had to nearly drag them from the water to change for the drive home. We're already planning a shorter stay for either January or February, depending on the kids' school schedule. Swimming and enjoying waterslides will be a fun diversion in the middle of the icy winter, with spring still far away.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Vacation with the Kids

As I noted in my August 7th post, we're off tomorrow for a short four-day vacation at Great Wolf Lodge with the kids. We've either lost our minds or are in for a treat. To me, traveling to a family resort in the Poconos that features water slides, pools, etc., as the basis for fun seems natural. I went to Water Country USA in Virginia in July and as a kid visited some of the earliest large-scale water slides ever constructed.

I remember, for example, visiting a water slide in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. (Yes, Pigeon Forge, as awful as that place may seem today as a junior varsity version of Branson, Missouri, with the added bonus of more outlet malls - and examples of America's obesity epidemic - than one could encounter in a lifetime. My grandparents loved the Smokey Mountains, so our annual summer trek with them to Tennessee and western North Carolina always included a stop in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.) But back to the water slide. It was built into the side of a steep hill, with a pair of courses that zipped downward at what my brother and I thought was breakneck speed. The main thing I remember about it is the hardness of the concrete from which the slide was constructed. No smooth plastic chutes or tubes for us. This was a concrete water slide and your body, particularly your knees and ass, paid the price after an hour of sliding downward and running back up the hill to do it all again with pre-teen abandon. Our only protection against occasional rough patches was a thin, rubberized mat from which one often became separated at high speeds.

The other thing I remember about one of our visits was an obviously poor family from rural Ohio who shocked me at the time and in retrospect remind me of photos snapped by Dorothea Lange and her contemporaries. (I can't always remember what I had for lunch last week, but circumstances like this always seem to become lodged in my brain's permanent files. I seem to recall an article in the magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences that explains this phenomenon. Apparently different types of memories are stored in different parts of the brain, depending on whether they were traumatic, happy, sad, etc., and some of those memories have a longer shelf life than others.) The thing I remember most about this family, aside from their thread-bare clothing, was the sheer joy of the brother and sister as they careened down the slide repeatedly, and the unbridled - and loudly vocalized - happiness of the parents, who obviously relished giving this opportunity for fun to their children. My kids will not be wearing threadbare clothes this weekend, but I'm wondering if their experience - indeed, our family's experience - will be as rich as that Ohio family's from thirty years ago.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Utah Mine Accident and MSHA: Part 2

With rescue efforts having ceased for obvious safety reasons and angry families claiming that the mining company and authorities are simply giving up, it will be interesting to see how the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) reacts to the incident with its inevitable investigation and final report. Will MSHA give an unvarnished account of what happened and possibly hold the mining company accountable for the accident if violations are uncovered? Or will MSHA bow to political forces, avoid "biting the hand" that feeds it with PAC donations to Republican causes, and whitewash the story, as it has done in other mine disasters during the Bush administration. The families of all involved should demand no less than full disclosure and punitive measures if they are warranted.

The Best of Ben and Sam

These are one to two years old, but among my favorite photos I've snapped of the boys. If I remember correctly these were all taken with a Czech-made Flexaret TLR from the 1960s, hand metered on a Weston Master III, using ISO 400 c-41 black and white film. Don't ask me about aperture or speed. (Given the narrow depth of field - which I prefer in portraits - I probably shot these at either f/8 or f/5.6.) I know I should record that sort of thing for later reference and assessment, but I never remember to do it while shooting the photos. I'm just happy to get these guys to sit still for a few seconds. I've probably noted before that with my photographs (and really my paintings too) I'm always looking for those marked contrasts between light and dark that give a picture more depth and life. When these photos were taken, the boys were still at just the right size for this playground. Now, unfortunately, they're growing out it. Indeed, they're almost too big! Still we drop by at least once a week to see friends or enjoy the shaded picnic tables.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Karl Rove: Bush's Hermann Goering

What can one say about the announced departure of Karl Rove as Bush's go-to guy? "It's about time" just doesn't begin to convey the necessity of his long overdue banishment from Washington. Yesterday he made the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows and joined the ranks of pontificating politicians and analysts who are already scavenging over the still-kicking body of the bloodied Bush administration. And it was no surprise that the Machiavellian Rove neither admitted to mistakes in the White House nor took responsibility for any of the indiscretions of which he's been accused. Oddly, watching him on TV - a fat, self-satisfied Republican war criminal worthy of prosecution - I had this vague recollection of Hermann Goering, Hitler's second-in-command. (One is compelled to note that Dick Cheney, as vice-president, is also competing for the role of Goering in comparisons between the Bush administration and Nazi Germany.)

Unfortunately, I'm beginning to doubt that we'll ever see Rove paraded in front of the courtroom cameras in the way the monstrous Goering was reduced to human frailty by the flash bulbs of Nuremberg. Even yesterday, Rove continued to misuse the Constitution and misread history in his refusal to appear before Congress to address the firing of federal prosecutors for political reasons. To me, his silence - and his cowardice - are damning. Rove will go to his grave defiantly believing his actions were moral and legal, in the same way Goering continually proclaimed his innocence and defied the will of the court by taking his life just hours before his scheduled execution. At least Goering's influence, however, died with the collapse of Nazi Germany. Our country and our political institutions will likely feel the effects of Rove's immoral actions for many years. Indeed, his cancerous influence on the White House and our system of checks and balances may prove a permanent injury, whatever the party affiliation of future presidents may be. Sadly, this resignation will not resurrect the dead U.S. military personnel or the thousands of innocent Iraqis who died in an illegal war supported by Rove and his associates. If we're lucky, however, he'll be forgotten to all but the yellowing pages of esoteric political treatises, consigned to the dustbin of popular memory, and remembered only marginally for the sickness with which he infected the republic.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Throwback Friday: Little League Memories

My kids have spent this week at baseball camp, heading off each morning for at least seven hours of virtually non-stop fun - if you like baseball. And each day they've trudged home exhausted but eager to tell the stories of the day's exploits. Of course I'm prejudiced and believe that they're better than other kids their age.

Certainly in the throwing department some of that prejudice is warranted. We manage to play catch nearly every day (even in cold weather, when we take the game to the basement) and they have amazingly strong and accurate arms for 7- and 8-year old boys. Biases aside, I have no doubt that they're better than I was at that age. I've always been athletic, mind you, having absorbed the enthusiasm of parents who were involved in sports through high school and early adulthood. (My mother, an avid baseball fan to this day, was just as eager to play catch and pitch batting practice to me and my brother. And given my dad's early shoulder problems, she probably had the better arm!)

Watching me play ball, my boys are always full of questions about my time in Little League, sometimes straining my powers of recollection with queries about the minutiae of games I played some 30 years ago. I was a 1st baseman and pitcher, having made all-star teams thanks to an arm that could throw breaking pitches at an early age. So they want to know about how many games I won (I have no idea), how many strikeouts did I record (I have no idea), and whether people hit any home runs while I pitched (I have no idea). But at least they have photographs taken by my parents, showing me circa 1976 decked out in a scratchy double-knit uniform, ready to take on the world - albeit with that mid-70s long hair that screams to be cut above the ears. These photos prove that their ancient dad was indeed a ball player and my boys giggle every time the album of photos is pulled down for close inspection.

Although obsessed with baseball at that time, I was less serious about other sports. Still, I tried my hand at just about anything, from football to basketball. Soccer hadn't reached the South yet - at least not where I grew up - so we never recognized the pleasures of "the simple sport" like my boys do today. The only balls we kicked were in serious school playground kickball battles, fought in some cases over several days of recess when I was in fifth grade.

My older son has dreams of playing Major League baseball and the coaches who watch him note that he does have above average talent. Nevertheless, whether or not he can realize this elusive dream that prolongs the boyhoods of so many men, I hope that when he's my age he can still rediscover that connection to his inner 10-year old the way I do each time we play catch.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fun at the Smithsonian

Based in northern Virginia last weekend, but about 30 miles west of downtown D.C., we agonized over what to do with the kids short of driving to the nearest Metro station and hustling everyone into the city to brave the tourist crowds around the Mall and Smithsonian. With temperatures hovering around 90, the adults voted that their constitutions couldn't endure a trip to see the Constitution. Then my sister-in-law reminded us of the relatively new (late 2003) annex to the Smithsonian's popular Air and Space Museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located next door to Dulles Airport.

It's essentially a giant hangar that's been turned into a museum, complete with gift shop, Imax theatre, an on-site McDonalds (?!), and an observation tower from which one can view the surrounding countryside as well as flights landing at Dulles. It's a spectacular facility, with an incredible collection of aircraft and memorabilia on display, including the Enola Gay (the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima), an SR-71 Blackbird, the Enterprise (the prototype of the current space shuttle fleet), and scores of other aircraft from the dawn of flight to the latest high-tech fighters.

My father, always interested in planes, could have stayed for days; he was like a child in a candy shop. He was particularly anxious to get into the observation tower so he could watch the planes take off and land at Dulles. For some, the flight path came very close to the tower. And I must admit, the large aisles - even with a pretty good crowd - were far preferable to the elbow-to-elbow conditions that can often prevail at the downtown Air and Space Museum on hot summer days. I just wish I'd had more time to inspect some of the aircraft more closely.

For my boys, the highlight of the day was a chance to ride in two simulators - one that took passengers on a shuttle mission to the International Space Station, and another that carried us on a jarring ride through aircraft history, from a World War I biplane, a World War II-era P-38 and P-51, to a modern supersonic fighter. The second simulator was not for those with weak stomachs. Like all Smithsonian museums, there's no admission charge to get in. Parking, however, costs $12. Still it's worth it. The only incongruity is the presence of the McDonald's in the facility. Obviously they gave the museum a bid for the concession contract that officials couldn't turn down.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Utah Mine Accident and MSHA

We've all seen the pictures of rescuers trying to reach six miners trapped in a Utah coal mine . . . and the anguished faces of family members who realize that nine days after the mine's collapse, time is running out on a happy ending to this latest episode in the dangerous history of pulling coal from the earth. Each time this happens the nation pauses to watch and wait, while film crews rush to some remote spot in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Utah to wait for a conclusion, happy or otherwise. Pundits will argue again the salient points in the debate over mine safety, while expertly coiffed "reporters" interview scared family members. What's particularly troubling about the latest accident, however, is the sharply focused conclusion that this tragedy could have been avoided. We now know, for example, that back in March, two sections of the mine collapsed. Some mine experts see this prior collapse as an early warning of more serious problems to come and argue that the mine should have been closed at that point.

Apparently coal was extracted from the Crandall Canyon mine using a common but dangerous method called "retreat mining," a method so unsafe that many mining companies no longer use it. Bob Murray, head of Murray Energy Corp., claims that no "retreat mining" was carried out at Crandall Canyon since his company had acquired the mine a year ago. The veracity of that claim remains to be seen. More immediately troubling is the fact that the Mine Safety and Health Administration had cleared Crandall Canyon for further mining since March and had even approved the use of "retreat mining" on the site. How can this happen, one asks? How can one group of independent mining experts question the safety of a mining operation while the government agency responsible for regulating the coal industry and its safety rubber stamps an "ok" for that same operation? These are questions the families of those six miners will doubtless ask in the coming months.

At least one of the answers won't be too hard to divine. Indeed, this event, and the role of the federal government's Mine Safety and Health Administration, underscore the inability of the Bush administration to separate politics from the best interests - and wellbeing - of the American people. Time and time again over the last six-plus years the Bush White House has placed political appointees in positions of responsibility that directly affect the health and welfare of working Americans. This has been most obvious at OSHA, which has lost much of its regulatory effectiveness thanks to a Bush-loyal staff populated with industry insiders and former lobbyists. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) suffered the same fate, its leadership having been handed over to appointees loyal to "big coal" and the power companies that buy their product. Once again, safety has been compromised in the interest of maximizing profits for industries that pour millions into Republican campaign chests.

Watching General Electric's commercials depicting a lump of coal jogging and exercising through Central Park - an effort to bolster GE's investment in "clean coal" technologies - one could be forgiven for concluding that coal is the energy solution for America's future. And why not? U.S. coal reserves are large enough to prompt some analysts to call America the "Saudi Arabia of coal." What this "clean coal" propaganda hides, however, is the reality that burning coal still produces far more pollution than utilizing other energy sources. In addition, most new coal plants - and some at which construction has just started - employ 1970s-era technology and promise scant reduction in emissions. Moreover, the process of extracting that coal is extremely harmful to the environment, especially in areas in which coal is removed by simply dynamiting the tops off of mountains.

As for those mines that still employ men crawling underground in the most hazardous working conditions imaginable, no argument should allow us to conclude that this is "clean coal" for a brighter energy future. Under these circumstances, we as consumers now enjoy the fruits of workers laboring under medieval conditions, conditions that are only minimally regulated thanks to a pro-business, anti-regulatory administration occupying the White House. The families of the six Utah miners should travel to Washington and camp themselves in front of the White House, demanding answers. In a just world, the president would listen to their grievances and indignantly demand an investigation of MSHA and the mining company responsible for the conditions that lead to the miners' deaths. Unfortunately, ours is not a just world.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sam I Am, That Sam I Am

My younger son, Samuel, celebrated his 7th birthday last week, so while in Virginia we had a little celebration with the extended family. He's so different from my older son - and very much like me it turns out. Looking at my photos from this age one sees an obvious physical resemblance (so no, there aren't any doubts about his paternity). In terms of his personality, he's bright, introspective, inquisitive, artistic, exhilarating, and frustrating - sometimes all in the same hour. Unfortunately he also seems to have inherited some of my insecurities and bad habits. Being a smart ass will undoubtedly get him into trouble at some point. He's also highly competitive, particularly with his brother, who is only 16 months older. With 2nd grade only a month away, he's actually looking forward to immersing himself once again in the routine of school. Academically he "gets it" and will likely find this next year only a slight challenge. More problematic will be how he adapts socially to a new class and teacher. So Happy Birthday, Sam.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Roadside America

If you travel America's highways with any frequency - particularly its older, pre-interstate arteries - you know all about classic tourist kitsch, the "tourist traps" of a bygone era now featured prominently in books (Weird U.S.) and websites ( I've mentioned these oddities - for example, Carhenge and the numerous giant Paul Bunyan statues - while heralding the virtues of the "great American vacation." Several years ago our family found one of these classic places on I-78 in Shartlesville, PA, east of Harrisburg. With the name "Roadside America" we just couldn't pass it up and, thankfully, weren't disappointed. Roadside America was started in the 1930s but has the feel of the 50s, right down to the linoleum-tiled floors and gift shop that still sells Davey Crockett-era coonskin hats.

The main attraction is a gym-sized room with a massive Lionel train layout featuring the farms and towns of an America that scarcely existed as portrayed here. It's a romanticized vision of the country, complete with speeding Lionel locomotives and miniature citizens populating the spectacle. (For the model train enthusiast, this must be heaven. Some of the vintage Lionel engines and cars would doubtless fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay.)

That alone would be enough to warrant the $5 admission for adults. But it gets better. Every half hour the room slowly dims and the lights on the buildings, churches and farmhouses flicker on. As the trains continue their endless circle through villages and alpine tunnels, the sound system begins to play the "Star Spangled Banner" and spotlights focus on a painting of the Statue of Liberty rendered on a far wall. Then, as the lights of an electric dawn signal a new day, a very Catholic image of Christ is projected on the wall while the speakers blast Kate Smith singing "God Bless America."

The first time I saw this, about three years ago, it proved a surreal experience. When I saw it again last Thursday afternoon, it was just snicker-inducing humorous. On the one hand this display is hugely anachronistic amidst interstate rest stops and exits that feature KFC, Burger King, Cinnabon, and gas under the same roof. Yet for some of the viewers with whom we shared this experience, Roadside America was a spot-on representation of a thoroughly mythologized American past, a golden age for which they no doubt pined. This is the America conservatives long for, an America that exists only in their idealized fantasies of the Eisenhower years. For the elderly in the room it was a heavenly experience, prompting some to wipe back tears. For the Amish tourists who ventured in from nearby Lancaster County, it must have seemed magical. My kids admired the electric trains and - like our first time here - were shocked that one guy would have made this his passion and put so many years into creating such an elaborate display. Thankfully, they haven't become so cynical and spoiled by video games and the Internet that they weren't able to enjoy the spectacle. Indeed, my older son's initial response was a gratifying, "Awesome!" If you're ever on I-78 in eastern Pennsylvania, I heartily recommend it. Far from being a tourist trap, it's a time machine back to a pre-suburban tourist age, for only $5 per adult, with no long lines, over-priced food, or slick marketing ploys.

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Back in the saddle again . . .

I'm back in the office after four days in the Washington, D.C./northern Virginia area and I'm definitely paying the price for too little sleep and a long drive in the car with kids. Referencing my earlier remarks about the phenomenon of time-space dilation, I'm convinced that time passes more quickly in Manhattan than in the outside world. Although I was gone for only four days, returning to New York City one feels as if eight days passed here while we were gone. I know, I know. That's impossible, obviously, but it really does feel as if we had left the city for a longer period. And now I return to a wall of emails, notes tacked to my desk, and phone messages.

What worries me, however, is that I almost feel overwhelmed by the tasks to which I've returned . . . although they're really not that monumental. But after four days of eating out, swimming in a nice pool and soaking in a hot tub - mind you, while visiting family and dealing with that task's attendant issues - I just feel a little fragile and out of synch, as if I'm not firing on all cylinders. It's just this disjointed feeling that has always made me paranoid about taking vacation time (and prompted my previous boss to order me to take vacation days). I panic over potential crises that might materialize in my absence. I worry that someone will try to do my job while I'm gone and ultimately threaten any perceived job security I might have.

Obviously I need a vacation from the vacation, but then the panic would start again, the paranoia would creep back into my thoughts, and I'd start checking email obsessively. Does anyone else feel this way? Is vacation a source of job-related stress?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Rush Hour Ramble

Nearly every morning I take a crosstown bus from my home in the West Village, then catch a 6 Train to 33rd St. and my midtown office. This morning, however, torrential pre-dawn rains had overwhelmed the subway system's pumps, flooding several critical lines for people traveling uptown and downtown. On the odd occasions this happens I just walk to work. Walking easily, without any sense of urgency, I still arrived only 5 minutes late this morning, having had time to read a little at each "Don't Walk" crosswalk along the way. Realizing that I could have arrived an hour late without worry was especially gratifying: It's nice having a job - and a boss - that don't require a stress-filled wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over arriving punctually at 8:30 each morning. Mind you, I nearly always arrive before 8:30 out of a sense of responsibility and military school-induced paranoia. (Thanks to my father, I'm also genetically hard-wired to arrive early for everything, particularly flights. Well before the Department of Homeland Security mandated that travelers get to the airport well in advance of a scheduled flight, I was arriving at least two hours early thanks to my dad's "Ten Commandments for Travel.")

This morning, as I languidly trudged up Park Avenue, I couldn't help but notice the frantic visages of stranded commuters. With no subway to herd them into Wall Street corrals or midtown office pools, these indentured office servants better resembled panic-stricken prey on the savanna, eyes darting left and right, weighing anxiously their options for arriving at work on time. "Do I wait in line for a bus," they silently mused, surveying the long lines queuing at each stop. "Let's split a taxi," I heard one threesome say, as they scanned the onrushing downtown lanes for a cab. The sense of fear and frustration was palpable along the more-crowded-than-usual sidewalks. For many, the worry is probably legitimate. They likely have predatory bosses that simply won't tolerate lateness for any excuse short of debilitating illness or coma.

Thankfully, I can say that I've never worked in a situation where that predator-prey mindset prevailed. Life's too short to spend roughly 50 weeks of each year marching to work in an environment that resembles a sociological petri dish in which the concept of natural selection is tested daily. Sure, I could probably make more money if I surrendered to the prevailing Manhattan current and decided to swim with bigger fish. But in the last several years I've learned that life really isn't about making more money, the downtown mindset notwithstanding. Naturally I'd prefer to make enough to pay the bills, provide health insurance for my family, and have enough left over to cover some leisure activities, in a mutated "American Dream" scenario. Making money the primary objective, however, just holds little appeal. I prefer my low-stress position . . . and the anxiety-free walks on days the transit system decides to hiccup.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

"Vacation," or "Mom and Dad have lost their minds"

With the exception of our annual autumn trip to Vermont, nearly all of our family vacations have involved trips to see more family. So, there was that week spent in Virginia in early July, and later this week we'll drive down to northern Virginia to spend time at my brother's home and see my parents, who will drive up from the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. Sure, it'll be fun, and we're even planning a Saturday trip by Metro to Washington and the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. The kids will love it (and so will I). But as fun as it might be, one can't avoid the extra baggage that one has to "check" with any family visit. That's particularly true in this case because we have my family, my parents and grandmother, and my brother with his wife and kids. (Thankfully, we're not all staying under the same roof. I insisted on staying at a hotel just five minutes from the house. If the kids get crazy we can just throw them in the pool while we soak in the adjacent hot tub.) By Sunday, no doubt the usual family tensions that revolve around politics, religion, and child-rearing practices - held in check behind fresh smiles since Thursday - will resurface. There won't be any nasty fights, but we'll be sick of each other.

Well, god help us. We decided to break the mold and actually go somewhere - a resort - independent of extended family. Figuring we needed a real getaway, we booked into Great Wolf Lodge in the Poconos from August 23rd to the 26th. We'll have three nights and three-and-a-half days of pools, water slides, games, and fun. Normally I'm not the kind of person who looks to a resort for vacation ideas. Recalling my earlier posts you'll realize that I prefer to load up the car and "see the USA in your Chevrolet," to borrow the old Chevy jingle. A vacation is an opportunity to visit historic sites, marvel at scenic drives and natural vistas, while looking for old diners for our meals. Nevertheless, wooed by the siren song of TV commercials, my wife and I decided to abandon family convention and take the resort route. (To see if my younger son was ready for a water park, I took him to Water Country USA when I was in Virginia back in July. He loved it. And so did I. But I have to admit that after eight hours of careening down waterslides, some of them quite steep and fast, I was exhausted and sore. My elbows and knees hurt from the pounding.)

Friends just returned from several days at the resort and they loved it. Even the mom, whom I wouldn't really peg as someone who'd enjoy three days of waterslides, was nuts about the place. Given the rapturous reviews we're hearing, I'm speculating that our biggest difficulty for this trip to Great Wolf will be getting the kids to leave. Hmmmm, I'll have to pick up one of those waterproof throwaway cameras and take pictures for the blog.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Church Architecture, Part 2

These images are of Marble Collegiate Church on 5th Avenue, just a couple of blocks from my office. Marble Collegiate is sometimes cited as the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in the U.S., having been founded in 1628. (I can't confirm the veracity of the claim.) Still, the church is arguably most famous for its long-time association with Norman Vincent Peale, who served as pastor from the mid-1930s until his death in 1993. Note his statue out front, perpetually greeting passers-by. Peale was one of the founders of Guideposts magazine and author of the popular but controversial Power of Positive Thinking, which to some scholars encapsulates the philosophically shallow spirituality of the 1950s.

Peale's ministry aside, Marble Collegiate is a beautiful fixture in this neighborhood. Those ribbons adorning the iron fence? Stretching across the front of the church and down the left side of the church on 29th St., there's a gold ribbon for all U.S. service personnel who have died in Iraq. The blue ribbons represent prayers for Iraqi victims of the conflict and green ribbons represent prayers for peace. It's a pretty impressive display. I'm reminded of Abraham Lincoln's words from 1862:
In great contests, each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.
Long suspicious of any nation's claims that "god is on our side" in a violent conflict, I'm convinced that god is nowhere to be found in the present war, despite both sides' claims to possess a monopoly on divine support. And as for gold ribbons, let's hope they are translated into votes repudiating the Bush regime's policies.

Self-Portrait - Tired Eye

Do I look tired? After a weekend of playing video games and baseball with the kids, I'm tired. Given a choice, I'd eschew the video games (nearly always sports-themed, since we don't allow "shoot-em-up" games in the house) for a round of catch at the playground. And on Monday, the tightness in my shoulder and arm seems much more rewarding than the carpal tunnel syndrome developing in my hands and wrists thanks to Playstation. But my eyes - green, by the way - my eyes feel sooooo tired after playing the video games. The old adage about TV being "bad for your eyes" . . . It's true.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Summer Cemeteries

When I was a kid we'd often take road trips with my grandfather in his 1963 Ford Galaxy 500, a two-tone behemoth with an aqua-blue body and white roof. A tall man, he would drive with the wide bench-seat pushed way back, his long legs stretched out to reach the pedals, and usually no more than two or three fingers touching the steering wheel with just enough pressure to keep the car in the road. He never drove fast and he never seemed to be in a hurry. Indeed, driving was a pleasurable exercise, something one did for relaxation. Every drive was a Sunday drive, even in a weekday rush hour, and he doubtless angered many motorists who found themselves trapped behind him on a road that did not encourage bold passing across a solid yellow line.

Oddly, many of his drives included stops at cemeteries, a practice for which he was mercilessly criticized by my grandmother. If a cemetery looked interesting from the road, he'd pull in and hop out, leaving any disinterested passengers to roll down the windows and fan themselves. I, however, always followed closely, marching behind him through the aisles of freshly mowed grass and stone markers. Beckley, WV, Gettysburg, PA, Fredericksburg, VA, Boone, NC: I can still recall these and scores of other towns large and small through which we motored, and in which we stopped and sampled their cemeteries, from walled family plots to stark military burial grounds. He'd point out the ornate monuments, the mausoleums, and the simplest of headstones. Who was enjoying the benefits of "perpetual care" and which families had opted instead for overgrown weeds and grass gone to seed to frame their antecedents' graves? (To be honest, I've always thought the unmowed plots had more character, with clover, grass, chicory, dandelions and wildflowers allowed to encircle a plot. It's far prettier than the Wal-Mart-purchased plastic or silk flowers that grace most of the graves, fading and cracking in the sun.)

My grandfather always displayed a particular reverence around the graves of small children and babies, wondering what had taken these souls so early. (As a historian focused on the 19th century, I quickly learned that high childhood mortality was often the norm in an age punctuated by yellow fever, smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and polio. And my grandfather could always be counted on to tell a story about some cousin or neighbor who had died young, taken by an incurable ailment that now warrants no more than a few minutes with a pediatrician.)

Learning of this habit, one might accuse my grandfather of having possessed an overly morbid personality. That couldn't be farther from the truth, however. He was one of the most jovial persons I ever encountered. And death was not a subject on which he lingered, whether surrounded by headstones or sitting in the comfort of his home. Rather, I think he recognized the natural beauty of cemeteries, the artistry of many monuments, and the poignancy of some of the stories one encountered while stepping carefully from stone to stone. I also think he was perusing these grave sites in the way a tourist samples potential destinations in a travel agent's catalog. What I find disheartening, given his experiences, is the utterly mundane circumstances of his own final resting place. My grandfather now waits out eternity in a nearly treeless "memorial garden" surrounded by bronze urns of fake flowers, his name engraved in a plague bolted to a cement slab on the ground. I'm not suggesting he would have preferred a grandiose monument or elaborately carved stone. A nice view, however, shaded by trees and surrounded by wildflowers would have been perfect and a more accurate reflection of his own interest in natural beauty.

It's no surprise that I inherited his fascination with cemeteries, much to my wife's dismay. And like my grandfather, I'm quick to haul the car off the road if the effort promises an interesting walk through a field of graves, particularly if the stones are from the 18th century or earlier. A headstone's words and the style of its reliefs can say a great deal about how a society in a given age addressed death and eternity. In coastal Massachusetts, early 17th century Puritan stones, for example, often reveal a display of skulls and even demons, torments for the souls of the damned. Their gruesome symbolism reflected the Puritans' Calvinist belief in the uncertainty of one's salvation under a system that preached the predestination of each soul.

Thankfully, my boys are beginning to understand the appeal of a cemetery walk and happily follow me on my jaunts. Honestly, I'm no more morbid than anyone else. Nor do I think that these cemeteries possess the animate spirits of our forbears, at least not spirits that have any interest in the comings and goings of the mortal. If present, these spirits are more likely akin to those that populate the cemetery on the hill overlooking Grovers Corners in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. They've long since lost interest in us, the living, and are focused on the eternal, according to Wilder's Stage Manager. It's at once both a comforting and unsettling vision of death. Nevertheless, I'll continue to visit cemeteries, remembering my grandfather's legacy and passing it along to my sons.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Church Architecture

A couple of days ago I noted how I rather distrust established church ritual and bureaucratic structures. Nevertheless, I love church architecture, perhaps because these physical edifices will often outlive the institutions themselves. When I travel, I'm prone to yanking the car off the road for interesting churches, particularly when those structures are from the 18th and 19th centuries, or represent the focal point of a community.

Indeed, one can learn a great deal about a town and its residents from the kinds of churches it builds. What are its priorities? Along what socio-economic fault lines is the community divided? How prosperous is a community and what's the source of that success (or failure)? What are their aesthetic sensibilities? Churches often function as the physical raiment with which a community adorns itself for the rest of the world's judgment. "Look at us," a church can say, "we're a spiritual, god-fearing people who have constructed this church to the glory of god." Of course, it's also about the glory of the people who had the church built. This was certainly true in medieval Europe when towns and cities actually competed with each other to see who could construct the largest cathedral, the tallest towers, the most robust buttresses, and the most expansive stained-glass windows.

Perhaps oddly, favorite church destinations for me are the abbey ruins that dot the English landscape, a legacy of the Henrician Reformation and the dismantling of England's Catholic hierarchy. These empty shells - like my favorite, Fountains Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales - speak volumes about the strength of the medieval church and its rapid demise thanks to Henry's matrimonial and geo-political designs. I'm also fascinated by those more ancient religious edifices - Iona, for example - that chronicle the history of Christianity's introduction to Britain in the 6th century. There's something to be said for the fortitude required to pile heavy stones into an abbey on the edge of civilization in an age in which civilization itself held on by a meager thread.

Here in New York City, however, we obviously don't have those ancient points of reference. Still, we do have a host of architectural gems, Trinity Church being the most famous. Grace Church (Episcopal), pictured here, was founded in the early 19th century, although this Gothic Revival complex wasn't completed until 1846. I was attending a barbecue on the church grounds last night, hence the photos. The interior is pretty spectacular, particularly the stained glass. There's even a memorial on one wall to parishioners who went down on the Titanic. Sitting on Broadway just below Union Square, it's a popular stop for tourists in the neighborhood.

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