Friday, May 30, 2008

Basketball Hall of Fame Visit

Last weekend we took the boys to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Not sure what to expect - static museum or a fun-for-the-family place? - we were happy to find it a nice combination of interactive displays and the expected exhibits of memorabilia. To be honest, I'm a bigger fan of the "stuff" - old uniforms and balls, vintage scoreboards, trophies, and even sneakers. The wool uniforms and long wool socks of the early players, illustrated by the Celtics jersey pictured below, were especially fun - and itch inducing. And the boys, big fans of the movie Hoosiers, enjoy basketball's historic fabric - to a point. Thankfully the Hall of Fame also offered a basketball court with baskets from Naismith's original peach basket (shown in the first photo below) to modern professional goals. (And let me tell you: making a shot into the peach basket, with no backboard, was no easy feat!) Other interactive exhibits allowed them to pretend they were broadcasters calling a game, dunk the ball on 5-foot high baskets, and measure their vertical jump. In the end, we still didn't see it all, even after four hours of running between the exhibits and the basketball court. And although many of the exhibits reminded me how short I am at 5'10", next time we're in the area we'll definitely return.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Harlem Valley State Hospital

When we have the time, our family tries to avoid using interstates in our travels, preferring the slower pace and better scenery of back roads. There's just more to see, from small towns and farms to historic sites and cemeteries. I recognize the necessity of the interstates, but that doesn't mean I have to use them. And thankfully I grew up in a family that felt the same way. Both my mother and grandfather preferred secondary roads, even if that route sometimes promised more miles and time in the car. I still remember my grandfather behind the wheel of his Ford Galaxy 500, his feet splayed across the pedals in the slew-footed fashion that mirrored his walking. He always drove at an easy pace, taking in the sights.

As I drove the family back from Massachusetts on Monday, I left the interstate east of Albany and headed south on Route 22, the course we usually follow when returning from parts north. Cutting through the hills and farms of Dutchess and Putnam counties, it's a welcome respite from the traffic of I-87. Among the landmarks we pass along the way, I've always been puzzled by the now defunct Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center in Wingdale, an obvious victim of the deinstitutionalization movement of the last 30 years. It's a huge complex of buildings, many looking like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The "No Trespassing" signs certainly don't improve the haunted vibe the place gives off. Even my wife felt uncomfortable sitting in the parking lot as I snapped photos.

I learned that it was open from 1924 until 1994 and originally bore the name Harlem Valley State Hospital. At the peak of operations the hospital housed as many as 5,800 patients and functioned as a town within itself with a farm, laundry, bakery, athletic facilities, and even sports teams for employees. Praised as a cutting-edge facility, Harlem Valley State Hospital witnessed the use of insulin shock treatments in the 1930s, electric shock therapy during the 40s, and even lobotomies in the 1950s. By the 1970s, however, the hospital's population had declined significantly to only 1,897 patients when the facility celebrated its 50th anniversary. A victim of state budget cuts and the revolutionary effects of psychotropic medications (first used at the hospital in 1958), Harlem Valley closed in 1994 just months shy of its 70th anniversary. There was talk of making the hospital a correctional facility but objections from nearby residents effectively killed that project.

The place does possess a haunted feel, as my wife observed. And one has to wonder, despite the awards and plaudits garnered by the hospital, what horror stories were played out in those wards, particularly in the decades before medications offered substantive relief for so many patients.

Photo info: I took the first three photos below. I found the remainder of the images on the Internet. The postcard - one of four 1930s-era cards that I discovered - is especially striking. Why does one make postcards of a mental hospital? And to whom does one send them? Does one echo the usual postcard sentiments: "Having a nice time . . . Wish you were here!"

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sheep & Wool Festival, Part 2

More photos from the Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival. In the first photo, this ewe was bleating loudly every few seconds as she waited for the judges to check her out. I guess if someone was holding your head still while others examined your body, you'd bleat too! In the third photo you can see one of the hoods that many sheep were wearing before the judging. I've never seen sheep so clean! Also, it's actually relaxing to walk through the stalls and commune with these animals, despite the cacophony of bleating. For the most part they're extremely docile and sweet. They're also not as "stupid" as most people believe. Studies have shown that they have a very good memory for human faces and even can exhibit basic problem-solving skills. They certainly demonstrated an ability to trip up the border collies during the sheep dog trials on Sunday. As the announcer pointed out, some of the "wily old ewes" have learned a trick or two in their dealings with the dogs trying to herd them through a course.

Before I started going to these sheep and wool events (thanks to a wife who is an avid knitter), I had only encountered sheep in the allegorical sense, through religious references. Indeed, the Bible is full of references to sheep and shepherds. There's the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on an altar. At the last moment Isaac is spared and a sheep is provided for the sacrifice. Perhaps even more familiar is the sheep/shepherd imagery found in the the 23rd Psalm. And for Christians, there's the portrayal of Christ as "the Good Shepherd" (John 10). Of course, the thematic undercurrent in most of these references is "obedience"; we're the sheep and God is the shepherd. If one's experience with sheep was limited to biblical allegory, the stories of one's days in Sunday school might seem flat or one-dimensional. Spending a few minutes in the livestock barns, however, and you'd understand the foundation of those references. The sheep at the Festival on Sunday were doing a pretty good imitation of disobedient humans!

The last photo shows one of the llamas at the festival. If you've ever been around llamas or alpacas you know that they'll often make a low humming sound. They also have a nasty habit of spitting - like camels - when they get mad. These guys seemed a bit skittish with the crowd so most of us were giving the llamas some extra space to avoid provoking a spit attack. Blech!

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sheep & Wool Festival, Part 1

Whenever we attend one of these sheep and wool festivals I always head for the animal barns first. Usually one can find sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, and rabbits - with vendors selling the fibers in several forms, from raw wool to spun and dyed skeins of yarn. (I saw no alpacas or goats at this festival, however.) The Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival was a smaller affair than I've seen in other states. The crowds were smaller and there were fewer vendors and displays. Nevertheless, the setting was probably the best I've encountered, with the whole affair occupying part of the fair grounds in Cummington, Mass. My favorite scenes were the 4-Hers, from teens down to kids no older than my sons,running about trying to get their sheep ready for judging, their animals bleating loudly as they were muscled from pens to display areas.

The little guy in the second photo is only two weeks old. The white cheviot in the third photo was very inquisitive about what I was doing. she also enjoyed a good scratch behind the ears.

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The Miss Florence Diner

We spent the holiday weekend in the area around Northampton, Mass., attending the Massachusetts Sheep and Wool Festival (more on that later) and seeing some of the local attractions. When we travel we're always on the lookout for old diners. The Miss Florence Diner, in Florence, Mass. (on Rt. 9, just west of Northampton), has been in business since 1941 and was accorded landmark status in 1999 when it was added to the National Register. I had first been here in 1995 and was curious how the place had fared since. The Miss Florence didn't disappoint. With a typically voluminous diner menu, the food was tasty, plentiful, and quick. And as you can see from the pictures, the atmosphere was authentic diner, right down to the tableside jukeboxes (which worked). So many old diners have closed their doors, unable to keep pace with the national fastfood franchises. I just hope the Miss Florence can survive the current economic climate and keep its doors open.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Tom Otterness: Subway Art

One of my favorite subway stops is the 8th Ave./14th St. stop on the L Train. This renovated station features an installation of whimsical sculptures by artist Tom Otterness. Here's a video interview with Otterness from the New York Times. You can also check out a Wikipedia article about the installation.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thursday Blooms

More flowers from my rambles around the city. While some people may think of New York as this desert of tall buildings, with Central Park an oasis in the center of Manhattan, the city really holds a remarkable variety of green spaces and little gardens. In fact, I think the sometimes overpowering presence of so much concrete and steel prompts New Yorkers to make an extra effort to cultivate gardens, whether in window boxes or on deserted lots. The community gardens, for example, are fantastic and often hold a variety of flowers that might rival some botanical gardens. These photos are: a) a striking clematis at my sons' school garden; a nice pink rose (possibly a species rose of the Sweet Brier or Prairie variety) from the St. Luke in the Fields garden; an allium, in the same family as onions; and an unknown variety of red climbing rose from a townhouse in Chelsea.

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The Real Mortgage Crisis

For the second time in four months, President Bush has visited Saudi Arabia and asked for relief from climbing oil prices. And once again Bush was rebuffed by the Saudis. As Thomas Friedman points out in the New York Times this week, these events herald a significant shift in power, a shift that threatens to alter significantly the United States' standing in world affairs. Most Americans, however, are unaware of the ramifications of such change. Instead, they raise a hue and cry over rising prices at the gas pump, while talking heads pontificate over how badly this will affect the summer travel and vacation forecasts. Even John McCain and Hillary Clinton have jumped into the fray by advocating a temporary summer reprieve on gasoline taxes, as if that will magically prompt people to load up their minivans and drive around the country in mimicry of the "Great American Vacation" of decades past.

What none of our leaders, real or presumptive, want to address, from Bush to the presidential candidates, is the root problem: America's dependence on imported oil. We already know that the Bush administration's "energy policy" - largely crafted by Cheney and enunciated in a report never made public - has favored big oil and big coal, while giving only tacit attention - and meager budget support - for development of alternative fuel technologies. And it's probably a safe bet to assume that whoever wins the presidential election in November, Democrat or Republican, will prove incapable of facilitating a shift away from fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. The next occupant of the Oval Office, Friedman concludes, will inherit a "straightjacket" left by Bush and his policies. Realize too, that the twin economic monoliths of oil companies and domestic auto manufacturers have effectively dawdled in their efforts to address these issues. And let's face it, these corporations wield a great deal of clout throughout the entire political structure, irrespective of party affiliation.

When not focusing on tabloid subjects and reality television outcomes, the news media over the last several months has focused on the mortgage crisis and its effect on the very fabric of the "American Dream." Few will argue that this isn't a serious stumbling block to continued economic vitality in the U.S. Indeed, we're already seeing how foreclosures and declining new housing starts can negatively affect peripheral areas of the economy. Nevertheless, the approaching energy crisis seems a much more insidious threat. Because while middle class homeowners have mortgaged themselves into untenable positions with skyrocketing monthly payments and impending foreclosures, the United States has mortgaged its future to a handful of nations that control the lion's share of the world's oil supply. Eventually the bill will come due and the U.S. will have to pay the full price for its dependence on these nations, trading security and standing for oil.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


I think it's impossible to walk any block in Manhattan and not find some architectural element that's historic, unique, or simply beautiful. Sure, Chicago has a reputation for architectural beauty that's bolstered by the likes of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. New York, however, has history on its side in the rich display of architectural variety stretching back to the 18th century. (Yes, the city's history reaches back to its Dutch roots in 17th century New Amsterdam, but I'm not sure if anything remains from that period.) With an agglomeration of styles and centuries, often in the same block - New York presents a virtual architectural history lesson for those willing to pause and look up.

It drives my kids crazy, but I always walk the streets scanning the buildings for details, and an excuse to pull stop and pull out the camera. And sometimes these efforts provide a little learning opportunity for the boys, particularly Sam who is most often subjected to my detours down side streets and alleys. Just last week, for example, he asked me about gargoyles. Naturally I had to find one just to make the definition stick . . . and it didn't take long to find them, staring down from a Gothic Revival church in Chelsea.

I took these images in walks around Chelsea and the Village. The Bell Telephone building, just off 7th Avenue in Chelsea, was a surprise. The building is undergoing a renovation and now has Verizon signs outside. But the art deco facade and the bronze "Bell Telephone" marquee are nicely preserved. The structure is nearly windowless and is probably one of those old switching stations that are still scattered around the city.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008


I love irises. Their colors are always so vibrant and the shapes on some of the more delicate varieties remind me of orchids. I remember driving my MG along Routes 11 and 42 in the Shenandoah Valley (ca. 1988), spying clumps of daffodil and iris springing up in empty fields and forest clearings. In the spring I'd grab a Virginia map and head off down the narrow side roads of Rockingham and Shenandoah counties looking for these blooming reminders of homes and villages long gone. Sometimes the iris and daffodil blooms would surround a foundation or the crumbling remains of a stone chimney. On fortunate occasions the blooms would reveal a family cemetery of early- to mid-19th century stones. And then within a few weeks the flowers would be gone, reduced to withered stalks by the summer heat, quickly disappearing under the assault of weeds, poison ivy, and kudzu. (I shot these images in the walled garden of St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson Street.)

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