Sunday, June 23, 2024

Happy Father's Day!

We celebrated Father’s Day on Friday because that’s when we could all get together for it.

The joy of having a Movable Feast Tradition for all holidays is that it takes a lot of the stress out of planning. Can’t make the officially designated day? Well, when can you make it? Because the whole point of a holiday is to celebrate it with the people you love, and what is a calendar compared to that?

So Friday it was.

Oliver was back from his visit with Dustin, Lauren came down from Main Campus University, and we had a lovely time together. I ended up making General Tso Chicken, which is a newfound family favorite we stumbled into recently. It takes 90 minutes, isn’t remotely healthy, and uses every dish in the kitchen but it is really, really good and there are never any leftovers.

We watched some of the Stanley Cup Final game afterward while Digestion happened, and we were all glad that Edmonton forced a Game 7.

And then it was time for cards, both of the greeting and playing varieties. There was a rather spirited game of Phase 10, which we decided to play Yahtzee-style as Kim has been lobbying us to do forever, and it was a good time hanging out together. Phase 10 is a wonderful game because it hits that absolute sweet spot for any game – interesting enough to hold your attention but not so much that you can’t talk and eat and drink while you’re doing it. There were chips and dip. For some reason Supertramp’s Breakfast in America has become our go-to card-playing music and we had that in the background. We decided that a) they should go on a reunion tour and call themselves Seniortramp, b) they really should be from Australia instead of England, and c) they should sell stamps because the marketing for them is right there. Band members, take note.

I got some lovely gifts and I am grateful for all of them, but the best part of the whole thing was simply having all four of us together, hanging out and enjoying our time with each other. Those times get more spread out as people get older, as lives and responsibilities change and take us in different directions, and that is just how the world works these days.

But for an evening we were sitting at a table, sharing a meal and a game and the time we have together, and you can’t ask for more than that.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

News and Updates

1. It’s the first day of summer and already I am looking forward to October when the weather starts to get civilized again. It used to be September, but the corporate types have to keep those third quarter profits rising and the right-wing types think science is a conspiracy so now the planet is burning down and October it is. Soon it will be November.

2. I’m mostly out of my various wrist braces and whatnot. They cut off my nice purple cast after only a week or so – not two days after Lauren and her friends signed it, sadly enough – and gave me a heavy-duty splint that I could take off to shower. I kept it for two weeks, and then last week they gave me a light one and told me to start taking it off “as tolerated.” They also gave me PT exercises to be done “as tolerated” as well, which is a great thing because it fits so neatly with my overall philosophy of life: “No pain, no pain.” So I do my PT exercises and mostly go without the splint except to drive (which requires more than is comfortable without the brace) and sleep (since I have no idea what I will be doing asleep and would rather not reinjure anything). Progress!

3. The PT person in Madison was impressed that my left (broken) wrist has about as much flexibility as my right one and I wasn’t sure if I should tell her that some of that is because I’ve just never really been that flexible to begin with.

4. One of the joys of having fully adult children is that they recommend good liquor stores. Lauren told me about this place not far from the clinic up in Madison that I should check out if I wanted good wines so I went and sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but this place is the size of an ferry boat terminal. I spent a happy time just wandering the aisles and picking out some interesting looking things. Naturally Kim wanted to go so we went back a few days later when we had to be in Madison for a different purpose and we found a few more things. It was a good time. Also, you know you’re in Wisconsin when the liquor store gives you free samples.

5. I may slowly be turning into That Guy when it comes to wine. A while back some friends came over for dinner and brought a bottle of wine with them – a perfectly lovely wine that I have myself purchased on occasion, though not for a while now – but I have been experimenting with Italian wines for long enough that it just didn’t seem right. I’m not sure this is a good development, but then the half dozen or so bottles we bought at the Giant Liquor Store are probably going to last us well into 2025 so I don’t think it is a terribly pressing budgetary or dietary concern. But it is a strange thought.

6. We were up near the Giant Wine Store for two reasons, the first of which was that we had an appointment with a Finance Guy to try to get a handle on the various accounts that we have scattered all over the Financialsphere. We are reaching that age where we should have a Finance Guy and need to be thinking about that sort of thing, and speaking as someone whose grasp of Finance begins and ends with “try not to spend more than you have” the whole thing just gives me hives. But it has to be done, and it seems to be progressing along the path we want it to progress along. First, rationalization. Then, sorting. Then something something something something retirement something something at some point. Weren’t we in our early 30s not six weeks ago? No? No. Sigh.

7. The other reason was to meet our friends Heidi and Travis for dinner so we could hear all about their recent vacation and get suggestions for when we plan to be in the same place, and it went quite well. It is always good to share meals with friends.

8. On that note, our friend Eli was in Madison this past weekend playing at a jazz festival and Kim and I managed to catch him for coffee on his way back home, which was lovely.

9. I am in the process of reading Red Side Story, Jasper Fforde’s long delayed sequel to Shades of Grey, and once again I am reminded that Fforde’s head must be an interesting place to live. I’m happy that I get to enjoy what comes out of it, though.

10. I’ve spent much of this week on a Family Project that has been much more rewarding than the other projects that I should have been spending much of this week on, and you know? I’m okay with that.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Welcome to the Grand Cathedral

One of the nice things about having Maria visit is that she is a theater person. I spent a significant percentage of my life backstage, and if there is anything a theater person loves it is another theater person with whom to trade stories.

Because there are always stories, especially if both theater people are techies. The audience sees the stuff that happens onstage but the best stories happen behind the scenes and are often invisible to the audience thanks to the strenuous efforts of the tired, stressed, black-clad crew who are the line between total failure and a good story.

It is, admittedly, sometimes a very thin and porous line.

The audience never catches the good stuff, and if you ever look over and see the lighting board operator trying to stifle a laugh or – worse – rapidly paging through the script in search of something that seems deeply concerning to them you will understand that this is a tale the crew is going to be telling for at least the run of the show and possibly the rest of their lives.

Not all of these stories involve mishaps.

Most of them. But not all of them.

Somewhere in our conversations a story that I hadn’t thought about in years resurfaced, one that taught me what theatrical lighting could be and made me understand why people do this sort of thing to themselves, and that is something worth putting down here.

I got started backstage in high school when my buddy Art, sensing that there was little future for either of us on the track team, shanghaied me into the theater and handed me over to the set construction crew, and that’s pretty much where I stayed until I graduated. There are a few stories that I still tell from that time – the fabled Laurie’s House Debacle being my favorite – but when I got to college I switched over to lighting.

Lighting is more intense because unless you’re the designer you don’t really have to do anything until load-in (when everything gets set up) but once that happens that’s pretty much all you do until strike (when everything gets taken down). You’re there for the duration, but then you get to go.

I ended up working on dozens of shows in college to one degree or another, maybe 30 or so all told. Maybe more depending on how you counted – sometimes the full crew experience, sometimes just pitching in for load-in or strike or something in between. I learned to keep an adjustable wrench in my backpack because you never knew who would catch you coming back from class and drag you onto some catwalk to hang and focus lighting instruments. I forgot the wrench was there the first time I tried to fly internationally with that backpack as my carryon but in a pre-9/11 age the security guys let me through anyway. What was I going to do, unbolt the wings?

There was no Theater Department at Penn at the time – you couldn’t major in it except as a text-based concentration within the English Department – so they left the theater to the student groups, of which there were usually anywhere from 6-10 big ones putting on a show each semester plus assorted one-offs. We were largely unsupervised and free to learn from each other and our mistakes. There were maybe a dozen of us who did lighting, and we moved from show to show feeding on cast parties like locusts. Each show took a solid week from load-in to strike (unless there was a second weekend, which was rare) and my record was six in a semester, which it turned out was a) one more than I really could handle, and b) the impetus for the only A+ I ever received for a course in college.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

Early on in my college career, one of the groups put on King of Hearts – an “inmates take over the asylum” sort of comedy based on an anti-war film from the 1960s. I didn’t work on the crew for this one – I just saw it and helped with strike.

They put this on in Houston Hall, which was the old student union building. The theater was upstairs on the second floor and had originally been designed as a chapel. It seated about 120 people, as I recall. There was a small thrust stage at one end and a few windows at the back that we’d cover over during shows to keep stray light out, and it had the high peaked ceiling that you’d expect in a chapel.

The lighting designer was a guy named Jess or Jamie or something like that. He was a couple of years ahead of me and I never really got to know him but he was an acknowledged master among us techies. He was a phenomenal lighting designer. He was the best set designer we had. He could do sound. The running joke was that if you threw him onstage he’d probably turn out to be an excellent actor and then one day someone did and he was. Some people are just like that.

You use theatrical lighting to create three things.

First, you create visibility. This is the most basic thing about lighting – it lets you see things. You point the lights where you want people to be able to see what’s happening, and if that’s all you do then at least you’ve got the fundamentals covered. Sometimes you’re lucky to be able to get that far.

Second, you create mood. Somewhere in a science class you took in middle school you probably learned that light comes in colors. Back in the Jurassic period where this story is set we had halogen lamps inside each of the lighting instruments so if you wanted color you had to put gels – thin translucent plastic sheets in various colors – in front of the lens to shade the light how you wanted. These days you just program the LEDs inside the instrument and it does it on its own. LEDs are also a lot less hot than halogens, so win all around. The thing is, though, that color creates mood. The most basic is the difference between cold lighting (blues, whites) and warm lighting (yellows, reds), and you can have a lot of fun playing with that. If you have a long scene, for example, and it starts out warmly lit and then you slowly transition it over to cold lighting, even if nothing else changes the audience will notice – not consciously, perhaps, unless you’ve got lighting techs in the crowd, but the mood will shift.

And third, you create space. Sometimes this is as simple as bringing up light over here and bringing it down over there, so the audience knows that the action has shifted from one part of the stage to another, but sometimes it gets more artistic than that. Just by varying the light you can turn a single space from one thing into another even the light never moves from that location. You can add a light from a new direction, change a color, or just rearrange the levels, and suddenly it’s a different place. Also, there are gobos, which are used to cast shadows. When I was in college these were sheets of high-quality steel that could withstand being an inch away from a 750-watt halogen lamp for an hour at a time without melting, and they had cutouts where the light could get through. The patterns of the shadows could make a bare stage into a forest or a subway or whatever space you wanted it to be.

The set for King of Hearts had a long platform that came off the thrust stage, level with it, that bisected the house all the way to the back. The audience sat facing inward on either side of the platform.

At one point in the play there is a character who is convinced that he is a bishop and the scene called for him to walk down that platform about a quarter of the way and then give a brief sermon.

The lighting designer had taken maybe half a dozen 3” lekos – small lighting instruments with a fairly narrow and intense beam – and put rose window gobos in them, and then pointed them not at the actor but at the outside walls. When the bishop started his sermon those came up and all the other lights except one focused on the bishop himself went dark, and suddenly the entire theater with its peaked ceiling and its rose windowed walls was a cathedral and we, the audience, were not on the outside of the fourth wall but instead were right there in the middle of it all.

It was breathtaking.

I’d never before seen an entire space created so quickly and so immersively out of nothing but light, and forty years and however many shows later, from community theater up to Broadway, I don’t think I have since.

For one brief moment – a three-minute monologue on a grey night in Philadelphia – there was a bishop in a cathedral and we were inside of that world and all it took to make that happen was light.

Theater is an art form where things often go wrong and those are the stories we love to tell because they’re fun. But sometimes in the midst of it all something goes grandly, gloriously right and all you can do is sit there and take it all in.

Monday, June 10, 2024

A Look Toward November

Can we just take a moment and consider the fact that the guy being put forward by one of the only two major political parties we have as their candidate for the highest office in the land is scheduled to have a meeting with his parole officer today?

This is the so-called “party of law and order,” by the way. I suppose it makes sense to have a convicted felon still facing more than four dozen other felony charges in three different jurisdictions – including several that the United States has, in the past, executed people for – as your candidate if you define “law and order” to include “criminals,” but I’m not sure I would do that if it were up to me.

But Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump would like you to know that Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump is deeply offended by this whole thing, or at least those parts of it that he remembers when not falling asleep during his own criminal trial and those parts of it that he can recall through the haze of an increasingly obvious mental decline.

He spent a good few minutes shouting about sharks and electricity yesterday at a campaign stop in 110F/43C temperatures in Nevada, which likely went over well with his cult. But as for the rest of us, I’m not sure the nation would really be in good hands with a guy who thinks this counts as a campaign speech:

"...and it must be because of MIT my relationship to MIT very smart because I say what would happen if the boat sank from its weight and you're in the boat and you have this tremendously powerful battery and the battery is now under water and there's a shark that's approximately ten yards over there by the way lot of shark attacks lately notice that lot of shark attacks I watched some guys justifying it today WELL THEY WEREN'T REALLY THAT ANGRY THEY BIT OFF THE THE YOUNG LADY'S LEG BECAUSE of the fact that they were they were not hungry but they misunderstood what sushi was these people are great he said there's no problem with sharks they just didn't really understand a young woman's tsswimming (sic) now we really got decimated in other people too a lotta sharks so I said THERE'S A SHARK TEN YARDS AWAY from the boat TEN YARDS over here do I get electrocuted if the boat is sinking water goes over the battery the boat is sinking do I stay on top of the boat and get electrocuted or do I jump over by the shark and not get electrocuted because I will tell you he didn't know the answer he said you know nobody has ever asked me that question I said I think it's a good question I think there's a lot of electric current coming through that water but you know what I'd do if there's a shark or you get electrocuted I'll take electrocution every single time I'M NOT GETTING NEAR THE SHARK so we can end that we can end it for boats we're gonna end it for trucks..."

Yes, that’s an actual transcription of his remarks. Go look it up yourself if you don’t believe me.

This is what happens with a cult, though. The Dear Leader – Convicted Felon though he is – can say whatever he wants and the minions just eat it up and tell you how brilliant he is.

The other thing about cults, though, is that they rarely have a succession plan for when the Dear Leader departs. The simple fact is that Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump is in his late 70s, morbidly obese, incontinent (did you see his minions selling t-shirts that said “Real Men Wear Diapers”? You can’t make this stuff up), and – all snark aside – obviously mentally ill. There is only one direction this goes, and the only question now is how much damage will Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump cause on the way down.

Because it can be a lot.

The election in November will be a one-issue event. Do you care about the survival of the American republic?

Convicted Felon Donald J. Trump wants you to answer no to that.

And that is all you need to know.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

A Very Sociable Week

Have you ever sat down on a Sunday and thought, “This week is going to be a pretty normal sort of week” and then sat down on the following Sunday and thought, “No, no that was not” but in a very pleased sort of way? That was this week. It was nothing like I thought it would be, but it was a lovely week in the end, mostly because it was a week full of good people and you need those kinds of weeks now and then.

Monday I had lunch with Ashley, a former student and now friend, and we had a lovely time catching up on our lives before heading off to our respective errands and appointments.

Wednesday Kim invited some old friends from Home Campus for dinner. Linda, Nancy, and Marty came by and we made pizzas and sat out back and mostly talked of our various travels and the stories those inevitably provide until a gentle rain started and we had to go inside.

And on Thursday, our Swedish friend Maria came over for a couple of days. She’d been bouncing around the midwest for a bit – first to her former exchange host family in Indiana, then to a wedding in Minnesota, then to her sister’s former host family in Wisconsin, and then to us. We found out about this a couple of days in advance and of course you can come and stay with us why would you even worry about that!

Carter brought her here on Thursday night and we had a lovely evening hanging out in the back, grilling out, and catching up on old stories. Carter is Paul’s son. Maria is Mats’ daughter. Kim, Mats, and Paul were friends back in high school in northern Wisconsin in the early 80s and while Kim and Mats have stayed in touch they had both lost track of Paul a long time ago. It is just one of those stories how everyone reconnected a couple of years back when Helena, Maria’s sister, was randomly placed as an exchange student into the high school where Paul and Carter were teachers. It even made the national newsletter for the exchange program.

Kim has been grading AP exams all week, so on Friday Maria and I went to visit Lauren and Aleksia in Madison, where we had a lovely Peruvian lunch (they’ll skip the cilantro if you ask, but they’ll look at you like you’re defective for asking and maybe they’re right but I just don’t like cilantro) and then had ice cream on the terrace of the student union.

Later that night we were discussing a Swedish book I’d read recently on the recommendation of a friend (yes, I read it in translation, don’t be silly) called Anxious People by Fredrik Backman – a truly wonderful book which you should run out and read as soon as possible – and it turned out that not only has Netflix made a miniseries out of it but Maria was one of the extras! Of course we had to find her, and there she was on the far left in her red coat. Win!

After a quick visit to the local farmer’s market yesterday, where we ran into our friend Lois and learned all about what is happening at her barn now that we no longer have chickens there, I took Maria to the airport and off she went back to Sweden.

Some weeks are good weeks, and if there is a pile of grading staring at me right now that I didn’t get to when perhaps I should have, well, that’s just the price you pay for having friends.

Friday, May 31, 2024

Northeast Road Trip, Part 3

We left Albany the next morning and headed south toward New York City, stopping off at the next town south to purchase a new gas cap to replace the one that we left somewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania.

There was an auto parts store right there on the main road out of town, which would have been convenient except that the old guys in the parts department refused to acknowledge us – or any other customer – in any way for a good fifteen minutes while they finished up whatever phone call and/or computer search they were on. Some people just left. But since we had nowhere else to go, we stayed and eventually succeeded in liberating a gas cap for a nominal fee.

It works fine.

We have a great many people to see in New York, and we always enjoy it when we do. Our plan was to get to as many of them as we could fit in before heading off to northern New Jersey for the night. It’s good to have friends, and if you can’t get to all of them in one trip that’s a pretty high-class problem to have.

As a native Philadelphian I’m not really supposed to say anything nice about New York but I’ve never had a bad experience there. There’s a lot to see and do, and the people are friendly once you understand the rules of the place. You just have to accept the culture for what it is and go from there. For example, when driving in New York City you get eight nanoseconds to merge lanes before someone takes the space but you do get those eight nanoseconds free and clear, unlike other places I’ve been where you either get nothing (hello Boston!) or some random amount of time that cannot be predicted or, for that reason, used (hello, Madison!).

We bludgeoned our way through traffic and across the George Washington Bridge without incident, and after a few misadventures with GPS and parking garages we deposited the minivan in a safe place and wandered over to our friends Joshua and Abby, who live in an apartment stuffed with books and theater memorabilia and whom we haven’t seen since before the pandemic. It’s always fascinating to explore the place and we got the grand tour of all the things that have been added since our last visit, including the bright new tiles on the kitchen walls which added a flair to the place that we enjoyed. Our goals were lunch and conversation and we had a lovely time achieving both of them.

We then liberated the car from the parking garage, got better directions from the attendant than GoogleMaps was giving us, and headed north up the Henry Hudson to see Ellen and Rob, whom we also haven’t seen since before the pandemic, where we hung out for a while and largely repeated those same goals, though with dessert instead of lunch. They’ve recently redone their kitchen – a surprising number of people in our lives have done that or are thinking of doing that, and you can see plans being formulated for us to do that and I am curious as to how that would turn out. For the better, I’m sure, as our kitchen is big but inefficiently laid out and there is room for improvement, but it is no small thing to redo a kitchen and that is an energy barrier. We spent the afternoon catching up and marveling at how someone managed to crash their car into Ellen and Rob’s porch a while back. The physics just don’t work out easily, is what I’m saying here.

From there we headed south, back across the George Washington Bridge, to stay the night with Trish and Joel in Maplewood. We found their house with no problems and spent a lovely evening of conversation and Chinese food (yeah, it’s kind of a theme). I had a fascinating discussion of American history with their daughter Bella, who is getting ready to take her AP exam and will likely get a 5 on it based on what I heard. It is good to see good people and the day was full of such things.

The next morning Trish and I walked over to get bagels before the rain hit, and we all sat in the kitchen happily eating real bagels (vs the steamed version you find in the midwest) and watching the deluge come down. But eventually the rain tailed off, Trish had to work, and we had to move on, so we got back in the van and headed off to Hoboken to see Keith, Lori, and Sara.

Eventually we also saw their cat Mila, who was not impressed.

I’d been to visit before back in 2021 but thanks to schedules and the pandemic Kim had not, so the first thing we did after dropping off our bags and resting for a bit was head out to Fiore’s for roast beef and mozzarella sandwiches. Hoboken is a very competitive place when it comes to mozzarella, it turns out – they have a festival every year and award medals to the best mozzarella in the city, and Fiore’s has won that now and then. Their sandwiches are worth the effort and the mozzarella is indeed very good, though I learned the last time to skip the hot peppers as they are seriously hot even for me. That’s half of a sandwich below, by the way.

After lunch Lori had to work and Sara was off doing her own thing so Keith, Kim, and I went off to explore Hoboken. Mila remained uninterested. Hoboken is a really nice place from my experiences there – it feels like someone took a chunk of one of the New York City boroughs (Brooklyn, say) from around 1900 and thoroughly renovated it. We cruised the main street, and Kim took the opportunity to get her hair cut while Keith and I found a used-book store to explore.

Afterward we met up with Lori and Sara at a barbecue place on the waterfront where there was a Trivia Night. The food was really good though the trivia was odd – there were four rounds, each with five fairly easy questions plus a multi-part bonus question that was basically impossible. Somehow we came in fourth out of the twenty or so groups, just out of the running for prizes, which I thought was impressive nonetheless.

The next day we went to Ellis Island.

For all the times that I’ve been to the New York City area and for all that I am both a professional historian and an amateur genealogist (it’s a fine line – humor me here) I had never actually been there before. I have at least four ancestors who came through it in the early 1900s, and Kim took Oliver, Lauren, Fran, and Aleksia there in 2018 but I arrived later and missed that day.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Ellis Island sits between New York and New Jersey (both states own parts of it) and from the 1880s through the mid-1950s it was the main entry port for immigrants entering the US from across the Atlantic. Some twelve million immigrants passed through it, and according to the tour guide we had that day about 40% of Americans can trace their ancestry back to at least one person who arrived there. The place was abandoned in 1954 and sat there for about thirty years before anyone thought to do anything with it, but now it’s been fixed up in parts and is a museum. It’s free to get in but you have to pay for the ferry ride to get there, so if you have a rowboat and strong arms it won’t cost you anything. In our case, we decided to take the “hard hat tour” (our second one this trip!) to see the hospital buildings that haven’t quite been renovated.

The ferry ride from New Jersey was pleasant and scenic, and a great deal less crowded than the one coming over from New York. You drive to what was once a combination train station and ferry station (the train part is abandoned and grown over, but interesting in its own right), go through security, and then hop onto the ferry for the five-minute ride over to Ellis Island. The ferry then proceeds on to Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty is, but we saved that trip for another day. We’ve all been there – Kim, Oliver, and Lauren in 2018 and me way back in 1979 on a school trip when you could walk up all the stairs to the crown.

The first thing you do when you get to Ellis Island is go into the big central building – the only one on the original 3-acre island and thus the only one that belongs to New York – and look around. We made a beeline to the information desk to ask about our tour and they told us to wait right there and eventually off we went.

The hospital area was a place you didn’t want to go if you were an immigrant because it meant you might not get admitted to the country. You hadn’t been immediately deported – the steamship lines were required to pay for private (i.e. quarantined) cabins for anyone sent home so they did a lot of screening for that in advance – but you either had to wait for a bit in the regular hospital or wait for what might be a very long time in the contagious disease hospital. Some people never made it out. That’s how diseases work.

The hospitals are on the expanded part of the island (27 acres), which means they belong to New Jersey. NJ owns the water off the original island, and the landfill was considered part of that.

Our tour guide took us through buildings and grassy areas, explaining it all as she went. We got to see the morgue and the laundry room, for example, and on the first picture below you can see the white marks on the bricks which marks the high-water line from the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. The place was abandoned for decades and left alone, and a lot of things are just still sitting there in various states of disrepair. Apparently it would take billions of dollars to restore it fully, so they’re just hoping to maintain a state of “arrested decay,” which makes it more poignant, I think.

A few years ago a French artist did a project there where he enlarged photos from the immigration years and put them on the walls and windows. They give a ghostly feeling to the place, and you have to love that.

One thing that really impressed me about the hospital buildings was how much thought went into passive airflow as a way to keep diseases from spreading. Wards branch off the long hallway known as The Spine but never directly across from one another. The contagious hospital hallway narrows at one end to maintain positive airflow. It was surprisingly well thought out.

The last stop on the tour was the hospice room. They made sure that these patients had the best view, which was thoughtful of them.

Eventually we got outside and headed back to the main building.

After a quick lunch we continued our explorations. The highlight for me was the big processing hall, which is actually on the second floor. You have to imagine the throngs of people who would crowd this room, all hoping and fearing for what came next.

There’s also some really nice museum displays, and if you go outside there’s a low circular stainless steel wall with about a million names engraved in it. We found Kim’s grandfather, who came through Ellis Island in the early 1950s with Kim’s grandmother and mom, and depending on how loose you are with spelling quite possibly some of my Italian ancestors as well. We also found some of Lori’s ancestors, so it was time well spent.

We got the last ferry off the island, made a short stop at Liberty Island to pick up more people (including one guy who had a tattoos in Tengwar on each forearm and if he hadn’t been on his phone the entire time I would have asked him who Beatriz Martinez was to him), and headed back to the car. As we got back to dry land Kim said that the only thing that would have made the experience more complete was if there was an ice cream truck in the parking lot and – as if by magic – there was!

Dinner that night was at an Italian place called Il Tavola, which I recommend fully. We loved our waitress for her honesty – when we asked what the difference was between the Stuffed Ravioli and the Cheese Ravioli she said “Well, it’s kind of embarrassing but they’re really the same thing except one has burrata on top and only comes with vodka sauce” and you have to appreciate that kind of transparency. I got one and Keith got the other and they were both good.

We spent the remainder of the night watching standup on television and chatting with Sara and her friend Nicola as they came and went.

For our final full day of our trip we drove south to Pennington to see Jenny for lunch. I’ve known Jenny since high school and it is good to have friends who have that kind of history and who have shared your story for so long. We got to meet her kitties and her neighbor Rob (all very nice!) and had a tasty meal at The Peasant Grill along with – wait for it! – some lovely conversation as well. Jenny also took us on a brief tour of Hopewell afterward. It’s such a pretty area!

After that it was a long drive home, though rain storms and interstates and a night in North Lima, Ohio where James the Quality Inn guy took good care of us. The next day we saw bald eagles standing in field in central Ohio and survived the tangled web that is Greater Chicago before arriving back home.

It was good to see everyone, and we’ll look forward to the next visits, either here or there.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Northeast Road Trip, Part 2

Our trip to the Northeast was one of the very few trips that Kim and I have taken where I did most of the planning, and for that reason I am frankly astounded that it turned out well.

I’m not the planner in this outfit. I tend to get overwhelmed by all the finicky little details and then one of two things happens: either I throw up my hands and decide just to stay home – which I also enjoy doing, so it’s not so much a sacrifice as it is an opportunity cost and those are easy to ignore – or I plunge ahead and make plans that just … sort of … don’t … work out … very well. Plus, while this all sounded like a great idea in March, when the semester was young and I was full of energy, by the time we got to May and finals were over it seemed like a lot to take on.

But we went and it was lovely, so there you have it. Lesson learned.

We left on a Saturday morning, heading east along this nation’s mighty interstate system with all due speed and efficiency until we got to Chicago, whereupon everything ground to a halt for a while because Chicago. Rush hour starts at 4am in that city and lasts for 23 hours and 57 minutes (five minutes less on weekends). There is always construction, with posted speed limits that not even the cops pay any attention to. It’s usually raining, in my experience. And the entrance from I-290 to I-294 (two major interstate highways, you will note) is exactly one lane wide and has an approach lane that is maybe four car-lengths long.

So that took a while.

But we made it through and eventually found our way across both Indiana (a flat state with off-putting rest stops) and Ohio (a flat state with nice rest stops) to get to Pittsburgh, where our friends Mike and Krista live. Mike was chaperoning his students’ prom when we got there because he is a Good Person, so we had dinner on the back porch with Krista and enjoyed our conversation until Mike got home, whereupon we continued to enjoy our conversation only now with all four of us.

We had breakfast the next day at Pamela’s, which has the world’s best breakfast potatoes. I did not get them, alas, but Kim did so I know this now. In fairness, the French toast was also good. As was the d├ęcor and the company.

Our big expedition that day was to the Carrie Furnace.

The Pittsburgh metro area, for those of you whose historical memory is measured in minutes, was once one of the biggest centers of steel manufacturing in the world. It was the focus of the region’s economy and it has shaped the culture of the place down to the present day. It’s pretty much all gone now, of course – the air is cleaner and the city has moved on to other industries – but here and there you can find remnants.

The Carrie Furnace – apparently they named these things after the wives of prominent management officials in the steel mills, because what could possibly be more romantic naming a vast fume-belching industrial facility for your sweetheart? – is one of the last remaining bits of the old Homestead Works just outside of the city and across the river from the Furnace. It was built in the late 19th century and abandoned in the early 1980s – they literally just turned the key and left – and eventually most of the buildings on the site were torn down for scrap and the rest were the province of bored kids, random graffiti taggers, and the occasional scavenger. Eventually the surviving structures were taken over by what is essentially an arts cooperative and turned into a heritage site that preserves not only the steel mill history of the place but also the art that followed.

You get a hard hat and a bottle of water, and they take you around the outside of the surviving buildings and show you some of the structures that are still standing.

You can climb up the building on the left in that last photo (“Tall people, watch your head!”) and see some of the unloading facilities for the ore and iron pellets. The guy with the beard is our tour guide, who kept us there for far longer than the actual tour was supposed to last but it was utterly fascinating so we didn’t complain a bit.

You bob and weave through the buildings, and if you enjoy urban industrial aesthetics, as I do, it is a great place to visit.

It’s hard to wrap your head around just how big it is if you’re just looking at the photographs. The scale of the machinery in steel manufacturing is truly mind boggling.

They also showed us a lot of the art that’s there, everything from graffiti art (which is now fairly regulated in an orderly sort of way, though they do preserve some of the older stuff from when the place was abandoned) to sculptures. The reclining rabbit was one of my favorites, in part because it had a certain attitude that I liked.

The big attraction is the deer head, which apparently predates the takeover of the place by organized groups. It was built by people who never really expected it to be seen by anyone else, and there is a certain purity to that. Like most things at Carrie, it’s huge.

We left Carrie deeply impressed and in need of sustenance. Dinner was waiting at home, but we stopped at a local libation shop to purchase snacks and reacquaint ourselves with the comedy that is the Pennsylvania Liquor Control code (“Those over there you can buy and take out, but those over here you have to drink here”). It all worked out in the end, and we spent another lovely evening on the back porch with Mike and Krista, happily immersed in conversation.

The next day we drove to Albany to meet Ewan and Jenny.

Ewan has been a commenter here on the blog for a long time now, and we’ve been Facebook friends for a while as well, but we’d never actually met in person. But he invited us to visit and we thought that would be a lovely idea, and indeed it was!

Lucy, you’re next.

We left Pittsburgh early and stopped for breakfast at an Eat & Park, which is a Pittsburgh institution although why it isn’t “Park & Eat” I don’t know. But they make very good pies, and that has to count for something. Kim managed to sit in on a phone meeting while we were in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania – a triumph of communications technology in many ways – and we got to Ewan’s house in the late afternoon. There was conversation! There were beverages! There was a tasty dinner with Ewan, Jenny, and their youngest son Keiran*, and it was very nice to meet them all in person after so long.

The next day we headed out to the Indian Ladder Trail at Thacher Park, which is astonishingly lovely. It’s an escarpment that overlooks a broad valley, and you climb down the stairs to a lower level – not all the way down – and walk along a trail for a while, marveling as you go.

You pass layers of folded rock, though not – on this trip – any of the efts who inhabit the place.

The highlight for me was the waterfalls, which apparently come and go with the seasons so our timing was good. There are several of them and they cascade down from above while you’re on the trail. You can go behind them or just hang out in the spray.

After a quick stop at a local coffeeshop we headed into Albany proper to see the place. It’s a nice city from what we could tell, though the State Capitol was feverishly busy with last minute budget wrangling, lobbying, and an entire Habitat For Humanity hammering festival out in front so parking was at a premium. On the plus side the place was festooned with food trucks, which is always a good sign in my book.

Our goal was to take the tour of the Capitol building, which meant going through the security line that is inevitable in such buildings these days and – in my case – going through it again because I forgot to leave my Swiss Army knife in the car and the guard said that rather than him confiscating it I should just go outside and put it somewhere inconspicuous and it would probably be there when I got back and you know? It was.

It's a fascinating building and we got to see a fair amount of it, including the House and Senate chambers which were in recess over the lunch hour while we were there. Opulent does not even begin to describe them, and the tour guide did a good job of explaining it all. I really enjoyed one particular room full of very odd paintings – note the last photo below – but there is no accounting for my taste.

From there we went out onto a vast concrete plaza across the street, one that had the look of either a 1960s architectural drawing brought to life or a near-future dystopian spaceport. Possibly both. They are not mutually exclusive, after all. But it was interesting in a mid-century sort of way, particularly the Egg, which is the roundish building below and which now serves as a theater. Maybe it always did, but I confess that by the time we got in I was a bit distracted.

This is where I lost my battle with a curb.

We were heading toward the Egg, and for some reason – probably because I kept stopping to take photos – I was a few paces behind Ewan and Kim. There was a raised strip about a meter wide that ran across my path and I saw the far curb but didn’t see the near one and then there was kicking and stumbling and no small amount of flailing but fortunately I landed on my hands and didn’t faceplant. A passing nurse (really! she was!) checked me out and said that if my wrist didn’t get better then it probably wasn’t just sprained like I thought and I should get it looked at.

Can’t take me anywhere.

But it didn’t hurt all that much, so we continued on with our day. We went to get lunch from the food trucks, and then back across the plaza to the New York State Museum which had some great displays. There’s an entire exhibit on 9/11, as you would expect, and it is very well done and I took no photographs of it because as a former firefighter there are some things that are sacred.

We also went to see the campus where Ewan works and he showed us around – it’s a very nice place full of breezeways and colonnades and I enjoyed seeing it, but I didn’t take any pictures of that either because by this point it was starting to dawn on me that yeah, probably not just sprained and I should go to the urgent care about it. Grumble grumble grumble silly me grumble grumble.


Fortunately as we were heading off to do this Jenny called and pointed out that there was in fact a specifically Orthopedic urgent care with an x-ray and, it turned out, we were driving right past it at that very moment! So in we went, and less than an hour later, out I came with a bright purple cast – my very first one.

Never too late for new experiences, kids!

We went back home, had a marvelous dinner and good conversation, and eventually drifted up to our beds.

The next day we went to New York City and thereabouts, but that will be another post.