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— 1 —

We’re back. House intact, snake alive.

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BIG is a creepy movie, and he’s never seen it, but he did know about the big piano at FAO Schwarz, so here we are.

 

— 2 —

We did almost everything I wanted to do with them.  They’d been to New York City before, but had little memory of it.  It was hot, but not unbearably so. It was crowded, but once you were away from Midtown, Times Square and Fifth Avenue, it was a lot better.

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St. Patrick’s from the top of Rockefeller Center – a nice view of the cruciform shape.

— 3 —

It’s expensive, though, I’ll tell you that – as if you needed to know, as if I needed a reminder.  Really, if you want to do a biggish city with lots of culture with kids and not spend so much money, and you don’t have relatives or friends to crash with in the area, Washington DC – where almost all the museums are free – is the way to go. (Also Chicago if you have local museum memberships – our McWane membership got us into both the Field and the Museum of Technology and Industry – FREE.)

Even attempts to save money here can be problematic.  We spent a big chunk of Wednesday in the American Natural History Museum – they surprised us by having an extensive and good ancient Americas collection, so yes, we spent more time than we thought there – and we went in and out a couple of times (btw, at no time did anyone look carefully or scan our tickets….).  The ticket line was horrendous – every time – first thing in the morning, when we left for lunch, and when we left for good around 3 – probably a hundred people on both sides – but I had just walked up to a kiosk and purchased ours, no wait.  I’m sure the lines were all about redeeming passes of one sort or another…too bad people have to spend part of their short time in New York waiting in lines like that….

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My pre-Columbian scholar LOVED this section.

— 4 —

Food?  Well, nothing super memorable.  Shake Shack met with approval (especially by me when I discovered they serve alcohol), the arancini we snacked on in Little Italy were very good – unfortunately the way we ended up spending that day took us away from Chinatown before I could find the hand-pulled noodles I’d been hoping to get.   Excellent pizza at this by-the-slice place.  Good sandwiches from a deli behind the Natural History Museum, eaten in Roosevelt park.

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No fine dining for us, but they weren’t too hungry that often.

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— 5 —

Favorite things?  I think Governor’s Island, the Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park (where we wandered – saw wildlife – Look!  It’s a RAT!” – did the rowboats and the remote control sailboats) and the Tenement Museum would top the list for all of us.

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Down on the South Street Seaport, looking at Brooklyn.

 

Every counter person, sales person, museum attendant, bike rental person we encountered was very friendly and helpful.  The only rudeness was from a taxi driver who heard where I wanted to go (longish story) and scoffed.   Someone told me later not to tell them where you are going until you actually sit in the cab – then by law they have to take you.  (All’s well than ends well – the subway station was closer than I’d thought….)

— 6 —

We did see Newsies which they enjoyed but which was ultimately meh because it was, of course, the usual homogenized, musically pedestrian Disney stuff.  I couldn’t help be amused by the irony of a Disney show having as a central theme the exploitive greed of a business – as we sat in a theater where the full-priced tickets  went for $300 for a little more than 2 hours of entertainment.

(I got ours at the TKTS booth down at the South Street Seaport – decent discount.)

(On their last visit, we went to see The Thirty Nine Steps which was so inventive and delightful and held their interest, even though they were four years younger than they are now – in a more deeply engaged way than the in-your-face eardrum busting hoofing of Newsies.)

The dancing was great, the vibe was a good one for the boys, but all I can say is that last night when I got home, I watched, for the zillionth time, the opening number from On The Town…no comparison, as if anyone would expect there to be.

(BTW – a revival is coming! )


 

 

— 7 —

We went to the World Trade Center Memorial – not the museum, but the striking,  huge downward-flowing fountains constructed on and in the foundations of both buildings, both surrounded by walls in which have been etched the names of those who died there.  I found it so very moving and quite fitting.  They are fountains, rather than the cool stillness of stone, and so they powerfully convey a subtle message of hope and life.

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No, we did not take selfies at the WTC memorial.

 

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Time to check this one off the list:

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It’s Moundville – and that really is the name of the small town where this archaeological site is located, this site full of…mounds.

It’s about 15 miles south of Tuscaloosa, which, in turn, is about 50 miles southwest of Birmingham.  It’s been on my to-go list for a while, but even so, I was surprised by how extensive it is.

So no, it’s not that far away and I’d heard of it, but this visit was kicked up the list a couple of days ago when I Michael found a coffee table book on “Mysteries of Ancient America” or something at an estate sale and I dug deep for the three bucks to get it for him.  He leafed through it and murmured, “This will be very useful.”  (He’s nine).

At some point he showed me a page with a photograph of a structure that caught his fancy – a mound with steps – always a plus when you can climb the archaeology. I said, “Where’s that?”  He shrugged and we looked at the caption which didn’t mention a country or state but did say, “On the Black Warrior River” and I said…”Wait – that’s Moundville!”

To discover that this awesome spot was an hour from his house and he had been allowed to be ignorant of this fact was too much.

This settlement of a Mississippian Indians was last inhabited over 800 years ago.  Its flourishing followed that of Cahokia, in Illinois, so archaeologists posit that at some point, this Alabama settlement was the largest city north of Mexico.

 

You can climb on two of the mounds, including this, the largest.

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The associated museum is small but quite good, having undergone a recent renovation.  The exhibits are very attractively displayed and clearly explained.  Even the two videos we saw are far beyond the lame level of the 1989-era videos one usually sees at historical parks.

 

 

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The back of the museum, viewed from atop one of the mounds.

As per usual, I found the modern history of the site just as (if not a bit more…) interesting as the ancient story.  Amateur archaeologists first explored and wrote about the site the mid-19th century, followed by more intensive work at the beginning of the 20th century by one C.B. Moore:

C. B. Moore was a wealthy man born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and educated at Harvard University. At the age of 40, Moore puchased a flat bottomed steamship, named theGopher, and navigated the Florida rivers during the summer. Concentrating on the shell middens and sand burial mounds along the rivers of Florida, year after year, C.B. Moore carefully excavated sites along the waterways. While Moore reserved the warmer months for traveling along the southeastern waterways and excavationg sites, the winter months were spent analyzing his findings and writing reports that were published by the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1899, Moore ventured into Alabama traveling up the Alabama River. Then, in 1905, Moore traveled up the Black Warrior River where he spent most of his time excavating two mounds and surveying Moundville, a Native American center with over 20 mounds. Impressed by the size of the site and by the elaborate artifacts Moore uncovered, he returned the following summer to continue excavations. Moore was one of the first archaeologists to explore Moundville and document his findings, and, although his methods were not as sound as Jefferson’s, he nevertheless provided modern archaeologists with a wealth of information that might otherwise have been lost.

Then, a few decades later came Dr. Walter Jones (for whom the museum is named)

In the 1920s, several local citizens and state geologistDr. Walter B. Jones led efforts to turn the site into a park. Jones mortgaged his house to fund the purchase of the site, and Mound State Park (later renamed Mound State Monument) was established in 1933.

 Jones, assisted by David L. DeJarnette, began the first scientific excavations at the park in 1929. From 1933 to 1941, at the height of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) restored the mounds, built roads, and constructed a museum. Jones, DeJarnette, and others at the Alabama Museum of Natural History directed the force, excavating 500,000 square feet of the site, and more than 2,000 burials, 75 house remains, and thousands of artifacts

One of the placards at the museum said that this excavation work was the largest ever in the United States – and still only 14 percent of the site has been excavated.

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The Black Warrior River

The museum is the only concrete building constructed by the CCC in Alabama (the others being stone/wood of course).

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(As I have said before, I find the history of the history fascinating and always have.  I blame, first of all, my 9th grade World History class which was excellent and based completely on interpretation of primary sources. Then I blame the honors history program at UT which had a hardcore focus on historiography, and then my favorite class at Vanderbilt, which was on historiography and for which I wrote a paper on the uses of historical evidence in the debate over women deacons in Early Christianity….I guess what interests me is the human response to the surrounding world and how we discover, understand and interpret that whether that be via art, historical work, religion, literature or just…living.)

No, it’s not Chicen Itza or Uxmal, but that’s okay.  We (and I mean we ) learned a lot and found the whole experience quite absorbing.  Hopefully we can make it back for the festival in October.

And believe me, it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t Uxmal.  We might as well have been back down there because all the day the air around us was filled with chatter from our resident archaeologist/herpetologist/musician as he recalled every detail of our visit to Mexico and reminded me – repeatedly – of places yet unseen…of Palenque and Coban and….

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Uxmal, earlier this year.

 

 

 

 

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I’m down one child this weekend, so today, the 9-year old and I took a day trip.

(Although it seems as if the other’s weekend will be cut short – a rafting trip to North Carolina where, this weekend, the highs are in the 60’s, it’s raining, and the water temp is 38 degrees. I think they’re coming back a day early….)

I had a sketch of a plan. It involved first making our way down to a spot a couple of hours south of here and then working our way back up.  I had hoped the “working our way back up” would be more nature-y than it turned out – I threw bathing suits, towels and extra clothes in the back of the car – but the weather was sketchy here as well, so there was no hiking or spur-of-the-moment swimming.

What there was:

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McClelland’s Critters, which is around Troy which is, in turn, south of Montgomery.  I stumbled upon this place last night and did some research, not wanting to give any support to a facility that mistreats or exploits wild animals.  It seemed okay on paper (or on screen), and while it’s certainly not lush, the animals do seem well taken care of and are certainly loved.   I’m still not totally sold on the concept, but I’ve never been totally sold on the concept of zoos anyway.  Those Twilight Zone/Planet of the Apes ghosts are always afoot, it seems.

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The most interesting part of the place had nothing to do with exotic animals, but with the blasted mountain goats.  You know those videos featuring goats sounding like people that are floating around? And how you’re sort of convinced they’re fake?  Well, they might be, or might not…because today, I heard a bunch of goats out and out saying “BAAA!” in croaky old man voices, repeatedly.  It was hysterical.

The Arnold Scheme: British Pilots, the American South, and the Allies' Daring Plan

 

We caught the tail end of a tour, but later, after we’d wandered about by ourselves a bit,  Michael said, “I’m going to ask to hold a snake” – and just at that moment, the owner strode up to us, an armful of peacock feathers, saying, “Would you like to hold a snake?”

So, yes.

The Arnold Scheme: British Pilots, the American South, and the Allies' Daring Plan

Not Rocky.

There was a large reticulated python in one corner of a cage, a white bunny in the other.  I said to the owner, “So the python will be eating the rabbit?”  He said, “He’s had four already today. It’ll be his fifth.”

Come on, Rocky…EAT!

I had checked Roadside America, and was prepared to go where it led, but the rooster made of car bumpers was in the opposite direction of home, and since it was indeed looking rainy by that time and Blue Springs State Park, which had been sketched into the plan and also in that direction, was being crossed off the plan…we slowly headed back north.

As we approached Montgomery, I sighed    asked, “Do you want to go to the zoo again?”  Because it was only the two of us, we had a membership discount, and I’m with Mr. Nature, so of course the answer was yes.

We stopped for lunch for him at Chick-fil-a, unfortunately without the time to spend at one of the several Korean restaurants nearby (there’s a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, one which I intend to tour once a spot opens up…), and then headed back up to the zoo.  A soft rain was falling, and it was late afternoon, so this means we almost had the place to ourselves.  There wasn’t anything new to see (we’d been there before a couple of months ago), but we did a get closer look at the anteaters, several of the birds, and we toured the quirky adjacent natural history museum.

As we headed out, I started explaining to Michael about Hank Williams, and who he was and where and how he died, and that his grave was on the way home, so let’s stop. 

 

 

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A lovely setting.

 

 

Audrey and Hank’s grave certainly dominates the scene, but not in a tacky way.

But I have to say what interested me most was something I hadn’t noticed on my last visit here, which was probably 16 years ago.  When I got home, this led me (naturally) on a most fascinating rabbit hole. Directly next to the Williams plot:

 

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They are the neat, beautifully kept graves of French and British military men from World War II, mostly airmen, who died while training in the United States:

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Beginning in 1941, thousands of RAF crew members were trained at Maxwell and Gunter Fields, as well as at auxiliary airfields in the area. The dangers of learning to fly combat aircraft were such that some did not survive. One example comes from the book “Montgomery Aviation” by Billy J. Singleton (Arcadia Publishing, 2007, ISBN 978-0-7385-5259-0), page 49: “Cross-country flights at night could prove to be challenging and occasionally dangerous. In May 1942, a flight of 35 aircraft flown by United Kingdom students departed Gunter Field on a navigation training flight to Crestview and Mobile. Returning from Mobile on the last leg of the flight, the formation encountered heavy haze and rain showers. Twelve of the training aircraft crashed, resulting in the loss of seven pilots.”

The plaque and the cross are part the memorial. Each grave has a headstone with the information on the individual and some additional words. One example reads: “If I should die — some corner of a foreign field is a piece forever England”

 

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There are numerous cemeteries throughout the USA containing the graves of Allied air force and naval airmen who died whilst undertaking flying training during W.W.2.  The RAF graves in the Montgomery Annexe commemorate the RAF airmen who died whilst undertaking Basic or Advanced training as part of the Arnold Scheme.  RAF Arnold Scheme airmen who lost there lives during Primary training are buried in Commonwealth War Graves in communities close to their training base.  There are are similar CWGC plots in towns close to where the six RAF British Flying Training Schools were located and others where Royal Navy and RAF pilots were trained as part of the Towers Scheme.
 
During W.W.2 the U.S.A. hosted and sponsored the flying training of many Allies – British, French, Dutch, Chinese, Mexican, Brazilian and other Latin-American nations.  Concise details and graduate numbers can be found in “The Army Air Forces in World War II – Volume VI”, (Craven and Cate).  These programs must have involved some fatal accidents and those airmen may also be be buried far from their homes and family.
 
During W.W.1, particularly the winter months of 1917 Canadian airmen where trained for the Royal Flying Corps at locations in Texas and I believe some of these men perished and are buried in the USA.
 
The Cemetery at Montgomery, Alabama has another annexe containing the graves and the names of French personnel who died in the USA whilst undertaking aircrew training.  

 

 

There’s a book about the project, here:  The Arnold Scheme: British Pilots, the American South, and the Allies’ Daring Plan. 

 

On the way back, we stopped at Peach Park in  Clanton, Alabama Peach Central.  Several years ago, when he was still in school, Joseph’s class took a field trip down that way.  The focus was some water education facility, followed by a visit to Peach Park.  His description of the peach visit was subdued and uninterested, and I remember mildly castigating him because this place certainly sounded like an Interactive Fruit Wonderland and surely he had not taken advantage of the opportunity to really appreciate it.  I probably said, “as usual,” too.

Well, after today’s 5-minute stop at the rather poorly kept and messy outdoor cafe (didn’t eat),  foodstuffs with the ominous label indicated that what was within had been “packaged for” this facility and a few creaky swings…

…I hope he’ll accept my belated apology….

 

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— 1 —

Almost back from NYC – perhaps by the time you read this, I will be safely back in Alabama.

Speaking of Alabama, it occurred to me today in walking around Manhattan that, even taking it proportionally, the number of men I’ve seen walking around shirtless in the middle of Alabama towns pales to the number I’ve seen in Manhattan. Today.

— 2 —

I would post a map of my walking over the past three days, but it would be nothing but a blur of blue lines over a map of the island.  I try to walk five miles a day back home for part of my exercise, and I don’t think I’ve failed to meet my quota this week.

— 3 —

The boys haven’t been with me. They have been with their Florida family.  I have been of two minds about this all week.  It’s been pleasant to be able to eat what I want without concerns about the more selective palates of other members of my family, and it’s also been good to just..wander on my own. Not going to lie about that.

But I realized early on that I missed them.  Not only did I miss them just because I missed them, but I guess I am so deep in my Travel Guide/Educator/Facilitator mode at this point in my life that I actually found it a bit difficult to adapt to solo sightseeing.  What is there to see when I don’t have someone else to show things to? It was quite revealing to me, and gave me much to think about regarding my own instincts and motivations.  I need very much to see life on my own, but also to tell others about it and help them see as well…and then more time alone to process it all.  Then it’s a complete experience.

— 4 –

Museum highlights:

The New York Historical Society. Interesting exhibits all around, but of special interest is their Bemelmans/Madeline exhibit – very sweet, in one respect, and inspiring in another.  I love to learn about the creative process, whether the creators be artists, writers, scientists or builders.  I find the dynamic of inspiration and creativity endlessly fascinating.  The exhibit on the European-born but ultimately New York-based Bemelmans took three rooms in the museum, with a generous selection of original artwork, manuscripts and some of his earlier work, and much about his life in New York – most of which concerned hotels for one reason or another.  As a person who grew up with Madeline and who has read it aloud so many times over the past thirty years that she has most of the first book memorized, this was a lovely treat.

Related – the New York Pubic Library’s exhibit on children’s books.  Well done with some omissions.  Of course, not a religiously-oriented book in sight (lest you think I’m being picky, they did feature various educational books for children, and what books have educated more children up to the 20th century that religious, mostly Bible-related books?) and, I realized after I left, no mention of N. C. Wyeth.  I responded to myself that, well, this mostly about picture books, and Wyeth illustrated mostly novels for older children and teens,  but I have to say that there was one wall – pictured below – dedicated to Edward Stratemeyer, the originator of the syndicate that produced the vast majority of super popular series books for children and teens from Nancy Drew to Tom Swift – look at the number of series (each square represents one).

So..yes..I think Wyeth should have been given a case!

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http://www.nypl.org/

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Finally, the Museum at Eldridge Street – a gorgeous Orthodox synagogue built in 1886, essentially abandoned by the 1950’s, rediscovered in the 1970’s and restored over the past twenty years.  It’s so deep in Chinatown that I kept walking and walking, convinced that Google Maps had done me wrong once again – but then there it was, standing tall between the noodle shops and foot massage services.  I was led on a mostly individualized tour by a sweet intern named Luna, who adjusted her talk down a notch when she learned I wasn’t Jewish, explaining to me what the Torah was, and such.  That was okay – I appreciated her enthusiasm.

She emphasized over and over again the poverty of most of the congregants who contributed to build this lovely place of worship and community – that it was an expression, not only of their devotion to the Lord, but also of their own strength and sense of community, as they worked hard to construct something beautiful and lasting.

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One corner is left unfinished, not only to show the restoration process, but also as a reminder of the Temple.

 

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The bimah, from which the Torah is read, faces the Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls. Faces east.

— 5 —

Speaking of such things, I made a particular effort to visit all three of the churches in the current controversy involving potential closures of certain NYC parishes: Holy Innocents, St. Francis and St. Michael’s.  I was at Holy Innocents Tuesday evening during Adoration, then today during the noon Mass, St. Francis yesterday and St. Michael’s today.  More on that tomorrow, when I’m not quite so tired.

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St. Michael’s on 34th.

— 6 —

Also Old St. Patrick’s today:

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— 7 —

Food:

Lunch Tuesday: Tapas at Boqueria

Dinner Tuesday: Hospitality hour at my hotel – they are working really hard because they just opened, and it was substantial!

Lunch Wednesday: Grazing at Broadway Bites: Arancini, Empanadas and summer rolls.

Dinner Wednesday: Gennaro’s

Breakfast Thursday: Pain au Raisin from Eric Kayser.  Eric Kayser is one of the more chi-chi bakeries in Paris.  I only went to one once, just to try the bread, which was said to be THE BEST – it was fine, but I was content to stick with one of the three normal, not-chi-chi but truly excellent bakeries on my block when we were in Paris.  BUT – I do adore Pain au Raisin – it was my favorite pastry during that month.  So of course, when I saw that Kayser had crossed the Atlantic, I had to go – and yes, it was just the same, and was wonderful.

Lunch Thursday: Fantastic Falafel at Taim, consumed a park across the street from the tiny restaurant, a park where children played on the climbing bars and in the water spraying from the ground, where a crew of old men played dominoes, where another man slept on a bench and a young woman, seated and wrapped in a proper salon cape, was getting her hair cut and styled by another young woman there under the trees.  An excellent slice of life. I thought, “Why don’t I live here?” But then I thought, “Because it costs a zillion dollars and they have winter.”

Thursday gelato – at the famed and trendy il laboratorio di gelato. It was nice, but nothing spectacular.  In particular the rosemary was so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  Yes, you would have to be careful, but I once made a rosemary lemon sorbet that was a knockout, with the rosemary coming through loud and clear, but still softly.

Dinner Thursday: Cafe Sabarsky with Ann.  \We did not see Yoko Ono, whom Ann had seen there at a previous visit a couple of months ago..

And after dinner, a stroll down Madison down to the Hotel Carlyle with, appropriately enough, a drink in the Bemelmans Bar – a charming (and expensive) place – the walls all painted by Bemelmans himself. It was really the perfect way to wind up the week.

One more food related take: One of the oddest things I saw over the past few days was today in Chinatown.   A woman at an outdoor food market was crouched in front of a tub of water, which was in turn, teeming with live eels.  Her purse and shopping bag next to her, she had a plastic bag sheathing her hand, with which she was reaching into the bin of eels.  She worked for several minutes, but in the time I stood there watching her – probably about five – she could never actually get one.  I thought at first she was simply being selective and trying to find the eel that was just right, but I don’t think that’s what it was – she just couldn’t grab one, proving that “slippery as an eel” is more than a metaphor.

 

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So I saw the newest instagram #hashtage craze in action tonight - #StagedoorSelfie!

According to this article, it’s Daniel Radcliffe’s fault - you know, Harry Potter, now starring in The Cripple of Inishmaan

I haven’t actually seen the play (yet). I thought about going to the matinee today, but when decision time rolled around, I was enjoying wandering too much to go sit inside a theater for two hours.   I might go tomorrow night…not sure.  Probably not – I’m not that interested in it.

Nonetheless, this evening, after a great dinner with Ann Engelhart at Genarro’s up on the way upper West Side -

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I had to have the fava bean salad, because I’ve never had fava beans and they are iconic and some people are fanatics about them…excellent.  A vegetable risotto as well. 

And after shooting by Grant’s Tomb and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, she dropped me off at my hotel, but it was just ten o’clock, so time for some more wandering.  I decided to hit a couple of stage door crowds just for the sake of observing the scene, which is always interesting to me.

(Years ago, when I brought my daughter up, she had lovely encounters with Geoffrey Rush after Exit the King and Bill Irwin after Waiting for Godot.  John Goodman, also in Godot, wasn’t as nice, and very quickly strolling off with Tim Robbins, who was around for some reason – I think he or Susan Sarandon was in another show nearby.)

First up was Inishmaan.  The 99.9% young female crowd was supervised by a very patient police officer. About twenty minutes after the show ended, the squeals rose up, and out popped Radcliffe, all smiles – and although I knew this beforehand, I’ll just say it….he’s tiny.  The Internets says he’s 5’5″, but I dunno….

 

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The crowd gathers

 

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That’s Radcliffe there in the middle…the short one…

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Blurrily doing the stadoorselfie thing

 

 

As the article I linked above relates, he takes a long time with fans – and he did.  I started across the street from the crowd, but moved over eventually, hoping for a slightly better view, which I never got, considering he’s short and I’m short and the layers of taller girls on tip-toes holding up phones between us.  But I did watch him very cheerfully take all those selfies – with unflagging energy and a big smile.   He didn’t greet everyone – maybe about a third of the crowd.

(I saw this little girl and her mom running across the street after this moment – ecstatic – it was cute.)

Next, I walked down a couple of blocks to the St. James, where Of Mice and Men had just let out.  I was actually a little more interested in seeing Chris O’Dowd than the very odd James Franco, but apparently O’Dowd comes out first, and I’d missed him.  Waited just a bit, and Franco came out also to squeals, maybe not as high-pitched as I’d heard earlier.  He worked the line a little differently – while Radcliffe’s crowd had been aligned on two sides, this one was just on one – the cop there said, “He doesn’t like anyone behind him.  He’s claustrophobic.”   He signed autographs, posed, but did the selfie thing in groups – he repeatedly told people, “Everyone turn around, turn your back to me” – and he’d stand there in his shades while about 5 people took selfies with him at the same time.  It was interesting to watch.

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More on the rest of the day (oh, and yesterday, I guess!) tomorrow morning, I hope.  Some of it’s on Instagram…

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Memphis was our final stop last week.  Once again, is was one of those places I’d been to before, briefly, but the boys had only driven through.  And all I’d seen was a quick walk through down Beale Street and Graceland (Yes, I’ve been to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee).

Stayed in a great Residence Inn downtown – Residence Inn has several properties in older hotels or apartment buildings (like this one in midtown Atlanta which I like a lot – big apartments) that are quite spacious – even more so than the usual Residence Inn.  After three days of staying in the same room with them and sharing a bed with the youngest, I was ready for space, especially since I had a Living Faith devotional due the next day and really needed a closed door behind me to focus on that.

(It worked! Got it done! Met the deadline! While traveling!)

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View from the hotel – Mississippi River down the street

Wednesday night, we walked down to Beale Street, which was something else – there was some kind of motorcycle convocation going on, which added to the cacophony, but I think it’s always fairly crazy at night – I wouldn’t have kids there after nine, definitely.  It’s like people are trying to get their entire New Orleans jam on right there on one street instead of spread out through the Quarter.

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Beale Street, the calm part.

Ate dinner at the Blues City Cafe which was decent.

(The thing about going to BBQ restaurants is that they’re quick, since most of the food is already prepared – good for traveling with kids. If they’ll actually eat the food, that is.)

Thursday morning we:

 

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Memphis on the Big Muddy

 

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Finally reached the Gulf

 

Took the monorail over to Mud River Park and walked the 1/2 mile long scale model of the Mississippi River.  Very interesting and well-done.  A good thing for them to experience and learn from. The museum, while being a little dated in its 70’s-80’s design and feel, is surprisingly good.

Retrieved our stuff and our car, then started back home.  With stops at:

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Lorraine Motel, site of Marin Luther King Junior’s assassination

The Lorraine Motel/Civil Rights Museum.  We didn’t go in.  Honestly – we have been to three important Civil Rights-related museums the past months – in Birmingham, Montgomery and Atlanta – so right now, at this time, with home looming on the horizon…just coming to the site of MLK’s assassination, and reading the material outside was enough.  Maybe another time:

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Lunch across the street at Central BBQ.  Good, probably not the best – not sure if it’s classic Memphis BBQ or not.

Quick drive down to Graceland – we didn’t get out of the car, but I was curious, as ever, to do even some quick people watching around the site.

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Imagine there’s no Elvis….

And have conversations about idols and reverencing and real saints.

Super quick drive-by of Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo – had never seen it myself.  It’s tiny.

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Elvis birthplace in Tupelo

Then back through miles and miles of gorgeous, undeveloped rolling hills of northwest Alabama.

And now…good morning?

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(Not Birmingham. Follow me on Twitter or Instagram to see more!)

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— 1 —

That trip is done – we returned home about 6 this evening, relieved to see that Rocky was still with us.

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No, he wasn’t left loose while we were gone. He’s just chillaxin in his freedom.

(When you watch videos related to “my snake won’t eat” as I have been doing lately, you see how many snake owners keep their ball pythons in nothing more than Sterilite plastic drawers with torn up National Enquirers for bedding, so you think, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t worry…”  But you still do.  Because he’s growing on you and you have NO BLOODY IDEA what you’re doing.)

(Speaking of snakes, my exercise podcast this evening was almost a parody of BBC earnestness, which is like NPR earnestness but far more charming and far less pompous.  It involved a woman accompanying a herpetologist who was going to show her adders that live in Scotland.  So they tramp about the moors or what have you looking for the adders – which he knows are here because this is where they live – but without seeing them.  It’s fifteen minutes of two Brits, in hushed tones, breathlessly talking about how lovely the adders will be when they finally come out.  It was, indeed….breathtaking. But perhaps not in the way they intended…)

(Yes, they finally saw an adder, but the buildup was something else.)

— 2 —

We last left the merry party in St. Louis.  The next day found them till in St. Louis, at the City Museum:

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For those of you who don’t know about it, the City Museum is an extravagant, lush, stimulating play space that encourages exploration and daring.  The place is full of tunnels and mazes, and chances to (safely) climb to great heights.

If you are within five hours of this place…it’s totally worth it.  Your kids will thank you, love you and be super grateful.  For five minutes before they resent you again.

I knew we would spend a good deal of time there on Tuesday….I didn’t anticipate it being all day – from just past opening to almost closing time.

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Yes, you can climb in the planes.

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Very Gaudi-esque, I thought.

 

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Even the aquarium is quirky.

— 3 —

After we left the City Museum, we stopped at the St. Louis Science Center, just blocks from our hotel, and advertised as free.  We’ll go for free, especially if we just have an hour to kill before that closes.

Well…yes…free admission…but with a $15 parking fee.

Oh, well.  We’re on vacation.   We took it in anyway, and at that point, an hour was just about right. As far as those damn places go, it seemed okay.   They played around with some structures, but what amazed me was the fact that they spent probably 20 minutes on math puzzles.  I mean, they’re both sort of mathy – but I didn’t think they were that mathy.

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Finally.

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— 4 —

The next day, we hit the zoo, also “free.” Yes…”free” because of yet another $15 parking fee. (You could park on the road in Forest Park of course…but then you’d have to walk a mile by the time we got there…..). The St. Louis Zoo also has several attractions that cost money – a stingray petting tank, the children’s zoo…so “free” goes out the window pretty quickly.   (We didn’t do any of that stuff, anyway.)

It was a good zoo, albeit with a confusing layout.  The highlights for us were hippos, one o which slipped in the water and spent several minutes masticating a fish, without much success, as well as the reptiles.  Of course.

(I learned that Marlin Perkins – he of MUTUAL OF OMAHA’S WILD KINGDOM! fame had been director of herpetology at the zoo back in the ’20’s.  They had a huge python that refused to eat, so they had to force feed it, and they did so publicly, drawing thousands to the spectacles.  

That story gave me an odd sort of hope for our Rocky, who has yet to eat for us….)

The Herp building was old, classic and gorgeous.

9-year old Michael, the animal lover in our group, did remark on the way to the zoo, though, “You know…now don’t think I don’t want to go because I’m saying this, but sometimes..well, sometimes I feel sorry for the animals in the zoo.  They say it’s good for them because it saves endangered species, but I don’t know…I still feel bad for them.”

And who can disagree?

— 5 —

In my preplanning, I’d thought we would hit the art museum after the zoo.  But then I looked at the museum’s holdings and thought…I don’t know if it would be worth it at that particularly juncture in time with this party.  So then I thought we’d do the history museum, partly so we could visit the exhibit on the 1904 fair and by doing so, do some sort of homage to our own Vulcan.   

But the zoo took longer than I’d expected, we were all a little weary and were going to be moving on to Memphis afterwards, so I made an executive decision that we needed a different sort of space before we hit the road again, and so we went to the Basilica instead:

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— 6 —

Now, some of us have done one or all of these St. Louis sites before.  We went to St. Louis about 9 years ago – both boys were born, I know – and we went to the City Museum then, but Joseph, who would have been 4, didn’t remember any of it.

The time before that, as I mentioned in my last post, occurred when Joseph was a tiny baby and I was speaking at the St. Louis Eucharistic Congress.  The three of us were touring the Basilica, and as we reached the area behind the altar, we encountered a Cardinal.  I don’t remember who it was, but he was European, and must have been there for the Congress.  I think it must have been Schotte.   And so there we were, Mike and me with our two-month old, and the Cardinal stopped, said hello, and blessed the baby.

Yesterday, I walked behind that altar again, Joseph, now 13 at my side, and another Michael. I paused and told Joseph the story, and felt a slight twinge, but not a terrible one. Mostly I felt gratitude and hope, because if I didn’t, what was the point of being there?

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— 7 —

Our meals improved during those last two days, thank goodness:

Lunch on Tuesday at Rosalita’s Cantina down the street from the City Museum was good, higher end Tex-Mex.  There was a statue as well as an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the wall at the front door, with a big plastic box affixed, inviting donations to St. Cecilia parish.   Invitation accepted!

Dinner that night was on The Hill – Anthonina’s Tavern, mostly because I told the boys they had to have toasted ravioli if they were in St. Louis.  They were doubtful (because they always are), but actually loved  and devoured it.

Wednesday lunch was the Courtesy Diner after the zoo – it’s right across the interstate – a diner experience is always fun with kids.

Wednesday night in Memphis, we walked down to Beale Street, just because that’s What You Do – there was some sort of motorcycle convocation which was interesting but deafening.  We made it quick at the Blues City Cafe which was nothing special, but nothing awful either.

Thursday lunch, also in Memphis, was at Central Barbecue, right across from the Lorraine Motel, which was kind of odd, but I guess okay…


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(And don’t even scold me about not finding the perfect Memphis BBQ…I do what I can where I am with the people I’m with….)

More on Memphis in the next post…

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

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At the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

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Late last week, I decide that we’d take a little road trip.  Camps were done and over, Scout trip, Florida & South Carolina family trips are around the corner and here were these few days….

Let’s go!

We have read a lot of Twain this year.  Joseph read “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and The Prince and the Pauper on his own and we’ve read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as read-alouds.   I’d never been to the Twain boyhood home in Hannibal, it’s not horribly far…

Let’s go!

We have been to St. Louis (Hannibal is about a hundred miles north of St. Louis) before – a couple of times, but they were both pretty small, and neither remember a bit of it.

(I was telling Joseph today about his first trip to St. Louis.  It was 2001, He was about two months old, and I was speaking at the St. Louis Archdiocesan Eucharistic Congress.  As per usual, we decided to take in a sporting event.  In this case, we walked into a Cardinal’s game the very moment Mark Maguire hit (I believe) a Grand Slam (or at the very least a regular home run…but I do think it was a Grand Slam).  The place erupted, there were fireworks, and poor little tiny Joseph lost it…and still is not a baseball fan to this day….)

We left Sunday after Mass and were in St. Charles by 6.  Joseph slept all the way through Tennessee and most of Kentucky. I had “St. Charles” and “picturesque” associated in my subconscience for some reason, but what I didn’t realize was that it was the actual starting point of the Lewis Clark expedition, marked by  many plaques and a super-sized statue, with dog.

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"Amy Welborn"

 

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Missouri River

 

 

 

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A bonanza of toads in the tracks.

 

 

A nice evening at the Missouri river-front park, although I can’t say much for the absolutely mediocre and fingers-drumming-on-table- slowly-appearing meal at the Trailhead Brewery.  Strike one for meals!

Up early to head up to Hannibal.

A librarian friend of mine asked if it was “touristy.”  Well, every other business is “Mark Twain” this or that, but is that surprising? Other than that, it doesn’t have a touristy vibe at all.  The little riverfront main street, while as typical as you’d expect isn’t a developed as the St. Charles equivalent, with far fewer restaurants and shops.

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On “Lover’s Leap” – name comes, of course, from Romeo and Juliet-ish myth with a Native American setting. Hannibal and the Mississippi down below.

We hit the cave first, though.  I didn’t know how admission to the cave worked, how the tours were timed or how busy it would be, so I wanted to get it out of the way so I wouldn’t be wondering about those issues all morning.  We arrived just as a tour was getting started – we missed the movie, but go the rest of the tour.  It was your typical cave tour, with scripted corny attempts at humor and the ritual pointing out of formations that seem to resemble animals.

While pricey, it was worth it if you’re interested in getting a better sense of Tom Sawyer – for this was the cave Twain based the story on, with several landmarks, including the cross that marked the treasure spot, clearly seen.

cave

For his illustrations, Norman Rockwell came to Hannibal for research.  He was struck by the cave, for all other illustrations up to that point, had depicted a cave dripping with stalactites and so on – it’s not the case. It’s a mostly dry cave marked by stack-like formations of rocks and narrow passageways. 

Now back up to town.

The museum “complex” is well-done.  You can read about it at the link, but in essence what your ticket buys is admission to several small houses   – the Clemens home, Becky Thatcher’s house, Judge Clemens’ office, Huckleberry Finn’s house – and two museums – one close to the Clemens home, the other, larger one, down on Main Street a couple of blocks away.

(Of course when we say “Becky Thatcher” we mean Laura Hawkins, the real person who inspired Twain.  Some with Huckleberry Finn/Tom Blakenship)

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The Clemens home is on the far right, mostly hidden. On the left are the Becky Thatcher home and the law office.

The museums were very good, with lots of photographs and quotes from Twain’s work offering a full sense of his childhood in Hannibal and his family’s background.  It was very interesting to see the connections between Twain’s life and his fiction.

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Kitchen in the Clemens home.

The larger museum was more clearly set up for school groups, with five large interactive areas, each based on one of Twain’s books. The second floor of this museum holds the originals of Norman Rockwell’s paintings for special editions of TS and HF, and a small, but decent collection of personal memorabilia – including a sad little death mask of Twain’s only son, who died when he was 19 months old.  He had three daughters, only one of whom outlived him.  She married and had a daughter, but that daughter had no children, so there are no living descendants of Mark Twain.

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The first attempt at lunch was at a place along Main Street where we waited for ten minutes to be seated in a restaurant where there were four empty tables, and then were brusquely told upon placing an order for a hamburger, “Oh, we’re out of hamburgers.”  Thnx Bye.

So we left and walked down the street to the place that the nice lady in the Becky Thatcher house had recommended in the first place – a cafe in the back of a Christian bookstore, called, not surprisingly, Christian Ambiance.

In spades.

Christian ambiance, indeed.

Very good food – homemade bread, included – served with interest and warmth.

This day revived my interest in Twain.   I’ve enjoyed reading through TS and HF with the boys, but had to remember today, as they played around in the interactive Connecticut Yankee section of the museum, intrigued by the premise and expressing interest in reading it, of that book’s strong anti-Catholicism.  It was, in fact, Twain’s disparaging remarks about Catholicism in Innocents Abroad that turned me away from him for decades when I read them as an older teenager. But I do think I’ll take a shot at Roughing It and Following the Equator.

Then back down the state highway, past this giant statue of Twain with tiny hands.  We arrived in St. Louis (proper) about 5, settled into the hotel, and then headed east to…

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…of course.

They’d been up it before, and Joseph had probably been 4 at the time, but he still had no recollection.  We arrived about 7, and didn’t have to wait at all – it seems to be a good time to go.

Such a fascinating structure.

More meal disappointment – returning to the hotel vicinity around 9:30, I pulled into a highly-rated diner that I could have sworn I’d checked out as advertised as open 24 hours.  They guy poked his head out the door and drew a line across his throat.  I assume that meant he was closed, although perhaps he was communicating me that he was in great danger and I missed the rather obvious signal?

(Checked the website when we got back..yup…supposed to be open 24 hours…)

All in all, a very satisfying 24 hours.  Low-stress learning and exploring, with the centerpiece being seeing with our own eyes what we’d only read about.  Seeing where Lewis and Clark began their journey and walking along the same river from which the pushed off – to me, that kind of experience is so helpful.  I loved taking the boys to Hannibal.  It was great for them – us – to immerse ourselves in this great – not perfect, but still great – writer’s childhood and, through the excellent exhibits, his creative process.  We could situate the Tom, Huck, Jim and everyone else in this small town on the river, we could look out and imagine that raft out there, be chilled in the darkness of the cave.  It shows the boys some truths about the creative process, which is certainly a mystery, but not magic, either.  Mark Twain’s stories came from a place, a time, and experiences. In addition, and of great interest to us,  Twain, like so many of the great American creative and accomplished minds, had relatively little formal education – that is – he didn’t go to school for very long.  So wandering around Hannibal on this very hot day, we can experience that truth one more time:  Living in a creative way in this fascinating, crazy world is about keeping your eyes and ears open and working hard – maybe even out of desperation sometimes  – to give that world something new.  School might be a part of that, or it might not, but learning, growing in wisdom, and bearing good fruit from it is what we do all the time, everywhere, because we can.

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…another whirlwind weekend, this time with a bit more sightseeing, celebrating and beach..and less driving.

It was Charleston this time. Quickly:

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Shem Creek Park, which was a fun late morning jaunt, mostly spent tracking down  crabs. Kayaking was promised for next time.

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"Amy Welborn"

Charles Towne Landing - a state park at the site of the first European settlement.  There are no original buildings, because the settlement was over 300 years ago, the buildings were wood, and the settlement only lasted for ten years before they moved across the river to a more exposed, but more potentially profitable site.  But it’s interesting enough to walk around, to see what historians think might have been around, to see the animals (there’s a tiny zoo – the only zoo in Charleston –  composed of animals that were probably around the area in 1670, including bison….) and check out a ketch and a cannon blast.  There wasn’t much structure-wise, of course, but it was nice to walk around, and the small museum was very well done.

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Beach, naturally. And pool time.

 

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Isle of Palms beach

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Perks of staying with family

 

(All of this wedged in with family time).

Some meals -the best was at Page’s Okra Grill. Cornhole included, no charge.

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I had wanted to walk the Ravenal Bridge, but couldn’t squeeze it in…next time.

On the way back, we stopped at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, which was decent (half price admission because of the Birmingham Zoo membership.)  The favorites? Probably feeding the giraffes and (of course) the reptiles.  Someone said wistfully, “I wish there was a reptile-only zoo somewhere.

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One more thing:  my first Anglican Use liturgy - which deserves its own post…tonight, perhaps…after I catch up with Mad Men…my son assures me it suddenly got better last night…we’ll see…

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