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Archive for the ‘Knoxville’ Category

— 1 —

This week’s takes are mostly about listening and watching. Things will get interesting over the next few days, but probably mostly on Instagram – so head over there to keep up.

— 2 —

In Our Time has sadly gone into its summer break, but it ended on a very high note with an excellent program on bird migration. What I particularly enjoyed about it was Melvyn Bragg’s infectious awestruck attitude about the whole business, which mirrors mine – How do they know?  – and the fact that he just couldn’t get over it, which is the proper attitude in the face of mystery. Secondly, the scientists on the program were all refreshingly honest about the answers to Melvyn’s questions, which most of the time involved a lot of we’re not sure and maybe and…we just don’t know. 

So much of the media’s reporting on science is couched in almost religious and certainly ideological certainty – a certainty which many, if not most scientists themselves would reject. I always enjoy the scholars on In Our Time, who are willing to admit what they don’t know and engage in respectful disagreement about what they think they might have a handle on.

— 3 —

Also this week, I listened to In Our Time broadcasts on the poet John Clare, of whom I am ashamed to say I had never heard, and Hannah Arendt. 

The program on Clare was interesting because, well, it was all new to me, but also because of the material presented about Clare’s relationship with publishing. He was a farmer, and while we might think, “poor lower class poet rejected by the smart set,” in fact the truth was the opposite – ever since Burns, the search had been on for the next Big Country Poet, and it was thought for while that Clare might be the one. And then he ended up in insane asylums for two decades, sadly, probably because of manic depression.

The program on Hannah Arendt set her work in helpful context, with a great deal of discussion about how she was misunderstood by critics. In brief, the “banality of evil” is not an invitation to diminish evil, but an explanation of how evil can become just another job to do.

— 4 —

And then I discovered a new BBC podcast program!

It’s called Science Stories and while the format is different than In Our Time, the general attitude and approach are the same, emphasizing the importance of  context as we seek to understand past scientific endeavors, which is something I appreciate so much, and is so refreshing, surrounded as we are in our media sea of context-free accusations, assertions, presumptions and fabrications.

And guess what? Religion is quite often part of the context – and might even be a paradigmatic framework for the context – and that is okay. 

On a science program!

So, for example, a program on Robert Grosseteste, 13th century Bishop of Lincoln and teacher, famously, of Roger Bacon. Grosseteste was, as many learned men of the time were, a polymath, but this particular episode of Science Stories focused on what the presenter termed his proto-“Big Bang” theory rooted in his observations of light and informed by his Genesis-shaped faith. It’s only 28 minutes and well worth your time. A taste:

Scientist: The story I was told when I was growing up was before 1600, all was darkness and…theology and dogmatism…and then suddenly Newton, Galileo, Kepler, who-hoa – all is light and Enlightenment and we get back on track with science. And you know, that’s never rung true because science doesn’t work like that – we all make little steps and we all, as Newton said, stand on the shoulders of giants. I think in Grosseteste, we’ve come across one of the giants on which the early modern scientists stood…..

….Presenter: And the motivation, certainly, for people like Grosseteste was ultimately a religious one, a theological one.

Scientist: Yes, it’s very clear that he would have been mystified by the question, “Can you reconcile your science with your religion?”  – he would have looked at you very askance and said, “What do you mean? That’s why I’m doing this science!”

.

— 5 —

The episode on “The Anglo Saxon Remedy that kills MRSA”  was also fascinating, involving researchers who are exploring these 1100-year old books of remedies with the aim of not only figuring out the origins of these remedies but also their effectiveness.

As in the previous program, spirituality is given due credit and respect as are techniques and approaches we might want to initially wave off as nothing more than superstition – for example, chanting a rhyme or prayer in association with the application of the remedy. As the researchers pointed out, it was not mere superstition at work here – in a world without clocks, this would be a way of keeping time as you applied the compress or shook the mixture.

— 6 —

My older son has been working a lot at night, so we haven’t been doing a lot of movies – two we have watched over the past week have been The Seven Samurai and Twelve Angry Men.  We spread out The Seven Samurai over two nights, although I think we could have done it all in one, in retrospect. It’s quite absorbing and didn’t feel at all like an almost 4-hour movie (as opposed to the Heston Ben-Hur which felt every minute of it to me during last year’s rewatch after 40 years, probably –  #confessyourunpopularopinion)

They really liked The Seven Samurai, and so I see more Kurosawa in our future, whenever we can manage another evening, which won’t be for a while, it looks like, what with travel and work. Probably The Hidden Forest, which inspired Star Wars, would make the most sense, although I’m more interested in Stray Dog. We won’t do Rashomon. 

Twelve Angry Men is, of course, much shorter – having begun as a television drama – and quite an efficient and compelling way to introduce a good discussion of appearance, reality, truth and integrity. There’s one simplistic psychological-torment-motivation subplot that was annoying and overwrought, but then that is par for the late-50’s course.

Oh, and one night after work, the 16-year old pulled Doctor Strangelove off the shelf and "amy welborn"took it in his room to watch it. Speaking of context, what I offered him afterwards was that early 60’s context of nuclear terror which led the young parents of a two-year old, living in Texas in the fall of 1962, to formulate a plan about what they’d do if the bombs dropped – a plan that involved an overdose of sleeping pills, as they calmly reminisced a few decades later. The grown daughter was startled, to say the least, but the fact that her quite traditional parents had felt driven to concoct such a plan showed how frightened people really were at the time. They weren’t building bomb shelters just for the fun of it.

Speaking of mid-century psychological-torment-subplots..

Kidding!

— 7 —

Okay! Let’s have a saint!

Today is the feast of Kateri Tekakwitha. She’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints – a couple of pages of which are available online. 

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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When I do manage to write something these days, I seem to keep returning my hobbyhorse of narratives.

Here’s another example.

First, the narrative(s):  we are regularly and forcefully told that if you are of a certain gender, ethnicity, race, class or from a certain region, you believe  X and are concerned with Y above all things. And so the stories about Life Today that are told, especially by the lazy, are created, not by listening and retelling what has been heard from real people, but by carrying one’s narrative out into the field (or onto the Internet – usually as far as it goes these days) and filling in the blanks with what fits, ignoring what doesn’t.

Here’s why your narratives suck.

Just a couple of hours ago, I was in the Dollar General store down the road, here in my area of town called Woodlawn.

I got to the checkout and there was a lively yet  friendly conversation happening between two middle-aged African American men who were both working there and a middle-aged, and definitely world-weary, wiry, mustachioed white customer.

I have no idea what the starting positions were, but as I approached, the white guy was going OFF on what he called the “Muslim Ban” saying (I paraphrase):

“They all want to kill us all anyway. And if they want to kill us, you can’t keep ‘em out. And the ones that are already here – and there’s a lot of em – are just going to get pissed off.”

The other men nodded, either out of politeness or because they agreed, who knows.

So he went out the door, resigned to his fate of being blown to smithereens, and the guy behind the counter said,

“The two best presidents of my lifetime were” – he scanned my Diet Coke – “Reagan and Clinton.”

The other man, who’d been stocking, added, “They were good, but I always liked Carter – they said he was weak, but I did pretty well under Carter.”

“Clinton’s where I made my money. I did good with Clinton.”

And they spent a couple of seconds talking, first about Billy Beer, and then about Amy Carter, who they said they felt sorry for, and who one of them said was like the Lucille Ball of the White House – which I couldn’t figure out for the life of me.

Not a word about Obama.

And then one of them wrapped it up.

“Here’s the thing about Trump,” he said. “He’s a rich guy. Rich guys say what they want and do what they want and no one says anything to them. He’s used to that.”

While I was pondering this, probably the wisest comment I’ve heard in three weeks, he continued,

“He’s got to get used to something new now and just settle down. He’ll be all right. It’ll be all right.”

Call it Woodlawn Elegy. There you go. If we don’t get into any more wars and the economy improves so these guys can feel that their lives and incomes are getting better? Narrative, busted. Again.

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.

Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.

It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.

 

— 2 —

 

I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.

For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.

— 3 —

Here’s my piano history.

When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.

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I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.

The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.

There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.

 — 4 —

 

When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.

At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.

Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.

— 5 

And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?

Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.

Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.

And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.

Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.

 

6–

I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.

Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.

Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.

So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me.  But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.

I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?

— 7 —

My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?

But yet.

I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.

We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.

And then I sit down to play.

"amy welborn"

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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We spent the weekend at the pool (and serving at Mass), and by last night the natives were just a little restless, so today became a road trip day.

As much of my life I have lived in or near Tennessee, one place I had never been was the Shiloh Battlefield Park. I have an excuse – well, two. Battlefields are not really my thing, and secondly, if you look at a map, you see that Shiloh is a bit out of the way – at least from the places I’ve lived and the regular driving routes that took me through and around the state – between Nashville and Knoxville, from Indiana to Knoxville, from Florida to Knoxville and back.

So today became the day to check it off the list.

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We left a little after 8 and a bit before 11 rolled into Corinth, MS. Corinth was the actual reason and excuse for the Battle of Shiloh, being the major rail junction for the Confederacy’s hold in what they then called the West.  The Confederates needed to hold on to it, and the Union wanted to break it down, a goal that seemed quite possible after two important victories in northern middle Tennessee in March, 1862.

Corinth had only existed since 1854, and now, just a few years later, it would be inundated with troops from both sides, troops alive, wounded and dead.

So that’s where we began.

The NPS runs an excellent Civil War Interpretive Center in Corinth. The museum part is superior to what we saw at Shiloh, the 18-minute film on the role of Corinth in the war is excellent, fair and moving, and there are design features of the facility that deepen the experience.

 

The path from the parking lot to the Center features sculpted remnants of battle strewn about on the ground and embedded in the sidewalk. 

The fountain feature behind the center is quite striking. You can read more about it here. It’s a good visual representation of the course of American history from the formulation of the ideals in the Declaration and the Constitution through the Civil War. 

One of the most interesting things I learned concerned the Corinth Contraband Camp. After the victory at Shiloh, the Union eventually moved south and took Corinth. During the months of occupation, area slaves began to move into what was now Union territory, hoping for eventual permanent freedom.  Many of the men joined the Union army, and those that didn’t, along with the families of those who did, lived and worked in Corinth. They formed a community, were paid for their labors for the first time, had a church and schools. Abolitionists and Protestant missionaries arrived from the North to minister to them. When the Union pulled out in 1863, most of the inhabitants of the camp followed them to Memphis.

We spent about an hour at the Center, then ate lunch at Borroum’s Drug Store – the oldest in Mississippi. My younger son declared the hamburger to be the second best he’d ever eaten. (First? Nope, not mine. Five Guys.) It was a fun experience, but if you go…they don’t take credit cards, only cash or checks. Luckily I had my checkbook!

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The park on the site of the Contraband Camp was a bit east of downtown, so we made a quick stop there – it is just open land with various statues scattered about – and then set off for Shiloh. It’s a bit more than twenty miles north, but the drive takes about 35 minutes.

Historical markers begin to appear far before the park boundaries because, of course, the battles raged and troops moved all along the land between Corinth and what we now call Shiloh. (Named for a Methodist meeting house in the area of the battle)

We arrived and decided to go ahead and watch the film, even though at first I said we’d only watch part of it – it was 45 minutes.  But, well..it was so well done and so riveting, no one moved, and after one of my sons declared that it had not seemed to last that long at all. Perhaps some of you have seen similar films at other NPS-run battleground sites and they are all equally good. I don’t know. But I was impressed, not only with the professional quality, but with the smooth integration of explanation of tactics and movement along with personal narratives. I always, of course, have my eye out for the treatment of religion and while of course it was not central, it did enter the picture as soldiers were depicted praying, reading the Bible and singing a hymn.

Now, if you are not deeply into the history of a particular battle, the question arises…what now? The battlefield is huge, markers delineating troop position and movement are everywhere and obviously if you are into that, it’s a day-long excursion or more and you’re ecstatic. But if you can’t get interested in what the Indiana 30th did at 10 AM on April 6th…what next?

Well, we hit the high points. We drove to Pittsburgh Landing, then circled around to some of the high points on the driving tour, and happened upon another Ranger talk near the site of where Johnston – the CSA commanding officer – was killed during the battle. The Ranger was animated, clear in his descriptions and picked just the right anecdotes to keep everyone interested in the aspect of the battle he was describing – not as memorable as our favorite, Ranger Jake from the Grand Canyon, but a not-distant second.

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So we listened to that, got back into the car, drove around to some more of the major landmarks..and well, that was it for us. Even though we’re not interested in a lot of detail, the experience of being on the battlefield, the landscape of which remains much the same as it was 150 years ago, internalizing the struggle, sacrifice and carnage and comparing it with the peaceful scene of the present, is important. The ranger emphasized the history of the battlefield park: that it had been veterans from both sides of the conflict who had spearheaded the effort at the end of the 19th century, veterans who wanted to send a message to future generations: let this not happen again.

As I’ve said before, I am a major fan of federal and state parks and historical sites, and so grateful to the enthusiasts whose energy, knowledge and commitment is so evident in the quality of every one that I’ve ever visited. If you’re in the area, do visit Shiloh, but I would definitely incorporate Corinth into the visit as well.

***

As I’d quickly “planned” the day, I’d noted a Tennessee state park near Corinth – Pickwick Dam. It advertised “swimming.” Oh, what a fabulous way to wrap up the day, I thought – some time in the water! Nice try. We drove down that way (it’s on the way back to Alabama) and found that both swimming areas were very, very circumscribed. A small beach with a roped-in area on the water that was nice and safe for all the five-year olds, but uninteresting to anyone older. So we passed, but did drive across to the other side to take a look at the dam and its workings.

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***

By that time it was almost five, but with a few hours of daylight left, I thought we might try to hit another state park, this one in Mississippi. It would take us a bit out of the way, but we were in no hurry to return. I thought this park would be a good choice for an hour or so stop because it had an interesting CCC construction and a trail with rock outcroppings – always popular with Someone in our group.

We took a ten minute detour on the way south through fabulous Iuka, home of mineral waters that won first place! In the 1904 World’s Fair! 

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Well, that wasn’t very exciting. But we’re spoiled. It’s hard to top our 1904 World’s Fair contribution. Sorry, Iuka! 

But yes, we did …drink to our health.

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*****

We got to Tishomingo State Park a little before six, drove to the CCC-constructed swinging bridge, crossed it and walked much of the Outcropping Trail.

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I’ll shove this into the Roadschooling category, so let’s recount some of what was discussed: General Civil War history. Corinth and Shiloh in particular, before (I’d studied up on it last night), during and after the visits. What “contraband” means. What a slugburger is. The role of Catholic clergy and especially sisters in ministering to the wounded of Shiloh and Corinth – details here (again, I’d read up on it last night). Remembering Hoover Dam. Talking about National Parks, especially Zion, Grand Canyon and Bryce. Someone really wants to go to Arches. How people with perhaps 8th grade educations – the non-officer “ordinary” soldiers and citizens whose words were used in the films we saw –  wrote so beautifully, and what that means in regard to our definition of “education.” Lew Wallace, the author of the novel Ben-Hur, the movie of which we watched a couple of months ago, was a Union general at Shiloh. John Wesley Powell, about whom we talked a lot last year for his role in exploring the Grand Canyon, lost an arm in the Battle of Shiloh. Connections, always connections. The Sixth Sense (we watched it last night). How some people hate all football teams from Mississippi and Alabama. Why World Fairs were a thing. The TVA. Elvis.

****

Back home by 9:15. Not bad for 11 hours.

***

A couple more pool days..then Charleston bound.

Remember….Instagram & Snapchat (amywelborn2)  for more current travel images.

 

 

 

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Friday was supposed to be for Atlanta. I have something belonging to my oldest son that he needs, and he has all of my Rome travel books, so we were going to make a trade.

Work, however, had exhausted him (he works in a field in which the ebb and flow of the NBA playoffs are currently the scheduler and has something like five days off since mid-March) and he asked if we could try for next weekend. Sure.

But now we were in that Friday mode. Even the arrival of Beast Academy 5B wasn’t enough to break it, so we headed to Huntsville, to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. 

It’s not a new destination. We’ve visited many times. In fact, three years ago, we went almost every week. J was doing a Lego Robotics team up there, and during his time, M and I would find other things to do – and since the space center admission is free with our local science center membership, we often found ourselves wandering over there.

(If you have a membership in any ASTC institution, you can get in free. I’ve found that it’s quite a good deal – when we went to Chicago a couple of years ago, we didn’t pay to get into either the Field or the Museum of Science and Industry, thanks to that membership, saving a bundle. Be sure to check, though, because institutional affiliations do change – the last time we attempted to go to Fernbank in Atlanta, I discovered that they were no longer members of ASCA, and therefore..we’d have to pay to get in. We had been before, it’s a small museum, so itwouldn’t have been worth it. I think I tried to find the big antique mall in Decatur that day then, instead.)

But it had been a couple of years, so why not? It takes about an hour and half to get to Huntsville from here, so we could go up, visit the museum, and be back by high school dismissal time.

Soundtrack for the ride: The Essential Weird Al.

(Tour coming to Birmingham in June!)

Listening to Weird Al Yankovic always takes me back, not so much because of him, but because of his association with Dr. Demento, who “discovered” him – or whom Weird Al insisted discover him.

I used to listen to Dr. Demento on Saturday nights as a pre-teen and teen up in Knoxville. It was all so primitive. I’d have a radio and a tape recorder at the ready, prepared to record my favorites – usually Tom Lehrer or Spike Jones. For some reason I also associate him (Dr. Demento, not Weird Al) with Lent, to those Saturday nights I would stay up past midnight and he was my soundtrack to breaking open those brownies or chips I’d given up, doctor of the law that I was.

The center is a good visit. It’s not burdened with a lot of the extra charges you find with so many museums these days, although SPACE CAMP is thrown in your face at every turn.

(Me thinking…hmmm..maybe Space Camp is a possibility for Someone….Me looking at brochure and seeing cost: Oh.)

(A little under a thousand for most weeks)

We wandered. He rode the G-Force ride – his favorite thing – a couple of times, and did the climbing wall a couple of times as well. At the climbing wall, I pulled the former-teacher-card, as two kids (part of the many school groups there that day) broke line to stand with their friends near the front. No one was saying anything to them, so I did. “The back of the line is there” – I pointed. They shrugged and moved. It’s not that hard.

The special exhibits there are, I’ve found, never that great. They try to be all interactive and glossy, but end up being busy and not very informative. But the Saturn V hall is still so spectacular and interesting. We simply walked around, reviewing the general course of the American space quest, and talked about why all this is in Huntsville. An elderly docent intercepted us a couple of times and gave us some fun facts: About how the moon rocks confirmed the theory that the moon broke off from the earth (the basalt in the moon rocks is only found on the earth as well, not in other cosmic bodies), and about how during the Apollo 7 mission, all three of the astronauts came down with a stomach virus immediately after launch and the capsule was such a hideous mess at the end, when they opened it on the aircraft carrier, crew members passed out. Now you know!

If you go, I’d recommend the “Science in Space” presentation about the International Space Station. It’s a good introduction to the history of the ISS, the current missions and the role of the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville in those missions – followed by a quick walkthrough of a model of part of the station, which I presume is mostly there because of SPACE CAMP.

You probably know this, but I learned about this website, in which you can find out exactly when the ISS will be passing over a particular spot.

It also put me in the mood to watch The Right Stuff.  Hopefully we can get it in tonight, quickly skipping over the “SPERM” scene. Love that movie.

A quick stop at a pet store – Animal Trax – on the way home that we had discovered on those previous regular Huntsville visits. It’s a favorite because they have a lot of reptiles on display. Unfortunately, they only had about half as many as before. They have a downtown Huntsville store now, and perhaps they have moved most of the critters down there.

Well, we did feed a tortoise. So there’s that.

 

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I wish I had taken a photo of the description card on this. It’s a painting of the interior of, I think some sort of Juno rocket. I’m sure someone can correct me. But what was striking is that it was an instructional tool – and it’s this lovely, delicately rendered painting, not a soulless diagram. 

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My daughter’s recent travels (she lives and works in Bavaria and last week took a short break in Verona with side trips to Venice and Mantua) and my two trips to NYC this past summer have brought to mind my first real conscious trip to the city,

She says this was horse.

many, many years ago.

And as I was mentally retracing my steps on that trip just now, I was just so amazed that I survived I thought I’d tell you about it.

It was 1978 – the summer before my Freshman year at UT.  I’d taken a couple of classes in my major (history)  during the summer, my dad taught at UT and I lived in Knoxville, so I wasn’t a hardcore, never-been-there Freshman, though. I knew my way around and wasn’t hugely stressed about the fall.

My mother was a New Englander – born in New Hampshire and raised in southern Maine, and because of that we spent about a month every summer up in Maine, at the home of the uncle and aunt who had raised her after her father died in a car accident and her mother went off to live in a rest home.

That summer, I had gone with them up to Maine, but because I needed to move into the dorm earlier than they’d be returning (my dad had a visiting year at the other UT in Austin that year, so I guess they weren’t having to head out til later for that reason too), I decided I would do just that.  I’d come back.  On the bus. Yes,  I’d ride the bus from Maine to Tennessee. And, since that route would naturally take me through New York City, I also decided that I wanted to see the place, so I arranged my itinerary so that I’d arrive (I guess) in the afternoon and then leave again late the following afternoon, taking a night bus down to Tennessee.

(First digression:  How did we make these kinds of arrangements before the Internet?  I’m at a loss. I guess I found a Greyhound or Trailways  schedule and figured it out? Right?  I have no idea.)

So far, my parents were totally on board, and didn’t seem to give the plan a second thought.  In fact, they never did, to my knowledge. The questions then became  – where would I stay or  that night?  My mother, being older – she was born in 1924 – and not having spent a great deal of time in New York City and still evidently having her vision of the place shaped by My Friend Irma and other tales of Smart Girls Alone in the City in 1952 said, “Well, of course you’ll stay at the Barbizon,” not understanding that the Barbizon was a residential, rather than tourist hotel and that, well, it wasn’t 1952.  I am not sure how we figured it out – that it was a residential hotel, but we did. Scratch the Barbizon.

Next idea? Well, of course, the fallback would be the budget-friendly travelers’ rest that everyone knows –

the YMCA!

Now, the Manhattan YMCAs – as well as others around the world – are indeed known for providing such hostel – like accomodations. I guess we knew they admitted women.  I guess.

(Okay – I did have a guide to New York City Hotels I had picked up in a travel agency – remember those? For some reason I can even remember the layout of the silly thing, all these years later.  I must have studied it so extensively – a premonition of hours  days spent in travel research to come. The YMCA must have been on the list.)

So, that was the plan, such as it was. The departure day came, I got on the bus (not sure where – Sanford? Portland? Portsmouth?), waved good-bye and off I headed back to the South, with a slight detour.

I disembarked at the Port Authority hours later – after witnessing a street brawl between two women through the window –  and yes, this is Times Square in 1979, and yes I saw it all, right there. Grime, porn shops, prostitutes (very aggressive prostitutes almost accosting men, angrily), the works.  A little bit of a culture shock, but I forged on, because I was going to the YMCA.

Without a reservation. 

Not one of us had imagined that such a thing would be necessary.  How crowded could a YMCA hostel in Manhattan be? I mean, isn’t that what the YMCA hostel experience is all about? Showing up and finding that Young Christian hospitality, just… there?

Hahahahahaha. 

So, yes, I was turned away at the front desk. They didn’t laugh,but I do think they were incredulous.

And there I was, an 18-year old girl from the Midwest and the South without theatrical or artistic aspirations… in Manhattan….without a place to stay!

I don’t remember my state of mind at the time.  I’m assuming I was upset and worried, but I also don’t remember it being overwhelming or throwing me into a panic.  I whipped out my hotel guide, found the cheapest ones that were nearest (I’m sure I was operating on a cash basis), and started to search.

I have absolutely no idea the name of the place I found or where it was – since this YMCA was on the East Side – near the UN, as I recall, because I remember seeing it  – perhaps the hotel was over there as well.   But I did find one – with a room the size of a closet with a shared bathroom down the hall.

(Do you see why I’m such a patient, tolerant traveler? THIS was my first big trip alone!)

What did I do that night?  What I remember doing is going to a deli down the street, getting a sandwich, being amazed at the size of it,  and eating it in my room while reading a book.

Some things never change.

Next day:

(Prelude:  I’ve never worn a watch. For some reason, I feel naked without a hair tie around my wrist, but a watch has always bugged me.)

I was awakened by the sun, and indeed, felt wide awake. Get up! Get out! Experience the city! Pack up your backpack, go down to check out!

See by the clock behind the desk that it’s 6:30 AM!

Gee, if only I’d been more sophisticated, I could have wandered to the right places and met Andy Warhol or someone emerging from their night partying….

Well, of course I was not going to say, never mind and slink back up to the room.  So I did what any good Catholic girl would do when faced with this situation at this hour: I went to Mass.

Again, I don’t know where I was, but it was not at a great distance from St. Patrick’s because that’s where I ended up for Mass.  After which it was still about 7:30, I guess, with no place open except breakfast joints. So I started walking.. And for the rest of the day, up until my bus left from the Port Authority late in the afternoon…I walked.

I took my scruffy self into Saks and for the first time in my life, felt quite out of place.  Looked at some price tags. Blanched.

I walked down, down, down, and around and around.  At one point, seeing little but empty storefronts and the homeless, I looked up and saw a street sign.  “THE BOWERY” it said, and once, again, having been formed in a milieu in which Tin Pan Alley and show tunes were the soundtrack, immediately thought: 

The Bow’ry, the Bow’ry!
They say such things,
And they do strange things
On the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
I’ll never go there anymore!

…and turned west, knowing that I’d hit the financial district soon enough.

Which I did.  I got there and went into the Stock Exchange – I had the leather souvenir key chain I bought there for years – then started walking back up north, hitting Macy’s, I think, and I don’t recall what else.  You see where I was, so I never did any museums or saw Central Park. It was all central and lower Manhattan, me, the 18-year old with the backpack, making her way back to the Port Authority to catch the night bus to Knoxville.

As I said, I don’t remember every being panicked or scared. I tend to take things in stride, and I guess that was part of my psyche then, as well.  What do I remember? I remember a contrast between scruffiness and sleekness, but I remember far more scruffiness. But nothing I saw that trip was a scruffy as what I saw a couple of years later when I returned with my father, who was attending a professional meeting – and as we walked down the street after dinner with some of his colleagues, a fellow standing in the street, needed to go, and yeah, whipped it out, and..went.

Awkward. 

Years later, I asked my dad…”Why did you let me go to New York by myself that time?”  He shrugged. “Everyone who doesn’t grow up in one need to do it – to go to the big city, deal with it, and discover that yes, you can handle it.”

Maybe with the slightest of plans, but definitely without a data plan.

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