Little of This, Little of That

Posted April 1st, 2009 at 2:31 pm (UTC-4)
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Less than a year ago, I was privileged to interview John Hope Franklin, who was 93 but retained the sharp mind and sunny outlook that had marked his entire bountiful life. He was the distinguished scholar and pioneer of African-American studies who helped Americans rediscover, and rethink, the impact of slavery on the nation’s history.

Upon his death in late March, VOA recast most of that interview as a Franklin tribute. You may have missed it, and I want to share parts of it so that you can get the measure of this remarkable, inspirational man.

John Hope Franklin was a quiet man with steel resolve and a view of the human condition that wmbodied his name: hope

“John Hope Franklin, the son of the South, has always been a moral compass for America – always pointing us in the direction of truth,” President Bill Clinton said in 1995 as he awarded Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

In 1921, as a 6-year-old boy in an impoverished, all-black Oklahoma town, Franklin, the grandson of a slave, watched in terror as white rioters torched African-American neighborhoods in nearby Tulsa and burned his father’s law office to the ground.

But he would carry no bitterness or hatred into adulthood. Rather, he was suffused with determination to learn, to excel, to illuminate the full and true story of his people. Franklin did so well at historically black Fisk College in Nashville, Tennessee, that he was admitted to graduate school at the acclaimed Harvard University. But the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. Neither he nor his family could afford the tuition that Harvard demanded. These were agonizing moments until his mentor, a Fisk history professor, intervened.

“A young white man – I was 20 years old; he was 32 – went downtown and borrowed $500 and put it in my hand and said, ‘Money will not keep you out of Harvard,’ Franklin told me. “And he sent me off to Harvard the next day. Well, if that was a low point, it was also a high point, too, for I was back on track.”

Somehow it’s not surprising that Franklin loved orchids, one of nature’s gentlest and most fragile flowers

On track to one day write the most acclaimed account of the enslavement of African-Americans in the Old South. The book, From Slavery to Freedom, would sell more than three million copies. It shattered the image of complacent, dimwitted slaves. And it described slave rebellions and little-known achievements of free black men and women – even in the hateful South.

Behind The Landmark Brown v. Board Case

It was Franklin whose research at the Library of Congress had helped civil-rights lawyers convince the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw segregation in the nation’s public schools a decade earlier. And it was he and other historians who were escorted to the head of a voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the heart of the segregated South and in the midst of an angry crowd.

“To be very frank, I was frightened out of my wits,” Franklin told a reporter. But he and the others marched steadfastly past the full-throated animus, and the spittle.

“Where does this depth of hatred of black people come from?” I asked him.

“It’s a part of the rationalization or justification for slavery. You can’t enslave your equals,” he replied. “So you’ve got to make your equals into something else – make them appear to be inferior and appear to deserve enslavement.”

Franklin taught history at several institutions, including Brooklyn College in New York, where he arrived as department chairman to find that all 52 people reporting to him were white.

“I had to remind myself that they were not like me in appearance. But so far as their human qualities were concerned, they could be just as I was. I could be just as they were.”

Consider that last sentence one more time before we move on: “I could be just as they were.”

Turning Hate Upside Down

“I taught for nearly 70 years,” John Hope Franklin told me. “And I would like my students to take up where I left off and to carry on the fight to establish history as a powerful force for good – a constructive force to rectify the ills of our society – to change the world, as it were.”

Franklin rejected the label “black historian” – insisting instead that he was a historian whose writing about all Americans has given substance to the black experience. In the same vein, he took some issue with the national practice of setting aside a single month, February, as “Black History Month.”

Blacks, said John Hope Franklin, are part of American history every month of every year.

The John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies at Duke University “celebrates the spirit and scholarship” of the renowned historian

And here is one more, telling testament to his character, as told in the Washington Post by Walter Dellinger, his longtime colleague on the Duke University history faculty.

“He was no Pollyanna. He knew, as my son Drew once wrote, that we are still always crossing that bridge from Selma to Montgomery. But John Hope always looked at the state trooper blocking the bridge, the figure standing in the way of freedom, and saw there another child of God.”

Courage of His Convictions
Three marches from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery, in 1965 marked an emotional high point in the struggle for equal rights for all Americans

Imagine enduring the bile that day and staring at the signs: “Coonsville U.S.A.” and “Nigger Go Home.” Perhaps his mind’s eye saw again the flames consuming his father’s office or his mother’s apron behind which he had hid that childhood day. Surely, too, there were visions of the attack dogs and fire hoses loosed on African Americans elsewhere in Alabama.

There was no mistaking the menace in the baton brandished by the white trooper who blocked his path. Yet he found it in his heart to see before him “another child of God.”

It is that hand across the racial divide, I suspect – more even than his great book and his wise teachings – that the world will long and sorely miss about John Hope Franklin.


Double Dare You

John Hope Franklin and many others risked their lives for a just cause.

Others do so for . . . well, I’m not sure I can tell you exactly what for.

There’s a 2.3-meter bronze statue of Sir Edmund Hillary that looks up at Mount Cook – New Zealand’s highest mountain and one of the intrepid climber’s favorite peaks

They are what the Chicago Tribune once called “risk addicts” –people who have gone far beyond the British mountaineer Edmund Hillary, who famously explained in 1923 that he intended to climb Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain, “because it’s there.”

Fire and Ice

You’ve seen these thrill seekers? daredevils? idiots? jumping off bridges while tethered to a springy cord that hurtles them a few meters short, if they’re lucky, of a canyon floor. They’re the folks who attempt to leap those same canyons, or rows of cars, or rings of fire in souped-up hot rods or cycles. They’re the snowboarders who zig-zag past lovely, unmovable fir trees at breakneck speed, the big-wave surfers, and the lion tamers, and the climbers of sheer ice as well.

Brendan Reals took this photo of a brave (or foolhardy) ice climber, a day after he had put down the camera and made the climb himself

Come to think of it, Carol’s assistant, Brendan Reals, whose stunning landscape photos you sometimes see here, is an avid ice climber! And a mountaineer and back-country hiker. The steeper the trail the better, back into places where real bears have real cubs and real fangs. Brendan would much rather lug a camera to the top of Alaska’s Mount McKinley than shoot up at it. Why? Not because it’s there, and not for the “rush” of cheating death, he tells me, but for the challenge of succeeding and the satisfaction of overcoming his fear.

This base jumper doesn’t need skis since there’s no snow on the cliff and since he’s simply going to leap into the void rather than glide down for “takeoff”

Brendan notes that just last week, 39-year-old “base jumper” Shane McConkey died in an accident while filming a movie in Italy. Base jumping, a sport that McConkey helped invent, involves skiing off a ledge and into an abyss in a “birdman” wingsuit, tossing off one’s skis, then deploying a parachute and drifting serenely to earth. Only this time, in Italy, one ski did not come loose, and McConkey spun wildly to his death. Brendan believes that he died, if not happy, certainly doing what he loved. While he lived, “Shane McConkey threw himself headlong off a mountain and into life,” as a Canadian alternative online newspaper put it.

The Genes Made Me Do It

“Some say brain chemistry causes a few to leap toward rather than avoid danger,” the Tribune’s Charles Duhigg wrote some years ago. “Others say daredevils are programmed by genes and childhood.”

Sure, blame Sigmund Freud or their mothers!

“As they jump off the bridge, their bodies start producing chemicals that are just like opiates,” Jay Holder, president of the American College of Addictionology & Compulsive Disorders, told the Trib. (I’m not kidding about the “addictionology” part of the title.) “It’s just like if someone stuck a needle in their arm with heroin. There is no difference in how they feel. It’s the same uncontrollable addiction.”

And here’s something curious that Tribune reporter Duhigg uncovered:

Think about it: Only two things separate this bungee jumper from a grisly death: a cord that’s JUST the right length short of the earth, and an ankle harness. Fun, right!

When most people are terrified and it’s “fear response,” flight-or-fight time, a powerful adrenaline rush kicks in. This happens to risk addicts, too, except that the adrenaline has quite the opposite effect: it calms them down, makes them feel “more ‘normal.’” Duhigg quotes a jumper who quit – sold every bit of paraphernalia he owned – after nine friends died jumping off bridges and canyon ledges within fourteen months. But he quit only because his girlfriend said she was outta there if he didn’t. Still, the jumper told the Tribune, “this is something I need to do.”

Sounds like a compulsion to me, though I only play a psychologist on the radio.

True risk addicts apparently try things in large measure just because they’re new. Then they quickly grow bored and move on to something else. A skydiver who jumps for the rush, not the panoramic scenery, won’t leap out of a slow-moving plane with full parachute time after time after time. He or she wants new challenges: piggybacking with another diver, perhaps, or tumbling ever closer to the earth – and death – before pulling the ripcord.

Taking Chances – Carefully
All the people on the left seem to be smiling as this roller coaster dips earthward. Those on the right display the look of sheer terror. I love coasters but fall into the “terror” group

We all have levels of acceptable risk. Mine, and probably yours, are pitifully low. As far as I’m concerned, “near-death experiences” aren’t something one elects to try! Maybe we’ll drive faster than we should on the highway – just the 12 or so km/h over the limit that we think is the threshold beyond which the patrol will pull us over. We’re most certainly not excited by the thought of, say, roaring down a dragstrip at 530 km/h. I’ll test the sickest roller coaster. Carol won’t set foot in the kiddie cups. Brendan would probably ride the “Beast” coaster standing up if he could get away with it.

Analysts of the nation’s recent economic upheavals pin some of the blame on risk-addicted traders of derivatives and other treacherous financial instruments. They risked their high-riding lifestyles, if not limbs, with every trade. And many of them lost.

Risk-takers “only know they must continue to beat the odds and outrun the chance of dying,” according to a Web site for something called the “Optimal Life Center.” “They are not aware of the danger to themselves and are oblivious to the threat to others, loved ones and/or strangers,” one article asserts. “Frequently the only way that risk takers or thrill seekers come into recovery is through grave injury. When the person has ridden the razor’s edge too close – resulting in injury, the death of someone else or the loss of a job or a family — then reality hits home making the opportunity for change.”

Just a little harmless, heart-pounding, death-defying, fate-tempting exercise

Is risk-taking to the brink of death’s door some sort of “performance art” – an ego trip and a high, all in one? Students of this addiction say no, not usually. There’s a deep desire to stand out, but not much of a need to win or defeat others. That makes the “extreme sports” different from even the most violent competitive ones.

Save for the late Evil Knievel and other stunt riders of the world, people tend to take fewer and fewer risks as they age. We’re soon disabused of the “I’m going to live forever” certainty of youth.

Meet Mr. Mouse, risk addict

So what has this exploration of “addictionology” taught us? I don’t know about you, but it’s removed what speck of a thought of deliberately “cheating death” might have survived inside me. Thinking about daredevils and nine dead bungee jumpers and Brendan Reals’s climbs straight up ice-packed Poke-O-Moonshine Cliff in the New York Adirondacks, I may never so much as cross against the corner “DON’T WALK” signal again!


We Have With Us Today . . .

It’s fun to watch kinescopes of old, live television programs just to see the occasional missteps, tangled words, lapses of memory, collapses of stage props, and other gaffes. Today most shows are taped, and the audience never sees these “outtakes.” They’re zapped in the editing process.

There are still some live radio and television broadcasts – mostly newscasts and sports coverage – but even these often employ a seven-second delay system that allows alert producers to wipe out “bloopers” before they reach the air.

Still, a few “doosies” slip in, as my mother used to say. Not only did I hear one the other night, but it lasted several minutes!

This is more or less the broadcaster’s view of the action at St. Louis Blues’ games. For their play-by-play man one night, though, the excitement would be in the booth!

I am a big ice-hockey fan, so much so that I sometimes tune into National Hockey League play-by-play on satellite radio. Not just the games of my hometown Washington Capitals, but also contests between other teams. This broadcast originated in St. Louis, where the Blues were playing the visiting Vancouver Canucks.

A break in the action allowed the play-by-play announcer to fit in a short interview. This is common practice in broadcast sports. He introduced his guest as a marketing executive from one of the team’s radio sponsors. The man was there to describe his company’s generous gift to the local children’s hospital.

I wasn’t recording the game and didn’t have a pencil handy to take notes, but the conversation ran into trouble –“went south,” as we sometimes say – right from the start.

Keep in mind that marketing men and women are hired in part for their gift of gab. Give them the chance to tout their products or companies, and normally you can’t shut them up.

Nightmare Above Center Ice

The “interview” went something like this. I’ll make up the names:

JOE WRISTSHOT, HOCKEY ANNOUNCER: “We’re pleased that Bill Smithers has joined us here in the booth. He’s the marketing vice president for Jones Grocers here in St. Louis. And Bill, I understand Jones Grocers has just made quite a contribution to the community.”

GUEST, after a slight pause: “Uh . . . yeah.”

JOE WRISTSHOT – obviously taken aback by the brevity of the response: “You’ve sent a big check to Children’s Hospital!!”

GUEST, after an even more uncomfortable interlude: “Yeah.”

Joe Wristshot was crying the blues, all right

At this point, you can almost hear announcer Wristshot asking himself, “What’s wrong with this guy? How do I dig out of this?”

But he perseveres:

“Something about asthma research, right, Bill?”

This time the pause is pregnant. GUEST: . . . “I guess.”

Now it’s Announcer Wristshot who’s at a loss for words. It was becoming a “somebody-help-me” moment. I sensed at this point that his producer was telling him something in his earpiece.

ANNOUNCER WRISTSHOT: “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. You’re not Bill Smithers!!! You’re Jim Gamble from Greenville, Illinois, one of our great season-ticket holders!!”

GUEST, relieved: “Yup.”

Apparently the Blues invite some of their hard-core fans to come on the air from time to time. This helps efforts to sell season-ticket packages to other listeners. This night, the “lucky” fan is poor Gamble. Already probably terrified to be in front of a microphone and confronted with the most bizarre of questions, he had no idea how to tell Joe Wristshot – let alone his family, his buddies, and thousands of hockey fans who were listening –that he wasn’t grocer Bill Smithers and didn’t know a thing about a hospital gift.

By this time, the announcer’s broadcast partner, the “color commentator,” is chuckling. “Ah, live radio!!”

The Fun Had Just Begun

The guest’s true identity revealed, Wristshot manfully tries to interview him. Gamble the fan proves to be only slightly more articulate than he was as the stammering “grocery guy.” “I thought I’d help you out” by playing along, he tells the announcer.

Finally, mercifully, Wristshot bids Gamble adieu: “You’ve been a real sport, Jim,” the play-by-play man says. “Your next Budweiser is on me.”

But the torment isn’t quite over.

These two might as well have been Joe’s “guests” during the break in the hockey action

Almost immediately, down sits the actual Bill Smithers. He and Wristshot and the color guy have a nervous laugh about the faux pas, and the real grocery spokesman does indeed speak robustly about the children’s hospital gift.

As a broadcaster, I certainly sympathized with the flummoxed Joe Wristshot. Here he is, busy watching and describing the action on the ice below when a stranger sits down next to him. There’s no time for more than a quick handshake with the man who, he

This is how broadcasters caught in an untenable situation feel as their every humiliation is carried to thousands or millions – live

assumes, is the grocery chain’s p.r. guy. Obviously either Wristshot got his guest lineup out of order, or his producers escorted the wrong fellow into the booth.

I have little doubt that when the game was over, Joe Wristshot was muttering to himself, “Hockey is rough, tough, even violent. But who knew that interviewing was an extreme sport?”

Fuzzy Math

You may have seen reader Kirk’s comment at the end of my last posting, in which I described an unlikely, but intriguing, theory that giving stimulus money to older workers rather than banks or corporations might do more to jump-start the economy. Kirk wrote, “While I admire your hope in a patriotic Retirement, I would hope you would examine the math of Mr. Otterson’s proposal. 40,000,000 people x $1,000,000 is $40 Trillion dollars. Perhaps an edit of your most recent post would be in order.”

I have a really, really lame excuse for this error. Two of them, really, and the second is just as pathetic. None of my calculators, including the ones I could find online, could handle enough digits to give the result of multiplying 40,000,000 x 1,000,000! Yet the answer is obvious if you write it as 40 million times 1 million. But I was too dense to do that. The second excuse is that my trusty editor also tried multiplying all those zeroes and came out with the same $4 million answer. (His calculators didn’t compute that high a figure, either.) Looks like I have two choices for the future: keep the math simple, or ask for Kirk’s help before I post!


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Animus. Hatred bordering on active hostility. Wishing ill will on another.

Color Commentator. The broadcast partner of a sports play-by-play announcer. The “color man” (or woman) is often an ex-athlete who can add depth and analysis to what’s happening in the game.

Flummoxed. Flustered, confused, perplexed by what’s going on around you.

Gift of Gab. Ability to speak knowledgeably and informally, often for long periods of time.

P.R. Short for “public relations.” Many companies and famous people have an army of “p.r. men” (or women) to polish their images.

Steadfast. Holding firm in one’s stand or convictions.

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North Cackalacky

Posted March 26th, 2009 at 6:56 pm (UTC-4)
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For some time I’ve been meaning to devote a posting to North Carolina, an incredibly diverse state in many, many ways. Below shortly, I will do so, having mentioned the state thrice recently in reference to my search for the meaning of the term “pressing clubs,” in a passing mention of my annual visits there to Carol’s family reunions, and in a Wild Words exploration of the state’s “Tar Heel” nickname.

And there’s an overriding reason to bite into North Carolina – a metaphor that will become clear late in this post.

First, though, I can’t resist mentioning what seems like a brilliant little piece of economic theory and mischief, rolled into one.

Pie chart
This looks like something an economist would cook up. Why do I get the feeling that I’d find myself falling into the “1%” slice, whatever it stands for?

As you may well have heard, President Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, countless members of Congress, a screaming horde of TV pundits, and just about anybody else over 10 who draws a breath in the United States have come up with a prescription for fixing the struggling U.S. economy. None matches the other, of course, since economics falls somewhere mysticism and humbug. All the new theories have produced a wave of glazed looks across the land.

Sweet and Simple Stimulus

But thanks to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, clarity may be at hand.

“How Would You Fix the Economy?” the paper asked recently, and a reader, David Otterson in Largo, Florida, sent in a suggestion that’s staggering in its simplicity.

Otterson says America’s economic woes can be solved in three simple steps with something he calls “patriotic retirement”:

Step 1. There are about 40 million U.S. workers aged 50 and over. Instead of giving multi-bazillions of dollars to the same folks who wrecked the economy, give each of these older workers $1 million! That’s $4 trillion total – admittedly an awful lot of money. President Obama won’t put a total estimated figure on all of the various stimulus packages, rescue plans, loans, and purchases of “toxic assets” left over from the splurge of lending and spending, but others put it in that $4 trillion ballpark or beyond.

So Dave is working with about the right wad of cash.

Dave’s “patriotic” plan would get autos rolling down the line again. Somewhat more modern ones than these, no doubt

Step 2. Insist that each of the 40 million recipients spend part of the million bucks on a brand-new Ford, Chrysler, or General Motors car or truck. Presto. The U.S. auto industry springs back to life, and used cars traded in for the new ones are available to others cheaply as well.

Step 3. Require each of the lucky older workers getting the cash to either pay off his or her mortgage or buy a new house. That would put all kinds of money into the hands of developers, homebuilders, banks and other mortgage lenders, who can then feel free to lend to younger workers again in great numbers. Presto, no more stagnation in housing loans and home construction.

Overnight, the economy would be humming again. Unless the $1-million recipients bought huge, huge mansions and fancy sports cars, each would have plenty left over to spend on consumer goods, travel, gifts to their children and charities, college tuition for the grandkids, and so forth. New money would gush throughout the economy. Even if the older Americans who received these windfalls put some of the money into savings, that, too, would give banks and credit unions money to lend.

None of the cash in Dave’s plan would be shoveled from the government to banks and corporate fat cats that were caught spending some of the bailout money on extravagant bonuses, trips to fancy spas, sleek jets, and payments to foreign entities.

At last report, the U.S. Treasury Department still has an embarrassing number of vacancies near the top. What do you say: Dave Otterson for Deputy Secretary of the Treasury?

Wait, this just handed me from a colleague who’s a tad under 50: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!????”


Carolina on My Mind

Smokey Mountains
We think of North Carolina as a temperate to sweltering southern state, which it is. But up in the Smokies, it’s cool and refreshing – even snowy in the wintertime

No one ever thought to call North Carolina “Long Carolina,” but the name would certainly have fit. It’s 800 kilometers from its barrier islands, which elbow far out into the Atlantic Ocean, to the western tip of the state, high in the rugged Great Smoky Mountains. In fact, it stretches farther west than Detroit, Michigan, which is well into the Midwest.

Until Tennessee was carved out of it in 1789, North Carolina, which is shaped a bit like the pilot’s wings that airline hostesses used to hand young passengers when airlines were still giving things away, stretched even farther westward. All the way to the Mississippi River, in fact. Once one of the South’s most backward regions, “Carolina,” as its residents love to call it, as if South Carolina below them were a yokel cousin, is now the South’s most industrial and technologically progressive state.

Let me pause to explain the “North Cackalacky” title to this posting. “Cackalacky” is a slang, and lately somewhat hip, riff on “Carolina,” especially among the thousands of soldiers who endure basic training at Fort Bragg in the state’s woodsy midsection, and among glib radio deejays who just like the way “Cackalacky” clicks off the tongue. Nobody knows who first coined the term, but at least one North Carolina company that makes condiments has adopted it.

Delightful but Dismal
The swamp that straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border is dismal, all right, even in black and white

North Carolina is also one of the nation’s most temperate, scenic, and historic places – America in miniature in many ways. In this single state, one can visit a shoreline so fearsome that it is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” mountain forests so dense that not even a county road can be found for kilometers around, and a swamp whose very name, “Dismal,” says all you need to know about it. North Carolina is also home to exquisite colonial mansions and Civil War battlefields, tobacco and cotton fields, ribbons of superhighways decorated with dazzling median wildflowers, energetic middle-sized cities, and manicured research complexes the likes of which you won’t see again till you reach California.

North Carolina has grown so fast that its population shot past the traditional lions of the Old South – Georgia and Virginia – a decade ago. Almost twice as many people live in North as in South Carolina, helping to explain the smugness that North Carolinians exhibit toward their neighbors.

Tobacco barn
You still see plenty of unpainted tobacco barns throughout North Carolina

Yet at one time, North Carolina seemed the most unlikely southern state to prosper. Poor but fiercely independent Scots-Irish, Germans, and English Quakers staked out small, red-dirt farms in the piedmont plateau and later the mountain valleys, promoting a sectional divide against wealthier, eastern lowland planters. In 1785 there was even an attempt to create a new, breakaway state called “Franklin” in the Carolina uplands. The insurgents wrote a constitution that forbade doctors, preachers, and lawyers from being members of the legislature. (Not a bad idea, actually.) They wanted yeoman farmers calling their tune. Their leader, John Sevier, was hunted down, arrested, and charged with treason. During his trial in the mountain town of Jonesborough – now part of Tennessee – Sevier escaped, and nobody bothered to pursue him.

When Tennessee became a state, Sevier was elected its first governor! Cantankerous cusses, these mountain men and women, as I said.

Once Not Even a Nice Place to Visit
De Soto's Route
Hernando de Soto and his men started their expedition in Florida and wandered all over the South. They got only into the mountainous western tip of North Carolina, though, before heading west

North Carolina was first visited by Europeans in 1524, when a Florentine explorer in the employ of France paused along its Outer Banks but kept going. Two years later Spaniards, sailing northward from Santo Domingo, claimed the territory for Spain but moved on as well. Spanish maps included both modern-day Carolinas in “Spanish Florida,” though few Spaniards settled anywhere near. In 1540 the adventurous Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto tramped all through the mid-South on his way to discovering the Mississippi River, but he never so much as peeked eastward over the Carolina mountains.

So the mid-Atlantic fell to the British to colonize. Walter Raleigh, a wealthy London businessman and courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, financed and led an expedition to find settlement sites. Raleigh became famous in the United States, but not because of his brief visit here. Sir Walter Raleigh, the brand name of one of the nation’s most popular pipe tobaccos, became a running joke when people asked for it at the store: “Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can?” they would ask. What a knee-slapper!

Sir Walter Raleigh
Suave Walter Raleigh was a brilliant poet and ladies’ man as well as explorer. He once threw his expensive cape over a puddle to keep Queen Elizabeth from getting mud on her shoes

Raleigh and his crew got as far as Roanoke Island off the Outer Banks, found the native Indians to be hospitable, and sailed for home, bringing with them two “lustie men, the Indians Manteo and Wanchese,” and glowing descriptions of a “sweete, fruitfull and wholesome” land. Queen Elizabeth knighted Raleigh, who smartly christened the new territory “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

I know, we’re talking about North Carolina, but bear with me. North Carolina began as the wilds of a great big Virginia.

Soon afterward the first colonists – 108 men – arrived and found the Indians not so hospitable after all. They abandoned the place and sailed for home. A second band of settlers vanished without a trace, save for the word “Croatoan” carved on one tree and the letters “C-R-O” scratched into another. The Croatoans were one of the inhospitable tribes. Exactly what happened to the “lost colony” – a hurricane? a Croatoan massacre? a deadly epidemic? – has never been determined.

North Carolina’s official boundary stretched way across the country and even beyond. Never this far in reality, though

Virginia’s first permanent settlement would follow far to the north in Jamestown, from which colonization proceeded westward rather than southward. What is now North Carolina was not revisited by whites for more than 25 years. When it was, Charles I was king of England, and its new settlers, carrying his charter, christened it “Carolana,” the land of Charles. Remember that I mentioned how far west North Carolina once extended – clear to the Mississippi in the nation’s heartland? Well, that charter from Charles I gave its owners title to lands even farther – not just to the Rocky Mountains or California’s Pacific Coast, but all the way to “the South Seas.” Geographical understanding had a ways to go in those days.

Moving Up in the World
Biltmore Estates
There are many tours of the sumptuous Biltmore mansion, including one of just the “back of the house,” including maids’ quarters and the electrical system in the basement

I’ll mercifully condense Carolina history from that point: Another British king, George II, purchased most of the land in southern Carolina and turned it into another royal colony: South Carolina. Both Carolinas joined the revolution against the king’s rule and became two of the original U.S. states. North Carolina was twice stripped of many of its heartiest men – first in the nation’s great westward expansion, then in the unsuccessful Civil War rebellion against the Union in the 1860s. At about that time, North Carolina was mocked as the “Rip Van Winkle of the States.” It had no large port, one cotton mill, and only a handful of iron works, gristmills, and distilleries.

Rip Van Winkle
Like Rip Van Winkle, North Carolina seemed to sleep for years on end while states around it bustled. But when it awakened, it got real busy

Rip Van Winkle was a character in a Washington Irving story about a man who sleeps for 20 years, during which time, naturally, all sorts of things happened around him. North Carolina was a bit like that between its colonization and the 20th Century. Just to reiterate from that previous Wild Words entry, North Carolina’s nickname – the Tar Heel State – grew out of its backwoods image, since shoeless hill folk boiling sap into pitch and turpentine were known to amble home with tar on their heels. Already poor, North Carolina after the Civil War struggled to assimilate more than 350,000 freed slaves, who had been the working backbone of its economy.

Ready for Takeoff

But the 20th Century brought amazing transformations: the emergence of several collegiate academic powerhouses, including the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and Trinity College (later called Duke University) in Durham; vast military training facilities that would be jammed with recruits in both world wars; the creation of a sprawling Research Triangle Park through the combined efforts of UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State universities; development of a renowned furniture industry in the “Piedmont Triad” of towns like Winston-Salem and High Point; and a surprising explosion of culture in “the coolest spot in the South” – the Carolina mountains around Asheville. Once a resort and rehabilitation town frequented by thousands of “summer people,” Asheville would eventually sport a thriving artists’ colony, imaginative Art Deco architecture, and George Washington Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate. The last was so magnificent that each year, its minions would concentrate on the lavish furnishing of just one feature: 16th Century Flemish tapestries one year, for instance, hand-carved wood ceilings the next.

Off to the east, so explosive was the growth of banking that bustling Charlotte now ranks behind only New York as a financial center. Of course, it may not be promoting that fact right this moment.

Wright Brothers
The Wright Brothers’ “flyer” was made of lightweight spruce and powered by an engine constructed in their bicycle shop. Not just getting the heavier-than-air craft off the ground was a wonder. So was stabilizing it in the air

There’s lots more that’s remarkable about North Carolina: 200-year-old historic districts in cities like Wilmington on the coast; championship golf courses; a memorial at Kill Devil Hills to the Wright Brothers’ launching of history’s first powered flight on December 17, 1903; and that Dismal Swamp’s “vast body of dirt and nastiness,” as the head of its first surveying party described it. Little wonder: his men were nearly devoured by the yellow flies, chiggers, mosquitoes, and ticks whose descendants still rule in that area.

Sugar Rush
Krispy Kreme
Here they come: hot Krispy Kreme classics. And there they go, sweetly sliding down the gullet

I’ve left out one great milestone: the 1937 founding in a little Winston-Salem storefront of Krispy Kreme doughnuts! These delicacies, often served hot right out of the fryers, became a southern institution and spread like wildfire around the world. In 2000, the company took its stock public, and people rushed to buy the initial offering at $21 a share. By 2004, the price had more than doubled, Krispy Kreme was reporting almost $100 million in annual profit, and the number of its shops had tripled to 400, as far away as South Korea. The company would take a severe hit when a “low-carb” [carbohydrate] diet craze swept the land, but “sliders” – hot, airy Krispy Kreme “donuts” that fairly melt in the mouth enroute to joining seven or eight others in the stomach – remain an indulgence for which I, for one, will long thank North Carolina.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse
One of North Carolina’s most-photographed attractions is the lighthouse on Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks. It’s the nation’s tallest light station, and its powerful beacon can be seen 30 kilometers out to sea

In The Book of America, Neal R. Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom called North Carolina “the newest megastate.” That was in 1983, well before many of the business and cultural explosions that I have described had fully taken hold. Often overshadowed by courtly Virginia, enterprising Georgia, electrifying Florida, and eccentric Lousiana – and lacking a single magnet city until Charlotte got its big banks and a National Football League team – North Carolina snuck up on the nation’s consciousness.

A megastate it now is, but North Carolina has never let loose of its down-home culture, character, and cuisine.

Ich bin ein Barbecuer

Which brings me to a delicious final exploration – and I’m not still talking doughnut sliders. If you’ve hung with me this far, you’ll recall my early metaphor about “taking a bite” out of this intriguing state. Now all can be revealed: the bite is from a scrumptious North Carolina barbecue sandwich.

This is “peasant food” at its very best. It’s not hoity-toity luxury fare served at swanky clubs, but a delicacy straight from the hills. I can almost smell and see the smoke a-risin’ from a clapboard smokehouse as I write.

Holy Smoke authors
Here are the Holy Smoke authors – the Reeds on the left and McKinney to the right – in their element, before plates of barbecue. Despite their passion for barbecue, any time, anywhere, they all look fit

For a full explanation of this epicurean delicacy, I bow to UNC sociologist John Shelton Reed; his wife, the writer and harpsichord virtuoso Dale Volberg Reed; and their friend, William McKinney. The Reeds are stalwarts of the North Carolina Barbecue Society – a high gustatory honor – and McKinney founded a collegiate version while a student at UNC. The Reeds have also written about such other mouth-watering southern delicacies as grits and cornbread. But we must not digress far from North Carolina barbecue, about which the Reeds and McKinney have written a fat book called Holy Smoke. In it, they quote Tennessee farmer-author Michael Lee West as saying that North Carolina barbecue is “a noun, a verb, and an entire religion served on a bun.”

North Carolina barbecue
I won’t say that this is as fancy as a North Carolina barbecue joint gets, but they don’t get much fancier!

Notice that I carefully specify “North Carolina” barbecue, since outposts like Memphis, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; and mesquite-filled ranches of West Texas also claim barbecue superiority. There’s even something called “California barbecue” that’s liable to be slathered in exotica like Chinese hoisin sauce and lime. I’ll probably deny writing this when I post about these places, but their barbecue doesn’t hold a plastic fork to the stuff that slow-cooks in Carolina smokehouses and is served out of some of the plainest shacks in the land. So plain that the only place to sit is outside on a crude wooden picnic bench, if you’re lucky.

Doesn’t matter. Every splinter’s worth it.

It’s the Pits – and That’s a Good Thing

True North Carolina barbecue is made of pork, rarely beef. Pigs fare better in the hills than cows – at least until butchering day. The Reeds and McKinney tell us there are still more hogs than people in North Carolina today. That’s a lot of curly tails, since there are more than 9 million North Cackalackians.

Brunswick stew
This plate of North Carolina barbecue includes a bowl of Brunswick stew, made from whatever meat’s on hand. Out in the country, it can be squirrel or possum or rabbit, plus local vegetables

I wouldn’t say that North Carolina barbecue pitmasters wouldn’t let a catsup bottle on their property, but “ketchup,” as it’s sometimes spelled, is not as prominent there as in other varieties out west. Their speciality begins, unfortunately for the pig, with one that has been slaughtered, skinned, and gutted. Then it’s sloooowly turned over a low, open pit of hot hardwood coals and slathered, several times, with tart, vinegary marinade. The aromatic final product is then sliced or diced into little, forkable strands.

The authors quote the daughter of a Granville County tobacco planter who described her father’s “dipney,” the simmered sauce that he brushed, hot, onto the cooked meat:

“Daddy made it thus: Two pounds sweet lard, melted in a brass kettle, with one pound beaten, not ground, black pepper, a pint of small fiery red peppers, nubbed and stewed soft in water to barely cover, a spoonful of herbs in powder – and a quart and a pint of the strongest apple vinegar, with a little salt.”

I prefer my North Carolina barbecue piled upon a hamburger bun, then topped with coleslaw – a mixture of minced cabbage, salad dressing, and a tad of mustard – onto which I stage a squirt-fest of hot sauce made from even more vinegar and hot red pepper

BBQ. What Are You?
Holy Smoke
I’m not sure why the pig is looking so satisfied on the book cover, considering its destination on a spit. It is we, the barbecue diners, who will be smiling

Holy Smoke’s authors explore all sorts of conflicting possible origins of the word “barbecue.” They discredit my favorite one – that somebody “Frenchified” the practice of roasting whole hogs over hot coals, from beard – barbe – to tail – a queue. “Flagrantly fatuous Franco-poop,” the authors quote barbecue expert Smoky Hale on the subject. (Yes, of course, a barbecue man would be named “Smoky.”)

Every indication is that the word first appeared in Caribbean lands, French or otherwise. Holy Smoke’s authors quote the poet Alexander Pope as noting, almost 300 years ago, that “a whole Hog barbecu’d” was “a West Indian Term of Gluttony.”

Here is Smoky Hale again, in Holy Smoke: “Honest barbecue will survive all the assaults of women’s magazine food editors, asinine judges at frivolous competitions, instant experts, smoke blowers, media frenzy [please forgive me, Smoke’] and pop culture.”

The Reeds and William McKinney stuff their book with photos of humble “bar•b•cue” dives, explain how “barbecue” became an occasion as well as a dish, and set our mouths to watering with recipes – not only for barbecued meat but also for the Carolina sweet tea, slaw, and hushpuppies that go with it. What’s a hushpuppy? You’re one paragraph away from finding out in Wild Words.

Carol is not as big as I am on, shall we say, “rural food” that hasn’t been inspected by federal agents in white coats. But she tolerates the ritual that sets in every time I cross the North Carolina line. No matter the place or the price, I find me a barbecue place (“find me” being a southernism that my suspendered hosts seem to appreciate), set myself down (another one) and dig into two or three North Carolina barbecue sandwiches – heavy on the hot sauce. I’m not much on sweet tea, but I can nurse one cold beer with my barbecue and still drive safely. It’s a wonder, though, that the Cackalacky troopers don’t pull me over just to see what’s put that big smile on my face.


Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, with William McKinney, is published by the University of North Carolina Press.


‘Over Here, Mr. President’

One quick postscript to my recent observations on the moribund newspaper business. As media analyst Howard Kurtz pointed out in the Washington Post, it was ominously telling that, in his recent prime-time news conference, President Obama called on correspondents from the big broadcast and cable networks, plus representatives from outlets such as Ebony magazine and the relatively new Politico paper. For the first time in anyone’s memory, he did not recognize a single reporter from the top daily newspapers, including the Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.

First go circulation and advertising revenue, then influence?


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Chiggers. These are tiny parasitic bugs that lurk in the woods and weeds. They attach themselves to your skin, often around exposed ankles, and feed on the fluids in your skin cells. The enzyme that they inject causes little red welts that can itch for weeks on end.

Hoity-Toity. Haughty, stuck-up, much like an earlier Wild Word: highfalutin’. An old English verb, hoit, referred to romping around noisily – another form of showing off.

Hushpuppies. These are bite-sized bits of deep-fried cornbread. They originated as scraps left over after a country chef prepared pans of cornbread. Supposedly, the family hound would whine to be tossed some of these treats, to which its mistress would scold – you guessed it – “Hush, puppy”!

Windfall. Unexpected good luck, especially of the monetary sort. If your long-lost uncle leaves you a million dollars, that’s a windfall! The term may have originated in an orchard. When the wind blows a pear off the tree, you don’t have to climb up and pick it.

Yeoman. As a noun, this refers to a free person who cultivates his own land. (There doesn’t appear to be a feminine “yeowoman.”) In the adjective form, yeoman work is hard, prodigious effort.

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Dried-Up Ink

Posted March 19th, 2009 at 6:17 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m hoping to hit the road in April and report to you from someplace other than this moldy office.

OK, it’s not moldy, and the asbestos was removed years ago. But winter, even Washington’s tame one, has that effect on you. Fortunately the fruit-and-vegetable vendor returned to his spot across the street this morning – an even more reliable sign of spring than a robin’s call or Carol’s reminder that the porch needs washing, the pansies need planting, and the sills need dusting.

. . . which are all good reasons to hit the road.

In the meantime, I keep shaking my head about what’s happening to a great American institution: the daily newspaper.

Dinosaurs Yesterday, Newspapers Today

Things have gone from bad to worse – or as cable-TV commentator Keith Olbermann would say, worse to worser – since I last lamented newspapers’ fate.

And worstest may not be far away.

This newspaper’s new online-only staff, which is one-eighth the size of the former newspaper staff, won’t need this big a building any longer

Already this month, the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer switched off its presses for good, replacing a 165-person news staff with 20 who will put out an online edition. And just 55 days shy of its 150th anniversary in the newspaper business, the Rocky Mountain News closed its doors entirely. Those two developments left Seattle, Washington, and Denver, Colorado, as America’s latest one-daily towns.

And there’s much more news in the world of print journalism – none of it good.

Things are dire – though maybe not yet this dire – for many newspaper employees across the country as their papers struggle to survive

Philadelphia Newspapers, L.L.C., which owns the venerable daily Inquirer broadsheet as well as the tabloid Daily News, and which is staggering under a $390-million debt load, filed for bankruptcy protection. And the Tribune Company, one of the nation’s most prestigious newspaper outfits as the owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, filed for bankruptcy as well, hoping to try to find a way out from under $13 billion of debt. Count the Minneapolis Star-Tribune among the bankruptcy filers, too. The publicly traded New York Times has suspended stockholder dividends. The Gannett Co. is requiring its employees at the national USA Today daily newspaper to take a week’s furlough without pay as a bitter alternative to losing their jobs entirely.

I’ve already told you, in an earlier blog, about the travails of Detroit’s struggling dailies. Their story is nearly replicated by the acclaimed national daily The Christian Science Monitor, which will soon go online only, save for weekend and some special-occasion print editions.

And the Washington Post has eliminated its separate, award-winning Business and Book World sections, folding some – just some – of their contents into other parts of the paper. These were, the paper’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander wrote, “wrenching decisions” by a “money-losing newspaper, mired in a bad economy.”

The Washington Post, once thought to be a “license to print money,” now a money-losing newspaper? Why, the U.S. stock market would have to lose half its value before such a thing happened.

Oh, sorry.

Printing Red
This is pretend strangling. The constriction of American newspapers is for real

All of this to try to stanch the terrible bleeding in daily newspaper revenues. It would take several blogs to cover the smaller weekly papers that are in desperation mode.

Buy-outs of the contracts of senior reporters and editors, elimination of costly national and international bureaus, and other cost-cutting measures can do only so much when readership and advertising levels are nosediving. Only mortgage bankers and car dealers have had a worse – worser? – month.

Sad times for the reporters and clerks and print shop grunts at newspapers. And for those who love their product. As Gregory E. Favre, a former top Chicago newspaper editor, wrote on the Poynter Institute’s Web site, “There is no easy way to say goodbye to the newspaper you love. . . . And worst of all is when the death comes quickly. When we don’t have time to prepare our thoughts, to really share last conversations and memories, to make sure the past is honored.”

Paper and breakfast
Reading the paper is a morning tradition that ranks alongside brushing one’s teeth. Note the apt first word in this A.M. newspaper headline: “HELP” !

This matters to the fabric of American life, if only to a shrinking generation of mainly older diehards who treasure the ritual of retrieving the paper from the front lawn, unfolding it with a flourish over coffee and juice or more circumspectly on the subway or bus, and reading their favorite columnists and the stories that the papers’ news editors have selected for their attention.

But others have elbowed the oldsters aside:

One is a cadre of young people, in the main, who don’t read newspapers – or much of anything in print. They believe there’s just no time, what with all the appetizing choices available on their computers and hand-held texting devices. They see

Who has time to read the newspaper with so many other communication alternatives available?

newspapers as cumbersome, dense with useless information, hopelessly behind the latest developments, and unconnected to their lives. It is, after all, their lives that matter, not what’s happening to anyone else. They want to read what they want to read, not what some “gatekeeper” editor puts in front of them.

Free paper
With more and more newspapers and online news available for free and thought to be eminently discardable, getting people to pay for the daily paper is an ever-harder sell

The second cadre is somewhere in the middle. Many of them still glance at the paper in the morning or read the free, advertising-laden handout papers before leaving them behind on the seat or floor of the train. They browse a bit longer through the fatter newspaper on Sundays, when time is more their own. But they rarely dig into long stories or explore sections of the paper that normally don’t interest them. And according to surveys and their own accounts, they pay little if any attention to the ads that support the enormous amount of money that’s required for a publisher to mount a credible newsgathering effort. These occasional, cursory, and casual readers, too, spend a whole lot more time checking various Web sites online.

Not Worth the Paper it’s Printed On?

It didn’t take long for advertisers to pick up on this, of course. They’re drastically downshifting their investment in the daily paper or moving their dollars entirely elsewhere. This can spell, and has spelled, doom to many a once-proud paper.

Newspaper carrier
Take a good look at this young newspaper carrier. He’s part of what looks like a dying breed

Readership groups Two and Three – the halfhearted ones and those that never pick up a paper at all – say it’s no skin off their noses. If the paper disappears entirely, there are plenty of other places to find news and information. Besides, they’ll save a few bucks that had gone to the newspaper delivery boy or girl, the street vendor, or the corner newsbox.

The problem for society, though, is that while wild-eyed opinion pieces fly back and forth in ever-greater numbers on the Web, and broadcast and online media will still chase the big breaking stories, who will have the staff and the finances – or the inclination – to do hard reporting legwork, investigate government and corporate misdeeds, probe the causes of seismic economic shifts? Who will have the institutional memory to dig into old crime stories or put together historical comparisons? Who will fund thoughtful cultural criticism, travel reporting, and in-depth sports coverage? Can a staff of 20 at the new, online P-I – the Post-Intelligencer – do all that?

Carol, who falls into the occasional-reader category, replies that she can find anything she wants online, and so can anyone. Chess puzzles, recipes, long stories about disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, right and left opinions of our new president’s performance in office, and on and on.

I’d pay the modest newspaper subscription price just to read in-depth coverage of my favorite sports. Might even pay for such stories online if I had to

Yes, but I contend that the mind cannot grow when one fills it with only the things it wants. I certainly do want to read about the latest twists and turns on Wall Street, details of last night’s Washington Capitals’ hockey game, and more information about a big plane crash from the day before. But even more, I also love to check out whatever the paper’s editors have chosen to lay before me.

Why They Call them Newspapers

Here are just five headlines from a single day’s newspaper the other day:

“A Silenced Drug Study Creates an Uproar.”
“Ringling Bros. [Circus] Hits Town as [Animal-Rights] Case Heats Up”
“Trade Barriers Could Threaten Global Economy”
“Selection Committee Doesn’t Want Cinderella at the [National College Basketball Tournament] Ball.”
And . . . “With Punch Lines Instead of Headlines, ‘Ted’s’ a Great – Well, Good – Escape.”

How could I not be interested in that last one? Turns out, “Ted” is part of the name of a new television show.

It’s true that Carol could probably have found similar material among the 800-gazillion Websites online. But how would she have found them? Would she give them more than a glance on her computer screen? How could she easily mark them up, clip them, or set them aside for later viewing?

Town crier
Town criers are long gone, except on ceremonial occasions. Their modern-day equivalent of news messengers – the daily paper – is barely hanging on

Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist syndicated by the Washington Post Writers’ Group, posed it this way in a recent column: “How does the newspaper industry survive in a climate in which the public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know? Or what it needs?”

“As others have noted, the Internet can’t quickly enough fill the void created by lost newspapers,” she continued. “In time, some markets simply won’t have a town crier – and then who will go to all those town meetings where news is made? What will people not know [emphasis mine]? In such a vacuum, gossip rules the mob.”

Video game
News, news, read all about it… on your favorite video game?

And here’s the worster of it: Parker adds that, gulp, news may soon be delivered by via video games.

(I wish I were kidding.)

Then, as she puts it, “forget blogs, tweets, and tags.”

In such a cultural abyss, newspapers would have already been long forgotten.

New Medium, but a Foolish One?
It is possible to get a coherent idea, as well as chips, on the table at a poker game. This is not my group, I should point out. These guys are better looking

One idea advanced in many newsrooms – and at my monthly poker game, where most players are journalists and one is a long-term Los Angeles Times correspondent – centers on those newspaper Web sites, which, as I have noted, are attracting more and more readers who say they’re too busy to sit down and read the print editions. “It was arguably a mistake [maybe a slowly fatal one] for newspapers and magazines to hand out their goodies to anyone with a computer screen” by launching Web sites that competed with themselves, the Post’s media writer, Howard Kurtz, wrote recently.

“[B]ut the culture of the Net was – and is – that everything should be free. The question now is whether that mind-set can be changed.”

The irony, as Time magazine has pointed out, is that newspapers have more readers than ever, counting those who glance at their Web sites. “The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news.”

The misguided idea was to assign top writers, editors, and photographers to the papers’ Web sites in an effort to join the “Internet revolution,” perhaps make some money from online advertisements, and cross-promote the daily printed product.

The last of these efforts clearly has failed spectacularly.

So at my poker table and elsewhere where journalists gather and tremble, the talk has gone something like this:

Charge money for newspaper content on the “free” Internet? Many newspapers are scared to try

“Yes, for sure, we should have charged for our content, even if it was just a little bit. But a little bit times thousands and thousands of readers would have added up and paid a lot of bills. So the only answer we can come up with is to somehow begin charging now. Readers won’t like it, since people are used to getting good content for free on the Web, but what other choice is there?”

Former Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson is one media luminary who supports what he calls “micropayments” for online newspaper content. Under his system, newspapers would put their very best work, by their top writers, online. Readers, in turn would pay a modest sum for articles that interest them, much as people buy their favorite sodas out of vending machines.

Presented with the idea of charging for online content, though, those at my poker table – especially after losing a pot or three and in a sour mood – lamented that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in. They say the only way to begin charging for Internet content would be for every paper – news magazines, too – to do so. If people wanted well-researched, carefully edited original reporting and nonpartisan commentary, they’d have no choice but to pay for it.

A Fatal Flaw in the Argument

Then, my pals would sigh, bitterly: “Of course, not everyone would agree to charge for their Web product. And so no one will.”

This was all especially interesting because the conversation, fixated on the future of news on the Web, seemed to concede that print journalism products were fated to financial strangulation and a slow death.

Don’t let Carol see this sign

Two days after my poker game, I was huddled near a space heater in my work shed, smoking a cigar and listening to a favorite local sports-talk show. Carol banishes me, or more correctly, the smoke, to the shed except on those monthly poker nights when it’s too cold to play on the porch. Then she tolerates the stench, rarely without comment and a not-so-furtive glance at the yellowing curtains.

To my surprise, the radio sports reporters – including Steve Czaban, who also hosts his own national morning sports-talk show, and Thom Loverro, who writes for the daily Washington Times here in town and knows firsthand the trouble that papers are in – got to talking about newspapers’ downward spiral. And Czaban came up with a rescue idea that was almost the exact opposite of conventional wisdom.

‘Help Yourself.’ So They Do
Steve Czaban, left, and Andy Pollin surprised me, and maybe others, with a provocative discussion about newspapers’ future, of all things, on their WTEM sports show in Washington, D.C.

“Czabe,” as his devoted listeners call him, drew this analogy to what newspapers are doing right now: It’s as if a premier steakhouse had its chefs prepare bite-sized samples of its finest filets, sirloins, chops, and side dishes. Then waiters would put them on trays, carry them out to the street, and pass them out, for free. Passersby would, in fact, be encouraged to help themselves, on the theory that they’d love the food so much that they’d come right into the restaurant or make reservations for a full, paid meal.

Hey, here’s an idea for newspapers: Give away samples, like free slices of steak, in hopes of building readership. Oh, they’re already doing that on the Web

That’s an absurd business plan, of course, Czaban continued, with clear logic. Most people would just help themselves to the samples, say thank you very much, and move right along. The place would get few new, paying customers and, in fact, would soon go broke distributing the free samples.

Sound familiar, news executives?

Steve Czaban’s idea: Instead of scrounging for ways to get people to pay for newspaper content online, get out of the Internet business entirely

Instead of charging Web readers for newspaper content, which they would likely resist and certainly resent, and instead of just giving the content away as they do now, Czaban suggested that papers shut down their Web sites entirely!

That would force anyone who wanted the content that only a local daily newspaper can consistently supply to return to the printed product!

Loverro, co-host Andy Pollin, and listeners mostly responded that this was a brilliant idea in theory but would not work for one of two reasons, or both: • Someone else would jump into the void and produce an information-rich local news-and-feature Web product or • in cities like Washington that have more than one daily, the paper that held onto its Web version would “wipe up” and gain the loyalty of thousands of readers who were mad at the paper that pulled its online edition. That, of course, would mean that the competing paper’s strategy of eliminating its Web product had backfired terribly.

Czaban replied to the first point – correctly I think – that there might be meager attempts at producing new local, online information products. But nobody besides a big publisher has the staff or other resources to come up with original stories, reported from the scene, or to pay top columnists and commentators. Web sites, including blogs like Ted Landphair’s America, rely heavily on – read: steal ideas from – the hard work of newspaper reporters. They’re not going to do this hard work themselves. So, Czaban said, newspapers might as well at least get sales from their printed editions before everybody else packages the information electronically, not give it away online themselves.

Online ads
Online ads are nothing new to newspaper publishers, but they haven’t proven to match the income potential of the printed variety. Full-page ads would take the reader away from content, for instance

The second objection – that papers that kept their Web sites as their competitors shut theirs would “wipe up” – is trickier. Even buying the idea that eliminating the Web site would be suicide against local competition, the paper that gained all the new Web readers would not necessarily be celebrating. Its online visitor numbers might skyrocket, but that wouldn’t bring a dime into the printed paper’s coffers. Or perhaps help the online site much either, since ads on newspaper Web sites have certainly not been cash cows. And so, if survival of the printed newspaper was the goal, both papers – the one that abandoned its Web site and the one that kept its – might be slitting their own throats once again.

But Can They Hold a Kindle to Newspapers?
Well, look what’s on the screen of this new, handheld Kindle electronic reader: a newspaper page!

There is one other vision of newspapers’ future, advanced by none other than the sprawling Hearst media conglomerate, which just closed Seattle’s printed Post-Intelligencer. It has developed an electronic reader that’s much larger than’s popular new Kindle, which is designed primarily for books . I haven’t seen Hearst’s new reader, but I picture a sort of floppy X-ray-sized sheet of film where one can see an entire newspaper page and electronically zip through the entire “paper.” Of course I’d be terrified to set my hot coffee cup on it or let the cats anywhere near it. And how would I tear out an article to bring to work?!

Let’s see if I can summarize all that’s been happening and what it means for the future of daily newspapers. I’ll simply repeat a few phrases from this very posting. They won’t be pretty:

Discarded paper
Discarded. Will this soon be the word not just for this one paper but for newspapers in general?

“Shut down its presses.” “Closed its doors.” “Indebtedness.” “Bankruptcy protection.” “News – none of it good.” “Furlough without pay.” “Money-losing newspaper.” “Folding of entire sections.” “Terrible bleeding.” “Readership and advertising nosediving.” “Shrinking generation of readers.” “Hopelessly behind.” “Unconnected to their times.” “She can find what she wants online.” “News organizations are merrily giving away the news.” “Financial strangulation and a slow death.”

And if I may be forgiven one more gasp of horror about the last one:

“News may soon be delivered by video game.”

It all makes you wonder what they’re telling college print-journalism majors. If there are any, any more.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Circumspectly. Cautiously, watchfully, often a little furtively, not wanting to call attention to oneself.

Cumbersome. Awkward, unwieldy, hard to manipulate physically.

Genie. In popular fable, a genie is a powerful, often turban-wearing figure imprisoned in a bottle. Some lucky soul stumbles upon the bottle, rubs it, frees the delighted genie, and is granted one or more fabulous wishes. The origin of the word is less cheerful, however. In early African and Middle East cultures, genies were sinister spirits that took animal or human form.

Morose. Gloomy, sullen, dejected.

Ponzi scheme. An age-old grifter’s con in which investors are convinced to send the schemer considerable sums of money on the promise of lavish returns. Handsome interest is indeed paid, using some of the money contributed by fresh, eager new investors. But the crook is keeping most of it. Ponzi schemes almost always collapse when not enough new investors can be found, or old ones are tipped off to trouble and try to pull out their money en masse. They quickly find that there’s no money at all.

Town Crier. In a tradition brought from Europe, criers, employed by the community, would walk the streets of early America, often at dusk, carrying lanterns or handbells, calling out public announcements. These would often begin, “Hear ye, hear ye,” or the more formal “oyez,” which is still used to bring many U.S. courtrooms to order.

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Posted March 12th, 2009 at 6:31 pm (UTC-4)
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The things that we read are disposable – literally and figuratively. We toss out newspapers and magazines as soon as we’re through with them. Most of us keep only a few, if any, of the books that we’ve enjoyed. We zap or forward electronic information the minute we’ve finished processing it. Even urgent updates on radio or television almost literally go in one ear and out the other. Few if any of these sources seem to have great nutritional value as brain food.

We don’t compose many handwritten letters any more. OK, maybe ones this short!

Exceptions might be the contents of personal letters we receive from friends and loved ones – if only we received any in this digital age – or information related to our interests, or material that we specifically went looking for.

I call myself “sieve brain” because so many of life’s daily details come to mind and leave without a trace. But I linger over, seem to retain, and enjoy passing along nuggets of knowledge that catch my fancy. I’m a hunter-gatherer of eclectiana – a word I just made up – ever mounting new expeditions, such as my quest for the meaning and origin of “pressing clubs” that I described in the last post.

My e-mail in-box stretches over several screens. My pockets are stuffed with torn and scissored clippings, as well as a pasty mash left by our washing machine as it boils and rubs and chews the notes that I forget were in there. I have bins and boxes full of saved magazines and newspapers and scribbled notes, some of which I’ve been meaning to get to for 25 years.

This terrible clutter is not in my office. Mine is much worse!

I’m starting to worry that I might end up like one of those “hoarders” about whom I wrote for a VOA feature story five years ago. In it, a social worker told me, “We had one situation where our psychiatrist went into a home and climbed on top of a mountain of debris to speak with the client, who was lying in almost like the crater of a volcano, and the psychiatrist’s head was touching the ceiling as he was speaking down to her.”

This could be me and my growing mound of clippings ten years from now. Go away, shrink. Leave me alone!

All of this is a wayward introduction to a series of items that have caught my eye – the kinds of miscellany that, to my way of thinking, deserve a second glance before they’re tossed to the floor of the hamster cage.

Snow White
Here’s a poster version of Snow White, her Prince Charming, and seven rather identical dwarfs. In the movie, the dwarfs have distinct looks and personalities

This is not trivia per se. There’s more to it than naming the capital of North Dakota, or Snow White’s dwarfs, or the words to a 60-year-old toothpaste jingle. I wouldn’t inflict Bismarck; or Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Sleepy, Sneezy, and Doc; or “You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent” on you. No, indeed.

But I will pass along the following:

Out for a Stroll, Backwards
This woman has the right idea: Pack ‘em in! Only the stroller into which my three girls wedged was built for just one rider

Three of my first wife, Carolyn’s, and my four kids entered the world within 33 months of each other. For a while all of them were in diapers. Having three tightly-bunched little ones gave rise to some imaginative modes of transportation, including Juliette’s careful positioning into the seat of a child stroller, Nicole just ahead of her and halfway in her lap, and Jeannette standing upright on the rear carriage while Carolyn or I pushed the ungainly contraption forward.

Now, come to find out, we may have scarred the girls for life!

You see, they were all facing forward as we rattled through the neighborhood and along the boardwalk at the beach. (Gasp! Oh no! Not that! Heartless parents!)

See what happens when kids face forward in their strollers: They pass out from boredom!

The New York Times just reported on a study of 2,700 families by M. Suzanne Zeedyk, a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Dundee in Scotland. She found that caregivers whose babies were positioned facing backward, toward them rather than the street ahead, talked to the little ones more, laughed more, comforted them more, and called lots more things to the little tykes’ attention.

So we want to make stroller rides more enriching? How about turning the conveyances into miniature carnival rides!?

Zeedyk found that forward-facing strollers are a relatively recent invention, made necessary by the mechanisms that collapse them for storage. She observed that forward-facing tots grow bored with the scenery, suck their thumbs a lot, and doze off a great deal rather than engaging in constructive dialogue with Mom or Dad or the stroller-pushing babysitter.

Funny, Carolyn and I thought our kids saw and heard enough of us all day and all night, and that glimpses of colorful beach umbrellas or passing bikes and buses might hold more interest than our weary faces.

Car seat
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with the alignment of strollers, what about car seats?

As if Zeedyk had not spread enough paranoia, she also encouraged parents to “think again about how babies experience . . . other forms of transportation like car seats, shopping carts, and slings.” Oh, the guilt.

Letter writers to the Times weighed in promptly. One woman endorsed the notion of facing baby toward you, noting, with a snide lash, “At least [rear-facing] children would see their caregivers while they chat on their cellphones.”

Other über-parents pointed out, with smug satisfaction, that they disdain strollers entirely, preferring to hold their offspring to their backs or bosoms in slings at all times. That’s some stimulating view for the wee ones, all right: Mom’s shoulder or the back of Dad’s head.

But another woman wrote to say, “While hundreds of thousands of children face death every day from preventable diseases and starvation, we are now being asked to worry which direction our infant strollers are facing.”

Researcher Zeedyk may have hit upon the perfect compromise, however. She said she’d like to see stroller seats rotate. They could face forward one day and back the next. Who knows? – perhaps Junior could ride facing right on Wednesdays and left every Friday.

Zeedyk could be onto something amazing for toddler development: Why stop with swiveling strollers? Let’s motorize the rotating stroller seats! That way, we could nourish our children’s inquiring minds as we roll along, then reward them with a dizzying spin that would put a carnival’s teacup ride to shame.

Age is Just a State of Mind

A routine police-blotter item in the Washington Post caught my eye. Its headline described the unfortunate deaths of two “senior citizens” in a house fire.

Coined in the 1930s, “senior citizens” is a euphemism for the elderly, old-age pensioners, wizened grayhairs – the most venerable citizens of a community.

The “senior citizens” who tragically died in that house fire were, respectively, 78 and . . . 65!

I’m 66. Feel free to select from the following:

Oldster. Geezer. Feeble and infirm. Doddering.

Senior citizen
You know what they say about “senior citizens”: Our faces have “character.” By the way, this is some other fella.

Old Goat. Coot. Ready for the Home. Old as the Hills. In the Autumn of My Years.

And my personal favorite: “Sundowner.”

But just a minute there, sonny (or honey): 67 is the new 47!

Isn’t it?


Booze on the Beach

I have retained enough of my faculties to remember Spring Break back in my college years. Way, way back when.

Spring Break
Spring Break is quite a change of pace from studies, especially when one is still seeing snow and sleet outside the classroom window

I never had the nerve to get raunchy during this interlude between classes, when many of my peers were passing out on half a keg of beer, smoking “reefer” behind the dunes, “mooning” cops and women in string bikinis, “hooking up” with good-looking strangers for casual sex, or, almost without fail, puking from the balcony of the Surf ‘n’ Sand, Sun ‘n’ Surf, Sand ‘n’ Sun, Sun ‘n’ Sand, Sand ‘n’ Surf, or Surf ‘n’ Sun Motel.

Fort Lauderdale
Lovely Fort Lauderdale was turned into one big party for many years until residents and merchants grew tired of the noise and destruction

This was all considered by many young people and indulgent adults to be youthful “letting off steam” – never mind the fatal falls from those balconies or the highway deaths following drunken binges. Entire cities such as Fort Lauderdale and later Daytona Beach in Florida, and Cancun in Mexico, gained reputations and fortunes from the annual bacchanals. From still-icebound northern states and Canada each March, more than 350,000 young people descended on Fort Lauderdale alone,

This is not an atypical larder of booze at Spring Break “crash pads,” with one exception. Most of these bottles are full!

particularly following the release of the scandalous (for its time) “Where the Boys Are” movie in 1960.

But the Florida cities weren’t such fun once open containers of alcohol were banned on the beach, the national minimum drinking age was raised to 21 in 1985, and police cracked down on blotto drinking, public nudity, and wanton vandalism.

So the wildest “action” moved southwestward to Cancun.

Today in places like Panama City on Florida’s Gulf Coast panhandle – where the music-and-videos cable network MTV will be broadcasting Spring Break 2009 live – some hazards confront revelers that did not trouble the “party hardy” set of years gone by:

•Most owners of young, strong bodies still recover well after “getting wasted” on drugs or beer or rum. But reputations don’t heal so quickly when booze-addled behavior is captured on a cell phone camera and posted for all the world – including Mom, Dad, Pastor Bill, and Principal Smith back home – to see.

•The U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert warning citizens about increased violence, including rampant kidnapping for ransom, in sunny Mexico.

•The threat of AIDS can dampen enthusiasm for indiscriminate sex.

This year’s message, though you won’t see it streaming behind one of those single-engine biplanes puttering above the surf: Blitzed-out-of-your-mind “rites of passage” can lead to rites of a different kind.

Last ones.

I’d Give Up Cauliflower

I was raised a lukewarm Lutheran in Lakewood, Ohio. Most of my playmates were Roman Catholic. My mother was wary of them, fearing that they might “convert” me and expose me to strange rituals.

Little ones know that Easter morning is special when their parents lay out bright new outfits for them to wear

But I watched them with interest, especially at this time of year, when the boys would fit into scratchy suits and ties, and the girls into pretty dresses for holy days such as Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For devout Catholics, especially, the 40 days of Lent leading up to the day that, Christians believe, Christ arose from the dead were serious dress-up times.

Easter eggs
Easter has two radically different components. It is the holiest day of the year for Christians, but also one of the most delightful secular celebrations of Spring for kids and their parents

Young Lutherans also learned about Holy Week and Christ’s Resurrection, though with less solemnity. Thanks to Mother’s robust bangs on our upright piano, I knew all the secular lyrics of the season, such as “In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it”; and “Here comes Peter Cottontail/ hoppin’ down the bunny trail/ hippety-hoppity, Easter’s on its way!”

Mother, Grandmother, and I paid considerable attention to Easter bunnies, chocolate eggs and rabbits, and the search for colored hard-boiled eggs. We’d dye them the night before Easter – I can still smell the vinegar boil – and then the “bunny” would hide them overnight, and not always in obvious places. Sure, the lump in the sofa cushion was always a giveaway, but what manner of bunny would put a purple egg in my mother’s spring-driven ashtray? Gross!

Egg basket
What a haul!

Grandmother would keep careful count of the eggs as they were gathered, but knowing the correct number was not enough. Many were the years that one or two eggs were discovered two or three weeks later in places like my dog Taffy’s fluffy bed, only by dint of their rotten smell.

One year, Mother allowed me to buy an actual bunny. I don’t, or perhaps don’t care to, recall what became of it. In an early precursor of later creativity, I probably named it “Hoppy” or “Thumper.” Taffy may have called it “lunch.”

All in all this time of year, it seemed like my Protestant buddies and I were having way more fun than my Catholic friends, whose noses seemed to be forever stuck in their Catechism books. Worst of all for them, they were expected to abstain from something for Lent – often meat. This, they explained to me, was supposed to help them relate, ever so minimally, to Christ’s suffering on the cross.

Give this up for Lent? Not on your life!

The very thought of abstaining from a Manners Big Boy triple hamburger with special sauce seemed inhumane to me. We Protestants tried to give up something, too – less likely food than some pleasurable activity like watching the Cleveland Indians baseball team on TV. This lasted about a week – less if we heard on the radio that the Indians were rallying late in a game.

Of late, Lenten sacrifice has taken some unusual turns. In a development that fits our times, the Religion News Service recently reported that growing numbers of young “Christian technophiles” have resolved to give up Facebook, My Space, Twitter, and other online social networks for Lent. “Religious leaders and scholars across the country are encouraging the faithful to unplug from such sites in a virtual Lenten fast,” the news service’s Kelly Huyboer noted.

I wish I had known of this trend earlier. I’d have slipped a copy of Huyboer’s article under the doors of my colleagues and friends. No doubt, though, they’d sooner give up steak than texting or tweeting for 40 days.


Tick, Tock, Debtors’ Clock

From time to time and certainly now, America’s ever-growing national debt has been an ominous concern. Where we once thought of this astronomical, ever-rising figure as a gossamer bookkeeping contrivance of little actual consequence, we now wonder about the day when the trillions of dollars in I.O.U.’s will come due. It is not the legacy we had hoped to leave to our children or theirs.

National debt
This photo briefly stopped time, but not the ever-rising national debt figure on the clock in New York City. The number below the long one is the average American family’s share of that debt

The national debt was once an obsession with New York real estate developer Seymour Durst, so much so that in 1989 he ordered a national debt clock installed on company property, one block from Times Square in Manhattan. The federal debt at the time was approximately $2.7 trillion, and from the moment the electric clock was activated, the reading clicked upward every second of every day.

More accurately, it rampaged ahead every second rather that ticked.

On the digital display, that 1989 debt figure looked something like this: $2,700,000,000,000, with numbers other than zeroes filling in the last 11 digits. The clock could handle a figure up to the unimaginable $9,999,999,999,999 – more than three times the reading when it started.

Shockingly, from 2000 to 2002 U.S. debt actually fell as the nation achieved three straight surpluses. The Durst Organization had to turn the clock off during that time, waiting for rampant debt to begin again. It did, of course, reaching the number displayed on the clock and on and on beyond it.

You can probably guess what happened this past October: The national debt passed the $10-trillion mark. But Durst’s clock had no digits left to incorporate that once-inconceivable figure. So the clock keepers simply replaced the dollar sign in front of the debt figure with a “1” and kept right on racking up higher numbers in the remaining 12 spaces.

National debt
The soaring national debt is a blur, all right

A permanent new clock with a built-in extra digit is planned. It’s certainly needed, since, as of this writing, the federal debt has shot past $11 trillion. In the past three minutes alone, the debt rose more than $17 million! And during the government’s current, deliberate economic stimulus spending spree, the figure won’t be going down any time soon.

To update the late U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen’s statement more than 50 years ago, when he was talking in millions: “A trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking serious money!”


Geraldo from Brazil Has Another Thought

Ted, will you please tell us why you use meters, kilometers etc., when we all know that Americans don’t even know how to turn centimeters into inches? Also, what we call football in the rest of the world is soccer in the United States. Does that mean your blog is primarily intended to foreign readers? If so, why do you use such uncommon words in your postings? Not that I don’t like it – I’ve improved my vocabulary tremendously since I started reading you – but in this case you should write a lot more Wild Words at the end of each posting.

Geraldo, since I write for the Voice of America, which is rarely heard in the United States except on the Internet and powerful shortwave receivers, I go with international measurement conventions. Maybe it will prompt a few Americans who happen upon the blog to bone up on such things. As for “uncommon words,” I write in full American English, recognizing that some words will be a challenge. Hence the “Wild Words.” I trust that those not appearing there will make some sense in context. The archive of Wild Words is growing and growing, and since most posts are already running longer than I’d like them to, I don’t want Wild Words to stretch on for page after page. VOA also broadcasts in “Special English,” aimed at English learners, using an extremely limited vocabulary of about 1,500 words. This is harder than it sounds, and it’s not what I do. I hope you and others will fight your way through my thicket of words and stay with me!


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Doddering. Feeble, even senile. The word is often combined with others, as in “you doddering old fool.”

Gossamer. As the noun, the word literally describes a fluttery film of cobwebs. More often, the adjective form describes a delicate, feather-light, even dreamy scene.

Per se. From the Latin, meaning intrinsically, exactly. “It wasn’t fraud per se, but it had all the elements of it.”

Raunchy. Crude, uncouth, vulgar. So-called “dirty” jokes are often raunchy, even obscene by civil standards.

Snide. Sarcastic, in a snotty sort of way. Snide comments are often asides about someone else’s perceived inappropriate appearance or behavior.

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Pressing Business

Posted March 6th, 2009 at 8:12 pm (UTC-4)
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One of my favorite movie quotes, from the 1954 classic “On the Waterfront,” is the lament by Terry Malloy, a washed-up prizefighter turned longshoreman: “I coulda been a contender.” Or as he pronounced it, a “contenduh.”

Well, “I coulda been a librarian”!

Librarians’ work is full of excitement and danger!

And maybe I should have been, given my love of deep research to ferret out answers to nagging mysteries. But a librarian’s life would have chained me to a desk, turned my complexion sallow, filled my lungs with book dust and mold spores, worsened my eyestrain, and consigned me to a life of tedium one minute and stress the next, dealing with impatient patrons. Plus, I’d have forever been labeled a nebbish rather than the robust, swashbuckling adventurer that I am. Ha!

It so happens that there is great satisfaction – almost secret delight – to be found in one facet of a librarian’s job. Not the monotonous reshelving of books, for sure, but in reference desk search-and-discover investigations.

In the days before Internet search engines, I made liberal use of a “telephone reference service” offered by the State of Maryland. Even late at night, if I needed to know, say, why Oklahoma has a skinny little panhandle sticking out to the west, smooshed by four other states, someone at the reference desk would take the question, put me on hold, walk back into the stacks, miraculously find the answer, and come back and give it to me.

That person could pluck information that no amount of digging through my own reference books could unearth. Reference detectives were superheroes to students and writers, but the advent of Internet search engines cost a lot of them their jobs.

Oklahoma Panhandle
I told you that the Oklahoma Panhandle was remote and rugged! This was taken in Beaver County, one of three in that scrunched prairie corridor

Quick and comprehensive though online searches are, they can’t always replace a keen human eye and knack of knowing exactly where right answers hide. I just googled “Oklahoma Panhandle,” for instance, and got 382,000 results! Impressive, but if the answer to why it’s stuck out in Nowhere Land lies in entry No. 265,456, I’m out of luck.

Let me give you three thrilling examples of recent offbeat searches. OK, interesting examples:

Tough One in the Tar Heel State

• Dave Chadwick, a colleague in the VOA newsroom, and I got to talking about North Carolina. It’s his home state and a place that Carol and I visit once a year for sure, for her family reunion. Dave mentioned that his grandfather, John, owned the local pressing club in little La Grange, in the steamy lowlands.

“The what?” I asked. “What’s a pressing club?”

“A dry-cleaning shop,” he explained.

I had figured that much from the “pressing” part of the term. But a pressing club?

“The name was Chadwick Cleaners,” Dave told me, “but a lot of folks called it “the pressing club.” His grandpa never explained this, nor did Dave ever ask.

Intrigued, I poked around online and came up with a surprising array of pressing-club references – all in southern cities. It was soon apparent that pressing clubs were, and still are, creatures of the South. Given the stifling heat, drenching humidity, and cultural insistence upon keeping up appearances there in years gone by, neatly pressed clothes, right down to the knife’s-edge crease in one’s slacks, were serious business.

Pressing clubs
Pressing clubs, and the dry cleaners that replaced them, were hot, hot places in the un-airconditioned South. Full of headache-inducing fumes, too

I phoned a couple of the extant establishments that still carry “pressing club” names. Everyone told the same story as Dave’s, that pressing clubs had “been around forever,” but that they hadn’t a clue where the “club” part originated.

That’s OK. A thickened plot enlivens a librarian’s day.

Certainly dry cleaners aren’t clubs any more. You can walk in off the street and plop down a pile of sweaty shirts and wrinkled slacks when you feel like it, at any shop of your choosing.

This is one image we have of southern culture

I turned to the bible of all things colloquially southern: The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. It’s a thick, remarkable volume developed at the Center for Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

But this is southern culture, too. Pressing clubs tended to serve the type of folks who lived in houses like the one in the previous photo

That’s in Oxford, Mississippi, home of legendary novelist William Faulkner, who once remarked that in the American South, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. Defeated and largely impoverished by the nation’s Civil War a century-and-a-half ago, the South developed a distinctive culture that is studied and celebrated around the world to this day.

Pressing clubs were part of that culture, it would seem. But the term is nowhere to be found in that regional compendium.

One Internet site displays a photographic copy of a 1906-07 business directory from Waynesville, a tiny town in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. It listed the following:

Nobby Pressing Club WORK DONE NEATLY AND WITH DISPATCH $1.OO Ter [Per?] Month Main Street WAYNESVILLE Phone 129. [You can tell that this directory was printed long ago, when telephone numbers had just three digits.]

And this:


And this:

STAR PRESSING CLUB A. H. WILSON a.nd S. A. COPNEY “Proprielorj [the directory could have used a proofreader] MEMBERSHIP $1.00 PER MONTH ^ ^ ^ CLOTHES SENT FOR AND DELIVERED TO ANY PART OF THE CITY Telephone 113 GIVE US A TRIAL.

At last, a clue! Two mentions of a monthly membership fee. That is something that a club might charge.

Dictionary of American Regional English
The Dictionary of American Regional English finds words and phrases that might seem odd in one region but part of everyday speech in another. Maybe “pressing club” will make the next edition

A fuller, if not definitive, answer arrived through the good graces and expert searching of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English, which is compiled at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That, my friends, is a long way from anything “southern.”

DARE “seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States – those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture.” Its editors point out that although “American English is remarkably homogeneous considering the tremendous size of the country, there are still many thousands of differences that characterize the various dialect regions of the United States. It is these differences that DARE records.”

But even it managed to miss “pressing clubs”!

By now my curiosity had reached a respectable frenzy. I simply had to know – could not rest until I did – the genesis of “pressing club.” No reference search shall go unrequited, after all.

DARE’s chief editor, Joan Houston Hall, joined the quest. In an old, old edition of the legal journal Southern Reporter, she found a reference to a case involving a lumber company that had felt it prudent to establish “a clean, sanitary barber shop and pressing club for the accommodation of the management and employees.” Such a deal! You could get your hair cut and your slacks pressed, all at once. Not the pants you were wearing, most likely.

Another Southern Reporter notation described a dispute in which a man was accused of operating an unlicensed pressing club in a room of the house where he stayed.

Sherlock Holmes
Sometimes librarians are master detectives. Word sleuths

Like a bloodhound baying beneath a treed raccoon (but more discreetly), I could smell an end to this endeavor. The most comprehensive solution, also uncovered by research wizard Hall, appears in a 1900 edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. I am going to quote the pertinent section of Isabel Gordon Curtis’s article, entitled “New Sources of Income,” in full because it gives, in addition to a pretty fair answer to our puzzle, insights into life and attitudes in turn-of-the-century America. Turn of the 19th Century into the 20th.

In everyday life everywhere one hears of women who have built up for themselves a business which means a comfortable living earned under the home roof. One instance which occurs to me is that of a young woman whose story was the familiar one of being suddenly thrown on her own resources. She had no talent of any sort; she could not sew or cook and the future looked ominous. She thought of her only capability, that of keeping her clothes in good order. She could make a grease spot vanish as if by magic, and she could use a hot iron on a cloth suit as ably as any tailor.”

Curtis’s story from 109 years ago continued:

Pressing clubs
It’s not surprising that pressing clubs caught on as a valuable community service

“The pressing club” was an organization which grew out of this idea. The club members were the owners of natty tailored suits, girls who would rather pay money than care for their clothes. The fee for keeping a handsome suit in excellent condition, sponged, pressed and with unbroken stitches, was ten dollars a year [roughly equivalent to the $1-a-month membership fee mentioned in the Waynesville pressing club listings above]. That insured a visit to a presser twice a month and a well-groomed appearance. The work was all done under the home roof, and now the young woman who organized the “pressing club” employs a strong-armed assistant, for club members are many.”

Eureka! At a time when grooming and fashion counted for a lot, when most domestic chores such as keeping one’s skirts and suits sharply creased were handled at home, those who could afford it chipped in to join “clubs” that had no clubhouse, no sporting activities, no board games, no meetings. They offered simple “pressing” services. As their membership swelled throughout the South, “club” operations moved from homes into modest stores. John Chadwick’s pressing club in La Grange operated out of a little brick building on Main Street. Over time as technology advanced, simple cleaning and pressing turned to dry cleaning.

But some shops retain names like “Pressing Club Dry Cleaners” in Charleston, South Carolina, and “Ideal Cleaners – The Pressing Club,” in Kinston, North Carolina.

That’s a lot of information about a trivial matter, but what can I say? I coulda been a librarian!

Ruffles and Flourishes

•The second bug was planted by my officemate, Penelope Poulou, who, like most of us, knows the expression “pomp and circumstance.” It is the title of a brisk song that’s played, sometimes ad nauseam, at high school and college commencement ceremonies as graduates shuffle onto the stage to collect their diplomas.

This graduation ceremony in St. Charles, Missouri, was certainly full of colorful pomp. No doubt Elgar’s music was part of the circumstance as well

The tune is one of several “Pomp and Circumstance” military marches composed by the English baronet, Sir Edward Elgar. The one that drones on at graduation is his “March No. 1.”

But the song is not the focus of Penelope’s “bug.” It’s the odd juxtaposition of the two words: “pomp” and “circumstance.”

Just as we easily deduced the “pressing” but not the “club,” we understand that “pomp” refers to splendor, ostentation, or exaggerated solemnity, often in military and other spectacles, such as those graduations. “Pomp,” comes from the Greek word for “parade.” English speakers molded the word into the adjective “pompous,” which connotes even more conceit and strutting self-importance.

Clear enough. But what’s with the “circumstance”? We have William Shakespeare to thank or blame. As Michael Sheehan of Cedar, Michigan, points out in his “Wordmall” blog about the English language, Shakespeare wrote in Othello, Act III, Scene iii about “Pride, Pompe, and Circumstance of glorious Warre [war].”

“Circumstance,” from the Latin, refers to surroundings, a ceremony, or a show. So “pomp” and “circumstance” are a tad redundant. But I see elegance and puffery of the participants in the “pomp,” and the overall surroundings of the event as the “circumstance.”

That’s my take, anyway.

Putting Time to Good Use

•The third offbeat question came from Penelope as well. She’s a regular quizmistress.

“You’ve heard of banks,” she began. “Natch,” I replied, though the way the economy is trending, I wish I hadn’t.

“And you’ve heard of barter.” “Sure: you give me a cow, and I give you a harvest of hay.” Not that she has a cow or I any hay, but we need an example here!

“Ah,” Penelope continued. “But have you heard of “time banking?”

Couldn’t say that I had. Sounded appealing, though. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to “bank” some lazy hours on a Sunday afternoon and withdraw them on a hectic Thursday at the office?

That’s not the idea, more’s the pity. Instead, time banking is part of what some call a “social change movement.” It’s a form of volunteerism that gives you something back besides satisfaction:

Sobrante Park TimeBanking in Oakland, California, organized this health fair last April

You contribute, say, four hours of your time and energy to a worthwhile effort. It doesn’t have to be noble, like reading to the elderly at a nursing home. You could give clarinet lessons for free. Or clean the yard of a housebound neighbor. Or tune up the car of someone who wouldn’t know how.

For these hours of community service, you may “bank” the equivalent number of “time dollars.” You build your bank of dollars and then spend all or some of them on something you need or would like. Perhaps another time-bank member would come over and teach you Italian cooking. Or fix the falling plaster in your den. Or water your lawn while you’re on vacation.

This becomes what time bankers call a “circle of giving.” The concept is at work in 22 countries on six continents and is active in about 60 U.S. cities. One time bank in Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, has more than 1,000 members. In some cities, time bankers offer or request services via an online bulletin board. Elsewhere, coordination is left to volunteers. Backgrounds are checked to be sure the time bankers are trustworthy. After all, many of the services involve opening homes to strangers.

Edgar Cahn
Edgar Cahn’s idea of banking hours of community service has spread around the world

TimeBanks USA, the time-banking network in this country, operates out of the home of its founder, Edgar S. Cahn, here in Washington. A former professor at Antioch School of Law in Ohio, Cahn came up with the “time dollars” concept in 1980.

TimeBanks USA hopes to soon develop a universal time bank in which people could spend or collect time dollars anywhere in the country. If Carol and I took our three

Lynn Time Bank
Last spring, young people in Lynn, Massachusetts, met with representatives of the Lynn Time Bank to learn about community service

cats on a trip, for instance – yes, yes, it would be a dumb thing to do – we might want someone to cat-sit for awhile in the cities where we’re working. A time banker in Chicago, for instance, would do it for free. For her part, Carol would offer photography services to the universal time bank. I don’t know what I’d provide. Survival tips for writers on the road, maybe.

So now you know about pressing clubs, pomp and circumstance, and time banking. Next time, perhaps, I’ll tell you about another interesting concept: “meet-ups.”

Duty Calls

To close, one more quick story from our pressing club scion, Dave Chadwick:

This is not Dave Chadwick delivering laundry. It was taken a bit before Dave’s time, in 1916, in Bowling Green, Kentucky

Back in the day, Chadwick Cleaners picked up and delivered laundry all over La Grange every day but Sunday. “Blue laws,” which forbid commerce on the Sabbath, were in effect in North Carolina, so Chadwick’s was closed on Sundays. Dave was the kid who hopped out of the car to accept the laundry bundles.

Nevertheless, people would call Dave’s grandfather at home, moaning that they had neglected to pick up their “Sunday best” suits for church. So John Chadwick would troop downtown, retrieve the suits, and deliver them.

Finally, with a nod from the La Grange police, he came up with a wilier solution. Early each Sunday morning, he’d drive to the cleaner’s, where he’d wait for customers who were in dire need of their Sunday outfits to knock on the door.

Meantime, he’d make a pot of coffee, read the Sunday paper, and discover – oh so regrettably, week after week – that he just couldn’t break away to join the family for church.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Ad nauseam. To a sickening degree. There’s a direct relationship between something that goes on and on, ad nauseam, and nausea.

Eureka! Taken from a Greek word meaning “I have found it!,” supposedly exclaimed by the physicist Archimedes when he discovered a way to compute the density of solid objects. He measured how much water they displaced in his bathtub!

Extant. Existing now. Lizards are extant. Dinosaurs are not, so far as I know.

Juxtaposition. The alignment of two things, often words, side by side.

Lament. As a noun, it means a pitiful cry, often uttered after terrible news is received. The verb means to mourn or greatly regret. One often laments having made a really bad decision.

Natch. Glib shorthand for “naturally.”

Nebbish. From Yiddish, this word describes an extremely meek, timid, and unremarkable person.

Scion. A descendant, often applied to male heirs. The word comes from nature, where a scion is a shoot off a twig.

Smooshed. A made-up word not in most dictionaries. It’s a descriptive variation of “smashed.”

Tar Heel State. North Carolina’s nickname. Barefoot backwoodsmen there once made a lot of turpentine, which left behind oozy, black pitch that stuck to their heels (and soles and toes).

Unrequited. Unsatisfied. The word is most often applied to unfulfilled love.

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Lots of Odds; Fewer Ends

Posted February 27th, 2009 at 8:22 pm (UTC-4)
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Those of us who write for the internationally targeted Voice of America have learned to keep a few things in mind:

Not all homes in America look like this. In fact, not very many do

One is that our reality is not the reality of many places to which we communicate. We need to be sensitive when writing about American fashion or food fads, for instance. We recognize there is severe poverty and hunger in many parts of the world, and that some among our audience will know of such privations first hand. It doesn’t mean that we hide America’s good fortune. But it should not surprise us if those who hear or read our words construe a story about mouth-watering steaks, or luxury cars in a celebrity’s garage, as flaunting our society’s excesses.

This is Seattle’s skyline. That’s Mount Ranier off in the distance

Nor can we take for granted that our audience is familiar with American places. If I write about Seattle, Washington, American readers – or most of them, I fervently hope – know at a minimum that it’s “out there somewhere” in the Pacific Northwest. I wouldn’t really even need the “Washington.”

But readers in Nepal may not know Seattle or Washington state, and it’s the height of national chauvinism to expect them to. Where in Syria is Aleppo? Just a hair under 100 percent of Americans wouldn’t have a clue or know there is an Aleppo. So why should we expect a Syrian to pinpoint Seattle?

Here’s a real example: In my last posting, I mentioned the great transcontinental railroad that metaphorically and physically united the country in the mid-19th Century. From the east, that line began in Omaha, Nebraska – railroads having already reached Omaha at the Missouri River. But someone overseas, reading that the new track was “transcontinental,” might logically assume that Omaha and Nebraska lie somewhere on the East Coast.

The third lesson, on which I want to spend some time, has to do with the English language. We in VOA’s Central Features Branch write all our original stories in English, as you’d surely expect, and they are translated into 40-some foreign languages for broadcast to different parts of the world, and broadcast worldwide in English by VOA’s English Service. Our readers, listeners, and viewers understand English to varying degrees. Many tell us that they love to read it and hear it, even though it’s a challenge to keep up. They concur that American English, in particular, has become the dominant international language of youth, science, music, movies, and the Internet.

This looks like a book that could come in handy – for supposedly fluent English speakers as well as those learning the language

But save for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble’s “Wordmaster” series, to which I link in the archived Wild Words column to the right, most of us don’t spend a lot of time writing about the English language’s nuances. Most English idiosyncrasies don’t appear in Swahili or Uzbek or Amharic, nor do peculiarities of those languages apply to English.

However, one English-language matter has, as my mother would have said, “my liver in a quiver.” If the menace that I’m about to describe spreads to other languages, the world may be doomed!

Lessons in this Saint Augustine, Texas, County school back in 1943 must have been so hard that it took two girls to figure them out!

Part of the no-big-deal, ever-more-casual nature of American popular culture is a growing disregard for rules of language (not to mention dress and decorum) that used to be drilled into us in school and at home. These days the attitude is, “Rules, schmules. Rules are for fuddy-duddies. Like, chill, you know what I mean?”

No, I don’t know what you mean. Careless and incorrect usage such as, “Things are, like, going well between you and I” make me want to bite my tongue and gnash my teeth, and tear at what’s left of my hair.

Now here’s a series of street signs that got the apostrophe right! Of course, they are in Gibralter, not the United State’s. (That one was just for fun.)

Most annoying of all to this fuddy-duddy are the deliberate attempts to eliminate the humble apostrophe, on the pretext that this tiny but noble symbol of the possessive form is a waste of time and a bother. John Kelley reports in the Washington Post that two local governments in England have given up putting apostrophes in street names and signs. I can assure him that the apostrophe is long gone from thousands of U.S. places as well. St. Ann’s Court is “St. Anns Court.” Prince George’s County – next door to us in Washington, D.C. – is “Prince Georges” on a lot of maps and signs. Everywhere you look, you see “Freds Cleaners,” “Sals Barber Shop,” and “Riccardis Liquors.”

Here’s an example of a shop sign whose designer who put in an apostrophe, all right, but where none was needed

Every other American welcome mat reads “The Smiths” or “The Landphair’s.” OK, not the latter one. Americans have become so confused, intimidated, and annoyed by the little apostrophe that we just stick it where it sort of feels right: “The dress was her’s.” Or, as I’ve said, we consider it a nuisance and skip it entirely.

John Kelley’s own, renowned newspaper has all but scrapped the apostrophe on its sports pages. Post reporters write about “Capitals owner Ted Leonsis,” the “Redskins touchdown drive,” and the “Wizards foul trouble.” Thankfully, the news section isn’t discussing “New Mexicos senior senator.”


Oh no, where does it go?

These assaults on the possessive form are not mere peccadilloes. They would be outrageous affronts in many other languages. Greek or Persian speakers who tried to turn “the cat’s ball” into “the cats ball,” for instance, would be thought daft – illiterate for sure. They couldn’t do it, because their possessive forms require whole new word endings. It is the ball of the cat, and it takes more than a zippy little apostrophe to make it so. Disregarding the special endings and rearranging of words that make a Greek or Persian word possessive would be akin to writing “the cat ball” in English. It would be nonsense, gibberish.

Are this young texter and others like her responsible for the slow death of the apostrophe?

John Kelley notes that text messaging is a villain in this piece, as it is in so many other recent assaults on our language. Who, thumbing away on tiny buttons, can be bothered to put an apostrophe in “John Browns body”? As they would write it, “Its not needed.”

Besides, many palm-held texting devices and cell phones don’t even have the apostrophe character. Here at the office, a texter after my own heart told me that she cannot bring herself to debase a good possessive by leaving out the apostrophe. She substitutes a comma.

Bravo, but little does she realize that the language laggards may already have lined up the comma as the next “unnecessary” punctuation mark.

If I gave in to all this linguistic sloppiness, you would be reading quite a different post. Something like:

Ive been following Freddy Featherbooms travel’s in Ecuadors and Perus’ jungle’s. I know the Featherboom’s well. They live right down the street from Carol and I, near Joes Bakery. Weve been to there house many time’s.

Out, Out
When we send this contraption something, we’re “printing it out,” like sending out our laundry

Two more language bursts:

Why, when we send a computer document to a printer, do we say that we’re “printing it out.” Aren’t we just printing it? If computers could print, would we be printing it in?

And speaking of punctuation, have you seen this brain-teaser? Lynne Truss included it in her #1 best-selling book (in Britain), Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Take the words below and, by using just two punctuation marks, change the meaning completely:


(Answer at the end of today’s posting.)

Where the Boys Are

With a chuckle in a recent meeting, my Voice of America colleague, the aforementioned Rosanne Skirble, noted that she gets a good deal of mail from overseas listeners, many of whom began tuning in to us on the radio long before VOA had much of a television or Internet footprint. But they had not seen the Voice of America name in written form very often.

So Rosanne reports receiving a good deal of mail addressed to:

“The Boys of America.”

News Woman
I don’t know if this was my cup or Dorothy’s. More likely, the latter

The Boys of America story makes me think about Dorothy Jones, who was the office manager of a large Washington, D.C., radio news operation that I directed years ago, around Marconi’s time. She was one of those refined, stern women of some years who, we all knew, ran the place even though she lacked the title to do so.

One day a job seeker sent an inquiry directly to her rather than to me. This pleased her, and she was even prouder to read the address and salutation:

Ms. Dorothy Jones
4400 Jenifer Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20015

Dear Ms. News:

I did not grant the careless applicant an interview, but as you can imagine, Dorothy was “Ms. News” to one and all for the remainder of her distinguished career.

If only this had happened at VOA. She would have been Ms. News at the Boys of America.

Death, Be Timely
If you live in New Orleans, you might want to book a spot here before you die

• The Times-Picayune, the daily paper in my old stomping grounds of New Orleans, recently published this note:

To post your death notice, please call The /Times/-/Picayune/ at 504-826-3551 or toll-free at 1-800-925-0000 or email funerals@/timespicayune/.com.

As another VOA colleague, Faith Lapidus, pointed out, “Wouldn’t it be a bit late by then?” Or putting it another way, if someone managed to post his own death notice, there’d be no need for an obituary. It would be front-page news.

Good dogs like this are getting less exercise these days in the Detroit area

• Speaking of death and timing, here’s an interesting follow-up to something I mentioned in an earlier post, that the two “daily” newspapers in the struggling automobile capital of Detroit, Michigan, are in such dire straits that, to save printing and delivery costs, they are now delivered in print form only three days a week, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays.

Daily newspapers have been America’s traditional medium of notification when one of our neighbors dies. Families and funeral homes carefully prepare death notices and tributes. And if the person is at all famous, the paper often writes a news story as well.

But right now in Detroit, as Jeffrey Zaslow points out in the Wall Street Journal, “you won’t want to die on the wrong day. People may never get word that you’re gone.” If Detroiters have the nerve to die on a Sunday or Monday or Tuesday, and their funerals are set for Wednesday or Thursday, a whole lot of folks who might otherwise have made a point of attending simply won’t know about it because the next newspaper won’t arrive until Thursday morning.

That’s John Adams, middle, and Thomas Jefferson, standing, to whom Benjamin Franklin is reading a copy of the Declaration of Independence in this 1921 illustration by Jean Leon Ferris

It’s enough to make the dying hold on for a day or two, as U.S. presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are said to have done. They passed away on the same day – July 4, 1826 – not so much because they wanted to travel to heaven together, but because, it is said, that date would mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the nation’s Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson had written.

July 4, 1826 was a Tuesday. Good thing neither Adams nor Jefferson lived in Detroit.

• And one last death note: Have you heard comedian Steven Wright’s line?: “I intend to live forever. So far, so good.”

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez, Vicariously

On February 24th, a reader named Lindsay left a thoughtful comment about New Orleans on one of my archived postings. The 24th was “Fat Tuesday,” a rough translation from the French of “Mardi Gras” – the last Tuesday of Carnival revelry before the solemn Christian Lenten season in New Orleans; Mobile, Alabama; and smaller cities in French-speaking Acadian country of Louisiana and Texas.

This is the sort of fun I missed at Mardi Gras this year. Sigh

On the radio on that Tuesday, I heard Rex, the costumed King of Mardi Gras, make the ceremonial request of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that serious endeavors be suspended for the day in favor of masquing, parading, fancy balls, general merriment, and a drink or two or ten. (They don’t call the club that sponsors one of the big New Orleans Carnival parades “the Krewe of Bacchus” for nothing.)

Nagin assented with a flourish. I’m sure President Obama would also suspend serious work for our financially beleaguered nation for a time if he could.

Here was Lindsay’s comment:

This is the photo of the Hibernia Tower to which Lindsay refers. It was taken from Bourbon Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Sigh, again

“I happened across this blog because I was looking for a picture of the Hibernia Tower [a venerable bank landmark in New Orleans] bathed in Mardi Gras color,” Lindsay wrote, “and your blog contains a great photograph of it [by Carol]. It’s 3:45 Mardi Gras morning and I’m many miles from the Avenue where my heart longs to be – your photo let me go home for a little bit.”

I don’t know where you are, Lindsay, but I, too, pine for a whiff of sultry Louisiana air on a late winter’s morning. As I write this, I’m wearing a strand of cheap, gaudy, plastic Mardi Gras beads of the sort that Bacchus and other krewes toss by the thousands to the multitudes on Napoleon and St. Charles avenues and on Canal Street. The beads look truly dorky on me, but what can I say?

Legendary 19th- and 20th-Century photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, who has been Carol’s beau ideal, took this moody shot in the French Quarter in the late 1930s

I’d make a Mardi Gras brandy milk punch for old times’ sake, but all we have in the office fridge is low-fat milk and no brandy.

Mardi Gras wouldn’t work in Washington anyway. There’d be 10,000 cops on the street on overtime, masks would be prohibited as a security risk, lobbyists would see to it that every parade float carried advertising, Republicans would boycott it if King Rex were a Democrat, and vice versa. Besides, the congressional commission studying the advantages and drawbacks of the event would not finish in time for the good times to roll.

Who Am I?
Here’s the National Museum of the American Indian in one of Carol’s photos taken before the “Indian/Not Indian” sign appeared

The Voice of America’s offices sit directly across Independence Avenue from the four-year-old Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Hanging above its entrance is a flag that intrigued me. It turns out that another of my VOA colleagues, Susan Logue Koster, wrote about the three words on that flag, but I thought I’d share a bit about them here as well.

The flag reads: “Indian/Not Indian.” I assumed, incorrectly, that this had something to do with the terms “American Indian” and “Native American,” which to the country at large mean pretty much the same thing. But inside the community whose culture the museum displays, these terms have quite different connotations. My reading of the matter is that the former, “American Indian,” has greater currency these days, “Native American” being seen as an overly inclusive bureaucratic term invented by the Bureau of

This is the kind of “noble savage” image of American Indians that Fritz Scholder detested

Indian Affairs in the 1960s. Lakota activist Russell Means has written that he “abhors” the Native American designation. “We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians,” he wrote.

Here’s the genesis of the “Indian/Not Indian” message:

It is the title of two retrospective exhibits – one here and one at the museum’s gallery in New York – of the work of expressionist artist Fritz Scholder, who died in 2005. As Susan wrote, Scholder (rhymes with “shoulder”) “was the most influential figure in the history of American Indian art.”

“Indian/Not Indian” was the way Scholder – who was one quarter each French, German, English, and American Indian – described himself. At first he vowed to never paint Indian figures or scenes, since he objected to the idealized, stereotyped ways in which they are often depicted. But when he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and experienced the reality of Indian life, he changed his mind. His vivid, brutally frank paintings of such images as a drunken Indian staggering down a street ignited controversies that simmer to this day.

Similar quandaries over one’s identity abound elsewhere in this multiracial country. One son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, President Barack Obama – who has lived in such culturally diverse places as Indonesia, Hawaii, and Chicago, Illinois – has described his own identity confusion at various points in his life. As he found out when others sought to label him during rough patches of his run for president, a flag marked “Black/Not Black” could easily have hung from his own front porch. Once he settled into identifying himself as a black man, others even began to ask if he were “black enough.”

Obama’s multiracial, multicultural life reminds us that we are a nation of many races and cultures, but Americans all. And as Russell Means would no doubt point out, American Indians were here first.

And the First of These is What, Again?

Finally, on what is turning into my “Mention Your Fellow Workers Day,” Faith Lapidus, of whom I spoke earlier, just told me a delightful story that I want to share.

When she identifies herself on the phone or leaves a message, she often begins, “This is Faith Lapidus at the Voice of America. Faith, like ‘faith, hope, and charity.’”

Paul, later Saint Paul, was a Jew in Jerusalem who converted to Christianity and then worked to convert many others throughout the Middle East

That makes perfect sense to those of us “of a certain age.” It traces to the Christian bible’s New Testament. Jesus’s disciple Paul is said to have preached, “Now abideth faith, hope, charity. These three, but the greatest of these is charity.”

Increasingly, Faith says, those on the other end of the phone react with a “huh?” as if she had spoken nonsense words, like, “Hi, I’m Faith Lapidus, as in Ogsfaith Prylob Znork.” More and more people have never heard “faith,” “hope,” and “charity” strung together. (Nor have they heard of Saint Paul.)

So Faith is testing other approaches. She tried “Faith, as in Faith Hill.” That draws blanks, too, from people who are not into country music.

She now reports somewhat greater success with this approach: “Faith, as in ‘You gotta have . . .’” – picking up lyrics from a 2006 George Michael song. (He being way cooler than the Apostle Paul.)

The next thing you know, Faith will be doing it like Michael does: “Hi, this is Faith Lapidus, ’cause I gotta have faith-a-faith-a-faith.”

That should take care of her first-name recognition. But no one that I know of – not George Michael, not Beyonce, not Coldplay, not even Frank Sinatra for us geezers – has put out a song with “Lapidus” in it.

Brain-Teaser Answer



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Consternation. Frustration and confusion. It’s easy to be consternated by an overly wordy and tangled explanation of something.

Dork. This is not something you want to be called. A dork is a loser, an incompetent and even stupid person. Believe it or not, the word dates to the early 20th Century.

Fuddy-Duddy. A fuddy-duddy – usually referred to as an old fuddy-duddy, is an old-fashioned, stuffy, stuck-in-the-past dullard. Nobody can quite lock onto the term’s origin, but we know that a “dud” is a dull disappointment. A fuddy-duddy’s a bit like an old fogey, and neither is a compliment.

Peccadillo. A small sin or indiscretion, not worth getting too worked up about.

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Posted February 20th, 2009 at 7:25 pm (UTC-4)
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My last posting on Abraham Lincoln is the jumping-off point for today’s missive. Last time, I pointed out that Abe’s is one of four gigantic sculptures of the heads of former U.S. presidents that were blasted out of a granite hillside on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Someone here in the office remarked that this mega-sized tribute surely was one of our nation’s greatest engineering feats. That got me to thinking about the many wondrous places I’ve seen and to ponder what might be the Seven Wonders of America.

 Great Pyramid
The Great Pyramid is just one of three amazing pyramids at Giza. And it’s the only one of the seven Ancient Wonders still intact

Seven, borrowing the model of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Do you know them?: Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza; the 22-meter-high Hanging Gardens of Babylon*; the Statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece; a colossal human figure ― indeed called the Colossus* ― that stood astride the entrance to the harbor at Rhodes, also in Greece; a temple to the Greek goddess Artemis in Ephesus (bet you didn’t get that one); the Tomb of Maussollos at Halicarnassus in present-day Turkey (no way you knew that one), from which we get the word “mausoleum” to describe ostentatious burial sites; and a great lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt*. Earthquakes brought down the three that are marked with asterisks.

World Trade Center
The World Trade Center towers symbolized American capitalism, both to those who loved the country and those who loathed it

For my own list of American Wonders, I am going to exclude two excellent candidates simply because they, too, no longer stand: • New York’s World Trade Center, whose seven buildings and plaza filled the footprint of 164 previous structures. The complex was so massive that the entire volume of New York’s famous Empire State Building would have fit in just the Trade Center’s subterranean levels. As we remember, with enduring sadness, the center’s two tallest towers collapsed after terrorists flew pirated airliners into their upper floors. • The second is the great transcontinental rail line that linked two furiously competing railroads – one working westward from Omaha in the heartland on the Missouri River, and the other pushing eastward from Sacramento, California. This long, cross-country dual track, celebrated in Utah’s high country in 1869 at a ceremony in which spikes of pure gold and silver were driven at the point where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific came together, united not just the two railroads but also, metaphorically, the far-flung American nation.

Golden Spike National Historic Site
The original Central Pacific and Union Pacific engines and tenders have been preserved at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, near Brigham City, Utah

I could also easily nominate other transportation achievements such as the vast interstate highway system; the glamorous riverboats that plied the Mississippi and Ohio rivers; incredible mountain tunnels such as the Flathead Tunnel that bored through

Roller coaster
Not all U.S. engineering achievements resulted in ponderous buildings or grand memorials. Great roller coasters like this one are hard to design and build but fun to ride

the Montana Rockies; and breathtaking pieces of roadway like the double-decker, cantilevered Hanging Lake Viaduct through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado. Even fun structures like roller coasters, domed sports stadiums such as Houston’s Astrodome, and giant strip-mining shovels like the one they call “Big Brutus” in Kansas might qualify.

Impressive all, but not grand enough.

So here are my Seven Wonders of America – that is, those created by humans, not by God:

Mount Rushmore. Let’s start here, in tribute to Lincoln and the three other presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt – whose images loom high on that mountainside:

Mount Rushmore
The faces on Mount Rushmore look like they were crafted with a chisel, not created with dynamite and heavy pneumatic drills

In the early 1920s, Doane Robinson, South Dakota’s state historian, dreamed of a panoply of western heroes whose faces might be inscribed in spires called “The Needles” in the rugged Black Hills. He sounded out Lorado Taft, known for classic fountains such as the Columbus Fountain outside Washington, D.C.’s, Union Station. Taft declined. So Robinson turned to Gutzon Borglum, whose work on stone figures of Confederate heroes on Stone Mountain, Georgia, had been stalled by a personality conflict with his patrons.

Borglum agreed to search out a Black Hills site that could showcase a monumental work, not about western legends like the showman Buffalo Bill Cody, as Robinson had hoped, but about what Borglum called “America’s founders and builders.”

Borglum Museum
These are some of the photos and artifacts in the Borglum Museum at the Mount Rushmore site

Beginning in 1927, Borglum and his crews shaped the granite faces of Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and Roosevelt using the sculptor’s ingenious “pointing” technique, in which carefully placed dynamite charges “carved” – though “blasted” would be a better word – 90 percent of the work. Workers hanging in boatswain’s chairs finished the job up close, using pneumatic drills. “Pointing” involved a scale calculation, using a giant protractor and a plumb bob, of one inch on models in Borglum’s studio to one foot on the mountain. The 18-meter-high faces, 152 meters above a new national park’s visitor center, were completed and dedicated one at a time, beginning with Washington in 1930 and ending with Roosevelt in 1939. Public contributions paid the remarkably small cost of about $1 million.

Borglum found the granite face of Mount Rushmore perfect for his task. It was sufficiently firm and stable – geologists estimate that it will erode just a few centimeters every 10,000 years – and offered a southeastern exposure, meaning it would enjoy sunlight most of the day. And that’s how millions of visitors, making a trip far from most U.S. urban areas, find it, year after year.

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. (The Brooklyn Bridge in New York would have been another good prospect, but since the Golden Gate is thought to be the most-photographed structure in the world, it must be something extraordinary. And it is.)

Golden Gate Bridge
This photo by Carol gives you an idea of both the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge and the power of the current in the strait below

The distinctive “international orange”-colored bridge that opened in 1937 across the Golden Gate strait – named by explorer John C. Frémont because it reminded him of Istanbul’s Golden Horn Harbor – has become the enduring symbol of the “City by the Bay.” To understand its engineering, picture an incredibly sturdy hammock, suspended between two massive support towers. One-meter-thick cables – each a bundle of more than 27,000 wires – drape over the bridge’s towers, then stretch back to bedrock in San Francisco and the opposite Marin County, California, shore. Each cable began with a single wire across which a spinning shuttle wheel rode back and forth, twisting together thousands more wires. If that’s not astounding engineering, I don’t know what is!

The finished cables hold up the “hammock” – the bridge’s rigid road surface and railings – suspended below. During four years of construction, 11 men lost their lives in the swirling winds and treacherous currents. Nineteen others who fell were saved by a safety net and inducted into the informal “Halfway to Hell Club.”

More notoriously, the Golden Gate Bridge has been the site of an estimated 1,000 suicides. The heaviest load it has ever carried was the weight of an estimated 300,000 people who marked its 50th anniversary by walking across on May 24, 1987. About 2 billion vehicles are estimated to have traversed it since it opened. Contrary to urban legend, the bridge is not constantly being painted from one side to the other and then starting over again. Painting is just an occasional touch-up job. Until New York’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened in 1964, the Golden Gate Bridge, at 2.74 kilometers, was the world’s longest span.

Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge has proven remarkably sturdy. But still, it’s getting some added bracing in the event of another catastrophic San Francisco earthquake

The deadly 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 severely damaged the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge around the bend on the San Francisco peninsula, but the Golden Gate Bridge came through nearly unscathed. Still, authorities thought it prudent to undertake a three-part seismic retrofit, which began in 2002. The retrofit – too complex to summarize here, not that I could do it very well – included an added support tower and is now in its third and final stage.

Hoover Dam
This one of Carol’s photos gives you a good idea of the enormity, not just of the finished Hoover Dam, but also of the task that lay ahead of those who built it

Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border. The rambunctious Colorado River had long been eyed as an ideal source of water for the arid Southwest and of energy for much of the West. But it took Bureau of Reclamation engineers and 5,000 men, housed at an instant “company town” called Boulder City at the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, to tame the angry river. They accomplished this by creating the 6,600,000-ton, 60-story-high Hoover Dam across the Black Canyon of the Colorado on the Nevada-Arizona border, 30 miles south of the gambling mecca of Las Vegas, Nevada.

First, the river’s water was diverted into tunnels bored through canyon walls. Then workers poured 122,000 cubic meters of concrete each month for two years into forms constructed across the canyon. Vertical columns were locked together by a series of blocks, similar to giant “Lego blocks.” But these were not plastic like those in children’s play sets. They were made of carefully cooled concrete. Grout was then forced into crevices to complete the structure.

Lake Mead
You could see Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam from a distance in the previous photo. This is a closer look

The reservoir created behind Hoover Dam captured enough water to cover the eastern state of Pennsylvania to a depth of three centimeters. For 14 years, the dam’s 17 generators held the record as the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant. More massive than the largest of Egypt’s pyramids, Hoover Dam subdued the Colorado, created a sublime, watery recreation playground called Lake Mead, and sent water flowing generously into California’s rich agricultural fields in the Imperial Valley. And you can thank or blame Hoover Dam for powering the millions of dancing lights in Las Vegas.

Hoover Dam was named for Herbert Hoover, an engineer and the incumbent president at the time of the dam’s authorization in 1928. But the next administration’s Interior secretary, Harold Ickes, loathed Hoover, and for years official signs and documents referred to “Boulder Dam.” Congress reaffirmed the “Hoover” designation in 1947.

Capitol Dome
The image or outline of the Capitol Dome is used to make thousands of postcards, souvenirs and other symbols of Washington and the American democracy

The U.S. Capitol Dome. (Another worthy candidate in the nation’s capital would be the Washington Monument, but it is but a giant version of many other great obelisks, albeit one whose construction required mighty impressive scaffolding and incorporated 893 interior steps. I’ve descended, but never climbed, them. What do you think I am, crazy?)

Washington’s planner, Pierre L’Enfant, picked the highest hill in town for his “Congress House,” and he envisioned a grand dome atop the home of the national legislature. Architect of the Capitol Charles Bulfinch designed one, but it was squat, wooden, and sheathed in copper. Once it weathered, it looked like the base of a green toilet plunger. That dome was constructed beginning in 1820. When Bulfinch’s successor, Thomas Walter, began his design of the Senate and House of Representatives wings, he realized that they would overwhelm the scale of the modest center dome. At about that time, fire destroyed most of Congress’s library, then housed in the Capitol, and the need for a “fireproof” as well as loftier dome was confirmed.

Walter took on the challenge and wowed the nation with his design: a majestic dome with inner and outer cast-iron shells, 36 columns, pilasters, and lots of windows, crowned by a heroic statue. Begun in 1855, the job took eight years. You’ll recall from my Lincoln meanderings that the dome was unfinished during Lincoln’s first inaugural in 1861. Work continued right through the Civil War as, in the president’s words, “a sign we intend the Union to go on.” The unfinished rotunda served as Union Army barracks for a time.

When construction was complete, almost 4 million kilos of iron plates had been lifted by steam derricks, bolted together, and painted to produce the awe-inspiring, 87-meter-high – and indeed quite fireproof – dome, rotunda, and porticos that anchor the east end of Washington’s National Mall.

Statue of Freedom
The bronze Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol was cast in five sections. It sat on the grounds for from 1861 to 1863, waiting to be hoisted and installed while the dome itself was finished

The statue atop the dome is often mistaken for the princess Pocahontas or another American Indian figure. (She does show up in a painting inside the rotunda below.) Instead, it is Thomas Crawford’s statue of “Freedom,” wearing a helmet encrusted with stars and surmounted by an eagle’s head and feathers.

The Gateway Arch. One does not often think of the gleaming arch that anchors the National Expansion Memorial complex on the riverfront in St. Louis, Missouri, as tall. Yet the Gateway Arch, which opened in 1967, is the nation’s tallest monument! At 192 meters, it’s 23 meters taller than the Washington Monument. Designed by futurist architect Eero Saarinen, the arch in cross-section is a series of equilateral triangles – you remember what those are from geometry class, right? – laid upon each other. Its sections measure 16 meters to a side at ground level, tapering to 5 meters at the top. “Creeper cranes” climbing the arch lifted the double-walled steel sections into place for welding. No scaffolding was employed.

Gateway Arch
Can you visualize a ride up the soaring Gateway Arch? People do it by the hundreds almost every day

The polished-steel sections bend inward until the two “legs” of the arch meet. The hollow core tapers to a snug 5 meters across at the apex. I say “snug,” because an entire moving tram made up of eight aluminum capsules that look like cement-mixer barrels rumbles up and down the arch in there. These capsules, loaded with tourists, rotate 155 degrees within a frame on their journey. The weight of the five passengers in each car somehow keeps the pods – and them – upright.

St. Louis
Riding up or down the Mississippi River, you know when you’ve reached St. Louis as you come upon this magnificent “Gateway to the West”

Observation windows at the top provide a spectacular view of metropolitan St. Louis and a glimpse of the distant flat land that pioneer settlers first traversed as they headed west.

Yes, as you likely were wondering, the Gateway Arch is struck by lightning hundreds of times a year, but lightning rods detour the current down to bedrock. At least that’s what they assured us as we swayed up the arch inside those capsules.

Sears Tower
This photo by Carol shows you the Sears Tower, off to the left, in the context of other Chicago skyscrapers

Sears Tower. The promoters of this Chicago skyscraper love to play nip and tuck with the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the title of the world’s tallest building. Arguments come down to the highest occupied floor, the height of TV antennas, and the measurement at rooftop level. But the Sears Tower is the clear winner as the world’s largest private office complex. More than 16,000 people work in 41 hectares of floor space in the building, which rises 402 meters into the air.

Sears Tower
Guess which of these buildings is the tallest in America? This photo gives you a good look at the separate “tubes” that, together, form Sears Tower’s distinctive profile

Filling two city blocks, the $150-million tower, completed in 1974, is a series of “bundled” square tubes of welded steel, each 23 meters square, and clad in black anodized aluminum and bronze-tinted glass. Nine such tubes rise to the fiftieth floor; so in effect, nine separate skyscrapers combine to form one building. In what’s called “stepback geometry,” other tubes then terminate at higher floors, creating a staggered silhouette against the Chicago sky. The strong, separate tubes help protect the building from gale-force blows in the “Windy City.” Still, the building can sway as much as 25 centimeters, this way or that, at the top. (Nothing like doing a football-stadium-like “wave,” just sitting at your desk on an upper floor!) Engineers stopped counting the length of telephone cable inside the building at 80,000 kilometers. And there’s enough concrete flooring to build a nine-kilometer-long, eight-lane highway. The tower is said to weigh 222,500 tons, though, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how they lifted it onto a scale to find out.

In a touch of modern economic irony, the Sears, Roebuck and Company department store chain, which built the tower, has since relocated to a suburban location.

• Finally, the U.S. Space Shuttle, which I figure is earthbound long enough to qualify.

Space Shuttle
Mock-ups of a space shuttle orbiter are used to train crews at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, near Houston

Every transportation system has its milk runs. America’s space shuttles, history’s first reusable spacecraft, carried satellites, the Hubble telescope, and secret military payloads into space; sent work crews to build the international space station; and gave scientific experiments – not to mention astronauts – a round-trip ride. Putting together this earth-to-orbit ferry involved unimaginable rocketry, guidance, and thermal technology and the dedication and courage of shuttle crews.

Announcing the program in 1972, President Richard Nixon said it would turn the space frontier into “familiar territory.” And it has, by “routinizing” – another Nixon word – space travel. Shuttle prototypes, delta-winged for earth re-entry and landing, were tested on piggyback flights atop a Boeing-747 jet. On April 12, 1971 – 20 years to the day after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off on the world’s first spaceflight – a new era in space began with the launch of the Columbia orbiter on a two-day mission. It and four subsequent orbiters, named for historic sailing ships, were each a high-tech mélange of 200,000 synchronized components.

Muting the accomplishment of more than 100 successes, the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the break-up of Columbia in 2003, with the loss of 14 space voyagers between them, cast palls over the shuttle program. Never again would shuttle flights be “routinized,” but the catastrophes did not douse the nation’s determination to continue pushing the boundaries of space exploration.

Those are my “Magnficent Seven” U.S. engineering wonders, each of which makes a fascinating travel destination. Well, you’ll have to settle for either a mock-up of the space shuttle at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center outside Houston, Texas, or the long-retired space shuttle “Enterprise” — an engineless member of the fleet that was used for airborne landing practice but never saw orbital duty. It’s on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Udvar-Hazy Air and Space museum near Dulles Airport in Virginia. And you won’t get much of a tour of Sears Tower, since you’ll probably need an appointment to get past security. But looking up at the monster building, outside, is free!

I’ll ask you again: Can you believe that Lincoln’s face, and the others, were blasted out of a giant, granite rock face?

My favorite among the seven takes me right back to Lincoln at Mount Rushmore, for no matter what I read, I cannot fathom how Borglum’s minions, hanging from ropes and shoving, then lighting, sticks of dynamite into crevices of a nondescript mountain, turned granite into completely believable likenesses of Abe, George, Tom, and Teddy. It took something besides T-squares and slide rules to do it in those days long before computers. It took vision, and it took guts.

Abe, Abe, He’s (Still) Our Man

The words of my last posting about Abraham Lincoln had hardly cooled on the keyboard when the cable channel C-SPAN, which broadcasts congressional sessions and hearings as well as speeches by authors and historians, published the results of a poll of 65 eminent U.S. historians, who were asked to rank all the U.S. presidents for overall effectiveness.

Once again our man Honest Abe finished first. I say once again because he has topped the list of presidents in nearly every prestigious survey, beginning with a 1948 poll conducted by Harvard’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. Lincoln always scores high for his leadership through a terrible civil war and for his eloquent writing. The lowest he’s finished, so far as I know, is third, in a 1982 Sienna College poll in which Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson edged him out.

That same year, a survey of self-identified liberal and conservative historians remarkably found that Lincoln scored first among both! So the man clearly deserves all the attention he’s getting this bicentennial month of his birth.

James Buchanan
James Buchanan looked the part of a president. But he didn’t play it very well

It is notable, too, that the president who finished dead last in the esteem of historians polled by C-SPAN was Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan. He was the country’s only bachelor president. Aha! Buchanan is poorly rated because he dawdled and dallied and generally looked the other way as tensions over southern slavery bubbled to the boiling point. Buchanan left the question of allowing slavery in the new western territories to the Supreme Court, and the matter of secession of southern states from the Union to no one at all. A Pennsylvanian with no particular misgivings about the institution of slavery, Buchanan said he opposed southerners’ break from the Union but could find no legal grounds to stop it. Just before he left office, South Carolina militiamen fired upon a ship carrying reinforcements and supplies to Fort Sumter, a federal installation in Charleston harbor. Buchanan did nothing, the ship turned tail, and days later, just as Lincoln was settling into the White House, the South Carolinians shelled the fort itself. Sumter’s surrender marked the opening salvo of a civil war that Buchanan might, in the view of historians, have done a whole lot more to prevent or forestall.

It’s a good thing Buchanan was not around in 2007 when Nicholas von Hoffman assessed his performance in a Nation magazine story. “Aside from being a dull, unimaginative, dray horse of a politician,” von Hoffman wrote, “he was the President whose cowardice in handling the South and slavery ended the remotest possibility that the United States would be spared the horrors of the Civil War.”

And he didn’t even have a wife to tell him he was wonderful.

William Harrison
William Henry Harrison was a war hero. Maybe that’s why he didn’t want to bundle up against a miserable cold rain at his inauguration

President William Henry Harrison finished 39th out of 43 U.S. presidents. That’s hardly fair, since the poor man was in office only a month, having contracted pneumonia and dying following an overly long inaugural address in cold, driving rain. Perhaps “Old Tippecanoe” – a nickname from his Indian War days – would have been our greatest president. Nah. But 39th? What “body of work” could the historians have possibly studied? His vice president, John Tyler, who served almost all of what would have been Harrison’s term, didn’t fare much better. He finished 35th.

If you’re curious, our outgoing president, George W. Bush, finished 36th out of what had then been 43 presidents. Barack Obama had not yet taken office and was not rated. (He has, at least, outlasted Old Tippecanoe by a few hours, though, as of the time of this posting.)

It’s Wrenching at the Top

One more Lincoln observation, and then I’ll leave the man alone.

Ford's Theatre
Restored Ford’s Theatre is not as impressive on the outside as it is inside, where the stage, seating, and display areas have been substantially refurbished

Carol and I were lucky enough to score tickets to a newly commissioned play, “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” written by playwright James Still especially for the Lincoln Bicentennial and performed at the refurbished and just-reopened Ford’s Theatre here in Washington. It was there, you’ll remember, that Lincoln was mortally wounded by assassin John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

It would do you little good for me to review the play – though I’d like to, since David Selby’s portrayal of the sensitive president was an uncanny insight into Lincoln’s many torments. I bring it up because it hammered home the enormous burden carried by the one individual, the one human being, whom we now call the “leader of the Free World.”

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln had many troubles and sorrows, which he kept hidden from all but his close friends and staff. The burdens on any president are monumental

Men and women strive hard to become that one person at the top of the political pyramid. Do they know what they’re in for? Do they imagine the flip side of the power, the prestige, the adulation, the ability to order any meal, take any trip, call anyone, anywhere? They know about the “hand on the nuclear button” and the challenge of confronting foreign or domestic conflicts, economic turmoil, and human-rights abuses. They surely anticipate the load of leading many departments and vast bureaucracies. But do they have any inkling of the possible depths of anguish such as Lincoln felt, or the fervor of the hatred that whole segments of society may feel toward them? Do they grasp the full import of the old saying, “Success has a million fathers, but failure is an orphan”?

Compare the photographs of presidents on their first days with those taken on their last. (You can’t count Harrison, who looked an old 68 even when he began his one-month term.) I picture George W. Bush happily trimming brush on his Texas ranch and hoisting a drink or two with his Texas friends at a country club about now. And I think of the words of Old No. 43 out of 43, Buchanan, who wrote a note to his successor after Lincoln won the presidential election. “My dear sir,” he said. “If you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a happy man indeed.”


One last quick thing. An anonymous reader suggested that I continue my “tour” of New England by writing a post specifically about Boston. I will, but I wanted it, and me, to thaw out first. We’ll amble up to “Beantown” together later in the year.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Dawdle. To take one’s sweet old time!

Missive. A letter or quick note. Does anybody write letters any more? This blog is a missive, but it’s not as quick as I’d like it to be.

Obelisk. This is a monument or even a gravestone in the shape of tall, rectangular column topped by a pyramid. Sort of a squarish pencil with the point at the top.

Panoply. A wide, and often impressive, array of something. A panoply of colors, for example. It’s pronounced “PAN-uh-plee.”

Pilaster. I can never get my architectural terms straight, but I’ve learned that a pilaster is a column with a top (or capital) and a base like most columns, but one that protrudes only partially from a wall. It’s not free-standing, in other words, but part of the wall treatment. The word is pronounced “pih-LASS-ter.”

Rambunctious. Exuberant, noisy, a bit out of control, but not in a dangerous way. The word is often applied, affectionately, to an overactive child or puppy or kitten.

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Posted February 12th, 2009 at 6:37 pm (UTC-4)
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When I was knee high to a bobcat, as my mother liked to say, the birthday of our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was a huge day in school. We reviewed and recited the many accomplishments of “Honest Abe,” the “Rail-Splitter.”

This classic photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln was created by Alexander Gardner, a Mathew Brady associate who more famously shot many haunting Civil War battlefield scenes

We pointedly did not learn in second grade the degree to which southerners loathed “the Great Emancipator” for declaring their slaves free and for his insistence upon preserving the union of 34 states and quelling the rebellion of 13 of them. Many in his time called Lincoln “The Ape Baboon of the Prairie.” Even as 11-year-olds, we’d have surely known that “ape” and “baboon” are pretty redundant.

Now, on February 12th, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and the day of this posting, few are mocking Lincoln. In fact, as the Washington Post observed in one of its numerous tributes, Old Abe is “venerated as a national saint, part man, part myth.”

Lincoln got more attention in our Ohio school than even George Washington, our first president, whose birth date comes along just eight days after Lincoln’s. That’s because we were in class reading Lincoln stories and examining our Lincoln pennies and Lincoln $5 bills on Lincoln’s big day, but were home building snowmen on Washington’s Birthday because it was a national holiday.

George, Meet Abe

Years later, in 1968, Congress moved the Washington’s Birthday commemoration to the third Monday of February, pretty much assuring, if my calendar math is correct, that it would never again fall on the date of his birth. No matter. The nation craved another three-day holiday weekend. Three years later Richard Nixon declared that all chief executives – including lesser lights like Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur and himself, and not just Washington – deserved some props, so he reconstituted the holiday as “Presidents’ Day.”

Washington and Lincoln
Washington and Lincoln get equal billing in this 1865 lithograph as the “noblest sons” of Columbia, a figure often used to represent the nation

Didn’t work. Teachers and advertisers brushed aside the James J. Polkses and John Tylers and assigned the day to George and Abe, virtually guaranteeing at least one payday a year for Washington and Lincoln impersonators.

Monday the 16th is the holiday this year. And this time, Honest Abe is outshining “the Father of His Country” for attention because Lincoln would be hitting the Big 2-0-0 if humans lived into a third century. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site is bursting with Lincoln tributes, tales, trivia, and lists of events. There’s even one in Annapolis, Maryland, called “The Moustache,” which is curious because Lincoln, though bearded, didn’t have one. This turns out to be an opera, of all things, about a fictional meeting between some Baltimore fellow and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s actual assassin. A stretch, if you ask me.

Lincoln did not mind his image as a simple Kentucky country boy. He sometimes referred to himself as “Log Cabin Lincoln”

Everywhere you look, someone is hawking Lincolniana kitsch: miniature busts, Honest Abe T-shirts, cheap stovepipe hats, photos of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, postcard views of the humble Kentucky log cabin where he was born, and fake Lincoln beards. (They all have to be fake, don’t they?) Lincoln portraits, too, including one in which someone imposed a trim, Lincoln-style beard onto President Obama.

Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, designed by Daniel Chester French, resembles a Greek temple. Its 36 Doric columns represent the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865

In one of the celebratory touches of the Lincoln Bicentennial, the reverse, or “tails,” side of the Lincoln penny has been redesigned. A depiction of the Kentucky cabin replaces the longstanding, and far more imposing, view of the Lincoln Memorial.

The $5 bill had already been reworked in 2007, but for anti-counterfeiting reasons. Lincoln’s image was changed from one pose for a Mathew Brady portrait to another; Abe looks to his left on the old bill and his right on the new one.

The contents of Lincoln’s pockets at the time of his death – as well as a Lincoln life mask and casting of his hands – are displayed at Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot

Ironically, when Lincoln was assassinated while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington in 1865, the only currency in his pocket was a $5 bill. But it was a Confederate fiver that most certainly did not contain his likeness. No one is positive why he was carrying the worthless southern scrip; likely it was a souvenir from his visit to the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond earlier in the month.

Lincoln, Lincoln, He’s Our Man
Mount Rushmore
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum selected the four presidents to be depicted on Mount Rushmore. Lincoln was the most difficult to carve in the granite because of his beard

It’s Lincoln Time in America, all right, especially in Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska and in “Lincoln” cities and towns in at least 23 other states; on the old, mostly two-lane Lincoln Highway, which starts in Pennsylvania and winds west; at the monumental Mount Rushmore sculpture where Lincoln’s was one of four presidential likenesses blasted into a mountainside in South Dakota about 80 years ago; at the Lincoln Memorial; on the campuses of the six U.S. (and four foreign) colleges or universities that have Lincoln’s name in theirs; at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; and at Lincoln-brand automobile dealerships. Celebrations are less high-spirited perhaps, at the last of these, given the economy.

You could almost imagine the elephants and giraffes at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo calling each other “Abe” or “Abby” during all the excitement. Or maybe not.

Abraham Lincoln is a much-acclaimed fellow any time of year, at least outside of the once-rebellious Dixie. In the subtitle of his 2008 book Abraham Lincoln, a Man of Faith and Courage, historian Joe Wheeler calls him our “most admired president,” and millions of Americans would agree. While it is an exaggeration to say that he “freed the slaves,” his Emancipation Proclamation did declare slaves under the control of the southern states to be freedmen and women. It was up to Lincoln’s army and navy to win the Civil War and make it so. Notably, the proclamation said nothing about border states like Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland – nominally still in the Union and still embracing that unholy institution.

Not alone a savior
Lincoln gets a prominent position in cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1865 depiction of the emancipation of southern slaves

Nor did Lincoln decree enslaved African Americans free out of deep moral conviction. “What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union,” he said. He knew that word of his proclamation would spread throughout the South, weakening slaveholders’ grip. In a letter to New York editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln made his intentions clear: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave,” he wrote, “I would do it.”

It was not until December 18, 1865 – eight months and three days after Lincoln’s death – when a sufficient number of states had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that slavery became illegal throughout the land.

It cannot be said, though it often is of Lincoln, that one person “saved the Union.” Two tigers on his general staff, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, had a lot to do with that. Lincoln had dithered before replacing three ineffective commanders-in-chief of the Union Army, but he made the change to Grant – previously a dyspeptic, slave-owning, mediocre officer – because Grant gave no quarter to the enemy. “Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks,” Lincoln said. “I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”

A villain’s treachery
Satan tempts Booth
In this 1865 litho, John Wilkes Booth is tempted by a Mephistophelian Satan to shoot Abraham Lincoln, who, upon close inspection, can be seen in his theatre seat

John Wilkes Booth, the accomplished actor and impassioned southern sympathizer who, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis” – “death to tyrants” – would mortally shoot Lincoln that April night at the theatre, certainly knew Lincoln had preserved the Union. Or, to his way of thinking, had thwarted the lawful desire of sovereign Confederate states to leave it. Seventeen months before Booth fired the fatal shot, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had attended another play at Ford’s – one in which Booth starred. In Katherine Helm’s 1928 biography of Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Clay, the daughter of Lincoln’s minister to Russia, recalled that evening:

Ford's Theatre
Here’s the “Lincoln Box,” where the president was shot, as it appears in the just-reopened and refurbished Ford’s Theatre

“Wilkes Booth played the part of villain. The box was right on the stage, with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sallie Clay and the other gentlemen farther around. Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln’s face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?’”

An Evening in the Log Hut
Young Abe Lincoln reads by the light of the fireplace in this 1868 “An Evening in the Log Hut” lithograph

More books – thousands of them – have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. Elsewhere in this Lincoln Bicentennial Year, you can search out stories about Lincoln’s religious faith or the lack of it, his seven epic “Lincoln-Douglas” debates in which Lincoln sought to unseat U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, and myriad other topics. Want to know about Lincoln’s two vice presidents? His childhood nights spent reading by dim candlelight, or his teenage prowess as a woodchopper? His own wartime service in the “Black Hawk” Indian war? The hunt for, and death of Booth, and trials of his alleged conspirators, and the executions of some of them? Now’s a perfect time to look.

But there are several other facets of the man and his character that have long held my fascination and may tweak yours as well:

Lincoln profile
One gets a different, side view of Lincoln’s famous beard in this unusual left profile

America’s most famous beard. Republican supporters had urged Lincoln to grow chin whiskers to add a statesmanlike aura to his gangly, disheveled appearance and to distract from his phenomenally long neck. Beards weren’t seen as anti-establishment or professorial back then; they were the rage in the high society set and the general officer corps. But Lincoln waited until the days just after his election as president in November 1860 to sport one. An 11-year-old girl, Grace Bedell, had written Lincoln, advising him to grow a beard: “I have got 4 brother’s [sic],” she wrote, “and part of them will vote for you any way and if you let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you[;] you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin.” We know that this impressed the new president, because he ordered his inaugural train, bound from his Illinois home to Washington, D.C., to stop in Grace’s hometown of Westfield, New York, where Lincoln sought her out.

Presidential candidate Lincoln
Presidential candidate Lincoln, still sans beard, strikes a calm pose. His presidency would be anything but

• “Honest Abe.” Stories of Lincoln’s sterling character abound. Some were doubtless created by “spin doctors” of the era, but there are so many, from so many sources, that Lincoln’s reputation for rectitude is rarely questioned. More than once while clerking in a country store, it is said, Lincoln walked a long way to deliver a few cents he had overcharged or goods to those he had inadvertently short-changed. When he wrote a memorable speech that he delivered while running for the U.S. Senate in which he warned that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” his law partner, William Herndon, advised him to delete a statement that “a government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Proffering an end to human bondage would be an unwise policy, Herndon said, in a nation that was close to breaking asunder over slavery. “No matter about the policy,” Lincoln told him. “The proposition has been true for six thousand years, and I will deliver it as it is written.”

Asked one day whether he was a religious man, Lincoln said he was a member of no church but followed the same religious code as that of a farmer he knew: “When I do good, I feel good, and when I do bad, I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”

Such were the sorts of tales we learned in school, and a Cleveland friend, Susan Griffith, added this in a note to me:

“When I was in the third grade in Casper, Wyoming, there was a series of biographies in our classroom library. The first book I pulled off the shelf was about Abraham Lincoln. It probably was one of the first big books that I read. I just remember his reading by candlelight in the attic of his home, how there was snow outside, and it was cold. It reminded me of Iowa [where Susan spent her earliest years] and how the upstairs of the old farmhouse only got heat from what rose from the downstairs. He also seemed so tall and huge a man. Later on the way home from visiting my sister at her college in southern Illinois in 1966, my dad, mom, sister, and I stopped by his historic home in Springfield and saw the bed he slept in. It was so small compared to a contemporary bed and I thought either he was short or his feet must have stuck out of the end of the bed.”

So Lincoln wasn’t only honest, at least by sympathetic accounts. He was also a “tall drink of water,” to use a country term. Which brings me to . . .

In this photo with his security chief, Allan Pinkerton and General John McClernand, you get an idea of Lincoln’s great height, even minus the stovepipe hat

• Lincoln’s Odd Appearance. First of all, can we agree that he was not what you’d call much of a looker, probably even by 19th Century standards? He was 1.9 meters tall – about a full head taller than the average American male of his time. And a lot more about him – face, hands, arms, legs, and feet – was long and thin as well. Herndon said Lincoln had “a sunken breast,” and some accounts describe him as walking with a loose-jointed lope, fueling the “ape” taunts of his haters.

Speculating on the reasons for Lincoln’s spindly, emaciated appearance has become a cottage industry. In the 1960s, a long-posthumous diagnosis of Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissues, was advanced in many journals. Marfan sufferers are typically tall, have disproportionately long arms and unusually shaped chests, and are nearsighted. All of these descriptions appear to have applied to Lincoln, and if he also had other Marfan indicators like heart irregularities and painful joint inflammation, it would help to explain his frequent brooding.

Lincoln doesn’t look odd, exactly, in this portrait. But you get an idea of his narrow head, sunken chest and unusually long arms

But the Marfan theory has, to use a journal term, “lost currency” of late. In his 2008 book, Dr. John Sotos, an eminent former Johns Hopkins University cardiologist, postulated that Lincoln exhibited a rare genetic cancer syndrome called “MEN2B” and would have died from cancer within a year had Booth’s bullet not felled him. Though no one has yet gained permission to exhume Lincoln’s bones in Springfield or been given access to rare specimens of Lincoln’s DNA for conclusive study – samples do exist in closely held remnants of his and others’ clothing spattered with his blood – Dr. Sotos minutely examined photos, down to some suspicious bumps on Lincoln’s lips, along with descriptions of his gestures and gait. There is strong evidence that Lincoln’s mother and three of his sons had the killer disease, Sotos writes. “The three sons who had bumpy lips like Lincoln himself died before the age of 20, while the one son with normal lips lived to the age of 82.”

• Lincoln’s brilliant writing. Lincoln had no stable of speechwriters. Or even one, for that matter. He had his own gift of words and a straightforward way of delivering them that was unusual in an era of orotund orators. (I just had to put those two words together. Orotund means lofty, pompous, deliberately bombastic.) Where others fluffed up their importance with high-sounding pronouncements, quotations from the ancients, and melodramatic gestures, Lincoln got to the point without the grandiloquence. He could talk for hours if he had to – he certainly did in the debates with Douglas, the “Little Giant” – but he filled the time with stories laced with wisdom of his own making.

Gettysburg Address
Recent accounts have discredited the old story that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on an envelope while riding to the cemetery dedication. He may have touched up his remarks on the train, however

Many Americans know the story of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered at the newly dug soldiers’ cemetery on the site of the decisive battle of the Civil War in Pennsylvania. Lincoln was not even the featured speaker; he was asked to say just a few final words of dedication. Beforehand, one of the stentorian types, Edward Everett, fulminated for two hours! Lincoln followed, ever so quietly, for just two minutes. Those in attendance were probably stretching to get over their Everett fatigue. Many later admitted they did not even realize the president had spoken. Yet Lincoln’s 272 words have become some of the most quoted in American history. A sampling:

“…[W]e here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Two other examples of Abraham Lincoln’s power-packed rhetoric:

First inaugural
The central portion of the U.S. Capitol, including its dome, was still under construction when Lincoln first took the oath as president in 1861

From Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, in which he made a final plea to southerners to remain loyal to the Union:

“We are not enemies, but friends. . . . Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

And one of my favorites, because it underscores Lincoln’s brevity and humility, quoted in the diary of his private secretary, John Milton Hay:

“Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.”

So human, simple and direct, yet profound, Lincoln’s words – which he often jotted onto scraps of paper as thoughts came to him, then retrieved to fit certain occasions – no doubt surprised many an unsuspecting audience, who may have anticipated a country bumpkin. Or that baboon.

• Lincoln’s voice. It would be twelve years after Lincoln’s death before the human voice was first recorded when inventor Thomas Edison captured his own recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a cylinder of tinfoil. So we have only others’ accounts to describe Abraham Lincoln’s timbre.

It should not surprise you that his was not the booming basso of a classical lecturer. Herndon gave this rather unflattering account: “Lincoln’s voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him.”

Lincoln’s friend Noah Brooks, a California reporter, noted that the president’s second inaugural address “was received in most profound silence. Every word was clear and audible as the ringing and somewhat shrill tones of Lincoln’s voice sounded over the vast concourse.”

Lincoln’s vocalizing was nothing to marvel at, agreed Abram Bergen, a lawyer of the time. “But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.”

So if you hear one of the thousands of Lincoln impersonators who are performing this month, and the fellow struts and pontificates and bellows, lower your grade of him. And give extra credit to squeakier, geekier renditions.

• Happy Lincoln, despondent Lincoln. When he was about 16, Lincoln wrote this ditty:

“Abraham Lincoln is my name
“And with my pen I wrote the same
“I wrote in both hast[e] and speed
“And left it here for fools to read.”

George McClellan
They didn’t call General George McClellan, a fine engineer but timid fighter, “the Little Napoleon” for nothing

Even in the grimmest days of the Civil War, Lincoln unleashed his dry wit. His top general, George McClellan, a spit-and-polish poseur adept at drilling and inept at fighting, held his commander-in-chief in open contempt, even keeping Lincoln waiting when he came to see him. Asked if this offended him, Lincoln replied, “I’ll even hold McClellan’s horse if that will bring success.”

And this surely fanciful story is recounted on the Web site

“Lincoln was stopped one day by a man who stuck a revolver almost into his face. Under the circumstances Lincoln quickly realized that any resistance was unwise. Trying to remain calm, he inquired, ‘What seems to be the matter?’

“‘A long time ago,’ replied the man, ‘I swore that if I ever came across an uglier man than myself I’d shoot him on the spot.’

“‘Well,’ supposedly said Lincoln. ‘Go ahead and shoot me then, because if I am an uglier man than you I don’t want to live.’”

Would you agree that even though Lincoln manages a weak smile in this photograph, sadness and the toll of a trying presidency peek through?

These are droll observations for a man who is painted as a lifelong depressive. In Lincoln’s Melancholy, a recent book on the subject, Joshua Shenk wrote that Lincoln “often wept in public and cited maudlin poetry. . . . As a young man he talked of suicide, and as he grew older, he said he saw the world as hard and grim, made that way by fates and forces of God. ‘No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,’ declared his colleague Henry Whitney, ‘was so marked and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy,” which former partner Herndon said “dripped from him as he walked.’”

Of course Lincoln had plenty to be sad about, including:

– A lonely childhood, in which he lost his mother when he was 10, a brother who died at birth, and, emotionally, a father who was often elsewhere and who rebuked him for sticking his nose into books.

–The death of his 9-year-old son, Willie, from a typhus-like illness while Lincoln was in the White House. “It is hard, hard, hard to have him die!” Lincoln told friends.

Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was well bred, abrasive, and high-strung, quite the opposite attributes of her husband

–A volatile marriage to a woman whom the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert, would one day commit to a mental asylum. Mary Lincoln came from a life of privilege; Abraham from rural poverty. Mary was a spendthrift; Abe was a frugal fellow. Mary was boisterous and temperamental; her husband, who could go for hours without speaking, intensified her outbursts by ignoring them. Mary Lincoln, inconsolable after Willie’s death, slipped into delusions in which she continued to converse with her departed son.

Civil War
Thoughts of scenes like this mass burial following the second battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, in 1864 haunted the melancholic president

–And of course the bloody war, which went badly for a year. This was not some distant conflict. Death was a valley or two away, and the hatred that some people hurled at Lincoln must have been daunting. The very day he was shot, Lincoln told his wife, “We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable.” When Lincoln died the next day, a Texas newspaper declared, “The world is happily rid of a monster that disgraced the form of humanity.”

Republican Party
Lincoln looks every bit the rough-hewn westerner in this 1860 Republican Party poster promoting his presidential candidacy

• Lincoln the “Father of the G.O.P.” When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, he became the nation’s first Republican president. The political party was but six years old, having been founded by a diverse group of men who were outraged over a law that would open some of the West to slavery. Their opposition was more economic than principled; they did not want to compete against unpaid workers on the prairie. There were many other issues that stoked their rise as well, including their support of a new transcontinental railroad. Immediately successful, Republicans soon supplanted the old-line Whigs as the Democrats’ opposition. In the party’s first year of trying, 1854, the Republicans won enough seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lincoln rode into office as a “westerner” when Illinois, barely one-third of the way across the country, was still “the West.” He defeated New Yorker William H. Seward. Then, in classic Lincoln fashion when he took office, he appointed Seward as his secretary of state. And other old rivals to high offices as well, putting into action his beliefs that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Over the decades Republicans have made good use of the idea that they are “the party of Lincoln,” but Lincoln’s legend has outgrown any one political brand. Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, openly admires Lincoln and, in naming four Republicans to his own Cabinet, emulates him. So much so that a Republican blogger recently grumbled that Obama is “drenched in Lincoln.”

‘We’ll Sing to Abe Our Song’
The “wigwam” to which this song about candidate Lincoln refers was not an Indian tipi. It was the name of a wooden building constructed in Chicago for the 1860 Republican convention

There have been hundreds of songs about Lincoln, many written in the years immediately following his assassination. I never learned the words to “Abraham’s Tea Party,” the “Emancipation Quickstep,” “Lincoln Schottisch” (whatever a “schottisch” is), or “Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness.” But I remember, dimly, either my own singing in school, or one of my children’s singing for me, this Lincoln verse, set to the old children’s tune, “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands.”

Ready, class? Sing along, now!

“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,

“You were brave.

“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,

“You were good.

“You stood for what was right,

“You did not give up the fight,

“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,

“You were good.”


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Dither. To nervously fuss while trying to make a decision. In the long-running “Dagwood” comic strip, office worker Dagwood Bumstead’s indecisive, never-satisfied boss was named “Mr. Dithers.”

Dixie. There are many theories advanced about the origin of this nickname for the Deep South states. One is that it ties to the survey of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, called the “Mason-Dixon” line, that is often used as the informal boundary between North and South. Another traces to $10 banknotes issued in French-speaking Louisiana prior to the Civil War. They were known as “dixes” or “dixies.”

Dyspeptic. Sour, morose, grouchy. Dyspepsia is a recognized medical ailment, involving stomach pain caused by ulcers or other conditions that certainly do not lighten the sufferer’s mood.

Fulminate. To rant and rave and fume. The word is often applied to speakers who make a habit of, and a living from, denouncing others.

Grandiloquence. High-flown style; grandiose prose. Note that the word is not “grandeloquence.”

Kitcsch. Cheap, tasteless, often garish art and collectibles. The German or Yiddish word was first applied to really bad paintings, like bright, velvet depictions of jungle beasts or Elvis Presley.

Props. A relatively recent addition to the English lexicon of slang. When you extend someone his or her proper due, you’re “giving props.”

Rectitude. Righteousness. The moral high ground taken as a matter of honor.

Oh, I did break down and check into the meaning of “schottish.” It’s a Bohemian country dance with two short runs, a hop, and four turning hop steps. Doesn’t sound like something the awkward, gangly Abe Lincoln himself would have executed well. Or me, either.

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Posted February 6th, 2009 at 7:29 pm (UTC-4)
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I’m at it again with another made-up regional name. Just as there is no such place as MassConnIsland to encompass the three southernmost states in the New England region, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine to the north don’t really come together as NewVerMaine. But they have enough in common to set them apart from the states below them.

Winter is the time of year that tests one’s love of this land of old, weathered mountains, vast evergreen forests, and rocky seashores. And when I say rocks, I mean gigantic ones, piled all along the Maine coast in particular. You can build only so many ski resorts, stack only so many cords of firewood, and pull only so many fish and lobsters from the frigid sea to pull a profit out of such places at this time of year. Steady employment is pretty hard to find in this northland abutting Canada. Many residents of these states survive on seasonal, warm-weather jobs at resorts, tourist cabins, fishing camps and the like. But just as hardy people have stuck it out on the icy winter plains of North Dakota in the Midwest, people who have these north woods in their blood love it too much to leave. Somehow, year after year, they get by.

Green and More Green

As in southern New England, tourism – including those ski resorts – has become a lifeline in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. In no other region are bed-and-breakfast inns more plentiful and in demand, especially during picturesque “leaf season” in the fall. Whereas tourists mosey around the southern New England states in search of historical and cultural landmarks like whaling museums, colonial-style villages, monuments and other remnants of the American Revolution of the late 18th Century, visitors seek out the North Country for its scenery, snow, and wildlife – including moose, brown bears, mink, bobcats, river otters and eastern coyotes.

Visitors come in search of simple serenity as well.

Ruth and Wimpy's
This is Ruth and Wimpy’s lobster shack in Hancock, Maine. And the red fellow in the foreground is “Wilbur”

And great food. Maine lobsters are a delicacy too expensive to afford very often back home, but they’re so commonplace in Maine that every little shack along the coast serves “lobster rolls” made with hunks of lobster meat. Or you can order-up clams on the half-shell, mussels marinara, locally caught and fried octopus, or puffers. Puffers? They are strips of mild whitefish breaded in tempura batter, which puffs up when the fish is deep-fried. Tempura in Maine! – where, I guarantee you, the batter is not mixed with chopsticks.

Yummy Fare

This may be the hard-edged land of flannel shirts and chest waders, but inside some of the simple cabins from which you see fireplace smoke curling are some of the nation’s finest restaurants. Northern New England even sports an internationally renowned school for chefs. At the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, young people pay handsomely for the chance to work at the bottom rung of the food-service business, from chopping greens to scraping bread crumbs off guests’ tables, in hopes of someday becoming master chefs. Their laboratories are real-life restaurants in Essex and the state capital of Montpelier. There, they do almost 90 percent of the work in the kitchen – the “back of the house” as it’s called in the trade – as well as the lion’s share of the serving out front. Talk about a good deal for restaurateurs!

So fine is the food and enthusiastic the service that many patrons would never know they are exhibits in a culinary classroom save for one little detail that cannot slip their notice:

Tipping is not allowed.

Fragile Ecosystem Preserved

In my last post, I mentioned the ecology theme of the Rose Island Lighthouse down in Rhode Island. Environmental tourism is even stronger up north. Most of the visitors to an Atlantic Ocean salt marsh once known as Laudholm Farm, near Wells, Maine, for instance, stow their litter and are careful to keep to the footpath as they peer at wetland bogs, migratory birds and marsh animals. This is the land of Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and nature writer whose book Silent Spring launched an environmental movement so strong that it led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other toxic pesticides.

Laudholm Farm
This is the beautifully preserved milking barn at Laudholm Farm on an estuarine salt marsh in Maine

At Laudholm Farm, too, you’ll find a big Jamesway milking barn of the sort that were once the centerpieces of model farms throughout northern New England. The entire estate is part of the 728-hectare Wells National Estuary Sanctuary – Maine’s largest stretch of open land. At its dedication many years ago, then-U.S. Senator William Cohen of Maine welcomed the nature preserve. There is more to the Maine lifestyle than “condominiumizing the coastline,” he said.

That’s less of a problem during our present economic troubles, of course, since fewer speculators are building condos and fewer consumers are buying them.

The northeasternmost state in the nation’s upper-right-hand corner, Maine was part of a much larger Massachusetts until 1820. It is almost as large as the other five New England states combined but holds only 9 percent of the region’s population.

You want rocky? Here’s one view of Maine’s rocky coastline, which wiggles in and out of the sea

And here’s my favorite Maine factoid. Take a look at a U.S. map, if you can, perhaps by zooming in on the upper-right corner of the country on the interactive map you’ll find over in the column on the right: Suppose the rocky coastline of Maine, including all the little detours into its many inlets, were a string. If you pulled that string tight, the Maine coast would be longer than California’s long coastline that runs more than halfway up our West Coast. Yet look at the two states on a map, and Maine’s coastline looks to be just a fraction of California’s.

Down and Back and Down Again
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse
At the end of one of Maine’s innumerable little peninsulas, you’ll find Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. Check out the layers of granite to see why the beacon protected many a mariner from a shipwreck

All these inlets are a nuisance to travelers. You can’t just roll along the coastline, admiring the scenery, the way you can along California’s Pacific Coast Highway. If you wind down a narrow road to one of Maine’s quaint fishing villages or little resort cities with their grand sea captains’ mansions at the end of one of Maine’s countless peninsulas, you have to retrace your steps to go anywhere else. If you wanted to visit all the little towns, you’d be driving for weeks!

Check out how hard it is to see this moose cow on a clear day. Try spotting it on the road on a foggy night

In Maine’s largely empty interior, pines are plentiful and houses are few and far between. When Carol and I last visited Maine a few years ago, there were even signs along the Maine Turnpike displaying a puzzling series of letters and numbers rather than the name of the town you’d reach off the next exit. That’s because there was none. Instead, the ramps would lead to unincorporated and virtually uninhabited tracts of land, identified by those mysterious codes. You might meet a moose there, though, or even a brown bear. And you were almost guaranteed a whitetail-deer sighting.

No wonder Mainers, with their famously wry humor, sometimes call their state “The Next to Last Frontier” – barely conceding that Alaska, far, far away to the west, is the last.

Which reminds me of another Maine tale to go with the one from the last posting:

Question: When is summer in Maine?

Answer: The Fourth of July.

Now naturally, the state does get a whiff of warm air for a few more days than that, but it’s not a blessing. The wind blows in mosquitoes the size of condors and blood-sucking black flies that only a werewolf could love.

Wild Places and Things

If you want to see Maine’s seals up close – and there are five varieties, including harp, hooded, and ringed – or a lobster anywhere but in a tank or in chunks at the end of your fork, you’ll have to take a lobster-boat excursion. Two layers of sweaters advised.

On it, you’ll get an inkling of the backbreaking work of a lobsterman, who must set and haul up traps from dawn till dusk. And you’ll learn invaluable things about the creatures, including the fact that they smell with their leg hairs. I’m not sure that this information could be of any practical use, but you never know.

Acadia National Park
This is a view from atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Below in the distance is swanky Bar Harbor

For those less prone to seasickness, Maine is home to one of the nation’s most beautiful – and most visited – national wonders. It’s Acadia National Park, which is spread over an island with the unusual name of “Mount Desert Island” as well as smaller islands and an onshore peninsula. Created in 1916, Acadia is the nation’s oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. At the summit of its Cadillac Mountain on a clear day, you can see Mount Katahdin, the starting point of the Appalachian foot trail, 130 kilometers to the north. And spread out directly below are the yacht-filled slips of the resort town of Bar Harbor. Or as they say in New England, “Bah Hahbuh.”

You’ll recall that I said that New Englanders practice a studied wariness, and that’s nowhere more true than in Maine. Mainers are still sizing up people years after they move to the state, and you may never be accepted as true “Mainiacs.” “Just because your cat has kittens in the oven,” goes the explanation, “you wouldn’t call them biscuits.”

I say this and have observed it. Yet Maine, which calls itself “Vacationland,” is delighted to accept all the tourist dollars it can get. It’s just when people come and never leave that there can be tensions.

You’ll Need Boots
Montpelier, Vermont, at 8,000 people, is the nation’s smallest state capital. One of the coldest, too, as you can guess by looking at it

Winters are long, cabin fever runs high, and during spring’s “mud season,” newly thawed dirt roads are all but impassable. Maine is not a bedroom community for bigger cities to the south, the way southern Vermont and New Hampshire have become. Nor have the “summer people,” as the Mainers call them, moved in to the same degree. For many years, the people of this state have turned down nearly every proposal to widen the Maine Turnpike, even though 70 percent of them lived within 25 kilometers of the road and could have used a faster trip. They just didn’t want to encourage development.

Only the little sign off to the right would give away the identification of this pretty little building in Freeport, Maine, as a McDonald’s restaurant

Maine’s quiet pride bubbles at the mention of two institutions: the state university, whose hockey and baseball teams often make College World Series appearances; and the L.L. Bean outdoor clothing and equipment company in Freeport, which is famous for its conservative clothes and solicitous customer service. Even Freeport’s McDonald’s fast-food outlet is located in a historic house. So many people drove up to Maine to shop in Freeport that 13 separate malls of outlet stores sprang up along the coast, offering discounts on famous-name brands. At this contender for Outlet Capital of the Nation, stores sometimes spill their goods onto the sidewalks, creating a “shop till you drop” frenzy the likes of which I hope to never experience again.

What does one do for fun in Maine? There are lobster bakes, lighthouse tours, snowmobiling trips and organized moose-picture safaris. I kid you not. In Maine, drivers are advised to watch out first for automobiles, then for moose, unless it’s dark, when the order is reversed. Adult moose are darker, taller and weigh as much as many cars.

That’s Vermont. No, New Hampshire
New Hampshire
This is New Hampshire. Or is it Vermont?

If you’ll turn to that map again and look at the shapes of Maine’s neighbors to the east – New Hampshire and Vermont – you’ll notice that they look a lot alike, like two long pork chops side by side, with the thin “handle” of one pointing northward, toward Canada, and the “handle” of the other pointing south, toward Massachusetts.

I asked web guru Anne Malinee how many Americans out of 10 would know which is which.

“Half,” she said.

“No way,” I protested. “I’d be surprised if three out of 10 would know New Hampshire from Vermont if only the outlines appeared.”

“I meant half a person”! she replied. One-half of one person in 10 might know them apart, presumably excluding most who live there. Anne is from Kansas, a long way away. So count her among those who are never sure. I’ve been to both states several times, and I still get them confused unless they’re clearly labeled.

So pay attention!: New Hampshire is the one with the skinny “handle” at the top, and it’s the only state to border Maine. That’s possible only because a tiny bump of New Hampshire sticks out eastward to the Atlantic Coast, barely separating Maine from Massachusetts below. Yet the 21 kilometers of New Hampshire’s Atlantic shoreline offer a great deal. There’s a quiet, state-owned swimming beach. Then an old-fashioned amusement beach with a five-kilometer boardwalk that includes a “casino” – the old fashioned word not for a gambling house but an entertainment arcade and ballroom.

In Portsmouth harbor, these three-thousand-horsepower tugboats await assignments to tow ships up the Piscataqua River

And finally there is graceful, historic Portsmouth, one of the best-preserved maritime centers in New England. It was a whaling town and a shipbuilding center. And in the middle of it all is Strawbery Banke, a remarkable cluster of buildings saved from ruination. And not just colonial ones. At Strawbery Banke you’ll find corner stores from the 1940s; little bungalows from the 1950s complete with big, blocky, black-and-white television sets and early refrigerators; and gardens in the styles of many eras. (And if you think the name “Strawbery Banke” sounds odd, wait till you hear the name of the Portsmouth neighborhood it’s in. It’s “Puddle Duck.”)

Ever since the first mountain climbers showed up in 1640 to test a peak called Mount Washington – and more on it in a little bit –, New Hampshire has had a bemused tolerance of tourists. Artists hung out at the foot of that mountain, founding an entire “Bretton Woods School.” More about Bretton Woods to come, too.

Train station
Every unusual building is fair game for tourists’ cameras, including this old train station in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. The town simplified the name from the original “Wolfeborough” many years ago

The upshot is that New Hampshiremen – that’s what they’re called, though there don’t seem to be a lot of references to New Hampshirewomen – have a little joke going. They like visitors so much that many say the license plate motto should be changed from “Live Free or Die” to “Bring Money.”

A Frugal Lot

The ‘Live Free” motto is attributed to Revolutionary War general John Stark, and it was picked up by William Loeb, editor of the arch-conservative Union Leader newspaper in the state’s largest city, Manchester. In part because of Loeb’s influence, New Hampshire has voted Republican much more often than Democratic in statewide and presidential elections. One of its rural counties on the Maine border has even been the most reliably Republican in presidential voting in the nation.

Our new, liberal Democratic president, Barack Obama, just nominated U.S. Senator Judd Gregg to be his secretary of Commerce, even though Gregg is a Republican. And to get him, the president had to get New Hampshire’s Democratic governor, John Lynch, to agree to appoint another Republican in Gregg’s place.

Liquor store
What’s so special about this New Hampshire liquor store? It’s the prices. People drive there from all over the Northeast to stock up, because prices are so low. In part, that’s because the state charges no sales tax

As evidence of New Hampshire’s prized independence and self-sufficiency, the state has stoutly rejected efforts to impose income or sales taxes. It is the only state in the Union that has neither. “We’re stubbornly self-reliant,” is one explanation, which may explain why New Hampshire routinely ranks in the top five or six in per capita income among the 50 states, and near the bottom – sometimes even 50th – on the annual “generosity index” of charitable giving.

The lush forests of upper New England are dotted with cozy little lakes like this one

Americans can thank New Hampshire for national forests. When the gentry of New York, Washington, and Philadelphia, sitting on the verandas of the numerous grand resorts in the shadow of the state’s White Mountains, saw the mountains being stripped of wood by loggers, they complained. It’s not that they were raging environmentalists. The bare spots on the mountainside spoiled the view. So in 1911, Congressman John W. Weeks of New York, a New Hampshire native, pushed through the nation’s first law allowing the federal government to purchase vast forest lands, using the rationale that saving trees would protect stream banks from dangerous runoffs, and turn them into preserves. The result is that the view of Mount Washington, around which the first national forest was established, is remarkably free of condominiums, fast-food signs, ski chalets, and electrical towers.

Opulence in the Highlands

The largest and most lavish of the White Mountains resorts was the Mount Washington Hotel, which overlooks the long, unspoiled Bretton Woods Valley at the foot of the Presidential Range.

Mount Washington Hotel
The setting of the regal Mount Washington Hotel is almost breathtaking

Whole families – or at least the women, children, and household servants – “summered” there for generations. (Fathers stayed on the job in the cities, perhaps dropping in at the resorts for a long weekend or two.) Arriving in first-class Pullman cars or private railroad coaches, guests were greeted by a coachman and then the same solicitous general manager and maitre ‘d hotel who had waited on them the previous year. “Seeing and being seen was the name of the game” for these grand hotels’ clientele, many of whom came from a prominent listing of the top 400 members of the nation’s mercantile gentry, according to White Mountains historian Edward Camara Jr. “It was one of the reasons you went there, to promenade down the long porch to dinner or through the lobby to the ballroom.”

Come wintertime the staffs – and several of the guests – of these northlands resorts would simply move south to “winter” in similarly opulent style in Florida.

Mount Washington
Here’s another view of the Mount Washington, with a bit of the flair from the days when it and other grand North Country resorts attracted the East’s elite

The Y-shaped Mount Washington Hotel was titanic, its lobby so cavernous that it was first called the “assembly hall.” Its 300 or so guest rooms boasted more than one thousand windows, five thousand electric lights, and oversized brass doorknobs that became a trademark. And the most remarkable features of this great palazzo in what seemed like the middle of nowhere in the North Woods were the wraparound veranda that extended for almost half a kilometer, Turkish baths, boot and gun rooms, indoor and outdoor swimming pools “fed by water from the Ammonoosuc, tempered by jets of steam,” and six separate refrigeration rooms off the kitchen, each with its own temperature that was ideal for meats, cream, fruit, vegetables, pastry, or frozen treats.

It was at the Mount Washington Hotel in 1944 that the New Hampshire mountains met the world. With the outcome of World War II still much in doubt, the United States invited world leaders to the Bretton Woods Conference to formulate postwar economic plans. Two results: a world monetary fund and a new world bank.

Low but Famous Vote Totals
Franconia Notch
This is Franconia Notch, one of New Hampshire’s few routes through the White Mountains

Today only the Mount Washington Hotel and the Balsams Hotel in little Dixville Notch, population 75, survive among New Hampshire’s grand hotels. (A notch is the New Hampshire term for a narrow cut in the mountains.) The Balsams is the site of the nation’s first vote and vote count, just past midnight on primary and general-election days each presidential election year. Sometimes as few as 25 people vote, and the results are carried across the nation as something for the analysts to talk about before meaningful results stream in.

If Boston is the informal capital of the southern New England states, Mount Washington and all it surveys could be called the locus of the northern ones. “Agiocochook,” as the native Abenaki Indians called it, was not only the centerpiece of the eastern American alps, it was, to them, also home to the Great Spirit. For sure, at 1,917 meters, what would later be called Mount Washington was the highest point east of the Mississippi River and north of the Carolinas.

Bring Mittens. Lots of Them
This is the old observatory building atop Mount Washington, coated with “rime,” a form of ice caused by the deposit of super-cooled fog droplets whipped by howling winds

Those early mountain climbers arrived with their ropes and picks, but not many followed, for the weather atop Mount Washington is documented to be the worst in the world. Right at that very point, three great storm tracks converge, and when they are all cranking, there’s hell to pay at the observation station. Not only can temperatures drop 40 degrees Celsius or more in an hour on an otherwise balmy July day, but you don’t know from cold until you’ve stood there in winter. On April 12, 1934, during a raging storm, a gust was measured at 372 kilometers per hour, the strongest ever recorded on earth. When remnants of a coastal hurricane passed one day in 1978, they blew a heavy construction van onto its side. Then the wind changed direction and blew it upright again.

In one of the funniest silent “shorts” I have ever seen, a man emerges from the observation tower on Mount Washington in what is obviously a howling gale. He is carrying a box of cereal flakes, a bottle of milk, and a bowl. He sits at a table, which has been anchored to the deck, sets the bottle of milk down, holds the bowl tightly on the tabletop, and attempts to pour his flakes. As you can imagine, they fly off in the distance the moment they leave the box, perhaps fluttering clear to Canada or Maine on the jet stream.

But the conditions up high did not keep entrepreneurs from building, at more comfortable elevations, all manner of cabins, tourist inns and, eventually, luxurious hotels from which to admire the mountain and the adjoining peaks of the Presidential Range. When railroad lines finally broke through the rugged mountains in 1875 – New Hampshire’s not called the “Granite State” for nothing – the rush was on. Not of settlers, but of those wealthy visitors seeking the fresh mountain air. Soon, horse-drawn coaches were struggling their way upward, along the gorges, until they reached the summit of Mount Washington. And just as at Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rockies years later, automobiles soon tested the serpentine path as well. The first race was won by F. O. Stanley and his wife, driving a six-horsepower “Locomobile” in 1899.

Things are Looking Up Here
Railway engine
Two Mount Washington cog railway engines push coaches up the mountain. Each coach requires its own funny-looking locomotive, and the trip is very, very slow

The world’s first cog railway, which climbs 2,000 meters up a western spur of Mount Washington, was developed here as well, and it runs to this day. It and its funny-looking mountain-climbing locomotives became tourist attractions of their own, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to area hotels. Funny-looking? Their boilers ride at a sharp forward angle, pointed downward. This keeping them parallel to the steep terrain, but it also gives them the look of an elephant resting on its knees.

In one of the most dramatic sections along the cog railway’s route, called “Jacob’s Ladder” – a reference to a ladder to Heaven in the Biblical book of Genesis – the track inclines at a 37.41-degree grade on its wooden trestle. That’s about the angle of your arm if you pointed to a bird, high in a nearby tree.

The trips, in old-fashioned passenger cars into which smoke and cinders routinely fly, are powered by steam locomotives whose drive power transfers to two cog wheels that catch the track as they ascend or descend the mountain. Astoundingly – are you ready for this? – the engine and passenger coaches are not coupled. That’s because the engine pushes, rather than pulls, the cars up the mountain. Coming down, the coaches usually do not even touch the engine. They work on their own braking system that handles the coach’s own weight.

Off to the west, neighboring Vermont has its north-south range – the Green Mountains. Considered the oldest mountains in New England, they wore down over geologic time to become a much more gradual, less imposing range than New Hampshire’s Whites.

Refinement Found Here
The owners of a company that made “palace cars” for grand railroads kept a grand estate and model farm called “Shelburne” on Vermont’s Lake Champlain. This is its barn

Once derided as being a “long place from anywhere,” Vermont, despite its presence in the heavily populated East, is still, by some measures, the nation’s most rural state. It doesn’t have Montana’s wide-open western spaces or the almost-impregnable valleys of a Kentucky or West Virginia, but it is packed with quaint little towns. As the state has yuppified, every one of those towns seems to have a real or faux general store of the kind that supplied the entire countryside with everything from beans to nails a century ago.

And seemingly, too, in Vermont, every other house hangs out a bed-and-breakfast or pension sign.

Vermont’s largest city, Burlington – home to the state’s largest public university – has just 39,000 residents, and there’s a big drop-off to the next-largest town, Rutland, which barely cracks 17,000. Only about 8,000 people, not counting meandering lobbyists, live in Montpelier, the state capital.

Vermont is odd, and in a way unique, in that it was first explored – by whites, anyway – from the west and north rather than from the east. Those Green Mountains got in the way. Thus Vermont – French for “Green Mountain” – retains a strong French Canadian flavor. For decades, Montreal was the state’s entrepót, and it took the coming of the railroads from the south to connect Vermont with the rest of New England.

And there was a time when connections were exactly what Vermonters did not want. Unlike New Hampshire, which was an original American colony, and Maine, which began as the northern reaches of Massachusetts, Vermont was a self-declared free and independent republic before becoming our 14th state and the first after the original 13 colonies declared themselves states.

Vermont is also the nation’s most reliably liberal state – you’ll recall that its neighbor to the east is among the most conservative – and among the nation’s most patriotic. It banned slavery even before entering the Union in 1791 and sent the highest percentage of its young men to fight for the North in the great Civil War of the 1860s. On the Gettysburg battlefield in that war, Major General John Sedgwick’s order read, “Put the Vermonters ahead and keep the column well closed up.”

Fine Just as it Is
Covered bridge
This is one of Vermont’s many covered bridges. Another, which I showed you when I wrote about such bridges several posts back (check the archive!) connects Vermont with New Hampshire and is the longest in the nation

Because Vermont has what a lot of people want, its rolling dairy farms and climbable mountains have been discovered – big time – by developers, tourists, enthusiastic new residents, and parents looking for summer camps for their children. The developments have outraged the locals, who have blocked them when they can. But outsiders continue to pour in, changing the culture and outvoting old-timers at Vermont’s legendary town meetings to pass tax measures. That has elevated the quality of schools and kept towns looking crisp and clean, but prosperity has also brought Chinese restaurants and microbreweries and chain motels, even to small towns. One of the nation’s richest (in butterfat) and most adored ice creams is made in Vermont and exported as a delicacy.

Life is so good in Vermont these days, in fact, that critics say the newcomers have brought a nouveau riche “drawbridge” mentality to Vermont, meaning, “I’m here now. Close the drawbridge.”

Spring is Vermont’s busiest time of year. In addition to tending to the usual chores, many farmers trudge up the woodland hillsides, gathering sap to make the state’s famous, sticky-sweet maple syrup. Not only have some of them opened successful gift shops and plants that make sugary maple candy, but they also ship syrup all over the world. After a long, cold, dormant winter, sugar maple trees spring to life and produce the sap that the farmers tap. The state seems to have the ideal conditions for this trade: a hearty stand of maples, ideal soil, and just the right spring weather, with freezing nights followed by warm, sunny days that make the sap flow.

Is this serene enough for you? It’s early sunset at Old Harbor, Maine

Some time back, I used the word “serenity” to describe one of the allurements of NewVerMaine. It’s a quality that’s getting harder and harder to find as development spreads. But when you consider how crowded the nation’s Northeast Corridor, starting down in northern Virginia and reaching to Canada, has become – and how far away are the true wide-open spaces of the American prairie and western peaks – Maine and its lobster shacks, New Hampshire and its cool mountain valleys, and Vermont and its dairy farms and tidy Colonial-era towns provide at least a taste of serenity. Plus bright, shimmering autumn leaves, a sample of the French language if you’d like to hear it, a railroad ride straight into the clouds, and all the decadent, high butter-fat ice cream and crunchy maple candy you care to buy and eat.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Chest waders. Waterproof clothing that incorporates boots, pants, and a top held up by suspenders, all in one. Add a colorful flannel shirt, and you look backwoodsy but natty, all at once.

Mosey. To amble or walk leisurely at an unhurried pace. Sometimes, out in the country, you’ll hear people ask someone else to please “mosey on down.”

Solicitous. Expressing care or concern. A solicitous person solicits information about you, your family, and your well-being.

Wry. The word derives from an Old English word for bent or twisted, and wry humor is similarly offbeat and, sometimes, a little contorted from the norm. Similarly, a person’s “wry smile” is a bit skewed.

Yuppify. To give a place the quality of yuppies. The word “yuppy,” coined in the 1980s, derives from the acronym for “Young Upwardly-mobile Professionals, and described the mostly college-educated city people who set out on a career path to well-paying jobs. They kept everything as perfect as possible in order to achieve their materialistic goals. Thus a town that has been yuppified has lost its rough spots and, some say, its character, in favor of a scrubbed, orderly look.

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MassConn Island

Posted January 30th, 2009 at 7:33 pm (UTC-4)
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After reading my last post, Geraldo in Brazil sent along some flattering comments and closed with a suggestion: “How about writing something about Massachusetts or the whole New England?”

I’ve been meaning to, Geraldo. I was waiting for the place to thaw! You provided the impetus for me to do so. But I must say that, compact though this northeasternmost region is —17 individual states are larger than the six states of New England put together — it will take me two postings to even begin to scratch their diverse geography and rich history. Fortunately, New England breaks into two convenient tiers: three states to the south clustered around Boston, and three to the north, packed with trees and moose and offshore lobsters. Let’s look at the lower three this time.

But first, an overview:

Tightly Packed
Bailey's Island
Rock meets sea on Bailey’s Island, Maine, where we also observe a typical New England lobster shack

New England is America’s most defined region. I have already wondered in this space just where the “West” begins, and the Midwest and South are hard to get one’s mind around as well. But there can be no doubt about that six-pack of crusty old states – Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. One can live 10 meters across the Vermont line in New York and not be a New Englander – and likely not have the same independent ways or emotional attachment to the past. Or to New England’s thin and rocky land. Vermont is loaded with dairy farms, but the rest of region has been largely subsumed by pines, highways, cottage estates, old and crumbling cities, postcard-quality villages, and those moose.

This is the view across a small lake to the town green in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Note the requisite white church

Named by British sea captain John Smith as he poked around the Massachusetts coast in 1614, New England is a society that was built upon the town. And the towns rose around pleasant, British-style strolling grounds called “greens,” or squares, usually anchored by a dazzlingly white, high-steepled Congregational church. New England’s earliest settlers – other than the indigenous Wampanoag, Nauset, and Pennacook Indians – formed small communities, surrounded by a hostile forest and guided by a stern religion that encouraged isolation, spare conversation, and a deep respect for privacy.

When Americans moved west in the mid-1800s, it was the New England village model that they copied. And the idealization of New England as a hardscrabble, pastoral haven of feisty individualists, rooted in reality, hasn’t changed much.

That’s why I must confess that it’s not my favorite U.S. destination. While New Englanders are not hostile, they practice wariness, as if they’ve never seen a visitor before. Don’t expect animated tales and flourishing hand gestures, and certainly not hugs. “Nope” and “Ah-yup,” can pass for a New England conversation.

A Veritable New England Gabfest

In fact, one of my cherished tall tales is set there:

Two old Downeasters – or residents of downstate, coastal Maine – are rocking on a porch, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, without saying a word.

After about an hour, one of them points to a far-off tree. “Look there,” he says. “That’s a pileated” – a big, red-crested woodpecker.

The other fellow squints in that direction, shakes his head slightly, and replies, “T’aint.”

Nothing more is said for 15 minutes, as the codgers rock on, back and forth, back and forth.

Finally the first old guy struggles to his feet, stretches, and starts down the stairs.

“Well, got to be goin’,” he says.

“Can’t stand an argument.”

Distinguished Company
Daniel Webster
Many observers believe that Daniel Webster’s oration in a debate over tariffs in 1830 was the most eloquent speech ever delivered in Congress. Maybe his stern New England stare helped, too

New England has been called “the conscience of America” because of its history of great orators (Daniel Webster), emancipationists (Frederick Douglass), and statesmen (father and son presidents named Adams). But it is a region full of complexities and contrasts. Massachusetts thinks of itself as the place where America began, but its Plymouth Colony was founded long after St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia. Rhode Island is steeped in tolerance, its founder, Roger Williams, having been banished by doctrinaire Massachusetts Puritans in 1636 for flouting their religious orthodoxy. Yet Rhode Island investors financed the Triangle slave trade (more on that in Wild Words at the end of this blog). New England’s long, snowy winters and gray, muddy springtimes may cast a pall over its people – making the reticent even more dour – but no other region on earth can match the fire of its fall hillsides.

New England
Beautiful scenes such as this get old after four or five months of New England winter

Much of New England is still pastoral. A few of its cities harbor some of the nation’s most dreadful slums, yet its scenic valleys and small towns come as close as anyplace else to being “America as it used to be.” It is the home of that Puritan strictness and the vigorous Protestant work ethic, but also Irish and Portuguese and French Canadian joie de vivre. Indeed, there are 600,000 or so more New Englanders of Irish than British descent, so it’s hard to figure where the fabled stoicism comes from. Hard, that is, until a rain-sotted Nor’easter comes howling southward out of Atlantic Canada, or an ice storm from the other direction sweeps over you. Shivering under your slicker, you wouldn’t feel much like talking, either.

Why bother, anyway, if you believe the late American journalist and author John Gunther. He once wrote that New Englanders just “love to be agin’ things.” Agin’ as in “against.”

Quaint and Quirky

But heritage tourists, in particular, go to New England anyway, seeking what’s lacking at home: genuine and abundant history, quirky local color, and plain dress, architecture, and speech. Ask a New Englander if he’s lived there all his life, and he’s likely to answer . . . . “Nope. Not yet.”

Although the region is condensed, it’s a chore to explore. Its cities were built for walking and carriage rides, not the modern automobile. Alien labyrinths in a cornfield are more drivable. Almost all of northern New England’s superhighways, and most of the state roads, too, run north and south, connecting busy Boston with Canada. You can get up and down Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine with alacrity, but it can take forever to go from one of those states to the other.

Bustling Boston is New England’s hub, especially when it comes to sports. Its Red Sox (baseball), Celtics (basketball) and Bruins (hockey) have regionwide support. And football’s New England Patriots play just outside of town

Resentment by rural and small-town people of the resources lavished on big cities is endemic nationwide, but it’s especially strong in New England. In Massachusetts, for instance, you still hear occasional, fanciful murmurs of another Shays’ Rebellion. In 1787, a former Revolutionary War officer, Daniel Shays, led an assault on the federal arsenal at Springfield in an uprising against high taxes and declining farm prices. His outcry was directed against state courts and tax collectors; today, the dissatisfaction is with Boston, which, it is asserted, has drained an unfair proportion of the state’s money, water, and brainpower. And who can argue with that last point, since there are something like 67 different colleges in the metro Boston area?

Red Sox Nation
Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth, perhaps baseball’s greatest player ever, began his career as a pitcher for the Red Sox. But in a trade that will live in New England infamy, the team’s owner sold him to the accursed Yankees, where he became a legend as a home-run hitter

But anti-Boston sentiments stop when it comes to sports, where passion for “Beantown’s” teams runs as deep as the region’s stubborn streak. The baseball Red Sox, or “Sawks,” as they’re called regionally, have a cultlike following from Connecticut’s capital, Hartford, all the way into Canada’s maritime provinces. I single out Hartford because there are a few misguided New York Yankee fans southwest of there, along the New York border. They must endure the same evil eye that Puritan preachers cast upon the men and women who were branded as “witches” in late 17th-Century Massachusetts and subsequently hanged. And one man was crushed with large stones. Ask a Sawks fanatic, and he – or she – will tell you such treatment is too merciful for a Yankee fan.

Once again so you’re clear: Yankees in New England and Yankee fans in New England are not one in the same.

This statue of a Revolutionary War “minuteman” patriot stands at the center of Battle Green Square in Lexington, Massachusetts. A minuteman was a militia member who would join the fight at a moment’s notice

Yet, ironically, New Englanders themselves are often called “Yankees.” The name came to be associated with hardworking, resourceful people who were stingy with their money. Their ingenuity in the face of hardship came to be called “Yankee ingenuity.” These northeasterners had to be clever, because it was tough to wring a living out of the stony terrain or the sea. During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, the British general James Wolfe mocked native New Englanders, even the loyalists in his army, as “Yankee rabble.” But the rabble were roused. They co-opted the term and applied it to a favorite Revolutionary War song: “Yankee Doodle.”

(A brief aside here: In the song, Yankee Doodle goes to town, riding on a pony. Then, of all things, he sticks a feather in his hat “and calls it macaroni.”


We know that a lot of Italians arrived in Boston a century later, cooking pasta, but there weren’t many around in the 18th Century. Turns out that back then, “macaroni” was a word for fancy Italian clothes. By sticking a feather in his cap, our Yankee Doodle fellow was making a fashion statement.)

One day, and for more than 40 years, a fife version of “Yankee Doodle” would be the Voice of America’s theme song.

Smokestack Cities
Here’s a big mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that thrived for a time before closing

Industrialization in mills along the falls of the region’s plentiful rivers, and immigration – those Irish, along with thousands of East Europeans who came to work there and in cities – drastically changed Massachusetts and Rhode Island, in particular. The former became one of America’s most urbanized places. Almost half of Massachusetts’ citizens live in the Boston area. Lowell and Lawrence became teeming cities of bells:

This is the bell tower on the Boott Cotton Mill No. 6 in Lowell. The looms are quiet below, but the National Park Service has turned the mill into a monument to the Industrial Revolution

not church bells, but those in the belfries of giant mill complexes, which pealed from 4:30 a.m. until evening to signal shift changes and mealtimes. Thousands of people, including young women called “Lowell girls,” aged 14 to 30, left the farms for the mills’ appealing $3.25-a-week wage. But Lowell and Lawrence and other mill towns deteriorated precipitously after World War II as mill owners succumbed to the blandishments of southern promoters who dangled nonunion labor, inexpensive land, ice-free rivers, and tax incentives.

So by 1980, Massachusetts – and other New England places built on the four post-colonial pillars of textiles, paper, boots and shoes, and fishing – were in dire straits.

But along came the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the mid-1980s, when a sudden and simultaneous explosion of the computer and high-tech defense industries and Wall Street-type financial services ignited a boom that drove up employment and tax revenues. Housing prices doubled in many locations.

Then, just as fast in 1988, came a bust. Desktop and personal computers, developed on the West Coast, rendered New England-made mini-computers almost instantly obsolete; the Defense Department began closing bases; and dozens of banks, including the fanatically expanding Bank of New England, simply collapsed.

History and Ecology
Rose Island Lighthouse
Rose Island Lighthouse, off Newport, Rhode Island, is more properly called a light station, since it had a keeper (and family). Visitors can now stay in the keeper’s old bedroom

Since then, the region has crawled back to life on the shoulders of tourism, biotechnology, higher education, and health services. New England leads the nation in “environmental tourism.” Guests at the Rose Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, for instance, get quite an ecology lesson. The light station is now a museum and travelers’ hostel where electricity use is strictly monitored, showers are short and chilly, and every guest joins in the daily composting and beach clean-up. “It’s a mind-altering experience without the drugs,” the lighthouse foundation’s executive director told Carol and me when we visited.

Block Island
Block Island, Rhode Island, is a time warp to slower, frillier days

And there’s another Rhode Island island worth noting, if you’ll forgive all those “islands” back to back. (Ironically, Rhode Island itself is not one. It’s a weensy wedge of a state stuck between Connecticut and Massachusetts.) On Block Island, about 25 kilometers out into the Atlantic Ocean, visitors can step back into the Victorian Age at hotels that date to the 1880s, wander marshlands, stroll past freshwater ponds, and soak up history that recalls the days of pirates and smugglers as far back as our Revolutionary War. The Nature Conservancy has designated Block Island “one of the last great places in the Western Hemisphere.” And as one whose house is Victorian in décor, and who sometimes pines for the civilized pace of that era, I’d have to agree.

In the fall, New England bed-and-breakfast inns are crammed with “leaf peepers,” come to see the autumn glory

Massachusetts can hardly fend off the tourists who come to see its Revolutionary War landmarks; the sandy shores of the Cape Cod peninsula and Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard islands; quaint homes and villages along the Mohawk Trail; and an entire Black Heritage Trail in Boston.

Rhode Island – “Little Rhody” – is smaller than many American cities. Since it was such a haven for people of religions who felt persecuted elsewhere, Italians, Portuguese, French Huguenots, southern blacks, and Jews of many nations settled the tiny colony. The young nation’s most industrialized state early on, it became predominantly ethnic, Catholic, and Democratic in composition.

In the Manner Born
Cornelius Vanderbilt's dining room
This is the sumptuous dining room of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s summer-home dining room in Newport. It was patterned after the Salon of Hercules at Versailles in France

In the 1926 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Rich Boy, a character remarks that “the rich are different from you and me.” Yes, observed novelist Ernest Hemingway years later. “They have more money.” And a good place to see what money can buy is the genteel Rhode Island city of Newport, which boasts one of the greatest concentrations of magnificent homes in the world. In the 1880s and ’90s, wealthy industrialists from New York and Boston and Philadelphia began building “summer cottages” there. Cottages, as in ornate and gargantuan mansions. Most famous of all was The Breakers, built in the style of an Italian palace by Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Newport, but not the rest of Little Rhody, endured New England’s industrial booms and busts quite well. (I doubt that’s true in today’s economic downturn, where much of the evaporated wealth emanated from paper deals rather than mills or fishing fleets or assembly lines.)

Land of Prosperity
The ornate, marble Connecticut capitol in Hartford, with its glittering gold-leaf dome, opened in 1879. It overlooks a 17-hectare park

Connecticut, which lies west of Rhode Island, south of Massachusetts, north of Long Island Sound, and east of New York State (remember those holdout New York Yankee fans), began as a string of tiny, independent Puritan colonies, including New Haven and New London. But its most entrenched settlers were squatters who had no legitimate business moving into the Connecticut River Valley. In 1639, they brazenly wrote a document called the “Fundamental Orders” setting up a government. It can be viewed as the oldest autonomous, self-governed entity in the world. That’s why many Connecticut license plates bear the motto “The Constitution State,” referring to those orders, not the nation’s founding document penned a couple of colonies to the south in Philadelphia.

Connecticut River Valley
The narrow Connecticut River Valley forms one of the state’s few richly fertile areas

After the Revolution, Connecticut kept its colonial charter, simply crossing out the name of the king. Because it had no deepwater ports or large cities until well into the 19th Century, it developed America’s first large-scale mercantile elite. In other words, a middle class. The wealthy who could not quite afford a Newport cottage built lovely estates along the sound or Connecticut River, leaving the rest of the stony state to the same sort of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization dramatics that beset its neighbors.

In many ways Connecticut has been an American microcosm. The first great Indian wars were fought there. It was in Bridgeport that the nation’s first sewing machine and gramophones were produced, and P.T. Barnum organized his “Greatest Show on Earth” circus and sideshow there during its heyday. Our first agricultural frontier, stretching westward as far as Ohio, was part of Connecticut’s “western reserve.” (My hometown of Cleveland sprouted on land owned by the Connecticut Land Co.) Connecticut never latched onto a memorable symbol like the patriotic “Minuteman” of Massachusetts or the lobster of Maine. But it has become a day-trippers’ paradise, full of quaint inns, out-of-the-way museums, symphony orchestras in six of its cities, and plenty of boating opportunities on Long Island Sound.

This enchanting photograph of the Stonington, Connecticut, Harbor was snapped in 1940

Not typical, though, are Connecticut’s wealth and high education levels. The “Nutmeg State” – I’ll explain the nickname in a moment – is routinely at or near the top in both, and in the price of the average home as well. That’s because many of the denizens of New York City and Boston’s executive suites live and play their polo there.

Connecticut got its nutmeg soubriquet not necessarily because of the nutmeg spice, a precious cargo the state’s sailors used to bring home from trade journeys to Asia. Connecticut Yankees have an especially shrewd reputation in business – so shrewd that it was said they could sell wooden — meaning phony — nutmegs to strangers.

There is no such a place as MassConn Island. But the three southern New England states do have a denser, more ethnically diverse, faster-paced character than the three charming, rural states to the north. I’ll give you their story, and my impressions, when we visit “New VerMaine” next time.

None for All

Given the proximity of each of New England’s six states to the others, it’s surprising that the place has so few regional organizations, save in esoteric fields like fly fishing and quilting. Idealists keep pressing for concerted promotion of the Northeast’s wonders, and for economic partnerships in search of new business, no matter which New England state gets the prize. Instead, each state tends to tell its own historic story, extol its own charms, and lay out its own case why it, above the others, offers the most authentic New England experience.

New England isn’t paradise, but it has its allurements, including sunsets like this one over Nantucket Island

“We aren’t Brigadoon [a lost and enchanted Scottish village],” Yankee magazine managing editor Tim Clark told me many years ago. “And we’re not Disneyland, either, although occasionally one worries that we fight so hard to preserve what New England is all about that there’s a danger of its becoming a kind of artificial, under-a-glass-jar exhibit.”

A Chill in the Air

Changing gears: Last time, I told you that President Barack Obama was quite a “city fella.” This week he showed that he’s a hardy one, too.

These are forms of snowflakes, the most dreaded sight in Washington, D.C.

“My children’s school was canceled today,” the president said on Wednesday. “Because of what? Some ice? . . . We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town.” Meantime, at his daughters’ former school in Chicago, the headmaster reported, “I’ve been here six years, and we haven’t closed [schools] yet.”

The weather forecast for Chicago on Friday, the day this is posted: High -8° Celsius. Low -10°. No snow, but just wait! So far, it has been the 10th-snowiest winter on record there. Cold warriors in Chicago. Wimps in Washington.

Which County ’Tis of Thee?
Marian Anderson
Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini said Marian Anderson had a voice heard “once in a hundred years”

If you happened to hear this year’s inaugural concert on the National Mall, and also to catch the swearing-in of President Obama the following day, you heard three different renditions of the patriotic song, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” One was just a snippet, seen on giant screens along the Mall, by acclaimed contralto Marian Anderson, from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Anderson, who was black, was scheduled to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned the auditorium, refused to allow her to perform before a racially mixed audience. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to sing on Easter Sunday on the Mall. She did so, spellbindingly, before an estimated 75,000 people.

This year, young performers Josh Grobin and Heather Headley sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the inaugural concert. Then Aretha Franklin, who’s known as “The Queen of Soul,” sang the tune – whose actual title is “America” but is better known by its first line – just before Obama took the oath of office.

Listening to all three performances, I realized that many, many Americans – myself included from time to time – forget (or do not know) that the musical score of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” is that of the longer-standing, and more famous, national anthem of Britain: “God Save the King.” (Or “Queen,” depending upon who’s on the throne.) I was curious how that song morphed into one about our “sweet land of liberty” across the pond, since that liberty was won at the hands of His Majesty’s government in London.

In 1832, Samuel Francis Smith was a theological student in Massachusetts when a friend asked him to write lyrics to some music the friend had found in a German school songbook. Though Smith could not read German, he could tell that it was some sort of stirring, patriotic tune. Even though “God Save the King” had already been adapted to other “God-saving” purposes in the young United States – “God Save the President,” for instance – Smith apparently never made the connection to the British anthem.

Samuel Francis Smith
Samuel Francis Smith was cheered everywhere he went for writing the words to “America.” Trading even stopped on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange when he visited so that traders could give him a standing ovation

“I instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune,” he later explained. “Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn ‘America’ as it is now known every­where. The whole hymn stands to­day as it stood on the bit of waste paper.” Little did he know when he wrote of the “land where my fathers died” that many of them died in rebellion against the nation whose music would accompany his words. (Click on this link to read the lyrics, and hear the tune, of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”)

Later in 1832, the new song was first performed at an Independence Day rally – no doubt doubling the indignity for the Brits, since it was they from whom our independence was won.

It would be 99 more years before the United States got our own official anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In the meantime, “My Country ’Tis of Thee” served as the informal anthem on many occasions.

As beautiful and popular as it is, and as inspiring as are Smith’s lyrics, his song never stood a chance of becoming the official anthem. Can you imagine the band striking up “God Save the Queen,” followed by “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at a big British- American sporting event?


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Alacrity. Quickness or eagerness. Someone who is offered the last remaining ticket to a sold-out concert would be wise to accept it with alacrity.

Codgers and Geezers. Eccentric but amusing old men. The words for women who reach old age appear to be less forgiving.

Dour. Brooding or glum. One with a dour disposition isn’t enjoying life at the moment. By the way, the word is pronounced “DOO-er,” not “DOW-er,” for reasons that escape me.

Endemic. Present at all times in a country or people. Cheerfulness, for instance, seems to be endemic in the Caribbean Islands. The word also has a medical meaning, referring to the incidence of disease in a population.

Gargantuan. Really, really big! This would be a great word to apply to a huge monster in one of those Japanese films: “Godzilla Meets Gargantua.”

Hardscrabble. This word almost defines itself. It’s an adjective referring to a place that’s difficult to work or make money from. And thus, those stuck there have a hardscrabble existence as well.

Soubriquet. A familiar, rather than formal, name, often applied to a person. Thus, parents will call their son James “Jim,” and Jim often becomes “Jimmy.” It’s pronounced SOO’-bri-kay, after the French.

Snippet. A little piece, as if it had been snipped off. A phrase or a line would be just a snippet of a poem.

Triangle Trade. Trade among three distant regions, notably this ungodly exchange of slaves from the late 17th to early 19th centuries: Caribbean merchants would ship sugar, tobacco, and cotton to mills in New England or Europe. Those owners would ship rum, manufactured goods, and textiles to Africa. And “slavers” would send captured tribesmen as human cargo to the New World.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


December 2023
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