Chicago, Chicago – Obamanin’ Town

Posted January 23rd, 2009 at 9:09 pm (UTC-4)
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A week or so before the change of U.S. administrations, I happened to see a brief television interview with a man – a professed Democrat – in what looked like a feed store in the southern state of Arkansas. He said he had voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain rather than Democrat Barack Obama. It wasn’t any of Obama’s policy proposals that bothered him, he said. And certainly not the man’s race. Rather, it was because “he’s a city fella. He don’t understand people like me.”

This is an occasional complaint about our new president, and it has been since Obama made one of the few missteps of his campaign. Badly trailing Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, Obama told some well-heeled contributors at a private function in San Francisco that rural folks back east in that industrial state were “bitter” over lost jobs and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

There went any chance that Obama would win over Pennsylvania gun owners, and Clinton trounced Obama in that primary. Though he later captured the state in the general election, rural white males like our Arkansan would be his weakest demographic.

Some say Barack Obama’s “city sophistication” charmed young voters in particular and helped get him elected

Barack Obama is a city fella, all right, notwithstanding his roots in rural Kansas and youthful time spent in polyglot Hawaii and Indonesia. He is, and says he will always be, a man of Chicago, his adopted hometown, where the pace is a touch faster than in Kansas wheat country or laid-back Hawaii. Or the Arkansas Ozarks, for that matter.

Thus Obama is the latest president in a long line who seem to personify the places from which they came.

Salt of the Earth

Harry Truman, once a Missouri hat salesman, and Gerald Ford, a former star football player at the University of Michigan, were good-natured, plain-speaking Midwesterners of the sort who’d lend you, if not literally the shirts off their backs, at least a chainsaw if you needed one. Nobody called them elitists.

Talk about smug! Look at the aristocratic pose by Franklin Roosevelt, in the bowler, even before he was president

Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were witty, inspirational patricians, at ease on yachts and in dinner-party circles. George H. W. Bush, too.

Though the elder President Bush was a self-made, West Texas oil millionaire, his Northeast rearing and accent, Yale education, summer home in Maine, and New York years as United Nations ambassador reinforced an aristocratic mien.

This is the part of the country that has produced three of the past eight presidents

Bush’s son, George W., and Lyndon Johnson years earlier, were archetypal Texans. Johnson, one of U.S. history’s shrewdest deal-makers while in Congress, was a bear of a man with big ears, a good heart, a tall hat, cowboy boots, and a drawl straight out of the Hill Country. Bush the Younger quickly displayed a line-in-the-sand, duel-at-high-noon, man-of-few-words determination of a Texan who knows his way around horses, oil, long guns, and money. Athletes, too; Bush owned a major-league baseball team for a time. Both those who liked Bush and Johnson and those who loathed them agreed they could be Texas stubborn, too.

And this area has given us two recent presidents. Neither this nor the dry Texas prairie, above, is exactly “Obama Country”

Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were divergent kinds of Californians. Not mellow surfer dudes or tuned-out hippies or migrant pickers, for sure. But in the mold of many Californians, each was a Midwest transplant who came looking for a new start and better opportunities. Modest of means himself, Nixon rode the wind of arch-conservative, Communist-fearing, “new money” prosperity in booming Southern California. And Reagan, with ever so much more charm and oozing the confidence of the New West, walked onto the big screen, then into our living rooms on TV, and finally into the White House.

None of these men, though – not even the erudite Roosevelt – was that true city fella from down the block like Barack Obama.

The Pride of Chi-Town
Barack Obama is a big-city guy. THIS big, brawny city: Chicago

Our 44th president is Chicago, if not in breeding then in style and nimble swagger and survival skills. In particular, South Side Chicago – the poorer side and the part of town where most residents are black.

Much has been written of Barack Obama’s multiracial heritage and the exotic places of his past. But to get a fix on the man, you have to know Chicago. As Ronald Reagan was California and George W. Bush was Texas and you could easily picture Harry Truman back in that haberdashery in Missouri, Obama is Chicago.

There’s “Chicago big” and “Chicago tall” as well. Sears Tower is 442 meters tall – 527 meters if you count the antennas

Chicago, not Illinois. Just as New York City is a beehive of bigness in a fairly bucolic state, Chicago is the burly king of the American heartland. Illinois is corn country.

Poet Carl Sandberg called Chicago “The City of Big Shoulders”:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling.

Plenty Big Place
Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s here in Des Plaines, a Chicago suburb, in 1955. He made $366 the first day. This is a recent photo, but the old prices are still posted, just for fun

Still considered by most Americans, including me, to be the nation’s “Second City” even though sprawling Los Angeles has taken its place in size, Chicago is home to America’s tallest building (Sears Tower), the world’s largest private building (the Merchandise Mart, with 36 hectares of floor space), and civilization’s largest free library. Chicago spawned roller skates, the Ferris wheel, zippers, pinball machines, spray paint, the first skyscraper, gangsters like Al Capone, and McDonald’s golden arches. Right in downtown Chicago, you’ll find the only river in the world that was trained to run backward; in 1900, engineers, using a system of locks, turned the flow of the Chicago River around, preferring to ship the city’s sewage west- and southward to St. Louis, rather than into Lake Michigan along Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” of high buildings, fine shops, and resplendent parks.

I think I’ve shown this to you before, and it’s no less embarrassing the second time!

Though more than a century has passed since ten thousand visitors a day came to watch brawny men with sledgehammers deliver the coup de grace to bellowing hogs and steers at the Union Stock Yards, this boisterous, boastful, teeming city of a hundred discrete neighborhoods is still the alpha dog of the Prairie. And it well earns its “Windy City” nickname. Witness (in the photograph to the left) that fellow in red, whose umbrella is fighting a losing battle against gusts off Lake Michigan. That is I in the pitifully inadequate plastic poncho. Chicago’s wind does not just whip or whistle or mournfully howl. It fairly screams off the lake and the plains.

Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz created the “Agora” sculpture in Chicago’s Grant Park, along the lakefront. Chicago has the largest Polish population outside Poland

Yet Chicagoans will tell you that their city is “so livable.” And it is, with 34 world-class museums, America’s best pizza – I’ve tried ‘em all* – 25 kilometers of bathing beaches, almost twice that expanse of bicycle paths, and a veritable outdoor sculptural arcade of bronze rabbits, horses, elephants, surreal human figures, and all manner of other indescribable forms. The Chicagoans I know don’t even notice, any more, Alexander Calder’s 16-meter-tall, steel “flamingo” in the plaza of three downtown federal buildings; Claes Oldenburg’s 30-meter-tall column in the shape of a baseball bat; or Pablo Picasso’s untitled steel creature in the Daley Center plaza.

(*About that pizza: I haven’t really tasted them all. Yet.)

Something for Everyone
Buckingham Fountain, and its spray, are beautifully illuminated at night

While button-popping boastful of its modern art, Chicago also preserves and protects its old treasures. Since 1927, for instance, the city has unofficially marked the beginning and end of summer with both a party and a huge volunteer clean-up of the Clarence Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. Modeled after a fountain in Versailles, it has three basins carved from pink marble, and four massive pairs of bronze sea horses.

Cynics and those who were suspicious of the company Barack Obama was keeping as a South Side community organizer have long gloated over the years when Chicago led the nation in judges and council members on the take, votes by dead people, numbers of illegal speakeasies, deaths by gangland machine gun, and excessive-force complaints against its police. The “rackets” – the extortion of citizens and small businesses for a percentage of their earnings – were once a Chicago way of life. The end of the federal prohibition on alcohol, crackdowns by local and federal gangbusters, and the imprisonment or violent demise of prominent mobsters broke the Syndicates, though corruption seems to periodically sprout new tendrils.

Certainties: Death. Taxes.
Cubs Miss the World Series
This is where the Chicago Cubs’ fortunes, already dim, took a turn for the worse. Yet every sports fan who visits Chicago in the summertime seems to want to go see them at the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field

Chicagoans still worry about random criminal acts, but they more often grumble about the bitter blizzards, interminable construction and high tolls on the ribbons of freeways, and the inadequacies of the local professional sports teams. Most especially the “lovable losers” from the North Side: the Chicago Cubs, who have not won the championship of baseball for 101 years (and counting, say those who mock them). You might think recent ineptitude on the field was to blame. But “Cubbie’” fans ascribe their recent misfortune to the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” dating to 1945, when the owner of the downtown Billy Goat Tavern was asked to remove himself and his goat from a Cubs’ game because the animal smelled bad. Since then, just the ball team has stunk.

(Though President Obama is an avid sports fan, these travails may bore him. He roots for – indeed often wears the insignia cap of – the grittier White Sox, who play, usually more skillfully, on the South Side.)

There’s not much else to complain about in Chicago. There are parks everywhere, many connected by a belt line of boulevards. It’s little wonder that Chicago’s motto is Urbs in Horto: “City in a Garden.” (Urbs : where “urban” comes from.)

Melting Pot on Lake Michigan
Lots of people from around the world will have an easy time ordering at this Chicago restaurant. I see the German and Polish, but can you identify the third language for me, and maybe translate?

With the recent heavy in-migration of Koreans, South Asians, and Latinos, Chicago’s tightly bunched European enclaves have been diluted but made more interesting.

Where cities like San Francisco and New York have notable Chinatowns, Chicago has a “Little Seoul” and a Mexican chamber of commerce.

Not to worry: You’ll have no trouble finding a Polish church (or sausage), a German beerhouse, or a Swedish bakery in town.

These scenes from early Chicago span more than a century, from 1729 to 1857

Fittingly in a city of such diversity – and even more appropriate for the place that gave the nation its first African-American chief executive – the “Father of Chicago” was a black man: fur trader Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, who in 1799 built a home near the present site of the beautiful Wrigley Building at the mouth of the Chicago River. He established a trading post that served English, French, and Indians alike and brokered peace among neighboring Great Lakes tribes.

This statue of Louis Armstrong stands far from Chicago,in New Orleans, where the great jazzman made his mark. But he made much of his music, and his living, later in Chicago

Chicago was the principal destination of the Great Migration of blacks from the South in the early 1900s, when the mechanization of cotton cultivation pushed more than six million African Americans off the farm and toward the industrial North. Chicago would spawn musical legends like Miles Davis and Duke Ellington; welcome King Oliver and Louis Armstrong from New Orleans; and produce another black man – Dr. Daniel Hale Williams – who performed the first successful surgery on the human heart. Barack Obama, a student of American history, knows of them all, and he certainly knows the nation’s most popular television personality, Oprah Winfrey, who’s Chicago-based as well.

A Catalog of Achievements
Here’s a page from an old Sears Catalog. You could order thousands and thousands of things from these catalogs – even a new house!

A rail line from the east and a canal heading westward sparked Chicago’s tumultuous growth in population, manufacturing, and food processing. By 1900 a former traveling salesman, Aaron Montgomery Ward, and a watch merchant, Richard Warren Sears, would separately bring the goods of Chicago to country stores, farmhouses, and city and village homes nationwide through direct sales from the Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck catalogs. Many frontier homes were built of prefabricated materials ordered from those catalogs and shipped from Chicago.

Chicago’s spectacular greensward along the lake, offset by a long row of skyscrapers, grew above one of the most incredible landfill projects in history. Rubble from the terrible Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was tossed wholesale into Lake Michigan, so that Michigan Avenue no longer bordered the lake at all. What resulted was a stunning – and zealously protected – urban playground that, today, annually draws more than 65 million picnickers, bathers, skateboarders, chess players, fireworks watchers, and nocturnal smelt fishermen.

Here’s a crafty smelt fisherman at work with his net, way back in 1923

That’s right: smelt fishermen. (Just the word “smelt” makes me smile.) The Web site I Fish Illinois calls the smallish Atlantic smelt a “naturalized exotic,” transported from the East Coast and let loose in about 1912. The idea was to offset the dwindling supply of lake salmon, and it worked. There are now millions of smelt, which make tasty meals for the salmon, sturgeon, and pike. To this day, from late March to the end of April, spawning smelt are easy pickings for Chicago’s net fishers, cats, and raccoons. Another online site, for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (greater Chicago), says of smelt, “The flesh is lean and sweet. The gourmet prefers the whole smelt rolled in flour or cracker crumbs and fried in deep fat. He eats head, tail, bones and all.”

Not me, brother. I savor my smelt filleted, or not at all.

How’s that for a meandering, from Barack Obama to Chicago to ichthyology? We return you now to the City of Big Shoulders:

Prairie Optimism
Chicago has wonderful monuments, parks, and sculptures. But perhaps its favorite landmark is the old Chicago Water Tower, which made it through the terrible Great Chicago Fire

Following the Great Fire, a Gothic stone water tower on North Michigan Avenue survived to become a symbol of the city’s rebirth.

Chicago even developed a stirring motto: “I Will,” as it erected new libraries, hotels, homes, and statues in a spectacular rebirth.

“I Will,” back then. Obama’s “Yes We Can,” today.

Architects flocked like smelt to the booming new town on the prairie. (OK, enough with the smelt, which don’t “flock,” anyway.)

Chicago architects made the modern skyscraper possible, and then the city went somewhat wild erecting them. Here’s a recent view from Lake Michigan

Daniel Burnham – who would soon command the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 – and his partner, John Wellborn Root, devised the idea of “floating” a high-rise building on a steel-and-concrete pier sunk in the city’s spongy soil. At sixteen stories, their 1891 Monadnock Building became the world’s tallest office building and is still the tallest wallbearing structure; walls two meters thick support the enormous weight. William Le Baron Jenney improved the design of such buildings with an internal iron skeleton rather than ponderous external walls. Thus he is regarded as the “father of the skyscraper.” Others, notably Louis Henri Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, developed an entire “Chicago School” of architects, building far more practical structures than the ornately detailed centers of commerce that had been the fashion. “Form,” Sullivan preached, “follows function.”

You get two ideas from this photograph, taken about 1943: Chicago was a booming rail center. And it gets mighty cold!

Burnham’s great expo ignited a cultural explosion, including the founding of the Chicago Symphony and the city’s first opera company. Writers like Eugene Field and our Big Shoulders guy, Carl Sandburg, flourished. World War I, Prohibition, and the Great Depression brought disquieting cycles of prosperity, immigration, and crime. So city officials threw another party – another world’s fair – in 1933 that was so popular, they extended it a full year. By World War II, Chicago was a railroad vortex – the Pullman sleeping car was developed there – and the locus of the agricultural Midwest’s “breadbasket to the world.”

Texture: Tough

It was also the center of the nation’s anarchist movement, bootlegging, and, as I’ve noted, the art of political corruption. Chicagoans took it all in stride, perhaps because every corner in every neighborhood traditionally had one or more taverns on it, serving as the community’s six-day-a-week social center. The church parish hall filled the role on Sundays. Two Mayor Daleys – Richard J. and his son Richard M., the longstanding and current mayor, respectively – considered them eyesores, and their numbers began to diminish. Neighborhood gentrification brought trendy art galleries, boutiques, jewelry shops, tapas bars, and cozy restaurants that make Chicago so – what’s that word again? – livable today.

Here’s an early shot of the “El” line on Chicago’s “Loop.” At first the train seems like it’s at ground level. But take a closer look

In Chicago, at least downtown, one is rarely “out of the Loop,” the name for the elevated railroad line that has encircled the commercial center since 1893. In fact, it’s quite impossible to ignore the “El” when trains rattle past your bedroom window. For sure Barack Obama, the son of Chicago, will never be out of the loop, at least for four years.

Chicago Cool

Chicago’s two daily newspapers and a lively free paper called Reader devote long sections to “Chicagoland’s” vibrant club scene. Nightspots in town carry intriguing names like Elbo Room, Set ’Em Up Joe, Empty Bottle, Hoghead McDunna’s, and the Bourgeois Pig. And those are just the rock bars. Folk, country, blues, gospel, jazz, and even Korean percussion, flamenco guitar, Greek music, and players of instruments called the klezmer and cimbalom have regular followings.

No wonder Barack Obama is “cool.”

This is the classic façade of the Carson Pirie Scott department store downtown. It and Marshall Field’s were Chicago institutions for more than a century. The former is still going strong. The latter was absorbed by Macy’s in 2005

And Michelle Obama – a South Side Chicago native – is, too. According to Robin Givhan, the often-caustic fashion editor of the Washington Post, “Chicago has never been about fashion. Until now.” Not a slinky or outlandish runway-model sort of fashion, but a solid, Midwest “conservative chic” made popular by the sunny woman who is now the nation’s first lady. “She smoothly shifts from designer dresses priced at more than $1,000 to mass market brands,” Givhan writes. “She shops at Chicago’s exclusive North Rush Street, and she browses the Internet.” Not since the glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s has a first lady so captured the fancy of the stylish set.

When Barack Obama dons his White Sox cap, he makes a Chicago statement as well. He is a “man of the people,” certainly of “city fellas” and gals. In his last days in town, he did not visit with his old colleagues at the University of Chicago School of Law, where he taught. He hung with the barbers, short-order cooks, and pickup-game basketball players of his organizing days.

He also vowed to bring the family back to Chicago “every six weeks or so.” The demands of national and world events may put a crimp in that plan. But the Obamas have no villa in Hawaii; no brush-covered, Bush-style ranch; no Kennedyesque compound on a cape. Just their last family home in leafy Hyde Park.

“Chicago will always be home,” Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago lawyer and longstanding friend who is now senior adviser to the new president in Washington, said of Obama. “The White House will be a home away from home.”

Think about that: Perhaps the most famous residence on earth will be nice, flattering, and comfortable, but a second home to their house in Chicago for Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama.

And Michelle’s husband, Barack, that city fella.

***
Chicago Tunes
Here’s an interesting view of “that toddlin’ town”: apartment buildings along the Chicago River that the locals call the “Corncobs.” Toddling is a funny term for such a bodacious, strutting city, since it means walking hesitantly with short, tottering steps

If you were wondering about the “Obamanin’ Town” reference in the headline to this post,” it’s a riff on Fred Fisher’s 1922 song “Chicago, Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town,” later famously sung by Frank Sinatra. Although Sinatra is most often associated with the gambling resorts of Las Vegas, where he was a superstar headliner, he must have liked the Illinois city by the lake, since just about every night he also sang, “My kind of town, Chicago is.”

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Bootlegging. Making or selling illegal whiskey. The name is said to derive from an early practice of hiding a contraband bottle in one’s boots. They must have been bigger boots than we wear today.

Ichthyology. The study of fishes. Ichthys is Greek for “fish.”

Ilk. Of a kind or sort. A person of a certain ilk shares the qualities – or foibles – of others of that same ilk. Picky pedants cite a more arcane meaning having to do with baronial estate names, but the informal if imprecise definition above is in vogue today.

Mien. One’s bearing – how you carry yourself. Thus we sometimes read about a person’s low mien (not a Chinese delicacy) or regal mien.

Speakeasy. This was an establishment, carefully guarded by a suspicious doorman, that served alcoholic drinks during the Prohibition period from 1923 to 1933, when such sales were banned. But the term goes back at least 30 years or more before that. Pirate hideouts carried the name, and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, woman who sold liquor without a license is said to have advised her customers to “speak easy” if they wanted to buy some.

Well-heeled. Wealthy. People of means, of course, can afford fine footwear. Fine fighting cocks were also said to be well-heeled with deadly spurs.

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Pretty as a Picture . . . Postcard

Posted January 16th, 2009 at 9:45 pm (UTC-4)
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I love to travel across America . . . by postcard!

When I cannot actually get somewhere – or even if I do – I look for a beautiful picture postcard of the place. Not one of those overly bright and blue-sky-perfect cards made from cheap color slides, either. Even you and I can take better pictures than those. I like a touch of subtlety, a hint of surprise, in my postcard images, if you please.

In other words, I prefer old-fashioned picture postcards with a narrow white border, a grainy texture, and “that certain look” – somewhere between reality and somebody’s idea of art. What that look is, and how it came to be, is a fascinating story with lots of history and a little bit of technology. The history part, I think I can handle. We’ll muddle through the technical part together.

There’s a fancy word for the study and collecting of postcards. Don’t worry, I’m a beer-bottle guy, as you read in my last posting. But I do buy postcards, take a short trip down memory lane while looking at them, and then send them to others to enjoy.

That word for postcard-saving is “deltiology,” from the Greek, meaning a small writing tablet. With or without photos, postcards have always been just that: handy little rectangles of stiff paper on which to dash off a note. Where would the phrases, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here” be without them?

But it’s their flip side with the gauzy-looking photographs that’s maybe a touch out of focus – but pleasingly so – that I want to tell you about.

Tickets to the Good-Old Days
This is art, not a photograph, of the horticultural hall at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. It, and plenty of photos, were made into postcards during and after the fair

Picture postcards are bits of nostalgia, the size of your hand. Flights of fancy, too. I’ve been to Chicago many times, for instance, but never to the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and its “White City” that inspired a nationwide “City Beautiful” movement. But I can go to that great world’s fair via dreamy old postcards of its gleaming pavilions, inviting lagoons, and strolling visitors in old-fashioned bustle skirts and bowler hats and sailor outfits.

Nor, much as I get around, will I ever likely make it to a place like Picnic Rocks on the Kennebunk River in Maine. But I can study an intriguing photo of it, as long and hard as I want to, on an old postcard.

This is the scene at Picnic Rock, at least as it appeared in 1900. There’s probably a four-lane highway or something there now!

Vintage picture postcards are paper time machines, showing us how buildings and automobiles, cities and towns, and our people looked two turns of the century ago. You have only to look at an early postcard of the Denver skyline, or downtown Los Angeles, or the Model T Fords parked in front of a small-town saloon in 1912 to appreciate how much we’ve changed, if not progressed. And it’s almost as much fun to see that some of the landscape views in postcards of that period – the waterfall on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan mountain for one – look almost the same today, except for the asphalt over the old dirt roads.

This is what is now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House, where senior Executive Branch officials work. When this was taken in 1898, it was the “State, War, and Navy Building”

Lingering over the images, I imagine the slower pace of life, general optimism rather than today’s cynicism, the simplicity and gentility of life these cards depict. (And isn’t it interesting, that connection between the words “image” and “imagine”?) Cities seem so clean, the countryside so unspoiled, the people so prosperous and chipper. How carefree are frolickers on the beach in 1900 – at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, or Atlantic City, New Jersey – in their modest bathing suits that barely reveal an ankle.

Coney Island, 1902. Nary a bare midriff to be found.
First Business, Then Pleasure

Until 1898 in the United States, only the government produced “penny postcards,” costing one cent rather than the two cents you’d pay to mail a letter. No one else was allowed to. The business of “posting” at a “post” office was strictly an official matter.

Art cards and advertising cards, like this plug for one company’s Valentine’s Day line, preceded picture postcards. Note the multiracial host of angels – unusual for the times

But in that year, Congress authorized “private mailing cards,” which could also be sent for just a penny, at the very time that technology allowed incredibly skilled artisans to cover the fronts of these cards with actual photographs, not just woodcut sketches and artistic drawings. Little did Congress know that a stampede for the cards lay dead ahead, in a golden age era in which picture postcards would be sold and sent by the millions. According to the “Postcard & Greeting Card Museum” on the Web site emotionscards.com, “The official figures from the U.S. Post Office for [its] fiscal year ending June 30, 1908 cite 677,777,798 postcards mailed. At that time the total population of the United States was only 88,700,000!” That’s about seven postcards sent per man, woman, child, and even newborn in the country.

These pictures of which I speak were black-and-white at first. True color photography was in its infancy and far too expensive to translate to cheap mailing instruments. But evocative black-and-white photographs had been around since the 1860s and the daguerreotype era of the American Civil War, which we treasure today through the studio portraits and battlefield photos of Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and their cohorts.

This was a portrait photo President Abraham Lincoln, taken in Mathew Brady’s studio in New York in 1864

In the 1880s Hans Jakob Schmid, a Zurich, Switzerland, printer, founded a company that licensed a process called “photochrom” (without the “e”) that enabled his fellow printers to produce a sort of color print. You’ll see why I say “sort of” in a bit.

This is the rather modest entrance to a mighty business empire: the offices and plant of the Detroit Photographic Company, which produced the lion’s share of quality photochrom postcards

One of the most important photochrom licensees was the Detroit Photographic Company in the U.S. city of the same name. In some years during the picture-postcard boom, Detroit Photographic would produce as many as seven million prints of thousands of views from as many as 40,000 negatives. Some of them were destined for store catalogs, calendars, and advertisements.

On to Something Big

But Detroit Photographic’s “bread and butter” was the production of postcards, which it sold mostly to gift shops and souvenir stands at popular tourist destinations, and to makers of catalogs aimed at what the Library of Congress calls “globe trotters, armchair travelers, educators, and others to preserve in albums or put on display.” Boxes resembling volumes of fancy bound books were available to store one’s photochroms.

Detroit Photogaphic did not just make postcards of city and landscape scenes. It produced this photochrom of a bunch of California poppies

Some were reproductions of works of art, but many were “scenics” of exotic locations to which only the most intrepid Americans would ever go. Detroit Photographic wisely bought the vast collection of images shot by an adventurous explorer and photographer named William Henry Jackson. He had been a government surveyor in the uncharted West, and he took along his camera. This was no easy matter, and not just because of the rugged terrain. Jackson’s cameras were bulky, heavy, and required fragile glass plates that he had to coat with gunk on the spot, out in the wild. Some of his 80,000 images of the American West, including one showing mist and fog caressing Colorado’s Mount of the Holy Cross, became postcard classics.

The mustachioed fellow on the right in this family photo is William Henry Jackson – obviously duded up from his usual rugged outfit that he wore into the wilds

Let me say that again: Working with cumbersome equipment in crude conditions, this one man produced 80 thousand images of the vast American West. He could not hop a flight to Cheyenne, rent a car, drive up paved roads to a comfortable vantage point – stopping at cozy roadhouses, comfy motels, and fast-food joints along the way. Horses were his rental cars. Logging roads were his highways. Bedrolls beneath the junipers were his sleeping quarters. Each photo-shoot site was many days from “civilization.”

Slices of Time
This is one of Jackson’s burro shots. These surefooted animals hauled all sorts of materials up and down the Rocky Mountains

And Detroit Photographic sent him out again. He brought back more images of cowboys, American Indians, and animals, including burros dragging lumber into mining camps, high in the Rockies. Jackson got no credit on any of the picture postcards, but hard-core postcard aficionados knew him and his work well.

Jackson lived to be 99. In his last years, he painted murals in government buildings, including scenes of (you guessed it) the Old West on the walls of the Interior Department Building here in Washington. One of the last surviving Civil War veterans, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River in Virginia.

A Touch of Color

Let me remind you of something. Jackson’s shots – indeed the whole archive from which Detroit Photographic produced pretty postcards – were in black-and-white. It took the miracle of the photochrom process – at least I consider it miraculous – to turn those images into the vivid, color picture postcards I and many others love today.

This is a before (b&W) and after (color) look at the same image of American flag-maker Betsy Ross’s house in Philadelphia

So get out your pencils for the technical lesson on how this was done, at least as I, hardly Mr. Science, understand it. I am guided by, and borrow heavily from, what might be called a “Lithography for Dummies” short course, genially delivered by telephone by Terry Belanger, director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia.

Belanger asks us to picture a piece of “shirt cardboard.” Not the kind you’ll find inside a new, folded man’s shirt when you buy it at the store, but a thicker, absorbent cardboard around which commercial laundries used to fold shirts. He then directs us to imagine a big “X” drawn on that cardboard with a wax candle. Next, we wet the cardboard thoroughly. We will quickly note that the water soaks into most of the cardboard but – on the old “oil and water don’t mix” principle – is repelled by the waxy “X.” If we then take a spongy roller, soaked in oily ink, and roll it all over our piece of cardboard, then press a piece of paper against it, a pretty good image of the letter X will appear on the paper. We can repeat this process over and over again to make multiple copies of our X.

Pay attention now. It gets trickier, but more interesting. The same principle applied to making photochromatic postcards using “stone lithography.” (Here we go again with the Greek: lithography from “Lithos,” or stone, and “graphein,” meaning to write. Lithography is writing in stone!) Instead of our shirt cardboard, the folks at Detroit Photographic started with a flat surface made of porous limestone that they coated with a sticky, black, hydrocarbon substance called bitumen, thinned with benzene to make it spreadable. (Imagine the fumes!)

This porous limestone slab is the lithographic stone.

Bitumen is highly light-sensitive. The black goo hardens in direct proportion to the length of time, and intensity, of exposure to light. Next, a black-and-white photographic negative – say one of William Henry Jackson’s big, 20×25-centimeter beauties – was pressed against the gooey stone, and the whole thing taken outside into the daylight. There it all sat for just minutes under a hot summer sun, but sometimes hours on a gloomy winter day.

Throwing Light on the Subject

The daylight “did its thing”: hardening the bitumen underneath the film. Remember, these were negatives; reversed. Dark places on the film – say a tree trunk – would be nearly clear, allowing lots of light to get through to the bitumen. Light places like a bright sky would be dark, so less light would shine through to the concoction on the stone. The stone would cook in the light until the bitumen in the dark spots (that tree trunk) had fully hardened, while the sky and other lighter parts had not fully hardened.

This is a typical black-and-white negative, of an early view of New York’s Bowery neighborhood, from which Detroit Photographic made a photochrom color postcard. Obviously, everything that is really dark is light, and vice versa

The negative was then removed, and the bitumen coating washed in a turpentine solution. This removed all the glop, leaving some bitumen where it had not completely hardened, and all of it where had turned solid. The result was a finished stone, of which Detroit Photographic had thousands, each numbered and stored in racks, all around its production floor.

If the printers had been satisfied to stop at this black-and-white stage, that would have been pretty much it. They could have inked up the stone, run paper across it, and out would have come lovely prints that looked just positive versions of the images in the negatives – with one interesting exception:

They would be backward! If a moose in the photograph were looking off toward the right, it would be looking left on the print. If the entrance to a building were on the right as you faced it in real life, it would be on the left on your page. It took me about 20 minutes to completely figure out why. You don’t have the time. The bottom line is that when it mattered that right was right and left was left, the printers simply flipped the negative when they first put them on the goopy stones. Then the prints came out just as the scene looked through the photographer’s lens.

The big question before us, though, is: How did the printers produce color, when everything including the film was in black-and-white? I take it you’re ready for the advanced class!

Artistry at the Shop

Employees at Detroit Photographic would make six or so different stones. One would be the full, black-inked one that we’ve described. But they would also look carefully at the black-and-white image and single out parts of it that were, for example, likely green in real life. Grass. Leaves, that sort of thing.

I say likely, because some of this was guesswork, since these fellows had almost certainly never laid eyes on the places shown. They were pretty sure, though, that grass was green, the sky blue or grayish blue, deer and dogs brown, and so on. Doors and clothes, advertising signs and the color of people’s eyes? That was educated guesswork, and a chance for a little creativity.

Here’s that Bowery photograph that’s been colorized using the photochrom process. To my eye, the oranges and browns are a bit overdone. But then, that could be a result of the passage of 107 years or so!

Having already made the image on the lithographic stone, the artisans would make several impressions of it on paper, using water-based black ink. Then on six or seven smooth, clean stones, they’d lay those damp impressions, transferring the impressions of the entire scene to each of those stones.

Let’s suppose that in, say, a photograph of Pikes Peak in the Colorado Rockies, only a tiny piece was yellow. The ball of the sun, we’ll say. Bending over one of the wet stones containing the entire image of Pikes Peak and environs, the printer would apply a dab of oil-based bitumen in that little spot and that spot alone. After the bitumen dried, he’d wash the water-based ink off the stone. Only the dot of oily bitumen where the sun appears in the photo was left. The printers would do the same thing with other parts of the scene, excising all but the sky and a lake, we’ll say, on the blue stone, and so on.

Then it was time to print, using all six or seven stones. They’d coat the “yellow” stone – the one on which only the dot for the sun remained – and run or press paper over it. All that would show on that paper was little dab of yellow. Then the paper was pressed to the red and blue and green stones, etc., with their partial images. Last came the run with full image in black.

Out of Black, a Veritable Peacock

The result was a surprisingly vivid spectrum of color, all in the right places. This was tricky on several fronts, not only making the color as realistic as possible. It was also tough to run the same paper over so many stones, none of which was precisely the same dimension, and produce a clear and unblurred final image. If one stone, say the one inked in red, was a hair out of alignment, the result could be a postcard that looked out of focus. Thus, there many test runs. And clarity or fuzziness would become one barometer to tell quality work from slipshod efforts.

This is the photochrom view of Utah’s Green River Butte, seen in 1898. Imagine the artistry involved in turning this black-and-white image into subtle shades of color, including hues reflected in the river

Since these early photochroms from which postcards were printed were not true to life but were interpretations, they have a look all their own. I happen to love their unnaturally lemon suns, their extra-black stormy skies, and their unusually bright-pink flowers. The effect is not so contrived as to be jarring. Instead, it’s a remarkable achievement, as you may agree when you look at the ones on this page. It’s hard enough to imagine “colorizing” a black-and-white picture by hand in the sort of “paint by number” fashion. It’s quite another to realize that these artisans brought out subtle color differences in complex scenes using a big-old printing press.

Check out the beautiful color of this 1903 photochrom of a Ojibwa Indian named “Arrowmaker.” Remember, this started as a black-and-white photograph

In today’s times of ultra-reality, multi-megabyte photographic fidelity, and high-definition TV, you may find old postcards cheesy and amateurish. But I can assure you that the millions of people who bought and sent them in 1900 and a few years beyond thought they were state of the art.

They Had Their Day
This shot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is one of tens of thousands of photochroms of European scenes, including those taken in places most Americans had never heard of. Postcards made from them were prized by deltiologists

Several developments damaged, but did not entirely kill, the picture-postcard business. Many of the most desirable cards had come from Europe and showed exotic foreign scenes. With the advent of World War I in the 19-teens, that source was greatly diminished. Wartime at home cut into the printers’ workforce and the quality of the cards. And most of all, the telephone replaced the simple postcard as the preferred method of quick communication.

“Real-photo” postcards, the first that were photographic reproductions, not layered and colorized prints of black-and-white photos, came along. But as I said early-on, to me they look like something Cousin Bill would produce with his Kodak, rather than creative works of the printing art.

Give me an old photochrom, especially a smudged, canceled one with a century-old message from Bertha that she’s having wonderful time and wished husband James were there.

***
Talk about a dreamy scene! This photochrom image depicts a riverboat turning the bend on the swampy Oklawaha River in Florida

Over in the right-hand column this time, instead of the usual gallery of some of Carol M. Highsmith’s current images, Web guru Anne Malinee and I have assembled two related slide shows. The first is a series of photochrom images as captured by the excellent Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. As I’ve explained, it was these and ones like it from which early color postcards were printed. The second is a series of actual postcards that Carol photographed and digitally scanned. You won’t notice a great deal of difference – a little more fuzziness in the postcard group, perhaps, as they were taken from off the rumpled postcard paper rather than film. We thought you’d enjoy a chance to savor some of the wonderful old scenes, as we do.

***
Images of a Different Sort

One other quick matter this post, and I go there only because it, too, involves impressive old photographs.

During the 1930s, the United States Government, under the auspices of one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” agencies called the Farm Security Administration, sent photographers across the country to document the severe of the Great Depression. Roosevelt wanted ammunition for still more New Deal relief efforts. Many of the classic photos of unemployed workers, and especially farm families displaced by drought conditions, were produced by Dorothea Lange, a onetime San Francisco portrait photographer.

This the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo that spellbound the nation during the Great Depression. Her daughter Katherine, mentioned in my post, is the little girl on her mother’s right – our left

Her most famous photo – indeed the shot that became the symbol of those grim times – was taken in 1936 in a California resettlement camp. It showed a woman, Florence Owens Thompson, whom Lange called “Migrant Mother” flanked by two of her young daughters.

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” Lange later wrote. “I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. . . I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

I mention this because not long ago, the American cable-news channel CNN found one of the two daughters shown with their mother in the Migrant Mother photograph. Katherine McIntosh, now 77, was 4 at the time. She says the photo was printed in a local newspaper the next day, but the family of eight – she and her mom and six siblings – had moved on. “The picture came out in the paper to show the people what hard times was,” McIntosh told CNN. “People was starving in that camp. There was no food. We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.”

Instead, nearly everyone in America soon knew who they were. In 1998, the image even adorned a 32-cent postage stamp. Thompson had died of cancer and heart ailments 15 years earlier. And the image of her, Katherine, and Katherine’s sister Norma lives on. Original photographs of the “Migrant Mother” image have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars at prestigious auction houses.

Thompson and the kids could have used just a fraction of that amount back in the day.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Bustle. This has two quite different meanings. To bustle is to move briskly. As a noun, the concept is often paired with a word with which it rhymes. We speak of the “hustle and bustle” of a city. But as used in my posting, a bustle was a wire frame, or a pad, or even a bow, at the back of a woman’s skirt that accentuated its fullness.

Cheesy. Cheap. Poorly made. It derives from an Urdu word adapted by the British to mean showy. From there, the meaning declined even further to reflect something even more derogatory that has nothing at all to do with cheese.

Chipper. Cheerful, upbeat, self-confident. Chipper people break into a whistle from time to time. Those in a less buoyant mood can find them annoying.

Deprivation. Extreme poverty. A state in which one is deprived of even the basics of life. Be careful with this word. “Depravation,” spelled with the “a” instead of the “i,” means moral decay and degeneracy. That version is an offshoot of the word “depraved.”

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Collector Man

Posted January 7th, 2009 at 7:23 pm (UTC-4)
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There was a tragedy in our family recently. Carol, who was about to take a photograph of my beer-bottle collection, backed into the shelves marked “Pennsylvania” and sent about 20 bottles into a tinkling death spiral to the floor. Two broke into irreparable shards.

Landphair Den
All was cozy in the den. Here’s where the saga began

This is a tragedy only in gross hyperbole, of course, unless you’re the one who carefully assembled the assortment of U.S.-brand beer bottles over 35 years. (American brands only because I was going broke buying imports here and raising the suspicions of customs agents abroad.)

All I could think of as the horror unfolded before my eyes in clichéd, cinematic slow motion was a variation of the old drinking song:

“1,586 bottles of beer on the wall,
“1,586 bottles of beer.
“If two of those bottles should happen to fall,
“1,584 bottles of beer on the wall.”

1,584 is the number of bottles still standing, including 18 that had tumbled but miraculously not shattered.

Some background.

Over the years traveling here, there, and everywhere across America, I’ve met and interviewed gatherers of all manner of objects. In a story four years ago, I wrote:

“For the longest time, humans have collected things, just for fun. Butterflies. Buttons. Thimbles and coats of arms. It’s not just an American thing, of course, but we go a little nuts with it. . . .

“Some people have a ‘thing’ for umbrellas or matchbooks or metal toy cars or menus from Chinese restaurants.

Pez collection
This person collects Pez dispensers. Pez is a sweet-and-sour candy that comes in many flavors and different styles of dispensers. Why would anyone want to collect such things? Why not!?

“Here are some other collections I’ve run across: spoons, paper clips, maps, toothpicks, drinking straws, shopping bags, postcards, hockey sticks, transit tokens, marbles, dice, security badges, airline tags, citrus peelers, stuff having to do with pickles, memorabilia of the eccentric comedian Pee Wee Herman, and even miniature cast-iron frying pans.”

So you see, amassing beer bottles isn’t so terribly eccentric, as America’s “Beer King,” Alan Eames, once assured me years ago. Fondly called a “beer anthropologist” and even “The Indiana Jones of Beer,” Eames had ferreted out beermaking sites and beer containers from the Andes to Egyptian tombs. He even came upon what must surely have been the world’s oldest-surviving beer advertisement, a Mesopotamian stone tablet of a woman holding two goblets of beer. As the New York Times reported in Eames’s obituary in 2007, he translated the inscription to read: “Drink Elba, the beer with the heart of a lion.” In all ancient societies, Eames told me in 1993, “beer is a gift of a goddess.”

These are no common toothpicks or frying pans I’m collecting here.

Beer
Beer can collectors can be quite esoteric about the provenance of cans that interest them. And there are hundreds of sites on the Internet available to help in the search for just the right can

There are thousands and thousands of beer can enthusiasts, too. They line their walls with their treasures in what sometimes appears to be an effort to break a Guinness world stackability record. I prefer bottles for their many shapes, colors, and imaginative labels. The label on a Lionshead, one of the two bottles lost in the recent carnage, for instance, depicts a growling lion every bit as menacing as Leo, the beast that introduces every movie from the MGM studio.. Alas, he now lies, tattered, in a trash basket.

My 1,584 surviving bottles of beer – or rather, bottles minus the beer – on the wall now include:

-All the familiar American brands, including 56 different vintage and current products of the biggest brewer in the United States, Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis, Missouri.

Grain Belt Beer
Grain Belt Beer was first produced in 1893 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have several versions of its bottles. The company was sold some time ago to the August Schell Co., which still brews a version of Grain Belt

-Old, old bottles that predate Prohibition, those dark days from 1920 to 1933 when the government tried unsuccessfully to wean us from making, selling, and drinking alcoholic beverages. That effort did, however, unfortunately, succeed in permanently shuttering thousands of small, thriving breweries.

-Microbeers like Bad Frog, Blithering Idiot Barley Wine Style Ale, Bubba Dog, Buffalo Butt, and Bull Ice. And those are just the B’s. (Microbeers are produced in small batches by craft brewers).

-Rows of “ponies” – little bottles that hold just 207 milliliters of beer.

-And some oddball containers, including a transparent bottle that once held “Clear”-brand beer, aluminum bottles now popular at American sporting events, a few big fat ones that look like moonshiners’ jugs, and a delicate cobalt-blue number of the sort a French perfumer would roll out.

Jimmy and Billy Carter
Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter has a bite to eat at his brother’s gas station in Plains, Georgia, during the 1976 campaign

I have also held onto a single can: a Billy Beer, once promoted by President Jimmy Carter’s countrified brother. Although nearly undrinkable, Billy Beer was quite the rage in the 1970s.

By now you are wondering why I do this. It’s a question asked – not of me but of his colleague – by the detective Erlendur Sveinsson in the Icelandic novel Voices, by Arnaldur Indridason.

Erlendur gets to wondering whether a murder suspect’s passion for collecting phonograph records of choirboys could be motive enough to kill. The gumshoe has never collected anything, and he’s convinced that carefully obtaining and often displaying unusual stuff is some sort of “yearning for lost youth.” Those who never outgrow collecting cards or stamps (or bottles?), he posits, must have “a need to keep hold of something that otherwise would disappear from their lives but which they want to retain for as long as they can . . . something you don’t want to let go but keep on cultivating and nourishing with this obsession.”

Primo
This is where the fixation started, with an ordinary-looking bottle

Uh, no, I don’t think so in my case. I had the most pedestrian reason for beginning my collection: Traveling to Hawaii for what I assumed would be my one and only time, I sought a cheap, but not too tacky, souvenir. None of those undulating plastic hula girls for me, thank you. I had drunk and enjoyed a bottle of a local brand called Primo and stuck an empty into my suitcase. Later, as I traveled more extensively, the “cheap souvenir” criterion held, to the point that one shelf, then a bookcase, then rows from floor to ceiling along every wall of my den, were filled with the things.

Alphabetically arranged by state, of course. What do you expect? I am a Virgo.

Landphair Den
Here’s another view of the assemblage of bottles in the Landphair Den and Museum. It’s not really a museum, of course. Yet

I am not proud when it comes to acquiring bottles. I accept them as gifts, drink three or four brands at a sitting at a restaurant or bar and ask the server to bring me a bag for the empties, and buy them 50 at a time once a year with Christmas-gift money. I have been known to stoop to the gutter and – dare I admit it? – paw through the big metal trash containers behind taverns where the bartender just threw out the last bottle of a brand I’d been coveting.

Like it or not, a “tour” of my collection is obligatory for dinner guests, repairmen, distant relatives, process-servers, indeed anyone who comes through the door. Not really, but I do describe the collection so rapturously that visitors have little choice but to trudge upstairs and see it.

They usually ask two questions (in addition to, “Are you daft, man?):

Drunk
If I had drunk all the liquid in the bottles within my collection, I’d look like this. And remember, to get one bottle I sometimes have to buy an entire 6-pack! Somebody has to drink them

“Did you drink all this beer?” No, in fact I prefer the empties, which, upon breaking (that word again: sob), have less chance of ruining the contents of my suitcase. My youngest daughter, Nicole, annually presents me with a membership in a beer-of-the-month club. Each month, I receive 16 total bottles of four brands of microbrews. Some, especially stouts and porters, are such swill that I pour the contents down the drain, save the bottle, and give the other three to dark-beer-loving friends.

The other question: “Is this collection worth something?” I don’t know, since I have no intention of selling it. When I’ve popped my last bottle cap, though, I can’t imagine Carol or the kids wanting it around. Imagine the dusting! They’ll probably get a few bucks for it on eBay, though I don’t envy them the task of packing and shipping what I hope will be 2,000 or more bottles.

Good News

So, no, Inspector, this is not some obsession from my childhood. It’s a purely adult infatuation having to do, I suspect, with wanting something manly in my den. I don’t hunt, so trophy heads won’t do. I gave up trying to fish. I’m not much for guns and certainly wouldn’t display them. And I have never won a sports trophy in my life.

So it’s beer bottles – 1,584 of them, so far as I know. I’m not entirely sure of the count, since Carol’s home today on the loose.

***
Old Faithful
In several locations around Yellowstone National Park, there are signs that estimate the time of the next Old Faithful eruption. As the time grows closer, people drift toward the site to watch, then go back to back to what they were doing

A year or so ago, Carol and I spent some time in Yellowstone, the world’s first (1872) national park, a piece of wilderness immune from development or settlement. It occupies the northwest corner of the western state of Wyoming and a touch of Montana and Idaho.

She loves the place for its scenic photographic opportunities, including the eruptions of the “Old Faithful” geyser every couple of hours. (Hence the “faithful” part.) She’s also partial to bison and elk from a distance, and chipmunks up close, of which there are plenty in Yellowstone.

I’m less enamored of the park because of the ever-present stench of its bubbling, sulfurous mud pots and steam terraces. You see, the entire park rests on a skittish volcanic cauldron.

Terrace
Mineral-rich steam from Yellowstone geysers spills onto nearby rocks, over time, creating what are called “Minerva travertine terraces,” made of calcium carbonate

On New Year’s Day, Time magazine reported that “a wave of recent earthquake activity is raising fears that have their origins 642,000 years ago, when a Yellowstone ‘supervolcano’ exploded so violently that it created the caldera itself.”

(Just how scientists know the last “big one” at Yellowstone was 642,000, and not 643,000 or 641,000, years ago, I’m not sure.) A caldera is a humongous crater. In effect, Yellowstone Park is a shallow bowl, many kilometers wide, formed by that thunderous prehistoric explosion.

Bison
Bison are part of the scenery in the park. They are normally docile around humans, until some fool tourist startles or approaches them. Then they are ornery and extremely dangerous

When we were last there, a park ranger mentioned, with a twisted smile and a mischievous gleam in his eye, that we were standing above a pressure cooker that could “blow” any old time. This would, of course, have ruined the day for him and us, the bison and elk and chipmunks, and thousands of tourists and tourbus drivers who happened to be in the vicinity as well.

I liked the odds against it, however, although it could be argued that after 642,000 years, a “big one” might be overdue. When – not if – it happens, Time reports, “such an explosion – 1,000 times more powerful than the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – would not only cover most of the U.S. with ash but also throw so much dust into the atmosphere that the world’s climate could change.”

Mount St. Helens
Do you notice what looks like a cavity in a tooth on the left side of Mount St. Helens mountain? And the blackened condition of the surroundings? They are both residual effects of the great eruption of 1993 almost two decades ago

Mount St. Helens’ cataclysmic detonation was the most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history, blasting 2,500 meters of rock off the mountain. If the pressure building underneath bucolic Yellowstone Park produced the kind of eruption that is predicted, it would be an event of Krakatoa proportions. The frightful disintegration of Krakatoa island in the Indonesian Archipelago on August 27, 1883, heard more than 3,000 kilometers away, was no less than the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded time. When Simon Winchester wrote what became a bestselling book about it, he titled it The Day the World Exploded. Krakatoa’s ashes shot higher than airplanes now fly and drifted around the globe, materially lowering temperatures for a year. The blast and the Indian Ocean tsunamis it produced killed uncounted thousands of unsuspecting people.

Krakatowa
This drawing of Krakatoa island and volcano appeared in Harper’s Weekly a month after the “day the world exploded”

Let me revisit one dramatic notation above: If exploding Yellowstone’s fury were to match that of Krakatoa, commuters in Chicago, ranchers in Texas, and revelers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans would clearly hear the blast. Imagine the effect in Jackson Hole or Casper, Wyoming.

***

When scientists reported a “notable swarm of earthquakes under way beneath Yellowstone Lake” late last year, veteran park rangers had to take notice. They well know the story of the 7.5-magnitude earthquake in the park in 1959 that killed 28 campers and propelled enough boulders from the deep to dam the Yellowstone River.

Tetons
Only in Alaska, within the United States, have I seen as dramatic juxtaposition of flat prairieland interrupted by so spectacular a mountain range as in the Tetons, above. There seem to be no foothills at all

Maybe that’s why I’ve always preferred Teton National Park, the gorgeous expanse that sits immediately south of Yellowstone. There, spectacular peaks soar 3,500 to 4,200 meters straight up from the Wyoming prairie. The Teton Range was formed in a cataclysm similar to the one that created Yellowstone, but millions of years earlier.

Thinking back to that “notable swarm of earthquakes,” it’s my guess that neither a Yellowstone National Park ranger nor any of the other locals in the area has a beer-bottle collection. If they did, they probably don’t anymore.

***
Branch Davidian compound
This is an image of a burned-out bus at the Branch Davidian compound. Virtually nothing remained of Mount Carmel, the sect’s church and residence, which was consumed by flames. Only a shack and a few hand-drawn signs remain at the site today

On another topic far afield, do you perhaps remember news coverage of the siege by federal agents of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1993? The Branch Dividians were a radical religious sect that viewed the Federal Government as persecutors. Amid allegations that its leader, David Koresh, had taken underage brides and physically abused children, heavily armed federal agents raided the Davidians’ compound and were met with small-arms fire. The agents retreated and began a physical and psychological siege that ended badly after a government tank broke through a wall of the compound and released tear gas. The raging fire that ensued killed 76 Davidians, including Koresh and 21 children.

Loudspeaker
This sort of speaker has become a tool to make life miserable for those who hole up to avoid capture

But it’s the psychological operation, or “psyops,” to which I want to allude. During the siege in Waco, the feds attempted what they called, in classic bureaucratese, an “acoustic psycho-correction.” They turned off the electricity, flooded the stronghold with bright lights through the night, and jammed radio and television broadcasts of everything but FBI news conferences. And most famously, operating on the “capture their minds, and their hearts and souls will follow” theory, agents set up loudspeakers through which they loudly piped the sounds of laughter, squawking birds, rabbits being slaughtered, Tibetan chants and – worst of all – rock music.

These tactics were widely excoriated as inhumane – and who who has come anywhere near headbanger music could disagree? But in light of the terrible inferno that ended the standoff, not much is said anymore about the psyops element of the siege.

All this is a preamble to the unspeakable psychological warfare unleashed in Fort Lupton, a town of 6,800 people on the Colorado prairie. There, Municipal Judge Paul Sacco has “had it” with noise violators. You know the type: drivers who crank up the bass woofers until homes and passing autos shake, people who party hardy into the morning to the beat of a heavy-metal band, and hard-of-hearing seniors who crank up the TV in the apartment next door at all hours of the day and night.

When the decibels reach so high that the police get involved, Judge Sacco throws the book at these inconsiderates.

Barry Manilow
For many, maybe most, people, listening to Barry Manilow is a pleasure, not punishment. But one can take only so much of a good thing

Worse, really. He sentences them to an hour in a closed room, where they must listen to the babblings of the children’s character Barney the Dinosaur; to the syrupy stylings of 1950s group The Platters; and even – gag! – to the warbles of the king of schmaltz, Barry Manilow, interpreting “I Write the Song” over and over again.

So draconian is this punishment that most offenders gladly plead guilty, pay the fine, and promise to keep a lid on the noise back home. And why not? Wouldn’t the screams of dying rabbits be preferable?

Not to Judge Sacco. “I actually don’t think Manilow’s too bad,” he told the Associated Press.

Nor does our otherwise-hip former VOA colleague Maura “M.J.” Farrelly, who now teaches journalism and American studies at Brandeis University in Boston. In fact, she adores the singer-songwriter. She never dared play “Mandy” in the office, but I seem to recall a poster of the doe-eyed crooner that triggered a gag reflex in us all.

***

M.J. could live, banging pots or blaring her stereo* loudly with impunity, in Fort Lupton. She might even conspire to be dragged before Judge Sacco in hopes of hearing an hour of Manilow “Looks Like We Made It” renditions, back to back.

But what if, by the time she moves to Colorado, Judge Sacco’s tastes have changed to Lawrence Welk, or LL Cool J?

*Using the word “stereo” certainly dates me. When’s the last time anyone has played a “stereo”?

***

One last thing. The final stack of Christmas cards received at the Highsmith-Landphair abode this past holiday season was lower than in 2007; as the pile in 2007 had been shorter than the one in 2006. Carol and I don’t take it personally. We know it’s a reflection of people’s busy lives. Pity, though. The Yuletide is the one time of year when we write to, and hear from, people who matter, even if it’s just to wish them holiday happiness and health in the New Year.

Not to worry, said Chris, the partner of our eldest daughter, Jeannette. Over drinks before Christmas dinner, he whipped out his hand-held personal communications device, punched a button, and up came all sorts of zippy Yuletide greetings from his circle of friends, some in reply to his own snappy holiday texts.

Snow
How does one convey this inviting seasonal scene in text shorthand?

This serves the purpose in a barebones way, though I wonder how one more quickie blurb in a daily blizzard of texts could have the warming effect of a beautiful card. Where do jolly St. Nick, Currier & Ives snow scenes, and Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus fit on a tiny keypad? I’ll concede that even a dashed-off text is an improvement over yet another page-long, single-spaced, “holiday newsletter” reviewing friends’, neighbors’, and relatives’ travels, weddings, divorces, and kitten adoptions. It’s better than another group photo of Lou and the Missus, children Buffy and Lou Jr., nine grandchildren, Brother Dick and his wife What’s Her Name, Great Aunt Tilly visiting from Toledo, Beth just after her breakup with Chuck, and Boris the Beagle – all gathered and smiling around the barbecue grill. Yes, Cousin Fred even got Boris to smile for the photo.

From these folks, a simple electronic greeting, even in text shorthand, would be a blessing. Something like, “HoHoHapNu, L, Lu+.”*

(*“Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. Love, Lou and Family.” Then we could efficiently reply, “HoHoHapNu2, L, C+T.” As holiday sentimentalists, though, we’d want to dress up our message with a lively ringtone of, say, “Christmas is Just Around the Corner,” by Barry Manilow.)

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Excoriate. To scold someone scathingly. The word has a medical origin. It also refers to the wearing-away of one’s skin. Imagine taking sandpaper to your palm and you’ll appreciate how unpleasant it is to be excoriated.

Gumshoe. Detectives and private investigators got this unflattering nickname in late 1800s, when they snuck around furtively in cheap boots or shoes whose soles were made of gummy rubber.

Humongous. Really, really huge. The word is a deliberate exaggeration that offends linguists. The Web site World Wide Words quotes William Hartston, writing in the British newspaper The Independent, as calling it “surely one of the ugliest words ever to slither its way into our dictionaries”.

Hyperbole. The use of exaggeration for emphasis. When one exclaims, for instance, that long-lost friends “look good enough to eat,” you’re not really a cannibal about to devour them. At least I hope not.

Impunity. Free from punishment. If you’re told that you can do something with impunity, you can go wild! You’ll not be arrested for it.

Moonshiners. The stealthy makers of illegal whiskey back in the woods, away from government “revenuers” who might want to tax their brew. These furtive distillers work most efficiently, naturally, by moonlight.

Tacky. Frumpy, dowdy, lowbrow, decidedly uncool. Wearing white socks to a formal dinner, for instance, is considered tacky and uncouth.

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This, That, and the Other Thing

Posted December 30th, 2008 at 8:09 pm (UTC-4)
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There’s not much fresh and revealing to be said about the funk and gloom of the U.S. economy. Just as sunny optimism drove stock prices and retail spending ever higher as if the good times would surely never end, today there is a brooding sense, not of dread – for, as a woman from Michigan remarked a couple of posts ago, if we can survive the Depression, we can wait out this recession – but of extreme care and caution across the land. Just as Wall Street endures downward “corrections” from time to time, individual Americans have launched corrections of their own to tighten up on their spending.

Bread line
Things have not reached the breadline stage of this 1932 photograph in Brooklyn, New York. But it will be a tough winter for many families

Certainly the loss of jobs, sometimes homes, and giant chunks from our retirement-fund portfolios will do that to a-body, as my mother used to say. But it’s broader than that. Even those who remain “people of means” seem cured, for the moment, of buying sprees and speculation. Patience and prudence reign.

And in turn our recent tight grip on our wallets has its own dire ripple effects. Chadwick Matlin in The Washington Post writes that a quintessential American institution, the shopping mall, is ominously threatened by the downturn. Many malls are for sale at cut-rate prices, and demoralizing vacancies are rising. The recent holiday sales slump, even bleaker than predicted, has sent some retailers to the brink of extinction in year in which almost 150,000 stores, and a number of national retail chains, have already closed.

Mall
Plenty of mall stores, like this one, are opening – in Dubai, where this photo was taken, certainly not in the struggling retail environment of the United States

Once again, negative psychology is afoot. Matlin points out that “every store that closes has an impact on the shops left behind.” And on consumers, already skittish, who are viscerally uncomfortable in malls with vacant and boarded-up stores. As Sherman Cahal and Randy Simes note in their “Urban Cincy” blog, “Cincinnati Mills, one of the largest retail centers in the region, has seen store after store shutter. This comes after millions of dollars of reinvestment into a massive mall sandwiched in between two others along a mall interstate of sorts.”

We’re Closed, and So’s the Next Shop

I’ve seen the death spiral of malls myself in the Washington area, particularly when an anchor department store goes belly up. It casts a pall over the mall, if you’ll pardon the rhyme, making it seem undesirable, even dangerous.

Empty store
Empty lots, and empty stores, are becoming an all-too-familiar sight at malls across the nation

The Post’s Matlin thinks that, in a world of big-box, one-shop stores and nearly effortless shopping online, malls’ time has come and gone anyway. Who in a nation obsessed with convenience and, now, cutting back spending has the time or patience to park what seems like a kilometer away and fight crowds (when there are any) and pay undiscounted prices at a mall?

Borrowing from President Ronald Reagan’s plea to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall, the headline to Matlin’s story read: “Tear Down This Mall.”

But then, where would our teenagers hang out?

***
Tick

One second can be put to a lot of positive uses. You can give someone a sly wink, smile at your spouse, pat your child on the head or back, give your pet an encouraging “good girl” or “good boy,” change the television channel from something inane to something uplifting, put a big check mark on your list of New Year’s resolutions, and so on.

You can even blurt out an “I love you” in less than the tick of the clock.

Toast
You can do two things at once in the New Year’s Eve leap second: smile and raise a toast to someone you care about

If you’re reading this before the year turns, you have some planning to do, for the world’s scientific community is squeezing in an extra “leap second” just in front of midnight on New Year’s Eve. And you know what they say: “Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back.”

“They,” in this case, is motivational speaker Harvey Mackay. And isn’t it satisfying to know who “they” is for a change?”)

Atomic clock
Louis Essen (R), is credited with inventing the atomic clock. Its accuracy prompted a complete redefinition of the “second” to the time it takes for 9192631770 cycles of his lightning-fast device

Only someone like Art Chimes, VOA’s “Mr. Science,” could lucidly explain the reasons for the leap second, but it has something to do with compensating for the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. It seems that even the combination of brainy scientists, super-duper computers, and atomic clocks that are accurate to the gadzillionth decimal point cannot precisely predict the exact amount of time it will take the Earth to make that journey each year. Those clocks always end up a fraction of a fraction of a second fast. So every few years the men and women in the white lab coats decree an extra second to let the Earth catch up.

The last leap second was added in 2005, and don’t you wish you had it back?

Sleep
This, or something approaching it, will be Carol and I, ringing in the New Year in dreamland. The part of Ted is played by the guy in the suave moustache. Note that the “Carol” character is zzzing as well

I’ll be taking my leap second a tad early, say a second before 10 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, as Carol and I turn in early. I plan to use that instant to raise a toast to her and to better times for the world in 2009. I’m pretty sure I can think all that in a second, while quickly raising my glass, though it will obviously take a bit longer to speak the words.

If you are reading this after midnight on New Year’s Eve, I’d be interested to what you did with your extra second of life.

***
Taking Time

OK, the leap second probably isn’t really bonus time on earth, exactly. It’s a high-tech bookkeeping thing. But it feels like this extra second – and certainly the complete February day that’s added in quadrennial leap years, are gifts not to be squandered. (2008 was a leap year. Did you make good use of February 29th?)

This makes me wonder why that additional days every four years don’t sop up all the time needed to get the clocks right. You’d think they’d serve as a sort of chronographic credit, so that we wouldn’t need those stray leap seconds every few New Year’s Eves. Get Mr. Science back in here.

Clock
This clock is probably not going to cut it as the world’s keeper of time, even with an occasional leap second, hour, or day

As usual in matters scientific, there’s a raging debate over the leap second among the intelligentsia, in terms mere mortals would never understand. (Maybe this is the “rocket science” we keep hearing about.) The folks at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, near Paris, propose scrapping the leap second, whose origin, naturally, traces to something British having to do with Greenwich Mean Time.

Hence the French aversion to the idea.

***
Saving Time – for Seven Centuries
Cafe
Speaking of time, this is a great place to pass it, in no particular, haste, in this quiet Paris arrondissement, or district

Being mellower than the Brits and us Yanks, these Frenchmen believe a leap hour every 700 years would make more sense. I doubt even Mr. Science could explain why that is, other than an hour is much more civilized than a second every now and again. A full 3,600 seconds all at once would give us a chance to sip Beaujolais, break and butter and enjoy crunchy bread and a bit of brie, and talk about the French Paradox or something. I’m relatively sure that wine, bread, and the French Paradox will still be around 700 years from now, should the Leap Hour take place.

(Yes, yes, you were wondering about the French Paradox. I couldn’t fit the explanation into the previous sentence with any hope that its end would relate to its beginning. The paradox is simple: French men and women, who eat cholesterol-rich food, drink wine at the drop of a beret, smoke from morning to night, and exercise only by walking to the patisserie to get their chocolate croissants, wine, and cigarettes, somehow stay thin. When Americans do these things, our obesity rates literally shoot off the doctors’ charts. The answer – for which I owe a nod to travel writer Kelby Hartson Carr, someone who actually pays to eat, drink, and gad about France – is utterly simple: the French savor their food and their wine, and of course their language. I don’t know if they savor their cigarettes. Impatient Americans wolf down their food, drink to get high, and do a lot of it on the run.

So it’s natural that French people, who are in no hurry, would prefer a leap hour to a leap second, even if they have to wait 700 years to enjoy one.

***
I’ll Be Asleep If You Need Me

You may have wondered, back a few paragraphs, why Carol and I would squander the opportunity to wedge into the shivering, rowdy throngs at New York City’s Times Square and “watch the ball drop” to usher in 2009, or to gather with friends for toasts and hugs at midnight, or at a minimum, to sit pathetically in front of the tube and watch nauseously giddy TV commentators count down the end of a pretty sorry year.

Black ice
This is black-ice territory, a literal nightmare scenario for the Landphair-Highsmith traveling show

Washington temperatures often hover around freezing most New Year’s Eves. “Black ice” is a genuine threat, and we will never forget the time our car, speeding over the mountains in eastern Oregon on seemingly dry pavement soon after a spit of rain, hit a patch of black ice and spun several times into a guardrail, just meters in front of a speeding truck. So we don’t “do” black ice, especially when others on the road might be half blotto.

Times Square
We don’t even watch the famous Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop on television. Were this photo taken this year, there’d be just 13 seconds – not to the New Year but to the 2008 Leap Second!

Nor are we wild about toasts with strangers. We tried that once in some New Year’s Eve package deal. Picture three hours of small talk with assorted meter readers, university pedants, and National Zoo elephant keepers randomly assigned to your table. Nor shall we forget the sips of lukewarm cheap champagne, awkward hugs with the elephant keeper, hoots on paper noisemakers at midnight, then mirthless choruses of “Auld Lang Syne,” only one verse of which anyone knew:

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
“And never brought to mind?
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
“And days of auld lang syne?”

The lyrics that follow are incomprehensible outside the heather – something about “auld lang syne my jo,” and a reference to taking “a cup o’ kindness yet.” That perked up revelers for a moment, though, thinking that the “cup o’ kindness” line would signal a champagne refill. The band trudged on, repeating the main refrain about 37 times. We all croaked “Should auld acquaintance be forgot” over and over until the music mercifully ceased. That was the cue for big, forced “Yeahs!” all around, more uncomfortable hugs, a promise to get together soon with the meter reader and his wife, and a dash to the coat-check room.

We don’t invite anyone in, either. The neighbors are out spinning on the black ice, the kids are spread throughout the East, and our local friends live several drunk drivers’ car lengths away.

No, better to hug Carol early, make that leap-second toast at 9:59:59 p.m., and get a good night’s sleep.

Rest assured, though, if you were beginning to wonder, that we are a jolly duo, not misanthropes, the other 364 days a year – 365 in leap years.

***
Who Dat? (As They Say in New Orleans)
Guy Lombardo
This is Guy Lombardo’s mug on a 1928 sheet-music cover. What was with the dark circles around people’s eyes in those days? Lack of sleep from too many late-night gigs, perhaps, in Lombardo’s case

For older Americans, “Auld Lang Syne” will forever be linked to Canadian bandleader Guy Lombardo, who each New Year’s Eve from 1929 through the mid-1970s turned the song into his trademark and financial (Lombardo, by the way, in a curious non sequitur of a career, was also a world-champion speedboat racer. You’d have never guessed it, listening to the measured “Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven” that his orchestra played.)

Names like Guy Lombardo inspire pleasant reminiscences in about half the population and blank stares in the other – some of the latter believing that no one who matters besides Mom, Dad, and Uncle Bruce was alive pre-Madonna. (In fact, that’s the 21st-Century definition of prima donna!)

To anyone under 30, Guy Lombardo might as well be Guy Fawkes or Guy Lafleur. They haven’t heard of any of them, even when you hint that “Guy” is “Gee” in the case of Lafleur.

I mention all this because of a similar lighthearted generational disconnect in one of our morning coverage meetings at VOA. Mr. Science was discussing a new Pew Internet & American Life survey projecting Americans’ likely online habits to come in the year 2020.

Hearing this on the speakerphone from his post in New York, our colleague Adam Phillips piped up, “It sounds so Buck Rogers!”

I took quick stock of the reactions around the table. We’re, shall I charitably say, a seasoned bunch, by and large, and those with a touch or more of gray evinced a slight nod at the mention of Buck Rogers’s name. Others of more tender years, and those of any age born outside the United States, stared dully at the speakerphone box.

Impishly, I could not resist asking my 24-year-old compadre and Internet savior, Anne Malinee, if she know who in the world Adam was talking about. Of course not, and why should she? My intent was not to embarrass her, but to point out how “household names” in one generation can pass almost completely out of view of the next.

Name That Dead Person

Perhaps it’s inevitable in a furiously busy society that names like Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, Alan Shepard, Betty Boop, Buffalo Bill (or Buffalo Bob for that matter), Roy Rogers, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, Babe Ruth – and certainly Buck Rogers – are not the least bit familiar to whole swaths of society. I thought every American everywhere knew of Babe Ruth. I mentioned him at a family Christmas gathering, and four of seven people – teens and young adults – looked at me like I had just invoked the name of some obscure Mesopotamian potter.

Buck Rogers
Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who later became more famous playing Tarzan the ape man in the movies, is shown on this 1939 movie poster as the star of a series of Buck Rogers shorts that appeared before the featured film at theaters

Never fear. At the end of all this, I’ll give you a thumbnail briefing on each of these figures. But let’s first circle back to Buck Rogers. He was a science-fiction action hero who first appeared in a 1927 novella, Armageddon 2419, then in the first sci-fi comic strip. By the 1940s, kids across the country were packing Buck Rogers lunch boxes, aiming flashing and buzzing Buck Rogers ray guns at each other, and hurrying to the theater to see Rogers battle the Tiger Men of Mars.

I missed all that by a decade but had good fun with “Rocket Man,” a fellow with what looked like two propane canisters strapped to his back. He would leap off rock outcroppings, arms extended, and zoom across the sky as smoke gushed from the canisters.

Some other time, I’ll tell you about Flash Gordon.

Buck Rogers inspired fantastic dreams of a future that would indeed one day, in real life, include elaborate space travel, if not yet encounters with Tiger Men.

Just ask Adam, but not Anne.

***

Another colleague, Julie Taboh, suggests that I add the phrase “above the fray,” used in my last posting on the newspaper business, to my “wild words” listings. I’ll do so below, provided she reads up on Buck Rogers.

As for the promised quick rundown of those “blast from the past” names awhile back:

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were American communists who were tried, convicted, and later executed in the 1950s for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. I say “allegedly,” since doubt about their guilt lingers in many circles.

Alan Shepard, an astronaut, was the first American in space, aboard the Freedom 7 Spacecraft on May 5, 1961. He would later become the fifth person to walk on the moon.

Betty Boop was an animated-cartoon character in the 1930s. Her big eyes and flirtatious eyelashes had the naughty, come-hither look of a Roaring Twenties “flapper.” She became one of American advertising’s first sex symbols.

Buffalo Bill
Here’s one of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Cowboys” traveling show posters. Bill himself rode at the head of the opening procession each night

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody organized extravagant, touring “Wild West” shows in the early 20th Century. They featured such headliners as trick-shot artist Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, the last Sioux chief to surrender to U.S. forces following bloody “Indian wars” on the frontier.

“Buffalo Bob” Smith was the buckskin-costumed human host of the “Howdy Doody” TV program in the 1950s. It featured, besides Howdy the freckle-faced puppet, characters such as Phineas T. Bluster, Chief Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and Clarabell, the seltzer-bottle-squirting clown. What can I say? Our tastes were simpler then!

Like Gene Autry and Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers was a “singing cowboy” – one of the “good guys” in western movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. Later, on TV, kids across America watched him, his wife, Dale Evans, and some melodic cowpokes called the Sons of the Pioneers while away the hours in song around a campfire, between mild fistfights and a gun or two shot out of villains’ hands in their crusade for Western justice. All ended well each week as Roy and Dale crooned their “Happy Trails” theme song.

Lucille Ball, who starred with her husband, Desi Arnaz, in the top-rated series “I Love Lucy,” and rotund comedian Jackie Gleason, who hosted a variety show that featured many of his own tragicomic characters, were “must see TV” figures in the 1950s and ’60s.

Babe
Babe Ruth didn’t look the part of a gifted athlete, but he changed the game of baseball by knocking ball after ball out of the field of play and whetting fans’ appetite for these “long ball” home runs

Babe Ruth was an orphaned, paunchy, profane womanizer who, from 1914 to 1935, turned into a prodigious baseball player, first as a pitcher, then as the “Sultan of Swat” record-setting batter. Even in this age of lithe and sculpted millionaire athletes, The Babe is considered the best player of all time.

As for the two “Guys” besides Lombardo: In 1605, Guy Fawkes conspired with other English Catholics to blow up Parliament and King James I. November 5, the anniversary of the “Gunpowder Revolution,” is still celebrated as “Guy Fawkes Day” in Britain, if you call bonfires and burned effigies of Fawkes a celebration. Guy Lafleur was a gifted and graceful hockey player during the dynastic reign of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Le Demon Blond, as adoring French-speaking fans in Quebec Province called him, is the Canadiens’ all-time leading scorer. In another strange career move like Guy Lombardo’s speed racing, Lafleur now runs a helicopter-rental company.

Don’t be dismayed if you didn’t know about any of these people or characters. I didn’t know who Flavor Flav was until I looked him up.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

A-body. This is sort of backwoods-Pennsylvania shorthand for “anybody.” My mother would often mutter how hard it was for a-body to do this or that in the big city of Cleveland.

Above the Fray. One who stays above the fray remains cool and collected in the midst of turmoil. A “fray” is a fight that goes on and on. Some sources date the term to feudal times, when nobles, high in their castles, remained serenely unaffected by the squabbles of their vassals outside the gates below. When I hear the phrase, I think of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, watching the fierce fighting from atop a Fredericksburg, Virginia, hill in the U.S. Civil War. Lee is said to have remarked to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, [lest] we should grow too fond of it.”

Belly up. One who goes “belly up” has been financially ruined and forced out of business. The term likely originated at sea, where dead fish float upside down and sunken ships sometimes turn hull-upward in the briny deep. The term is not to be confused with “bellying up” to the bar, which is thought to relate to the notion that you are old enough to drink if your belt line reaches the bar.

Big-Box Stores. These are mega-stores, sometimes an entire square block in size, that sometimes carry an entire mall’s worth of products from fresh produce and meat to appliances and, in some states, even guns.

Blotto. Intoxicated, soused, stoned, pie-eyed, sotted, drunk as a skunk – not that we’ve seen too many inebriated skunks. The derivation is unclear; perhaps it popped up after one too many people were blotted out on the highway.

Gad About. In the 19th Century, a gad-about was a person with nothing better to do than drop in on neighbors, just to pass the time. Gadding about today is viewed as a pleasant interval of shopping or just ambling along, taking in the sights.

Gravy Train. When you’re on the gravy train, you have it made. Money is no problem, and you don’t have to work very hard. Gravy was long considered a luxury addition to meat or potatoes, and railroaders who pulled shifts on short, easy runs were said to be riding the gravy train.

Non sequitur. This old Latin term refers to a statement that makes little or no sense in relation to the comments that came before it. Something like, “I took my dog for a walk where the straws were longer than usual,” for instance, would be a real head-scratcher. The walk and the straws have no apparent connection except, perhaps, in the dog owner’s mind.

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Inside Baseball

Posted December 22nd, 2008 at 7:10 pm (UTC-4)
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When people write about their own professions or subjects of particular interest to themselves, we call it “inside baseball.” There’s a danger that only others who share those interests will appreciate and enjoy the discussion. Others may find it esoteric or, gasp!, boring.

Wrigley Field
This is not exactly what we mean by “inside baseball.” Ours is more theoretical

So I’m taking a chance with a bit of inside baseball about the journalism profession. But I think some recent developments have implications for us all.

There are three threads to this story, and perhaps coincidentally, all three involve the Gannett Co. That’s the U.S. multimedia giant that publishes 85 daily newspapers and owns 23 television stations. Gannett’s properties are renowned for their aggressiveness, profitability, tight control of a dollar, and emphasis on local over national and international coverage. Some doubtlessly disenchanted former Gannett editors and writers have peppered the Web with stories of alleged “sweatshop” demands on the staff at many of the properties.

Gannett is also legendary for its technical innovation and its willingness to try new approaches in a profession that is hidebound by romantic traditions. Founded in 1982, Gannett’s nationally distributed USA Today was the first, or one of the first, papers to emphasize compact stories, color graphics, and lots of photographs to grab readers’ attention at a time when they were increasingly turning to television, especially, when they wanted news.

Gannett also runs Web sites that, according to the Nielsen/NetRatings service, reach about 16 percent of the total Internet audience.

In all, Gannett is a media powerhouse to which people pay attention. So . . . pay attention! Perhaps you’ll discern a connection of the dots among these developments. Perhaps not.

Bad News for Paperboys

• If you read my last post about the psychological distress of autoworkers and others in economically battered Michigan, you caught the comments of two editors at the Detroit Free Press, a Gannett daily. I did not know at the time – and perhaps neither did they – that the paper itself would soon be making headlines. The Free Press announced that come spring, it and the News – another Detroit daily separately owned with which the Free Press partners in news-gathering and production – would deliver printed newspapers to people’s homes only three days a week. Limited print runs for in-store sales and public news boxes will continue seven days a week.

Newsboy
People aren’t buying newspapers as much as they used to. If they read them at all, many people scan them online

The Free Press reported that Dave Hunke, its publisher, said the move would, among other things, enable the two Detroit papers to spend some of the money saved on paper, ink, and fuel on their Web sites, to “develop new ways to deliver information digitally, [and] enhance multimedia offerings.”

“There is a day of reckoning coming for newspapers, which in my mind don’t change and change rapidly,” Hunke added. He noted without apparent rancor that customers were rapidly moving away from the printed product – “most people don’t read us that way” – as “lifestyles and technology have changed.”

And as customers turn to their computers and various hand-held devices to keep up with the world, Hunke said, “We can’t be afraid about moving at light speed toward that.”

• The second development does not directly relate to the Web, but it says something about the quick-quick, hurry-up-and-tell-me-something nature of the “new media.”

Paper rolls
You’re looking at newsprint rolls that could some day, perhaps sooner than later, become historical artifacts

Bowing to what The Washington Post called “the march of technology,” WUSA, Gannett’s television property in Washington, D.C., announced that it will replace its traditional news crews with “multimedia journalists” who will single-handedly report, shoot, and edit their stories.

News crews in large markets typically include a reporter, camera operator, and often a field producer, plus an editor or editors back at the station.

Now a single “one-man band” – not necessarily a classically trained journalist but often a production person – carrying a camera and microphone as well as a notepad – will cover breaking stories in particular. “They’re passing out cameras to the janitors,” one unhappy WUSA staffer told me. Surely the person was exaggerating!

“The concept of a multimedia journalist, having his own beat, with an area of expertise, and a limitless virtual news desk is something we can get very excited about,” the station’s general manager told The Washington Post. To say nothing of the cost savings. The paper reported that WUSA “plans an across-the-board cut in reporters’ salaries as it increases their responsibilities.”

And Make Coffee, Too?
Newsroom
A lot of traditional newsrooms have empty cubicles – though maybe not THIS empty – as media companies downsize and consolidate job responsibilities in the hands of “mobile journalists”

“Mo-jos,” or mobile journalists, will be expected to report, shoot, and capture audio for stories and quickly upload reports and raw material to the station’s Web site, as well as appearing on air as needed.

As I noted, many WUSA staffers are less than thrilled. Veteran reporter Gary Reals – disclosure: he’s a friend and poker buddy of mine – accepted a buyout offer and is leaving. “It takes a lot of time to shoot and edit and write and prepare a story, and if you have one person doing all that, something has to give,” he told The Washington Post.

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-TV News Directors Association, indicated that this one-man-band approach “could work fine for feature stories” but could be dangerous for the “mo-jos” in breaking-news situations, especially involving developing crime scenes and civil unrest.

Zuli
Zuli Palacio is one of the VOA journalists who’s a “one-person band,” reporting and shooting stories, such as one for a feature assignment here, near Taos, New Mexico

(Some years ago here at the Voice of America, a New York consultant taught dozens of people from several divisions how to become “video journalists,” or “V-Js,” shooting as well as reporting and writing their own stories. Only a handful of V-Js remain, as later groups of senior managers concluded that, indeed, something does “have to give” when a journalist tries to combine research, reporting, shooting video, setting up lighting, capturing quality audio, then writing the story and editing its production elements for television.)

Winds of Change

• The third development relates to both Gannett and VOA. A couple of weeks ago, several VOA managers attended an American Press Institute seminar led by Mackenzie Warren, the director of digital content for Gannett Digital, which supports the publisher’s various online products and develops new ones. Just 31 years old and very much in tune with the Web culture, Warren came to his job at Gannett headquarters in northern Virginia from a position as managing editor in charge of editing, packaging, and distributing the chain’s Fort Myers, Florida, News-Press in print and online.

VOA managers came back thunderstruck from his presentation. (If “thunderstruck” is too strong a word, “amazed” fits for sure.) They were shocked by the warp speed at which online journalism appears to be moving, and wondering what it portends.

Mackenzie Warren
Mackenzie Warren makes no bones about it: He’s a “new media” crusader

In particular, they were struck by Warren’s belief in the “one-man-band” approach. So struck by it that I wanted to hear details from Mackenzie Warren himself. Here is some of what he told me in a telephone conversation:

“Everyone is a publisher now,” he began. Not just newspapers or news organizations that host Web sites, but also bloggers and other “citizen journalists,” including those who quickly put up raw video of news events. No longer can traditional publishers smugly rest on their laurels as “trusted news brands” that news consumers are sure to count on for information, nor can they dismiss assorted providers of content as unqualified, untrustworthy, irrelevant rogues. Like it or not, more and more news consumers are turning to the Web – including these unaffiliated information providers – especially in crisis situations.

“Journalism is evolving not on our time frame but on the world’s,” Warren told me. People who turn to the Web want to know what’s happening this instant. To borrow Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase from 1964, “The medium is the message,” meaning that the delivery system – in this case, the Web – greatly influences how information is presented and received. When it comes to breaking news in its presto-change-o culture, there is no time for the time-honored journalism drill: carefully gather the story, meticulously write it, confirm the details with multiple sources, and submit it for vetting by one or more editors before it is worthy of putting in print or on the air.

“If you can’t give it to them right now, they’ll go elsewhere” and quite possibly never return, Warren told me. So journalists feeding the Web have to be swifter about “putting things up” as they encounter them, often without the luxury of review by other “sets of eyes” belonging to line and copy editors. There just isn’t time.

“I’m not suggesting that we should ever be reckless, leave out crucial aspects of a story, or not worry about inaccuracies,” he told me. But in the online world, “there’s a higher degree of forgiveness” about errors of grammar, syntax, chronology, and even facts, especially early on in a story. News consumers on the Web “don’t expect perfection,” Warren says. “They expect us to give them the story as best we know it” and fix mistakes later as they are discovered.

The Three “T’s” of Today’s Online World

Web users want information “on their terms, on their turf, and on their timetable,” Warren believes. And providers had better give it to them that way or step aside for those who will. News managers who are consumed with getting it right rather than getting it first soon won’t have enough readers to notice.

It’s a “risk-reward deal,” Warren says. You risk some mistakes for the reward of getting things up so quickly that you become Web users’ “go-to source” for information.

That’s a chilling thought for owners of traditional “news brands” and the old axiom that “it’s more important to get it right than to get it first.”

Vendors
The delivery of news took a long time to evolve until recently. Now it seems as if there’s a new approach every day

Mackenzie Warren, who is not at all uncomfortable being labeled a “new media evangelist and agitator,” insists that the “get it on fast” approach does not do violence to journalistic tradition.

“We’ve long had eyewitness reporting that goes straight from the reporter’s notebook to the consumers,” he says. “That’s what live television is. I think that readers value the immediate nature of this style of reporting and, while they’d not permit it in a printed newspaper – which is permanent and had the benefit of many hours of editing and production – I think they are demanding it in the Web version of newspapers.”

He adds that, in his view, getting it right and getting it first are not mutually exclusive. “I trust our professional reporters to get most of what they report right,” he says. “For 99 percent of the things we report first, we also report them right.”

Today’s news customers get involved in the product “much earlier upstream,” Warren points out. “We’re letting readers see what we’re gathering as we’re gathering it,” not packaging the information and putting a pretty bow on it before readers get to see it. “They see the whole lifespan of a story.”

Warren says that reporters must still be well-trained, vigilant, and ethical, and that their commitment to credibility, balance, and objectivity remains paramount. “I carry a copy of the [U.S.] Constitution with me,” he says. “That’s how much I value the safeguards of a free press.”

iPhone
This is one of the delivery systems of today’s “newspaper.” What
would Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press back around 1439, think about such a thing? It’s amazing enough to those who live today

That copy of the Constitution, naturally, is not a pamphlet or book or parchment. It’s an interactive application on Warren’s iPhone.

What about editors? Are they obsolete? “Not at all,” replies Mackenzie Warren. “There’s a small minority of stories – those with special sensitivities or controversy – that demand continual oversight from an editor.” Otherwise, “editors can be a bottleneck [lavishing precious time on getting the nuances right]. We have to trust the good judgment of trained reporters on the scene.” Besides, editors so often find themselves trying to juggle two, three, or 10 stories, that none of them gets out quickly.

Quickly!

Mackenzie Warren believes that news executives can no longer sit smugly above the fray, deciding which stories to tell and when and how to tell them. The typical news pro “has never had to worry as much about ‘customer service,’ as those in other businesses have,” Warren says.

“They’d better start.”

And reporters had better get used to being “mo-jos” – mobile journalists, generalists – thinking on their feet, handling different kinds of equipment, telling stories verbally, visually, and in writing.

A Far Cry from J-School

One would think that more “old hands” besides WUSA’s Gary Reals would berate these developments or walk away from them. “My experience is just the opposite,” Mackenzie Warren told me. “They were afraid we were making their work obsolete, and they’d be left out. Once they get the right training and get into a cadence, they’re thrilled to be in the forefront of all that we do. They’re not cast aside. They’re on the cutting edge.”

And, he adds, not every old hand will be asked to grab the nearest hand-held camera and race off to fires and traffic accidents. “We’ll still need specialists” writing commentary and analysis, Warren says.

Could it be that all this talk of immediacy is really camouflage, an excuse for deeper cost-cutting by a company famous for being profit-wise and controlling the bottom line? “Never, ever, ever has cost come into it,” Mackenzie Warren assured me. “It’s all about better coverage. If it takes many mobile journalists to cover a story, that’s what the story will get. We want journalism to thrive.”

Warren acknowledges, however, that media outlets that meet users’ demand for quick, comprehensive information will build an audience large and strong enough to attract advertisers to pay the company’s bills and stockholder dividends.

As for newspapers like his company’s Detroit Free Press, Mackenzie Warren says they were always “a mile wide [covering a million things] and an inch deep. They’ll evolve into niche products, appealing not to anyone and everyone but to specialized audiences.” For all practical purposes, he believes, they’re already out of the breaking-news business.

So, what’s to be made of all this? Journalism is obviously mutating, and fast, into a sort of “ready response strike force,” not so much assembling information and making sense of it, but grabbing the latest information here, there, and everywhere and sharing it immediately, sometimes without much of a filter.

Journalism’s ‘New World Order’

For this “old hand,” and perhaps anyone else who’s over 30, this represents an unsettling concession to the demands of a busy, “instant gratification” world for fast, bite-sized information unencumbered by pesky nuances. I keep thinking, and worrying, about Mackenzie Warren’s three “T’s”: providing information to Web users “on their terms, on their turf, and on their timetable.”

***
Thanks Back Atcha

Got a couple of very nice mentions from other bloggers recently, which gave me the chance to enjoy what they are doing.

Nik Peachey's blog
Here’s a screenshot of Nik Peachey’s very nice plug of our blog

Nik Peachey, a teacher, writer, and technology consultant in Morocco, writes two blogs. One, called “Daily English Activities” and aimed at those for whom English is a second or foreign language. It has a lot of exercises for teachers and those interested in stretching their minds, and not just in English. One had a memorization test involving photos. Another, linked above, talked about stretching one’s vocabulary using “spidergrams” and “vocabulary webs.” These were challenging (but fun) in any language at any level. They reinforce the seriousness with which people around the world study English, not just to expand their minds but also in hopes of creating more opportunities for themselves.

This reminds me, briefly, of a memorable visit that I made to Indonesia, where I was pleasantly surprised to find college students not only watching undubbed American movies and listening to American songs in English, but also broadcasting in English on a campus radio station. It reinforced the reality that English – American English – is becoming, if not already is, the language of science, the Web, international travel, and youth. That does not make the language or our people superior in any way. But it does say something about the spread of American culture, not all of which is uplifting.

Nik’s other blog, called “QuickShout,” talks about developments in language and technology. I don’t know how he does it!: create two blogs and still have a life. Nor do I know how Nik manages to write such short and compact editions. Writing short is so much harder than writing long. I’ve been at it for more than 45 years and still don’t have the hang of it.

Thanks, too, to recent commentators, including Patrick and Cui Litang, who passed along generous thoughts about my writing. My own time as an editor has helped me spot a lot of gaffes in time to correct them. And I have grown more and more comfortable with a cadence developed by reading my words aloud, not just on the radio, but also as I write this blog. I find that hearing the words often helps me pick the right word and tone. As my reader “Anonymous” called them, my “fantastic picture of words” derives from hearing as well as writing them.

I still struggle – as my editor and several of you readers have noted – to write succinctly. In the face of the discussion about immediacy and brevity above, I worry if there’ll be a place for long-form writing down the road. Perhaps one day readers will grow unsatisfied with Writing McNuggets and will demand something more filling.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Hidebound. Inflexible, stubbornly narrow-minded. The term may have morphed from the animal world, where the abnormally dry skin of a hidebound animal clings rigidly to the underlying flesh.

Rancor. Not just dislike or irritation but deep-seated ill-will and hostility. The term is related, in its derivation from Middle English, to the word “rancid,” so rancor is not a pleasant thing.

Rest on One’s Laurels. To be so satisfied with your abilities and accomplishments that you stop trying to improve. In Roman times, victors in battle wore a head-ring of leaves (laurels). Those who rested upon those victories often lost the next battle.

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Michigone?

Posted December 12th, 2008 at 8:26 pm (UTC-4)
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This is written on Friday: Blacker than Black Friday in Michigan, after the U.S. Senate failed to muster enough votes to approve a $14-billion bridge loan to the reeling Big Three American automakers. People in that cold North Central state are dejected, frightened, and angry. But unlike the fictional TV anchorman Howard Beale, who famously sputtered that he was “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” in the 1976 movie “Network,” Michigan autoworkers and executives expect they’ll be “taking it” – on the chin and in their pay envelopes – for a long time to come.

Car spindle
This is how the U.S. auto industry is feeling about now. Wait! What’s that German car doing at the top?

When people here in Washington – or in Denver or Des Moines, or a small town in the Dakotas for that matter – have a bad day, we’re prone to saying, “Hey, could be worse. We could be in Detroit!”

But what could be worse if you live and work – or worked – there now that unemployment in “the Motor City” is north of 18 percent and about to spill past 10 percent throughout Michigan?

Journalists and politicians speak of “Detroit,” meaning not just our beleaguered “automobile capital” but the entire embattled U.S. auto industry, whose influence reaches well beyond Michigan.

Christmas car dealership
There’s not a lot of ho-ho-ho on the lots of car dealers this Christmas

One in ten jobs nationally – one in three in Michigan – is tied to the auto industry. When Virg Bernaro, mayor of Lansing, the state capital, recently led a delegation of 35 mayors and other elected officials on a trip to Washington to support an industry rescue plan, its members represented towns from coast to coast that depend not just on assembly plants or huge dealerships, but also on “Tier One” and “Tier Two” suppliers.

Tier One companies make parts and trim for Chryslers, General Motors brands, and Fords, down to the ashtrays and buttons on the radio. Tier Two companies, in turn, supply them. In a warped variation of “trickle-down economics” not stressed in business school, when an automaker founders or bites the dust, unpaid bills, job losses, and closures spread quickly to the little companies that feed off it.

That doesn’t count the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on selling and repairing American cars. Or the owners of the deli on the corner that sells most of its sandwiches to those who work at the plant or dealer. Or the dentist who built a practice from the same clientele – and so on, on down the block.

Dark Days
Farmer
Congress and the White House are having about as much luck as this farmer, pulling the auto industry out of the mud

So, “rescue package” for the embattled automakers or no rescue package, times are grim in Michigan, where people know that when they bundle up and fetch the newspaper from the snow, the news they carry in will not be good.

On top of all these dark developments, Michiganders, like almost all Americans, have also been buffeted by bad news from their stockbrokers and mortgage lenders. But not every town or every person in Michigan is despairing. Most folks in western Michigan — around Grand Rapids, where the health-care and furniture businesses retain some vigor; and up north, around Travers City, where resorts and vacation properties and ordinary homes are still being built — don’t greet the day with dread, as do a lot of people in “car country” to their south and east.

Henry Ford’s plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, hired thousands of former migrants during World War II, when the plant was converted from auto to bomber production. Ford had hired many southern African-Americans but switched to hiring whites after black workers joined the union

An irony is that Michigan was once a place that people by the hundreds of thousands hurried to move to, not get away from. During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, an estimated 7 million African-Americans, plus uncounted rural whites, poured into Michigan and other rapidly industrializing northern states. These places dangled good, steady jobs with benefits – a far cry from unrelenting, poorly rewarded toil under the hot sun in the fields and piney woods down South.

Good but not glamorous jobs in the auto factories turned Michigan into a “cash and carry” state: workers brought home a decent paycheck, paid their bills, put their kids through school, and splurged on only one or two modest pleasures, say a cabin at the lake or a nice driving vacation out west each year.

They were frugal, but there wasn’t much left over to save. Besides, why bother? Social Security and a good Ford pension would see you through your retirement years. And the parish church wouldn’t charge much to bury you.

The auto companies and the United Auto Workers are on the same side of the table when it comes to seeking help from Washington

Rampant entrepreneurship did not develop in Michigan to the degree that it did in bustling California or Texas and elsewhere, for the same reason. People put their trust in the long-term stability of the union and a good company job. Higher education was something for the kids: You don’t need a degree to solder joints on the line.

Rock Solid

We admire these “salt of the earth” people who are some of our last countrymen, or so it seems, who still actually “make stuff” with their hands and backs. They don’t deliver things or trade things or sell can’t-miss paper schemes. They go to work each day and make stuff. If we lose the auto companies and these automakers, we wonder and worry what America will make any more.

If the answer is not much, what does that portend?

Chevy Suburban
This extra-long Chevy Suburban sport-utility vehicle, and millions like it, played a role in the Big Three’s “fat years” and now, in in its lean ones

“Michigan is the nation’s economic story writ large,” Detroit Free Press business reporter John Gallagher wrote in October. “The state gave birth to the American middle class in the early years of the 20th Century, as rising productivity in the new auto industry boosted incomes for millions of working families.” The state routinely led the nation in per-capita income in the 1950s and ’60s, and just a decade ago. And just a decade ago, the Big Three could hardly count their money fast enough, as Americans drove off happy in the latest gas-guzzling minivans and sport-utility vehicles: Detroit’s metal mastodons.

` With 15-percent profit margins on SUVs, what was not to like about life in the Wolverine State?

An Unsettling Precedent
Timber
Timber was once to Michigan’s economy what the auto industry is now. The car folks hope their next chapter does not resemble the loggers’ last one

But a faint warning can be heard from a century past, when Michigan’s lumber industry fell from boom to bust in a flash. In the North Woods throughout the early 20th Century, roving crews of lumberjacks made short work of millions of pines, some 200 years old. They turned logs into boards that built millions of homes for many states around. It was not long before all that remained were sawdust and ghost towns throughout the North Woods.

No one, not even the auto industry’s naysayers, is saying that tumbleweeds will whistle down the streets of Flint and Detroit any time soon. But whole slum neighborhoods in some parts of the latter already resemble what one Michigander described as “Dresden after the bombings” – a reference to the German city destroyed by Allied air attacks during World War II. (It doesn’t help that already-frayed tensions in a city where racial unrest has simmered for decades and occasionally ignited that 95 percent of Detroit City is African-American and mostly poor, and – until recently, when upwardly mobile blacks earned enough to get out – 97 percent of the surrounding suburban population was white.

Ford
There are dark clouds over Ford, all right. Even darker ones over GM and Chrysler, which have fewer funds in reserve to weather a storm

With the national nonfarm unemployment rate creeping upward – from 6.5 to 6.7 percent in November alone – Michigan’s rate, as I mentioned, is bumping up against 10 percent. In some of those “Dresden” neighborhoods in Detroit, the figure is estimated to exceed 40 percent.

So the already downcast people of Michigan are a little fearful, too, about what the volatile combination of despair and widening unemployment could bring.

Slumped Shoulders, Eyes Averted

“You know how you pass someone you know on the street and say, ‘How ya doin?’” Ronald Dzwonkowski asked me. He directs the editorial board at the Free Press.

“We don’t do that here anymore. We don’t want to hear the answer.”

Spirit of Detroit
This statue on Woodward Avenue in the Motor City has no official name, but locals call it “The Spirit of Detroit.” Right now, spirits are low there

It’s bad enough that the auto industry teeters, but the Detroit Lions pro football team has assembled an abject 0-13 record as of this writing, the Tigers baseball team – picked to waltz to the American League pennant – finished last in its five-team division, and the once-mighty University of Michigan football team, which had played in 33 straight post-season “bowl” games, will compete in none this year after a 3-9 season that ended with a stomping by Ohio State, its archrival to the south. These are not trivial matters in a blue-collar state where sports are a useful distraction, especially now.

Did I mention that the state of Michigan just announced that it will cut its budget by $200 million? That’s hardly surprising. Many other states that rely on sales tax revenues have done likewise as Americans zip up their wallets in response to the ongoing recession. But the loss of good government jobs on top of hemorrhages in the auto industry is a crippling body blow.

OK
Things are anything but OK right now in Michigan and in the homes of autoworkers

“The whole American dream, that’s a snow job,” the wife of a Michigan electrician told the Free Press in October. The paper found her and her husband several states away, living in a tent city in Iowa because they had lost their home and could not find work in Michigan. Reporter Gallagher closed his story with a reference to the itinerant camps of the Great Depression, quoting the electrician’s wife’s rueful suggestion that the late songwriter Woody Guthrie, who put the sorrows of the Depression into song, “should come back to write an anthem for today’s struggling families.

“These are historical times, I’m afraid,” she continued. Not grand ones, either, by a long shot. “Everyone knows someone who has been laid off,” John Gallagher told me. “We had nine people to dinner the other night. Three had lost their jobs.” Mirthful banter was at a minimum. Instead, he says: “Lots of gallows humor.”

Help for Fat Cats
Imports
There will be plenty of imports to eat if one or more of the Big Three goes under

What really “grinds” Michiganders, says Ron Dzwonkowski, Gallagher’s Free Press colleague, is the cheery willingness of the government in Washington to shovel $700 billion to Wall Street, big banks, and mortgage and insurance giants. It did not go unnoticed in Lansing and Monroe and Port Huron that President Bush twice made televised appeals for a Wall Street bailout. Nor does it escape notice in Michigan that those wagging a disapproving finger at the idea of a “Big Three” rescue plan one-fiftieth the came right out and said that if one or two of the Big Three automakers went bankrupt or folded, that was their tough luck. It served them right for getting into trouble in the first place. A “leaner” auto industry might be better for the country.

“For God’s sake,” one man in Michigan muttered to me. “This was a bridge loan, a lifeline, to be paid back, not a bailout.” A loan complete with a “car czar” to scrutinize the industry’s every move. On the way to work, I heard a Detroit autoworker tearfully react to the notion that it was they, the unionized labor force, that fouled the deal by refusing to accept deep wage cuts. “I can’t afford a pay cut,” she said. “I’ll lose everything.” She may anyway if there’s no paycheck at all.

There was no “stock czar” or “bank czar” on the case when financial houses gobbled from the federal trough, another worker complained, bitterly. “They used a lot of that money not to get loans going again to the little guy, but to prop up their own portfolios and buy more banks.”

And here’s something else that grinds Michiganders: It’s not as if they are making manual typewriters or rotary-dial telephones for which there clearly is no use any more. The Big Three still make half of the eight million new vehicles that sell each year in the United States. Or I should say, sold, before worried Americans began bypassing even the foreign makers’ dealerships. Ford still produces the best-selling small truck, and it and General Motors still bring in $200 billion a year or so apiece. (The figures at Chrysler, which is privately owned, are not public, but they are estimated at half of Ford or GM’s figures.)

A Few Regrets

Yes, our own companies’ greed trumped need as they kept rolling out the SUVs, the people of Michigan admit. Yes, we should have joined the “green revolution” far earlier, with smaller, more efficient products. But do we deserve to be beaten like the proverbial “red-headed stepchild”? Do those in power hate us, or our unions, so much that they’ll allow a century-old industrial giant of an industry to crumple and die?

Vacant motel
There’s a vacancy at this motel, and many vacancies to come, perhaps, on the assembly lines of Michigan’s automakers

Like some other Americans, the people of Michigan see home after home going up for sale or foreclosed and abandoned. “Vacant homes and vacant feelings is what we have here,” Dr. Steven Craig, a psychologist practicing in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, told me. He says a friend and neighbor, like many in Michigan, packed up and headed somewhere south where firms are hiring. The neighbor left behind what had been a lovely home that is now overgrown with weeds and vines. “It looks like the Munsters’ place,” Dr. Craig says. They were a creepy, but funny, family of monster-film stereotypes who lived in a mansion that had gone to rack and ruin.

So many Michiganders are heading to relatively prosperous Texas that a joke describing them is making the rounds:

“What’s the last thing that a Texan wants to see?”

“A Yankee with a U-Haul.”

There’s irony in that, because 20 years ago or so, the stampede of rented U-haul trailers carrying families’ every possession, was heading in the other direction, out of Houston. But by 2003, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, “U-Haul trailers leaving Michigan for Texas exceeded those making the return trip by a ratio of 100 to 1.”

The “black-tag people” were back. (For years, Michigan license plates were black, and the watch was out for them in Texas.)

See You Later

This is not yet a Great Migration in reverse, but it has the makings of one, especially among the young. Already, Michigan’s newspapers are bemoaning a “brain drain” of young people who are leaving, likely never to return. They simply can’t find work in Michigan, or don’t want to, given the gloom.

American cars
Those were the days. New American car. Happy carmaker (here called an “autobuilder”). Satisfied customer

Older folks are hunkering down and, by and large, staying. Their roots sometimes stretch through three generations of auto workers. It’s the work and the lifestyle they know. They can’t come to grips with starting over, even in some sunny and upbeat spot. Comforting support systems are nearby in the factory towns: family, friends, church, union, dog park, corner tavern, bowling team. It’s one thing to contemplate a whole new start, and quite another to do it, given humans’ resistance to change.

So on the outside, people are “bucking up” as best they can – whistling past the graveyard, in the view of others who foresee decline and death for the auto industry ahead.

Inside, people are not doing so well. In many homes, dejection has turned to quiet desperation and feelings of failure, even though it wasn’t the rank and file that flew corporate jets to Washington to beg for handouts.

Dr. Craig says his patients “look to me for a lifeline, as a drowning man cries out for a lifeguard.” But if the nation’s greatest economists do not have answers, could Steven Craig have any?

Mad as Hell Inside

Mental health professionals like him describe a growing, generalized anger. “We played by the rules and did all that was asked of us,” their patients tell them, in return for what they hoped was a sliver of the good life: a sturdy little home, a ballgame or two, that place at the lake.

Once, too, families in trouble could lean on their elderly parents for emotional support and, if need be, a roof and a bed for a time. Now Mom and Dad are despairing, too, because of the Wall Street collapse that sucked the life out of their pension funds. The old folks, too, are asking, “What about us?”

Assembly line
An image of days to come? An abandoned assembly line after a plant closing. This one was in Illinois and made tractors. But…

There are danger signs ahead. Fearful Michiganders are putting off medical appointments, slashing their church and charitable donations, turning inward, avoiding friends lest they ask Ronald Dzwonkowski’s question: “How ya doin’?” Even small talk is to be avoided, since it is sure to touch on the weather (lousy again), the job (gone or imperiled), a vacation or home improvement (canceled), or the kids (likely stressed and depressed, too).

Down in Ohio, in my hometown of Cleveland, which has been buffeted by its own waves of steel plant closings over the years, Case Western Reserve University’s Mark Chupp, a professor of social work, knows the drill. “Probably the worst long-term effect of economic downturn and hardship in a Rust Belt city is cynicism about the good life,” he says. “People are pessimistic and have been lowering expectations of the good life for a long time.

Ford
Unrelenting stress has no upside

“Sadly, what comes with this is the ‘couch potato’ lifestyle. We have one of the highest obesity rates in the country. People are ‘vegging out’ in front of the TV.” And he doesn’t mean eating vegetables. He means passing the hours mindlessly, eating poorly and, likely, slowly killing themselves with drink as well.

Collateral Damage

Back in Michigan, there don’t appear to be hard figures on the suicide, drunk-driving, domestic abuse, and divorce rates these days, but the sense from those with whom I’ve talked is that they are higher. Perennial stress, as a whole state contemplates the loss of a way of life, is a killer –of the depressed and of others.

And yet there a gritty reserve of hope remaining in Michigan. As Dr. Craig explains it, the economic fortunes of the auto industry have been cyclical. And in the past, the tough-it-out, weather-the-storm, this-too-shall-pass resolve has prevailed.

I talked with a woman in the little town (800 people) of Lyons, Michigan, which is now a bedroom community outside Lansing. Not only are four out of five people in Lyons still tied to auto-industry work in Lansing or Grand Rapids or elsewhere, but the old timers in town know what it’s like to have the economic rug pulled out from under their lives. Lyons once had an auto plant that produced interior trim for Chryslers. It closed tight in the 1970s during a corporate reorganization.

“I grew up on a farm. Life was hard, but we always made it through,” the woman told me. “My parents and their generation made it through the Depression. With faith, we’ll weather this, too.”

Faith in the Lord, she meant, not in Detroit or Washington.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the great automobile industry, others in Michigan tell me. So the fix for the auto industry will take a while, too.

If there is a fix.

Here’s what Dr. Craig tells his patients: “Do something. Take control of something, even a little thing like definitely deciding to send the kids to summer camp next year, or definitely deciding not to.” Dithering, indecision, hoping for better days, he says, are recipes for deepening disillusionment – and physical dissolution.

Storm Clouds Brewing
Obama
Then-candidate Barack Obama was all smiles at a Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, in May. He’ll have more serious work with the industry come January

What lies ahead for Michigan? A grim winter, for sure, and a long one. No bridge loan can fix that. And according to many forecasts, no matter how much money gets funneled to the auto industry once the new Obama administration takes office January 20, more cutbacks and layoffs seem as certain as the sunrise.

Long-term, the people with whom I talked envision a less-populated but more economically diverse state. Ron Dzwonkowski thinks Michigan’s future should be hinged to its abundant natural resources as a source of energy, enjoyable retirement, and recreation. Michigan has more fresh water, and not just from the three Great Lakes that touch it, than any other U.S. state, including neighboring Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Michigan may not have 10,000, but it has so many that everybody in the state lives within 75 kilometers of a good-sized one.

The lakes aren’t going anywhere. But, especially if one or more of the auto giants collapses, some of the people who own cottages on them could be.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Disillusionment and dissolution. The former means disenchantment. Even idealists can get disillusioned during hard times. The latter means decay or disintegration. Disillusionment can foster psychological and physical breakdowns.

Rack and Ruin. Utter decay. “Rack” is a variation of “wreck” or “wrack.” This is another phrase that always appears in this order. One doesn’t, for some reason, go to ruin and rack.

Red-headed stepchild. This wretch is always being severely beaten in a popular phrase. Stepchildren often get short-shrift when there are natural siblings around. Read the “Cinderella” story. As for why redheads get a double dose of trouble is not clear, except that they, too, are not as common in most families as are blonds and brunettes. No one is sure who first called attention to the plight of red-haired stepkids.

Wolverine. A foul-tempered, musky-smelling, burrowing weasel after which both Michigan and its largest public university’s sports teams decided to nickname themselves. Wolverines don’t back down from a fight – a welcome trait in the state’s current economic morass.

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About You and About Me

Posted December 3rd, 2008 at 7:26 pm (UTC-4)
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I have a few things on my mind for this post, but I want to begin with a survey of sorts.

Ted Landphair’s America has been up for a couple of months now, long enough for you who’ve checked it out to form an impression. As you see in the blurb next to my autumnal photo above, I’m hungry for your feedback.

So far there hasn’t been much. That could be a good sign of satisfied “customers.” Or it could reflect indifference. Nature abhors a vacuum, and I fret about indifference.

So please take a minute if you can, click on “Comments,” and answer a few questions. I’ll keep it to just five of them:

Hay bale
Do Carol’s, and others’, photos enhance the reading experience of Ted Landphair’s America?

1. Do you find the American life topics and the writing compelling enough to read the posts all the way through? (Many other blogs are shorter and chattier. I find that I get “on a roll,” and before long, I’m several pages deep into a topic.) Do you stick it out or bail?

2. Do you like my “Wild Words”? Are they useful, or do they just take up space?

3. Have you recommended Ted Landphair’s America to others, or would you?

4. What suggestions would you make to me, Carol, and my Web guru Anne Malinee to improve what you see?

5. How might I better involve you and other readers to make the blog more interactive? While I have a lot to say about America, this is not a monologue. You and your comments and stories and experiences matter to the success of Ted Landphair’s America.

***
Rescue Plan for Newspapers?

I have a couple of observations about my field, journalism, as it’s practiced in America. They are prompted by worrisome developments.

News boys
In 1910, when this photo was snapped in Buffalo, New York, even kids could make a modest living selling newspapers. Buffalo was a three-daily town then. It’s down to the Buffalo News today

If you’ve read or listened to my Only in America essays on the Voice of America, you know that I’ve written frequently about our nation’s troubled newspapers: troubled because fewer and fewer people are reading them.

Or I should say subscribing to them. Lots of people still read them at the office or check out their online editions. But true circulation numbers are dropping at even the nation’s most prestigious papers.

Publishers can see it plainly and painfully in their diminishing revenues. While money from subscribers and those who drop coins in news boxes is a small part of newspapers’ income stream, circulation numbers matter. That’s because the advertising rates that a newspaper can charge are based on the number of people who are buying the paper and are exposed to the ads. Newspapers with declining readership not only cannot raise rates, they also must sometimes cut them to keep advertisers from going away.

The local daily newspaper or papers – and many cities had two or three, published morning and afternoon – as well as a few big TV and radio stations once dominated the media spectrum. They hogged the city’s advertising dollars. But advertisers and readers now have a zillion and one options, including many online and on cable TV, that have pecked away at papers like the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts.” Even newspapers’ old, reliable money-makers like classified ads are shriveling in the face of online competitors such as eBay and Craigslist.

Growing desperate, publishers have tried all sorts of triage measures to hold onto readers and promotions to attract new ones, including:

  • starting Web sites and blogs of their own to cross-promote their brand and their star journalists;
  • making wholesale staff cuts, especially by offering contract buyouts to older workers to get them and their high salaries to go away;
  • reducing national and especially international news to a few briefs buried inside the first section, and instead writing like mad about the local scene. The theory is that this is one coverage area in which the networks and cable newshounds can’t or won’t compete;
  • closing bureaus or teaming with other papers, even longtime rivals, to keep the shell of a presence in Washington, New York, and fewer and fewer world capitals;
  • adding pizzazz to their graphics, shortening stories and sentence length, showcasing glib writers in coverage of hip music and club scenes, as well as sponsoring endless reader contests and polls;
  • merging with other newspapers and with big TV and radio operations. This helps corner the market on advertising dollars and presages still more slashes in staff. Invariably, it’s the employees of the purchasee, not the purchaser, who are soon looking for work.
Petroglyph
This is “Newspaper Rock” in Utah, where early Indian cultures left symbols in this petroglyph, or rock carving. Were those civilizations still around, would anybody be reading Newspaper Rock any more?

Panicky newspapers have sought other “efficiencies” in their efforts to survive as well, down to publishing on cheaper newsprint. But nothing has seemed to stanch the decline.

No More Ink-Stained Wretches?

The near-to-last step – short of giving up and closing their doors – is to abandon paper papers – that is, tactile printed editions. No less eminent a paper than the century-old, daily Christian Science Monitor recently announced that in 2009 it will become an online product exclusively, though still offering a weekly print edition and – in a classic sign of our times – “daily e-mail editions,” whatever that means.

“The paperless newspaper now a reality,” screamed a Chicago Tribune headline, in reaction.

That paper knows something about the dire straits of the newspaper business. The Tribune Co. has taken over, downsized, and slashed bureau staffs of the venerable Los Angeles Times, the Sun newspapers of Baltimore, and other, smaller papers. “Journalism at its best,” the Tribune Co. Web site describes itself. Its staff, one of whom regularly lightens my wallet at poker, would choose less salutary words to describe what’s happening.

Good Old Days

“The original opening of the TV show ‘Lou Grant’ began with a bird in a tree,” wrote esteemed Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rosenthal. Then “the tree was chopped down, the wood turned to paper, paper was delivered to a publishing plant. Newspapers came off the presses, were delivered, read, and then used to line a bird’s cage.”

That was 31 years ago: quainter times, as Rosenthal observed. Noting that the Christian Science Monitor had finally concluded that printing daily newspapers is simply too costly and that only online news seems to appeal to younger readers, Rosenthal stated the obvious – though eloquently:

“[The Monitor’s decision] is a test case to be watched intently by anyone who enjoys flipping pages, or at least need something for the bottom of their pet’s cage. . . . There’s an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it vibe in the news business lately.”

Morning Paper and a Cup–a-Joe
Tupelo
This Tupelo, Mississippi, fellow enjoyed reading his newspaper. But a lot of Americans don’t hold the paper in their hands any longer, unless they’re picking up their computer monitors

I’m one of those page-flippers. A devoted, doting reader, I treasure and prolong, when possible, moments over breakfast spent reading the details, background, and analysis that dogged reporters and insightful newspaper writers and editors have carefully constructed. It doesn’t matter if I’ve watched every “breaking news” development on television the night before. I want to know more, in depth, and with a writer’s flair and photographer’s eye. I love choosing which stories to read, which to come back to, which to circle or clip or save, and which to slip unread under the parakeet.

(We actually have three cats and thus no parakeet. But you get the idea.)

My children “live” on their cellphones and hand-held text devices. They watch some news on TV, and they check out news sites on the Internet when something is amiss in town or the nation or the world. A couple of them still get the newspaper, mostly for the sports or the political columns or the advertising inserts.

One of my daughters, though, doesn’t read the newspaper at all.

Read All About It! – But Quickly

Carol falls somewhere in between. When she’s not shooting photographs, she’s on the computer, perfecting them. While there, she checks online news sites habitually, and the TV picture flicks in the background. The sound goes on when something’s breaking.

But Carol, too, enjoys the morning paper. The difference between us is that when the juice and coffee are gone, so is she, while I move to the couch to meander through the front, Metro, Style, and even Business sections that she has only skimmed. She doesn’t crack the sports section. I devour it, metaphorically.

I don’t know if Phil Rosenthal is right that we’re seeing the end of the media world as we know it. But I’m sad about newspapers’ decline because I edited high school and college papers and worked for great local and national newspapers.

Laptop
This woman is “reading the newspaper,” 21st-century-style

And I worry that the decline in readership that has led to the slow financial starvation of America’s newspapers is eroding our literacy, citizenship, imagination, curiosity, and preparedness. We’re in real trouble if today’s definition of “being informed” is “checking my messages.”

***
We’ll Miss Your Toothy Smiles

The second, shorter, media observation is prompted by a New York Times report that “across the country, longtime local TV anchors are a dying breed.” Times reporter Brian Stelter cited several examples of veteran news hosts who’ve been booted out in cost-cutting measures. Local TV stations, it seems, have been wounded in the Internet onslaught as well.

Woman
This . . .

“When the anchors depart, they take decades of experience and insight with them,” Stelter wrote. They are replaced by oh-so-attractive, obsessively groomed, endlessly cheerful young people who are taking their next step from nowhere to somewhere to anywhere, up the media ladder. They are “talking heads” who get and give their worldview from a teleprompter.

This does not mean that the old, expensive, less-pretty faces were lions of journalism. Many were just more comfortable

Man
. . . not this, is the smile that cost-cutting TV executives are looking for

news readers. But comforting figures as well: old shoes that we liked and trusted, who got out in the community and usually cared for it, knew how to pronounce our towns and street, and knew who the mayor was two terms ago.

Like the old-timers kicked to the curb over at the paper, they have had their day. Youth has been served and will now do the serving.

But what will it serve, and with what depth and understanding?

***
Know Your Globe
Taj Mahal Hotel
Mumbai’s magnificent Taj Mahal hotel in better days. Who will soon forget the tragic sight of flames shooting from its rooftop, and gun-toting terrorists silhouetted in its grand windows?

After all that high-horsing, it’s humbling – given my professed love and passable knowledge of geography – to admit my own ignorance about a famous place: one of the world’s largest cities. As the terrible events in Mumbai unfolded last week, reports mentioned – as if everyone surely knew – that Mumbai was India’s financial capital and a bustling port.

Well, I did not know this. In fact, I sheepishly admitted to myself, I had never heard of the place!

Never heard of a metropolitan area of 19 million people. Never knew that India’s thriving “Bollywood” film industry was centered there.

And somehow missed the word that Mumbai is the former Bombay.

Oh.

In calmer circumstances, my VOA Hindi Service colleagues would have explained, effusively, that Mumbai, the world’s largest city proper – let me say that again: the largest population within any city limits anywhere – had reverted to its Marathi-language derivation and away from its British colonial name – twelve years ago.

Twelve years ago! People still drink Bombay Gin. Bombay jackets remain in fashion. But, absorbed in my own country and life, I had completely missed the fact there hasn’t been a Bombay in India for more than a decade.

An American Prism

There are embarrassing lessons here: One is that American myopia and conceit are uninformed, foolish, and potentially dangerous. Another, especially for one who writes about America, is that we should not leap to assumptions about others’ degree of knowledge about our country – even among the educated. If I, that satisfied newspaper reader described earlier, did not know that Bombay had been ordered stricken from maps twelve years ago, can I assume that you know there are two American cities named Kansas City, or that New England is in the upper-east corner of our nation, or that Delaware and Idaho even exist?

Union Station
Kansas City, Missouri’s, restored, 1914 landmark Union Station has now features shops and a vintage-train exhibit. And it is once again one of Amtrak’s busiest stops

My editor, Rob Sivak, a soothing friend who rarely grouses, is forever grumbling about the need for “context” in all that we write. Snappy writing earns style points and deserves approbation, he concedes. But of what value is style if our readers and broadcast listeners aren’t sure what, or where, we are talking about? Americans know Kansas City because of its sports teams, its barbecue, and the old song, “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City.” But do even most of us, let alone others, realize that “K.C.” is two cities of the same name – the larger in Missouri, the smaller across the Missouri River in Kansas?

Have people in Paraguay or India heard of any Kansas City at all?

The next time that I sputter to Rob that of course everyone has heard of Kansas City or Phoenix or Buffalo, a single word will put me in my place:

“Mumbai.”

***
I Could-A Been Skiing!

For more than a week now, I’ve been working at home, not on job-related business but on a comprehensive database for a Web site that will showcase thousands of Carol’s photographs.

Here’s an early image of the dastardly spreadsheet, before the ordeal of entering SKUs and ASINs and such began. I had a bounce to my step then: energy, hope. Now I’m a shell of my former self

It has been a revealing – and exasperating – experience that leaves me with profound respect for computer programmers and the drudgery they endure. Their mind-numbing work, I learned all too intimately, is a recipe for a nervous breakdown for a free thinker like me. We all enjoy the fruits of their efforts in resplendent Web sites full of catchy words, beautiful photographs, and tempting advertisements. But “putting them up” takes a steel-trap mind and the concentration of safecracker.

On a computer spreadsheet, I crafted more than 10,000 lines of scintillating descriptions for Carol’s photos, which the Web considers to be products like garden tools or men’s socks. I carefully copied and pasted sinister little product SKU and ASIN codes, whatever they are, into columns among the 100,000 active cells on that sheet.

Don’t nod off. This gets worse.

Behind the scenes lurked still more code called HTML. My long-suffering Web wizard, Anne Malinee, explains that HTML, short for HyperText Markup Language, is a programming lexicon of symbols, formulas, and jargon that, it appears to the uninitiated, takes secret grips, passwords, and exceptional legerdemain, to interpret and untangle.

On my spreadsheet, which directs what finally shows up on the Web, every jot and tittle must be flawless. Ted Landphair, travelin’ man, had become Captain Computer, data-entry drone.

In one, just one, of my 100,000 cells, lurked a hidden imperfection: an extra space at the end of a number. Spaces, I’ll remind you, are invisible. Can you blame me for missing it late one early morning, if such a timeframe makes sense? Captain Computer has seen a lot of late early mornings.

Thanks to that single evil space, at heart-pounding moment of launch, all that appeared was a yawning white screen.

Perseverance Pays, But Ages You

I was ready to fly to Seattle, burst into Bill Gates’s office, and demand an explanation. But calmer heads prevailed and the errant space was detected – not by me, that’s for sure.

I think I’ll create a repository and call it the Errant Space Museum.

It was “publish time,” take two. Newspaper folks note: the Web people have even appropriated your term. They’re doing a lot more publishing than you are these days.

Victory was ours, champagne flowed, and Carol’s site, if not Captain Computer, is now live.

Waikiki
Ah, the beach in sunny Waikiki, Hawaii. When the spreadsheet ordeal has ended . . . maybe. Dream on: Carol has thousands more photos to put up

So that’s how I’ve spent my winter “vacation.” They say it’s therapeutic to take a break and do something mindless: cut the grass, walk the dog, get your hair cut. I do not, though, under any circumstances, recommend assembling a Web site database as that diversion.

While I get back to nouns and verbs and adjectives, I joyfully, with profound admiration and gratitude, turn the foreign languages of HTML and SKUs back to Anne.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Approbation. Warm congratulations and approval, especially from an official source such as your boss. Praise is nice. Approbation could mean a raise!

High Horse. One gets on his high horse to opine grandly on a topic, as if from a position of certitude. The word dates to the Middle Ages, when the tallest horses were used in battle. Apparently your lance would strike higher into your opponent’s mail. That’s not his stamped letters. Mail, or maille, was his armor.

Joe. No one’s certain, but calling your morning coffee, especially, a “cup of Joe” may go back to 1914, when a mean-spirited U.S. Navy admiral, Josephus Daniels, banned wine in officers’ quarters and stipulated that coffee would be the strongest libation allowed. Or maybe those wine-swilling officers had slurred the term “Cup of Java,” dating to the days when much coffee came from the Indonesian island.

Jot and tittle. Every minor detail. A jot is the little cross-mark on the lower-case “T,” and a tittle is the dot on a lower-case “I” or “J.” These are two words that never seem to be apart. Just as one never sees a nook without a cranny, one always attends to every jot and tittle. And jots always first for some reason. I wonder what would happen if we fixed our tittles and jots instead for a change?

Legerdemain. Skill and adroitness. The word is taken from the French léger de main and from the world of magic and illusion, where it refers to sleight, or lightness, of hand.

Pizzazz. An energetic personality. Flair. Pizzazz is an asset to television stars and infomercial hosts, but all that bubbliness can be annoying.

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Light to Light

Posted November 24th, 2008 at 1:27 pm (UTC-4)
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Thanksgiving time, when the last of autumn’s radiant leaves cling stubbornly to the trees and the first snowflakes flutter in the mountains, brings out the nostalgia in us. It’s during November’s closing week, more than at any other time, that we travel great distances to, in the words of the hymn, gather together and ask the Lord’s blessing on loved ones and on those less fortunate than ourselves. We go and we bless even cranky Uncle Zach, the Olsen brats, sister Susan who won’t speak to Cousin Cal, and Nana Grace, who thinks your name is Phil when it’s Bill. Bonhomie prevails. The affection spills over to the season and its symbols: a perfectly roasted turkey about to be carved; pioneer Pilgrims breaking bread with local Indians; an endless day of football on TV, and visions of gauzy Currier and Ives lithographs, captured in words by Lydia Maria Child’s 1844 poem, later set to music:

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandmother’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Hopelessly romantic, I’ve savored these moments, though I have been spared the snarky siblings. And my very favorite Thanksgiving image is an uncommon one.

Vermont Bridge
Looks like Thanksgiving’s not all that far away in this Vermont scene, although autumn colors come earlier in New England than in much of the country

This time of year, I think of covered bridges.

Idyllic Crossings

To me and many others, covered bridges represent unspoiled countryside, simpler small-town life, and the days when even bridges were built by hand from nearby materials. I’ve told you about my childhood trips from industrial Cleveland back to rural Bedford County, Pennsylvania, where I spent carefree days at my uncle’s cabin. I remember his Oldsmobile, clattering across one of Bedford County’s 14 surviving covered bridges.

Jackson Bridge
Bedford County’s Jackson’s Mill Bridge, erected in 1875 and rebuilt in 1889 after the original was washed away in a flood, stands just five kilometers from Breezewood, Pennsylvania, which is the direct opposite of this tranquil scene. At the juncture of two interstate highways, Breezewood is a sea of motels and neon signs

It was probably the plain-looking one near the hamlet of Ryot, where my ancestors meagerly farmed – so plain that I’ll show you a prettier Bedford County covered bridge [left] instead.

There isn’t room in its caption for this interesting tidbit, so I’ll mention it here: The hard-to-read writing above the entrance reads: “$5 Fine For Riding Or Driving Over this Bridge Faster Than a Walk.” Five dollars was a lot of money in 1875! Wonder who was lurking in the woods nearby, hoping to collect it?

Longest Bridge
This 143-meter bridge between Cornish, New Hampshire, and Windsor, Vermont, was built in 1866 for $9,000. It’s the nation’s longest wooden bridge at 143 meters, and it’s the longest covered bridge built in two spans in the world

For me, covered bridges are, well, bridges! to slower, cozier, times more in tune with nature. It’s a shame that the only oft-quoted literary reference to these sturdy, wooden, roofed structures was a dark one, by popular 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

“The grave is but a covered bridge, leading from light to light, through a brief darkness.”

Things of Beauty and Romance

Many of the men who built these structures were artists as well as artisans and engineers. So many lovers spooned in them that we call them “kissing bridges.” From the moment everyday people began using cameras, we have photographed them as something worth treasuring and remembering. Towns hold bridge festivals and bluegrass concerts in and around them. In Indiana, where basketball is the king of sports, teams even practice inside them.

Winter bridge
The Durgin Bridge over New Hampshire’s Swift River completes an icescape worthy of the legendary nineteenth-century lithographers Currier and Ives – Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives to be complete about it

Almost all covered bridges are unlighted and thus spooky at night – so spooky that they’re said to be haunted come Halloween. There’s even an old wives’ tale that covered bridges were first erected so that horses could not see, and be frightened by, the height of the spans above the water below. Cattle herded across them were said to be calmed by their soundness.

(A lesser-told tale, probably passed along by old farmers rather than their wives, is that bridges were covered so that their overhangs would “level off” loads of hay or straw being hauled across them. Just why a farmer would go to the trouble of piling hay high on a wagon, then seek to lose some of it at the covered-bridge entrance, escapes me.)

Going Undercover
Covered bridge
This is an old (1936) but good view of a covered bridge in the context of its environment. It stood in Greenhills, Ohio

These bridges are covered, of course, to keep the rain and sun off their timbers. It’s a lot cheaper and quicker to replace roof shingles than massive rotted beams. The roof does little, however, to prevent gouging and splintering from heavily laden farm wagons and horses’ metal shoes. Still, while an open wooden bridge has a lifespan of ten years or so, many covered bridges – although requiring fix-ups from time to time – have stood since the American Civil War, more than 140 years ago.

***
Little Hope Bridge
This is one of the nation’s newest covered wooden bridges. The Little Hope Bridge, near Waupaca, Wisconsin, was created by Early American craftsman Kenneth Shroeder, who fashioned it after a 19th-century New Hampshire model

I’m certainly not a structural engineer. Far from it. But it stands to reason that in the world of wooden bridges, a covered one would be stronger than an open span across a stream or chasm. Beams called trusses, including loopy curved ones that look like the McDonald’s fast-food chain’s “golden arches,” provide bracing and dynamic tension. That helps keep a bridge rigid, reducing vibrations while evenly spreading the structure’s weight and that of the heavy vehicles and wagons that cross it. I’m told one of Newton’s three Laws of Motion – possibly the one about actions and opposite reactions – applies to all this somehow. But getting any more detailed about it leads me into scary formulas, well beyond my comprehension.

It should also be noted that extra-long covered bridges often receive added support from one or more concrete footings in midstream.

***
Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge is one of the most-photographed structures in Venice

As you might guess, Americans borrowed the idea and early technology for covered bridges. Many such structures in Europe date to the 14th century.

One of the most famous is the Rialto Bridge, made of stone, which surmounts Venice’s Grand Canal. Its floor does not stretch flat across the water but rises to a peak to allow tour boats and gondolas to glide beneath it. Asia, too, has hundreds of covered bridges.

Dong Bridge
The Dong-minority bridge is name for the Dong people, a Chinese ethnic minority

One, the Dong-minority Bridge in Hubei Province, China, features temple-like towers rising from the roof at points along the way. The effect resembles the pavilion of a grand world’s fair.

In a Rush . . . County

Carol and I spent a week photographing covered bridges in Rush County in flat, corn-and-hogs country southeast of Indianapolis, Indiana’s state capital. And we walked into quite a furor:

When the fuss started, back in 1986, the conservative county’s 19,000 or so people would have been alarmed to be told there were “activists” in their midst. But there were, and by the hundreds: indignant crusaders who sprang up like a summer thunderstorm in Rushville and Homer and other little towns. When they had finished, the object of their ire – Rush County’s three-member board of commissioners – wondered what had hit them. Two would lose their seats by two-to-one margins when their terms expired, and the other opted not even to run for re-election.

The unfortunate commissioners had approved the destruction of four of the county’s six historic covered bridges, preferring to erect concrete-and-steel spans, which are easier to maintain. One dark night, arsonists took care of the oldest and most dilapidated covered bridge while the preservationist forces were meeting. But that unkind fate only hardened the residents’ resolve. They soon voted in a new board that agreed not just to save all the surviving covered spans, but also to restore and upgrade them.

Form as Well as Function
Kennedy Bridge
Three generations of Kennedys built covered bridges throughout the country. This one stood in Indiana. The Kennedys often installed ventilators or windows to bring wisps of light into the bridges’ long, dark interiors

All five Rush County bridges were the work of the Kennedys, one of three great Indiana bridge-building families. Carpenter Archibald Kennedy, the family patriarch, was among the nation’s artist-as-bridgebuilder masters. Painted white and embellished with vinelike wooden tendrils and decorative carved brackets beneath the roof, eye-catching Kennedy bridges resemble country cottages.

Rush County’s bridge lovers scored one success after another. Pretty soon their festivals were drawing tourists from as far as Chicago, 300 kilometers away. Local teenagers, who had turned one of the bridges into a graffiti-scrawled eyesore, joined in a bridge-painting party at the invitation of two grandsons of 1940 U.S. presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. County workers replaced roofs and warped siding and poured many liters of epoxy into loosened joints and decayed timbers.

But in true bureaucratic tradition, they ignored most of Kennedy’s decorations. This didn’t sit right with Jim Irvine, a covered-bridge aficionado who had built several bridge models. He climbed a ladder at the Offutt’s Ford Bridge and painted the faded imprint of the Kennedy signature anew – as well as recarving and replacing Kennedy’s distinctive K pattern in the crown of each archway. Today, cars and trucks and tractors still rumble across the picturesque covered bridges of Rush County, demonstrating that historic structures can be a useful part of day-to-day life.

Famous Far and Wide

But if I referred to famous county bridges and left out the name of the county, Americans would readily fill it in with “Madison.” Surely I’d mean Madison County, Iowa’s, legendary bridges.

Roseman Bridge
This is one of the six surviving covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, which were a best-selling novel made world-famous. Of interest, four of the six feature flat rather than peaked roofs. They look like long, open sheds

In 1992, Robert James Waller published a novel, The Bridges of Madison County, about a romance between a photographer and a lonely Iowa woman. The book became the best-selling work of fiction in history – surpassing even Gone With the Wind. It and a subsequent movie, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep and taken from Waller’s story, brought worldwide attention to covered bridges, in particular the ones in Madison County. Unfortunately the Cedar Covered Bridge, where the lovers met in the story, and which was featured on the book’s cover, was also destroyed by one or more arsonists in 2002. A replica was quickly erected to replace it.

As the country, meaning not the nation but our woods and fields and babbling brooks, has suburbanized, many covered bridges have been replaced or retired from vehicle traffic and turned into pedestrian crossings. A few now carry fire detectors, though I have a hard time imagining how firefighters would get to them in time to save a blazing all-wood structure. Modern engineering technology, including the use of reinforcing steel rods and the epoxy fillers, has strengthened many covered bridges without spoiling their classic beauty.

Loys Bridge
Taller and thinner than most covered bridges, Loys Station Bridge in Maryland was uncovered when it was built in 1900. But builders soon realized how much a roof and side paneling protected the wooden bridge from the elements

It is that exquisite, nostalgic “look,” and their tug on our heartstrings, that attract “heritage travelers,” who cherish the chance, even for a moment, to shut out the chaotic 21st century and behold these icons of rural life.

Lydia Maria Child did not mention a covered bridge in Over the River and Through the Woods. A sleigh, yes. A barnyard gate. Grandmother’s cap, pudding, pumpkin pie. I like to think, though, that the family and their trusty “dapple gray” horse, trotting through the woods that day, crossed over that river – from light to light through a brief darkness – on a covered bridge.

I see a long one, painted red.

And at a pace faster than a walk.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Bonhomie. Friendliness, genial good cheer. It’s a quality that good-natured “hail fellows” (and gals) possess. The word, from the French, is pronounced “bohn-oh-MAY.”

Ire. This is a little word packed with meaning. It refers to intense anger, bordering on rage, openly displayed. There’s fire when one shows ire.

Old Wives’ Tales. Another term for folklore, superstition, handed down orally over many years. The term refers to women in general, not just to married ones. In old English, wif means “woman.” Over generations, older women were the keepers of wisdom about home remedies, proper behavior, and such. And perhaps, or perhaps not, about covered bridges!

Snarky. This is one of those new-age words you won’t find in most dictionaries, even though it derives from the century-old British word “snark,” meaning to nag or find fault with. A snarky remark is laced with snide disrespect. Now you’ll have to look up “snide”!

Spoon. As I’ve used it, this has nothing to do with an eating utensil, unless it’s affectionately caressing the cheek of a lover. Spooning is an old-fashioned word for amorous cuddling.

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Lost Wages

Posted November 17th, 2008 at 8:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Showgirls
The City of Las Vegas, individual casinos, and airlines that serve the city want your visit ­ and your money. Repeat visitors with lots of it get exceptional deals and VIP treatment

They say that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

True, true, true. Many’s the time I’ve left my money in Las Vegas.

Like Circe, the alluring witch of ancient mythology, the shimmering gambling palaces of Las Vegas can show you a good time and then turn you into a pig, or in this case, a pauper. You can see the city’s lights forty kilometers away, beckoning, in the arid Nevada desert. Indeed, you can see the lights of Las Vegas from space.

Even when it was little more than a truck stop and a cluster of boozy casinos with sawdust on the floor, people called it “Glitter Gulch.” Or in my case, “Lost Wages, Nevada.”

Humble Beginnings

Las Vegas is the American Dream run amok: capitalism on steroids, but it took a long time to get that way. In 1829, Spanish traders on the parched Mojave Desert trail from New Mexico to California had stumbled upon a patch of green in the desert, around a spring in Piute Indian territory. They called it Las Vegas: “the Meadows.” American explorer John C. Frémont, for whom Vegas’s main street would one day be named, passed by in 1844.

Cabin
This was the look of early Las Vegas. Little stone cabins like this one were built along the two-lane highway to Los Angeles

But not a soul stayed put until eleven years later, when 30 Mormon missionaries built an adobe fort, planted fruit trees, and began scratching for lead in the surrounding mountains. Disheartened by incessant Indian raids, the Mormons departed in 1858, and nobody paid much attention to the isolated oasis until the railroad from Los Angeles reached the spot in 1904. Construction of Boulder Dam, one of the nation’s engineering marvels, to the south stirred up a ruckus in town in the 1930s, but Las Vegas remained little more than a gaudy diversion on the long haul between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Los Angeles. In 1940, eight thousand people and uncounted desert creatures endured life there under the baking summer sun.

Look Out: Here Comes Opulence
Las Vegas
Las Vegas glittered in a honky-tonk sort of way once gambling was legalized in Nevada. But it was by no means the magnet for the rich and famous that it is today

Like the Mirage Resort’s faux volcano today – and isn’t all of Las Vegas a mirage? – there were low rumblings that Las Vegas was about to explode with new development. But the nation was girding for war, and it certainly didn’t occur to anyone to set up a time-lapse camera on Fremont Street or on the two roads heading south out of town. One snaked down to Boulder Dam. The other, Route 91, known as the Los Angeles Highway, knifed into the inhospitable desert. Even its first five-kilometer stretch outside city limits – which would one day sprout into today’s jaw-dropping Las Vegas Strip of super-sized gambling resorts – was just a two-lane road, unlighted, unremarkable, lined with sagebrush, a few billboards, and a couple of gas stations.

All that glowed in the chocolate-brown hills between the two dusty highways were the lights of a grimy little government town alongside magnesium and titanium deposits that workers would soon turn into fighter jets.

Whose Deal?
Hoover Dam
The 60-story-high Hoover Dam, more massive than any Egyptian pyramid, tamed the raging Colorado River. It created Lake Mead, one of the area’s few outdoor recreation options

Nevada had legalized gambling in 1931, but the heart of the gaming industry was up north in Reno, at swanky clubs around Lake Tahoe.

Las Vegas would have been nothing but that tawdry truck stop had not Boulder Dam – later to be called Hoover Dam in honor of engineer-president Herbert Hoover who authorized it – brought water, and really, really cheap electricity to power gleaming casinos that would light up the desert.

Enter mob figure Bugsy Siegel, who bought some land and built the first one-stop casino, hotel, and high-class nightclub resort – the Flamingo – on that forlorn highway outside of town.

Camels to the Right of Me, Camels to the Left
Frontier Hotel
Elvis Presley first played Las Vegas at the Frontier Hotel (he bombed). This is actually the “New” Frontier, which was imploded last year. Imagine how the old one looked!

The eruption had begun. All kinds of other desert-themed resorts – the Sahara, the Dunes, the Sands, the Aladdin – soon followed. It was as if a make-believe Lawrence of Arabia had moved operations to the American Southwest.

Before long, Caesars Palace, the MGM Grand, and other high-class casino haciendas enticed patrons not just with plush furnishings and a workforce dressed like Roman centurions, but also with headliner shows, championship boxing, and offbeat events.

It was in Vegas, for instance, that daredevil Evil Knievel nearly died on New Year’s Eve, 1967, when he crashed his motorcycle after soaring over Caesars’ fountain.

Bellagio
The Bellagio, with its eye-catching “dancing fountains” show out front along Las Vegas Boulevard, is one of Las Vegas’s self-contained resorts, with almost every imaginable amenity

We could have rolled that time-lapse film ahead to the early 1990s, when, to keep up with other burgeoning entertainment centers like Orlando, Florida, and gambling retreats abroad, Vegas began retooling with mind-boggling gusto and extravagance. Down went the Dunes Resort first, blown to smithereens by a demolition team. And up, over time, went the Bellagio, a virtual city unto itself with 3,933 rooms, multiple pools, botanical gardens, a shopping arcade fit for the Riviera, and dancing fountains whose water-and-light show stops tourists dead in their tracks. Quite a change, all in all, from the Dunes’s meager electronic lava eruption on its marquee.

From Oasis to Entertainment Capital

Spool ahead to the 1990s, by which time more than 1.5 million people lived in Las Vegas and the surrounding valley. The metropolitan area’s astonishing 83-percent growth rate that decade led the nation. Suburban Henderson grew so fast that people called it “Boomberg, U.S.A.” More than tripling in size to 205,000 in a decade, Henderson replaced Reno as Nevada’s second-largest city.

Fueling the explosion, in addition to the hypnotic appeal of all its ostentation, were the surfeit of high-paid jobs, the tsunami of disposable dollars dropped each year by 35 million visitors – 35,000,002 counting Carol and me – and the absence of a state income tax.

Hold that Card. Let Us Pray.
Apache
The easygoing atmosphere of old Las Vegas, shown here in 1940, gave way to the new packaging of Las Vegas as an opulent “entertainment capital”

And juxtaposed to this modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah were more churches per capita than any other city in America. The locals would tell you that Las Vegas was a quiet, neighborly, churchgoing community, an all-American town if there ever was one. They’d tell you this while standing beneath cascading lights that read, “Topless Pizza Lunch.”

Pretty soon unincorporated Las Vegas, on the Strip, sucked up all the action, save for the beer-and-bluejeans crowd that to this day prefers to gamble in the more affordable places downtown. There, you still see some of the seedy motels that were once inelegant quarters for tourists heading to Hoover Dam. Many offer monthly rates for the down-and-out, or they’re boarded-up placeholders for the day when the big time comes to Old Town.

Fremont
Faced with glitzy competition outside city limits on the Strip, city leaders bought architect Jon Jerde’s idea of turning five city blocks into a covered canopy offering a sound and light show

In 1996, Downtown Vegas did get a $1-billion facelift with the creation of a canopy of 12 million colored lights and 218 enormous speakers arrayed above four blocks of Fremont Street, which had been covered and enclosed. Twelve million lights? That’s the claim!

The “Fremont Street Experience” erupts in a Cecil B. De Mille-scale, computer-generated sound and light show that Vegas Vic, the rascally, winking neon legend looking on from the nearby Pioneer Club, must have a hard time comprehending.

Bring the Little Ones

At about this time, Vegas attempted an odd metamorphosis when it tried to pass itself off as a family destination. This was laughable, and it failed abjectly. There just wasn’t enough for the kiddies to do. Though they wouldn’t admit it, their parents far preferred to pull slot-machine handles, not take Junior on the Ferris Wheel.

Exit the family-friendly promotional campaign. Enter “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas,” with its vague, naughty overtones.

Circe was back.

New York New York
If you let your imagination loose, you can believe you’re in the real Big Apple at the New York New York Hotel and Casino, which opened where two tired motels and a gas station stood

Out, too, went most of the low-rent cactus and desert themes, as well as blocks of worn-out trailer parks and cinder-block apartment buildings, bulldozed to make room for more megalith escapist casinos. One, New York New York, was packaged as a scaled-down, but quite believable-looking, version of the Manhattan Skyline. Another, the Luxor, was assembled inside a giant pyramid. Others suggested Venice canals and Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

Las Vegas had unimaginably become more than a string of what Vegas regulars call “carpet joints.” It was, to use tourism parlance, the nation’s ultimate tourism “destination.” At the turn of the 21st Century, Las Vegas boasted all ten of the largest hotels in America, and 14 of the top 15. For the first time ever in Sin City, non-gaming activities brought in more revenue than gambling.

Blinded By the Light
Ballys
Ballys opened in 1993 at a choice spot on the site of the MGM Grand, once the world’s largest hotel but better known for a catastrophic fire in 1980

Today, words can hardly describe the megawattage of the City of Lights – not to be confused with Paris, the City of Light. The local electric company once estimated that the juice needed to illuminate Vegas’s outdoor signs alone would electrify a city of 25,000. During the summer of 2001, when Los Angeles, across the desert far to the west, was battling brownouts, Las Vegas burghers scoffed at any notion of dimming its lights, even late at night, to help the power grid. Vegas without garish lights, they snorted, would be like Bali without the sea.

The cumulative effect of pulsating neon, frenetic billboards, the Luxor “pyramid’s” laser beam pointed heavenward, downtown Vegas’s indoor light show, and the racket from slot and video-poker machines – an estimated one per eight residents in the Valley – is an aura that some consider to be perpetual excitement.

Pulsating? Or Perturbing?
Roulette
None of this roulette-table “action” for me, thank you. It’s too rich for my blood, quite literally

I call it jitteriness. Vegas unnerves me, makes me wary, rather than inducing me to gamble. But that’s me. Others, moths lured by the light, itch for the action. And of course, there’s a third group: sad alcoholics and disheveled, desperate gambling addicts downtown, not on the Strip, so much; they can’t afford to play blackjack at tables where the minimum bet is $10, or afford too much time on the slots at $1 a pull.

This is all a far cry from the days I remember, when you’d buy a bucket of quarters and pull that handle, watch the spinning cherries and lemons and circus clowns, and sip on the complimentary beer or watery bar-brand drinks until boredom sets in. If bloodshot eyes and a vacant stare and the nebulous hope of a jackpot qualified as fun, those were great good times.

Step Right Up, Ladies and Gentlemen

I well remember my first trip to Vegas, 40 years ago, in which my first wife, an impetuous Taurus, and I, a frugal Virgo, resolved and double-resolved that we would allot $500, and not a penny more, to lose at the tables and the slots. Losing was a foregone conclusion. We rationalized were paying for the entertainment of it all. When the $500 was gone, we would go window shopping, straggle back to the room and watch television, or do anything else we could think of that cost nothing.

Slot machines
I’ve never much enjoyed playing the slots or “one-arm bandits,” ­ also known as “permanent receptacles for your quarters.” But a pull on the old “cowboy” machine might have been fun

She at the slots, and I at the blackjack table, had a pretty good run. She “hit” enough few times to prompt a downpour of quarters from the machine. I kept my wits about me and tried to look steely-eyed at the dealers, each of whom had the personality of a corpse. I made enough sound decisions, holding on 17, taking a hit on 16 as someone had taught me, to stay at the tables for four hours or so. (Consult your “How to Play Blackjack” guide to learn what I’m talking about.)

But inexorably, $500 dwindled and disappeared, and true to our vow, we called it a night. It was about 2 a.m., not that you’d know, since it’s quite true that the only clocks you’ll find in Vegas are on the radios in your room. My wife went to sleep. I tossed. I turned. I fidgeted. And I popped out of bed and slunk back down the casino. There, I promptly drew another $500 using our credit card, and, among the handful of zombies playing at that hour, lost every bit of that, too.

My wife’s reaction? I believe I mentioned that she’s an ex!

(Wait a second, didn’t I also say that Vegas unnerves me, makes me wary about gambling? Yes, but not so much back then. Today, the cacophony comes at you from every angle, every minute of every day.)

Ghost Town at Glitter Gulch

My second-to-last visit, this time with Carol, “weirded me out.” It was late autumn, 2001, a couple of months after the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City. Gamblers, especially the high rollers who think nothing of hopping into their private jets and flying to Vegas from Hong Kong or elsewhere for a weekend of shows and gaming, were nowhere to be found. Skittish at rumors that Las Vegas, the very symbol of capitalist excess, would be the next target of madmen, they were elsewhere, and so were thousands of ordinary tourists. We saw precious few tour buses. There were no lines at the buffet, and there wasn’t much clatter in the slots parlors.

I am not exaggerating to report that a couple of late evenings Carol and I walked down the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the fancy resorts with only an occasional passing taxicab to dodge.

It was on that visit that we met and spent some enchanting time with three Las Vegas legends: superstar singer (and writer of 500 hit songs) Paul Anka, as well as Siegfried and Roy, the illusionist “masters of the impossible” who made tragic headlines two years later when Roy was attacked and nearly killed during their famed animal act by a tiger who was apparently spooked by a loud noise. Carol had stood alongside that tiger, and a dozen others, onstage with Siegfried and Roy for an unforgettable photo shoot.

Neon Boneyard
Those who love to close their eyes and imagine simpler times would love Las Vegas’s “Neon Boneyard,” where relics of the early casinos are gathered and, when possible, refurbished

And we have a few other indelible Vegas memories: We were buzzed back and forth in a helicopter so that Carol could photograph just a whisker above the blitz of lights on the Strip.

We poked through eclectic attractions like the Elvis-a-Rama Museum and the Neon Boneyard. In the latter, vintage neon and incandescent signs – such as the lightbulb-emblazoned marquee of Binion’s Horseshoe casino, or the silver slipper from the casino of the same name – languish until some of them are rehabilitated.

And we ventured into the Guardian Angel Roman Catholic cathedral, in which 75 percent of the Sunday worshippers

Stained glass
Check out the casinos and other decidedly secular images in this stained glass at the city’s most popular “tourist church”

are tourists. The building – a church, mind you – has a lovely stained-glass window that mixes holy themes with secular depictions, including images of Vegas’s casinos.

Casino images in a stained-glass church window! Only in Las Vegas!

Thanks for the Memories

We checked out the Casino Legends museum at the Tropicana Hotel, which displays 20,000 Vegas keepsakes, from marked cards and weighted dice to showgirl costumes and old-timey mechanical slot machines – emphasis on mechanical, from the days when complex gears and wheels, not electronic circuitry, gobbled up your quarters and Kennedy half-dollars and made the images whirl.

Those were the days when silken-voiced crooners Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and two other of their -drinking buddies, would cruise the clubs after Sinatra’s shows at the Sands; and the days when you could get a decent 99-cent, all-you-can-eat breakfast any time of the day or night. Many a hard-up alkie gambler lived on these spreads. These were the times, too, when Don Rickles, who would insult his dying mother for a laugh, was as risqué as a comic would get; and the showgirls, while voluptuous, were “showing” mostly sequins and shapely legs.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the glamorous settings you may have seen in an “Oceans Thirteen” or James Bond movie set in Las Vegas. That’s because if I said that Vegas unnerves me, it goes triple when it comes to games like craps, where you need a babe in ermine draped over one arm while you fling the dice with another; or baccarat, an exotic game off-limits to the rabble, which I couldn’t play even if I knew the rules because my tuxedo doesn’t fit any more.

Down on Its Luck
Las Vegas panorama
Las Vegas is a spectacle, all right. The cumulative effect, more than the ambiance of any one resort, gets the heart pumping

Glamour is still the “sell” at high-flying Las Vegas. But there’s trouble in Sin City, too, in the current economic calamity. In August, Boyd Gaming Corp. halted construction of its $4.75-billion, 5,000-room Echelon resort on the site of the old Stardust Hotel. Hotel occupancy is down all over town. So are gambling revenues. You hear about new layoffs and cutbacks in employee hours every day. The nation’s leading convention city has seen a steady drop in registrations, though few if any outright cancellations so far. “It’s like going through the North Atlantic during iceberg season,” Keith Schwer, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas economist, told Las Vegas In Business magazine. “We’re just not seeing everything yet.”

In October, Nevada – especially Las Vegas and Henderson – posted the nation’s highest home-foreclosure rate for the 22nd straight month. “At one development in Henderson, the model homes suddenly looked too luxurious for the post-crash economy,” The Washington Post quoted a Las Vegas real-estate executive. “So the builder obliterated them and put up more modest, cheaper model homes.”

Boomberg, U.S.A. is somewhere else right now.

Las Vegas chapel
Despite its reputation as the world’s wedding capital, Las Vegas ranks second with about 115,000 performed each year. Istanbul, Turkey, is first. Who would have known?

But I’m thinking you can still get the wedding where “Elvis” walks the bride down the aisle and sings for fifteen minutes over a karaoke track after the ceremony.

Walking among the artificial exuberance of these temples to profligacy, one has to wonder whether billionaire casino developer Steve Wynn was right when he said, “Las Vegas was sort of like how God would do it if he had money.”

Or did drugged-out “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson peg it better? “For a loser,” he once wrote, “Las Vegas is the meanest town on earth.”

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Cacophony. This means a harsh or discordant note or interruption. But more broadly it has also come to refer to a really loud and disruptive clatter, as when reporters shouting questions, all at once, at a defendant emerging from a trial.

Ruckus. A disturbance. We speak of “raising a ruckus,” meaning we’re going to raise our voices and make a great fuss until someone listens. This is also sometimes called “raising a stink.”

Smithereens. This is a fun word to say. But where exactly do you end up when you get blasted to smithereens? “Smidder” was an old Irish word for a bit or a fragment. Perhaps an Englishman named Smith dropped a glass goblet, and it smashed to smithereens.

Sodom and Gomorrah. These were cities on the Jordan River that, according to the book of Genesis in the Bible, were destroyed by God, who rained down fire and brimstone to punish their inhabitants for their sinful, lascivious ways. The two cities are often lumped into one place when speaking of a “Sin City” of today.

Xanadu. A place of unimaginable beauty, first imagined by the poet Samuel T. Coleridge in Kubla Khan. In the movie classic “Citizen Kane,” a wealthy newspaper publisher, modeled after William Randolph Hearst, calls his fabulous Florida Estate “Xanadu.”

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Mall of Americans

Posted November 7th, 2008 at 6:02 pm (UTC-4)
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I sometimes wonder what it would be like to work in an ordinary office or veterinarian’s clinic or wine shop next door to some historic landmark, say the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

What would it be like to walk to work each day past the Taj Mahal, or live in a little cottage half a block from the Louvre? Would these iconic attractions quickly fade into the background and seem no more remarkable than a bus shelter or branch bank?

Surely not, you say. Scurrying along the Neva in St. Petersburg, day in and day out, one could never ignore the Winter Palace.

Well, don’t be so sure.

At the end of every day that I am at work in Washington, I pack up my books and papers and empty lunch container and walk out of VOA headquarters, heading north. I trudge – or stride jauntily if it has been a good day – straight ahead a kilometer or so to the Judiciary Square Metro subway station, where I can catch a Red Line train for the short hop to my hometown across the Maryland state line.

Break in the Monotony
National Mall
The National Mall extends from the U.S. Capitol past the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. There are reflecting pools at each end

En route, I cross the wide expanse of the National Mall. Mall, as in public open space, not stores and escalators and crowded parking lots. Often there’s a soccer or kickball game in motion, or people throwing Frisbees to their dogs. Sometimes a big tent or two or 20 has appeared on the grass, signaling some sort of festival. Or roustabouts are assembling risers and a stage for a concert. Knots of tourists amble about, some turning their maps this way and that to get their bearings.

“Need directions?” I always ask, as if it weren’t obvious. Out of stubborn pride but with thanks, they often reply in the negative and go back to running their fingers along their maps.

March on Washington
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his memorable “I have a dream” speech on the Mall at the conclusion of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Quite often, large hunks of the Mall are roped off and inaccessible, either to give the trampled grass a fighting chance at regeneration or to get the grounds ready for a zillion-person march or a fireworks display or a presidential inauguration. Or just for a “movie under the stars” in the summertime.

In cranky, self-centered moments, I sometimes think they throw up rope lines or snow fences just to drive me into that deep puddle where the storm drain has backed up, or to spoil the view.

One, Two, Three . . . SMILE!

Ah, that view! Which people from Kansas and Korea and Kuala Lumpur alike spend good money, and lots of it, to come see. Our monuments don’t lean, thankfully, but visitors can’t help taking each other’s pictures in front of them.

Washington Monument
Construction of the Washington monument began in 1846 but halted in 1854 because of a lack of funds. The obelisk stood as a 46-meter-high stump for 25 years until work resumed

I get a special kick out those who fire off their flash attachments when they’re shooting the United States Capitol, half a kilometer away, on a cloudy day or in the dead of night, as if this puny candlepower would emblazon more than the parking meter directly in front of them. And it amuses me to watch a determined shutterbug trying to squeeze ten assorted friends and the impossibly tall (169-meter) Washington Monument obelisk, or “National Pencil,” as my kids preferred to call it, into the frame of a palm-sized disposable camera.

On each little sally to the Metro, I practically brush against the striking, curvilinear sandstone of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and I could reach out and touch the funky sculpture beside the modern-art wing of the National Gallery of Art, or take a healthy 3.2-kilometer detour to the far end of the Mall to contemplate the impressive Lincoln Memorial.

Tuned in but Dropped Out

Like the Parisian cottage owner near the Louvre, I suspect, I don’t pay much attention to these places any more. My thoughts drift elsewhere, my headset is tuned to news or sports, and my gaze is at the display of the number of seconds remaining on the street-crossing signs rather than familiar monuments and museums.

Korean War Veterans Memorial
Snow at the Korean War Veterans Memorial is especially dramatic because it harks back to the awful conditions faced by soldiers in the Korean conflict of the early 1950s

Not so, though, I must admit, at certain dusks when the sunset turns the Capitol Building a shimmering orangy-pink, or on rainy days when low-slung clouds kiss the Washington Monument, or snow piles high on the patrol of stainless-steel soldiers at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Then, it’s impossible to ignore the beauty and significance of the treasure that I like to call the Mall of Americans. Indeed, I’ve never been to another place where “going to the Mall” didn’t mean a trip to a shopping arcade.

The National Mall is a historic, evolving, and quite controversial piece of real estate. As the Examiner newspaper noted in 2006, “Washington has more than 400 municipal and national parks covering thousands of acres across all corners of the city. But for the estimated 26 million tourists who will converge on the District this summer, the National Mall is the only one most of them will ever see.”

C’est Magnifique
Pierre L'Enfant
Pierre L’Enfant was a talented but temperamental fellow. His layout of Washington was brilliant, but someone else had to finish the job after George Washington fired him

As plans for a new national capital took shape in the 1790s, President George Washington and his handpicked city planner, artist and engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant – who had served under a fellow Frenchman, Major General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette on the American side in the revolution against Britain – tramped the banks of the Potomac River together.

L’Enfant’s baroque Plan of the City in 1791 laid out a goosefoot arrangement of wide, Parisian-style radials outward from the “Congress House,” or U.S. Capitol. And on a line due west, he drew a “vast esplanade,” along which he envisioned embassies, grand homes, and, as he wrote Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, “all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.”

He called this expanse his “place of resort.” Not last resort, I hasten to point out, but resort, meaning a useful and enjoyable pleasure ground rather than just a panoply of embassies or cultural institutions.

L'Enfant's Plan
Click to enlarge this image of L’Enfant’s plan for Washington. The dark lines toward the center are canals, including an ill-fated one along the north edge of the National Mall

Running along the northern edge of the Mall, L’Enfant drew a canal extending from a Capitol Hill trickle called Tiber Creek. Future presidents would ride grand barges up this canal to their inaugurations, he felt certain. His patron, Washington, would get an equestrian statue. (Instead, Washington’s tribute would turn out to be that 169-meter-tall pencil.)

Not Paradise By a Long Shot

L’Enfant’s resort and ceremonial corridor would be a long time coming. Victorian landscapers filled the space with gardens and copses. Sheep and cows grazed behind the first Agriculture Department building, and the U.S. cavalry kept horses there as well.

Industrial neighborhoods that included residential shacks and stables, belching smokestacks and a huge gas-storage tank, the city’s most opulent brothel, and a muddy lane called “Louse Alley” – as in the bloodsucking insect – rose just across the Capitol’s reflecting pool. There was no need to rue the poor view of monuments, because there was none at all.

In 1873, Congress granted a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad a right-of-way across the Mall to its terminal on Pennsylvania Avenue. Soon the middle of the Mall was a dingy rat’s nest of brambles, coal piles, and railroad spurs. L’Enfant’s canal had deteriorated into a pestilent sewer. All that passed for pastoral was, as historian Jon A. Peterson describes it, “a chain of individual public parks, each associated with a different Victorian building, most of them built of red brick.” There was no government building or memorial or tourist attraction – just a fetid, oozing Potomac River tidal flat – beyond the Washington Monument obelisk.

Big-Time Beautification

In short, L’Enfant’s plan had been, to borrow a word from the report of a new set of planners at the turn of the 20th Century, “perverted” by greed and haphazard development.

Chicago World Expo
The gleaming white buildings at the 1893 Chicago world expo, which were almost all temporary, infatuated a nation full of drab and dingy industrial cities

Those same, dreamy planners had returned inspired from the “Great White City,” modeled after ancient Greece and Rome, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – so-called because it marked, a year late, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first journey to the New World. The success of this dazzling fair unleashed “City Beautiful” fervor to turn sooty old cities into classical showplaces. In Washington, its enthusiasts included New York Beaux-Arts architect Charles McKim; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; and Daniel Burnham, the dynamo who had orchestrated the Chicago expo. “Make no small plans,” Burnham believed, and he and the others set about to tidy up the tangled National Mall.

Away went the railroad tracks and slag piles, briar patches and gas-lit carriage paths. Out, too, went thousands of trees as the planners restored L’Enfant’s original breathing space and vistas. Engineers filled in the smelly canal and flats leading from the great obelisk to the Potomac River, where a Memorial Bridge would one day connect the new Lincoln Memorial with Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Terrific Treasure Troves
Castle Building
The first of many Smithsonian Institution museum buildings on or along the Mall was the “Castle,” which has served as both Smithsonian headquarters and exhibit space

The National Mall became open pleasure grounds at last, bounded, over time, by a parade of free Smithsonian Institution museums – Natural History, American History, African Art and more. They became powerful tourist magnets.

The Air and Space Museum, whose 23 galleries display U.S. spacecraft, the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer, and the plane in which Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh first traversed the Atlantic solo in 1927, is now, according to Smithsonian officials, the most-visited museum in the world.

The Lincoln Memorial, built on that landfill hard by the Potomac, was designed

Lincoln Memorial
The Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, is said to have been architect Henry Bacon’s inspiration for the Lincoln Memorial

by architect Henry Bacon and dedicated in 1922. Daniel Chester French’s 6-meter-high statue of a seated Lincoln looking out over the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol Building, is made of 28 interlocking blocks of Georgia marble. The memorial’s 36 Doric columns represent the states of the union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. And above the building’s frieze are the chiseled names and entry dates of the 48 states in the Union when the memorial was completed. Late-coming Alaska and Hawaii get a mention in an inscription on the memorial’s terrace.

Everything was going smoothly, vista-wise, until two world wars came along, and the War Department, starved for space for a suddenly burgeoning cadre of clerks, erected row after row of temporary buildings, or “tempos,” in the handiest open space available. This was, of course, the National Mall. The Washington Post called tempos “examples of the barracks school of architecture.” Built to last 10 years at most, they proved surprisingly sturdy. Most were low, two-story, wooden, un-airconditioned creations that just about everybody considered an eyesore, a fire hazard, and sitting ducks if there were ever an air attack.

Tempo
There weren’t just a few wartime “tempo” buildings cluttering the Mall. These lined the north side, just above the unfinished Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool

None came, and tempos stuck around for many years beyond their projected shelf life. No sooner had the last vestige of slums been cleared from the east end of the Mall in the 1930s, for instance, than a complex called “Tempo R” popped up right across the street from what would one day be our VOA headquarters location. A 1967 plat map of Washington showed Tempo R big as life across from our building, more than two decades after World War II ended.

But tempo clutter could not deter tourists or the march of newer memorials – to Vietnam, World War II, Korean War veterans and others. The thinking went that heroes deserve their due in the greatest, albeit increasingly jammed, plaza in the capital.

Safer But Less Serene
Security
Temporary security fencing, to be followed by slightly more attractive variations, put an end to the free and unfettered access to, and look of, the National Mall

In the security-wary aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America came bulldozers and security fences, bollards and stepped-up U.S. Park Police patrols on the National Mall. “One of the great public spaces of the world . . . is fast collapsing into a symbol of fear, restriction, and bureaucratic control,” Judy Scott Feldman, chairperson of a nonprofit citizens’ and research group called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, wrote in 2005.

That group keeps posing a pertinent question: Just who’s in charge of the National Mall? It took some persistent unraveling to determine that eight different congressional committees oversee at least six federal agencies that have pieces of the responsibility for the Mall. Congress, the National Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, and a commission on American battle monuments elbow for authority and sometimes get in each other’s way. The District of Columbia government, the Department of Agriculture, a commission of fine arts, park police, and others also assert authority from time to time.

And there’s another source of confusion: What exactly defines the National Mall? Where does it begin and end, reach and not reach?

This is of little direct import to visitors or to residents like me who walk across the Mall, set up volleyball nets, or jog along its gravel paths. But it’s central to the Mall’s future and the degree to which new memorials or other developments are allowed into its space.

Where Are We, Exactly?
National Mall
What are the boundaries of the National Mall? Click this and pick! Various entities draw the lines differently

Because of those odiferous swamp flats, the National Mall originally stretched only from the Capitol to a hillock upon which the Washington Monument rose. The landfill completed the long rectangle from the Capitol westward to the river that most Americans associate with the Mall. But those City Beautiful planners in the early 20th Century considered the entire Capitol Grounds to be part of the National Mall as well; and they stretched the boundary southward across a tidal basin so that the memorial to President Jefferson could be included. The local government and National Park Service define the Mall in four different ways as well, marked in aqua, red, green, and pink in the accompanying illustration.

“Is it any wonder that Congress – and the agencies with management and review authority – seem confused?” asked the National Coalition to Save Our Mall just last month. “A Congressional Research Service report concluded in 2003 that there is ‘no statutory description or map of the Mall.’ It’s time for one.”

Almost six years later, no one can yet say precisely where National Mall does and does not extend. And this makes it hard to get straight answers when tougher questions get asked:

• Should huge, privately sponsored events such as concerts and kick-off rallies to mark the opening of the National Football League season be allowed to literally take over whole sections of the Mall, kicking out the soccer players and Frisbee throwers and strolling tourists?

Advertisements
The National Mall belongs to all Americans. But it’s not always pure public space. Private entities can rent parts of it, and advertising is not a stranger to its grounds

• To what degree should corporate sponsorship be allowed to advertise in a space that is, if not hallowed, at least revered?

• Who’s responsible for keeping the National Mall safe? Park Police have weightier priorities, including the direct security of a democracy’s grandest monuments, than trying to catch muggers. Yet local cops rarely make pinches in what is generally considered federal space.

• And when is enough enough when it comes to new edifices in what was meant to be an open park? In 2006, ground was broken on a new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin.

No Longer Our Little Secret

That year, the Dallas Morning News editorialized:

“The museums and memorials on the Mall in Washington are about to elbow out your everyday American family. The area is simply overcrowded and becoming more so each year.

“Sure, the stretch from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial remains an inspiring vista, but in its midst is such a clutter of other monuments, security barriers and commercial kiosks that you’d swear you were visiting an amusement park loaded up with Twist-a-Ramas and cotton candy stands.

“What happened to the stateliness? The place where visitors from Idaho and Germany alike stop, reflect and breathe in America?”

Jefferson Memorial
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, stands to the south of the traditional Mall, across a tidal basin. It is now included in many Mall maps

The National Mall, which is sometimes called the nation’s “front yard,” has become an expensive (yet also crowded) yard, stretching, by some reckonings, across golf courses, paddleboat basins, and security fences far beyond anything Pierre L’Enfant had in mind. Numerous visions of the Mall’s third century have been floated, down to and including construction of some sort of beach along the Potomac River.

What Would L’Enfant Say?

In 2005, the D.C. Preservation League, which the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson uncharitably called “a well-meaning group of aesthetes, hobbyists, architects, and civic-minded buttinskis,”[too wild a word even for Wild Words! – but it means meddlers who “butt in” where they don’t belong] placed the National Mall on its list of the region’s most endangered places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation had already done the same.

“Preservationists have a weakness for extravagant overstatement,” Ferguson grumbled. “Yet even a non-preservationist would have to admit that the League is right to draw attention to policies that choke the Mall, threatening to change it irretrievably, and for the worse.”

Having written all this, I resolve to turn off my headsets more often and pay closer attention to all that surrounds me on the Mall of Americans.

***

My title is a bit of a play on words on the better-known Mall of America, which is plenty large itself. The retail and entertainment complex, in Bloomington, Minnesota, includes 500 specialty stores, 50 restaurants, seven nightclubs, and the largest indoor theme park in America.

TODAY’S WILD WORDS

(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!)

Copse. This copse has nothing to do with robbers. It’s a shortened version of the word “coppice,” which is a grove or small thicket of trees.

Plat map. A plan or chart of a piece of land that depicts architectural features such as homes and stores and schools. These maps are often huge and bound in what look like giant scrapbooks. Invaluable historical documents, plat maps show the progression of development in a neighborhood over the years.

Sally. To rush forward, as in a military maneuver. We sometimes add a word and speak of “sallying forth.” In fact, Sally Forth was whimsically borrowed as the name of the main character in a popular newspaper comic strip that debuted in 1982.

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Ted Landphair

About

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

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