Oh, THAT Columbus!

Posted December 1st, 2011 at 8:13 pm (UTC-4)

On our latest trip, Carol and I headed west from Washington, D.C., through states such as West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana en route to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Then we turned south toward our ultimate destination: New Orleans, Louisiana, about which I wrote last time.

No sooner did we begin to discuss the return trip to Washington than Carol started lamenting, rather plaintively if I do say so, that we hadn’t had the time to stop in Columbus on our way down.  Could we somehow get there going home?

Do you think little Columbus, Indiana, would have towering buildings?  This is the Ohio Columbus, and that little rotunda-looking thing is the Ohio capitol.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Do you think little Columbus, Indiana, would have towering buildings? This is the Ohio Columbus, and that little rotunda-looking thing is the Ohio capitol. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Columbus — Ohio’s capital?  I asked her.  We’d been there a dozen times.

No, she said.  Columbus, Indiana.

I have traveled to every U.S. state, every big city, most middling ones, and hundreds of small towns, and I’ve read about nearly every other American place worth knowing.  But I had to confess: I didn’t know there was a Columbus, Indiana.

“It’s a dream place,” Carol assured me.  Or so she’d heard.  A dream place if you’re an architectural photographer, which she had been before she expanded her palette to include just about anything remarkable across the country.

A fact check followed:  Columbus, population 44,000.  That makes it the 20th-largest city in Indiana, which isn’t saying much.  It’s a farming and industrial town on the White River, where they used to make cars and where giant Cummins, Inc., still produces big diesel engines.

“Doesn’t sound dreamy to me,” I scoffed.

It’s “the Athens of the Prairie!” Carol insisted.

So we detoured from our usual route and stopped there on our way home.  And stunningly, our experience matched that of a Saturday Evening Post writer who had passed through in 1964.  In fact he called his story “Athens of the Prairie.”  I later learned that the compliment had first been bestowed upon little Columbus right about then, by no less than Lady Bird Johnson, the nation’s new first lady and a one-woman force for city beautification.

This is pretty much how the Saturday Evening Post reporter would have seen the Bartholomew County Courthouse and tower 47 years ago.  (Columbus, Indiana, Convention and Visitors Bureau)

This is pretty much how the Saturday Evening Post reporter would have seen the Bartholomew County Courthouse and tower 47 years ago. (Columbus, Indiana, Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Here’s how the Saturday Evening Post story began: As a motorist rolls toward Columbus, Indiana, he will see little that distinguishes it from other Midwestern towns.  From across the lonely cornland, the belfry of the county courthouse possesses an antique prairie charm.  The countryside yields to the usual commercial blight — a nondescript shopping center, a roadhouse circled by skittering neon lights that spell out “Bob-o-link,” and a snack stand shaped like a root-beer mug.

Then, predictably, there are the old homes and the humdrum ranch-style houses.

But suddenly, the unexpected: one building, then another that seems to have been plucked from a city of the future.  The townspeople view all this architectural splendor with a mixture of pride, bewilderment, annoyance, and bemusement.

Eero Saarinen's 1954 bank building in Columbus.  (Columbus, Indiana, Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Eero Saarinen's 1954 bank building in Columbus. (Columbus, Indiana, Convention and Visitors Bureau)

The roof of a modernistic bank by Eero Saarinen is topped with inverted cups that look like halved tennis balls.  Hoosiers have labeled it “The Brassiere Factory.”

As a whole, Columbus will never be a delight to the eye.  But one way people learn the difference between the mediocre and the imaginative is to live with both.  Today the citizens of Columbus are in a better position than most Americans to make that distinction.

That story went on to describe a veritable miracle of modern architecture in those “cornlands”: It has since grown to include 70 distinctive buildings and public-art pieces by legendary architects, including Saarinen, the Finnish-American best known for his dramatic designs of the soaring, stainless-steel Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the futurist passenger terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.

Eliel Saarinen.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Eliel Saarinen. (Wikipedia Commons)

I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Harry Weese, Robert Venturi, landscape architect Dan Kiley, sculptor Henry Moore, and Eero Saarinen’s father Eliel, too.  If you know a lot about modern architecture and art — I don’t profess to — you know the magnificent scope of these men’s work.  I actually met Harry Weese when he and his associates completed a grand restoration of what had been the forlorn Union Station train terminal here in Washington.

OK, so maybe Columbus is Athens-of-the-Prairie-like.  But that begs an obvious question:

How in the world did a little town of 12,000 — its population in 1942 when Eliel Saarinen led the grand parade of architects — become such a modernist showplace?  Why there, in the tall corn, of all places?  And why then, when most Midwest towns considered even television and nylon stockings to be suspiciously newfangled?

In that year, 1942, the First Christian Church in Columbus needed a new sanctuary.  It could have built a traditional Gothic one, with a high steeple and abundant stained glass.  But the congregation — especially one of its most prominent parishioners, J. Irwin Miller,  the general manager of Cummins Engine and a modern-architecture buff — had other ideas.  The church went radical by corntown standards, reaching out to the Finn Eliel Saarinen, designer of Helsinki’s Marble Palace, who had moved to the United States and was teaching at the University of Michigan.

The dramatically different First Christian Church.  Go to the end of this posting for a gallery of large images of other Columbus delights that Carol photographed. (Carol M. Highsmith)

The dramatically different First Christian Church. Go to the end of this posting for a gallery of large images of other Columbus delights that Carol photographed. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Saarinen turned them down flat.  But Miller went to plead with him, noting that he and his Columbus friends genuinely sought a structure that would reflect “a rich inner life but a simple outer life.”  Saarinen relented and came up with a building that looks, to my eyes, more like a fire station with a bell tower than a church.

But I already told you how little I know about modern design.  The congregation loved it, and their neighbors learned to tolerate it.

Perhaps that softened local sensibilities for what was to come.  The modernist dike broke a decade later, in the 1950s, beginning with Miller’s own residence of what one source calls “flat and flowing” design by Saarinen’s son, Eero.

Then came Irwin Union Bank and Trust, also by the younger Saarinen, whose heavy-on-the-glass design shockingly exposed the bank’s work areas for all the world to see.  It was almost greenhouse-like, in an era when banks preferred the mysterious fortress look. Read the rest of this entry »

The Big Easy: Back, Not Better Than Ever

Posted November 29th, 2011 at 5:03 pm (UTC-4)

As August slipped into September six years ago, Hurricane Katrina blasted ashore out of the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana and Mississippi, delivering widespread devastation and death. Evacuations in its wake outnumbered those of any other storm, earthquake, drought, or war on American soil. In particular, the ruination of romantic New Orleans, inundated when a levee burst along a storm-swollen canal, tore at the hearts of the millions of us who hold a special fondness for that saucy Louisiana city.

The old seaport had already shouldered its share of sorrows over three centuries: other dreadful hurricanes and floods; yellow fever and cholera epidemics so severe that bodies were stacked throughout the above-ground “cities of the dead”; termite infestations; slave auctions on Jackson Square; horrific fires in the teeming French Quarter.

City Park, a tranquil spot in New Orleans' "West End," near the suburb of Metairie.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Even before Katrina, the decaying city, economically reliant on tourism and little else, was hemorrhaging population.

Its stately mansions and skinny “shotgun” cottages, great cathedrals and gourmet restaurants, courtyard gardens and clattering streetcars, ancient oaks and swaying palms, Bourbon Street honky-tonks and back-o’-town jazz clubs were the last, vivid remnants of her wealthy and carefree past, when cotton and sugar fortunes and oil money made New Orleans the “Queen City of the South.”

Until Katrina left it shattered and shuttered and half-empty.

People await rescue on precious high ground, lower right, August 31, 2005.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

People await rescue on precious high ground, lower right, August 31, 2005. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In those sad and terrible days, Randolph Delehanty, who wrote the book Elegance and Decadence about this oasis of privilege and pleasure in the prim and proper South, told me that more than architectural rebuilding lay ahead in the aftermath of Katrina. Global coverage of the desperate search for the trapped and drowned in New Orleans’ fetid floodwaters, he said, had removed a veil from the old port city:

We are seeing the unfortunate and tragic consequences of a deeply split society of haves and have-nots. Those with resources and options left the city. And those who had no choices remained behind. It’s unfair and tragic, and it has resulted in the collapse of civilization. It is a social catastrophe, and it breaks my heart. It’s the society that needs reform. We need to rebuild from the heart out.

Two decades earlier, Frederick Starr, who was a vice president and professor of architecture at Tulane University uptown, captured the flavor of the city in New Orleans Unmasqued, a book of vignettes about “The City That Care Forgot.” It had absorbed many cultures — French, Spanish, Sicilian, uncouth “Kaintuck” from highland Appalachia, African slave and free black — taken the lighthearted parts of all of them and produced the city’s unbridled Mardi Gras festival. But, Starr said, New Orleans had grown indolent, self-indulgent, with an air of fatalism about the fragility of life and the capriciousness of nature.

What will be will be.   Meantime, let the good times roll.

A stairway to nowhere that Carol photographed in New Orleans soon after Katrina's floodwaters receded.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

A stairway to nowhere that Carol photographed in New Orleans soon after Katrina's floodwaters receded. (Carol M. Highsmith)

“I know that we’re going to be subject to the same vagaries in the future,” Starr told me in 2005 as the waters receded from the house he still owned in New Orleans. “But I intend to rebuild, and I think you’ll find tens of thousands of New Orleanians — thanks to their fatalism — will go back and will do more than any other population to bring some kind of continuity out of this extreme disorder and discontinuity.”

Frederick Starr told me he worried, though, that developers would rush in like jackals on a wounded gazelle and level poor neighborhoods, destroy the city’s character, and replace it with what his New Orleans Unmasqued called the “Houstonization” of New Orleans. Meaning rampant, unbridled development.

Nothing could kill Mardi Gras.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Nothing could kill Mardi Gras. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There certainly weren’t jazz festivals, open fine restaurants, lively school classes, or sporting events any time soon after Katrina. But somehow in the months ahead, the private social organizations called “krewes” managed to throw a scaled-down Mardi Gras in the nearly bankrupt city, irrespective of whether or not any outsiders came.
Tens — maybe hundreds — of thousands did come, though, throughout the traditional Carnival season, with a level of enthusiasm, as one writer put it, “even more intense than usual, as an affirmation of life.”

The Hurricane, But Not Hard Times, Passed

Carol and I returned to “The Big Easy” last month with the express purpose of giving the city that we love an “eyeball test.” Carol’s photographs, below, will show you much of what we found, but here are some observations: Read the rest of this entry »

Girls on Skates

Posted November 29th, 2011 at 12:56 pm (UTC-4)
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I was in Denver to see the roller derby championships. It was the first time I had ever seen the sport played and was blown away. Roller derby is hard to describe if you’ve never seen it, but basically just try to picture a group of feisty female athletes, many of them in hot pants, long socks, and with tattoos, racing around a rink on roller skates. Then picture limbs flying and bodies crashing to the ground as they ram each other over with their hips and bums. Here’s a link with some highlights from a game last year that gives you an idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTu8WFAgNfE&feature=related

Two teams of five play against each other. Unlike most games, they play offense and defense at the same time. Each one has a fastest player called a “jammer.” It’s the jammer’s job to get around the rink as quickly as possible. Every time they pass a player from the opposing team, called a “blocker,” they earn a point — but those four “blockers” use all sorts of clever and nasty tactics to prevent them.

Fans go crazy at the roller derby championship.

Roller Derby was invented by an American called Leo Seltzer back in the 1930s. I met his son Jerry in Denver and he told me a bit about the sport. He said it started as just a race on roller skates. But at a certain point the slower skaters got fed up of being passed by the faster ones and started blocking their path. That’s when it became a contact sport. I love whoever started doing that, a real bully tactic. Roller Derby used to be huge in America, with celebrity players, aired on television, the whole works.  But it peaked in the 1960s and by the end of the ‘70s had fizzled out. Then, 10 years ago, a group of women in Austin made some changes to the game and started it up again, turning it from a sport for both men and women to one mainly for women. Since then it has started ballooning – they say it’s one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S.

The championship game was great and slightly nuts. During races, there was noisy dance music pumping, which made the game feel a bit more like a party than a competitive sport. Then there’s the fans, majority-female, dressed in the same kind of garb that a lot of the players wear — hot pants and long socks — shouting out team slogans like, for the Texas team, “KILL KILL KILL.” The players, with derby names such as “Suzy Hotrod” and “Miss American Thighs,” break out dance moves during play and I even saw two girls from opposing teams give each other a hug during one bout.

Derby champions pose after their victory.

Later, we went to the after party at a huge bar in Denver and the roller derby women just completely dominated the place: breaking out robust moves on the dance floor, knocking back the tequilas, laughing, shouting, and whooping their way through the night. One woman got down to her bra and underwear for the evening.

If this is what happens when women create a sport all for themselves, I’m all for it.

Terrible Twists of Fate

Posted November 23rd, 2011 at 5:36 pm (UTC-4)

Hundreds of healthy, strong Americans who awaken to a new day do not live to see the next one.  In a blur, they’re killed by a gun, a knife, a screeching car or the proverbial bus.  They are gone from us, and the lives of their loved ones and friends are changed, usually for the worse and sometimes forever.

Most of the time these are strangers.  We read what happened, perhaps remark on their bad fortune, and quickly return to our own thoughts and needs and lives.

But sometimes the story of another’s demise is so compelling, so unbelievable, so frightful that we can’t get it out of our minds.

This is one of those stories.  It’s still evolving, still unsettling, more than two years after the dramatic events that I’ll describe.

They were front-page news for days on end, and this year the cable network HBO produced a 90-minute documentary recounting not only what everyone agrees happened, but also what remains in heated dispute.

Exactly why any of it occurred may never be determined for certain.

The documentary is entitled, “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane.”

After it collided with another car head-on, Diane Schuler's vehicle rolled down an embankment and caught fire.  Only her young son, who was thrown clear but terribly injured, survived.  (AP Photo)

After it collided with another car head-on, Diane Schuler's vehicle rolled down an embankment and caught fire. Only her young son, who was thrown clear but terribly injured, survived. (AP Photo)

That is indisputable. Something was very wrong with Diane Schuler on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, July 26th, 2009, when she drove a minivan head-on into a sport utility vehicle on New York State’s divided Taconic Parkway.

One would think this was the action of a blotto drunk or addled dope fiend; a desperately ill, horribly disoriented, or terribly fatigued person; or a suicidal maniac.

Which description fit Diane Schuler two summers ago remains very much in question.

But the story might have faded, or certainly not made headlines, had she not been carrying five small children in the car.  The oldest was 8.  All but her 5-year-old son, Bryan, died on impact or at a hospital, as did all three men in the vehicle that Diane hit head-on.  Bryan suffered massive head injuries that left him with persistent nerve palsy affecting his mobility and vision.

Diane’s husband, Daniel, a night-watch security guard and part-time civilian employee at his town’s police department on Long Island, had driven from the family home to their favorite lakefront campground on the previous Thursday.  Accompanied by the family dog, Bear, he would enjoy a couple of solitary days, fishing.

The Schulers: Bryan, Diane, Erin, and Daniel.  (AP Photo)

The Schulers: Bryan, Diane, Erin, and Daniel. (AP Photo)

Friday after work, his 36-year-old wife, Diane, a successful cable-company executive and the mother of their two little children, packed her kids and three nieces into a Ford Windstar minivan borrowed from her brother, Warren Hance — the nieces’ father — and headed upstate to join Daniel at the campground.

Saturday, according to the camp owner, the family splashed in the lake, laughed at a cookout, and smiled broadly for photos along the shore.

Sunday morning, Diane shared coffee with Daniel, helped pack the van, and, about 9:30, left for home, 225 kilometers away, with all the kids in tow.

Daniel drove home separately with Bear, the Schulers having agreed that it would be unsafe for children to ride in his truck cabin or its open bed.

Unsafe.  An ironic twist to the story.

Diane and her charges took a meandering route and made several stops — for breakfast, gas, and other reasons to be described.

About four hours into the trip, somehow and for some reason — or no deliberate reason at all — she turned off a highway called Pleasantville Road, barreled down an exit ramp of the Taconic Parkway, and onto the parkway heading south — straight into oncoming northbound traffic.

For almost three kilometers, as she drove “pin-straight ahead,” as one witness described it, at what a police report called a high rate of speed, other drivers swerved to avoid collisions.  Many frantically honked their horns while their passengers dialed emergency-911.

State troopers were racing to intercept Diane at 1:35 p.m. when the doomed driver and two passengers in a Chevrolet TrailBlazer SUV could not and did not avoid the speeding minivan.

That’s the shorthand version of what happened that summer day.  The contentious details of this tragic, puzzling story are still unfolding.

A perfectionist by most accounts, Diane Schuler ran most every detail of her household, if only because Daniel worked nights.  Once the vivacious “class clown” in school and what her friends and those relatives who would speak to the media call a “take charge person” in school and in life, she waged a perpetual battle to control her weight. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama Land in Chicago

Posted November 22nd, 2011 at 12:28 pm (UTC-4)
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Obama, a local hero, is a favorite at Valois.


I went to Barack Obama’s favorite diner, Valois, before I left Chicago.  It was too cool — there were photos of him all over the place, smiling alongside the owner, and a big poster of his “favorite things to order.” Apparently bacon, eggs, and pancakes were one of his choice combos.

Some Obama favorites. No substitutions!

The waiter,  John, told me Mr. Obama used to come in all the time before he was president and is a really nice guy. But these days, when he’s in Chicago, he normally gets his best friend to swing by and pick up a takeout order. He said the last time Obama himself came by, a year or so ago, it was like having a rock star in the joint: it took him 45 minutes to get from the front door to the cash register because he was mobbed by so many people on his way. Can you imagine that? You’re starving. All you want is a slice of bacon. And you’ve got to shake hands with a hundred people first. That’s patience.

John says the only thing that’s changed about Obama since he became president is the color of his hair. He’s gone more gray.

For your information,  the food at Valois is simple, straightforward American grub. You order your food at the counter and it’s on your tray within minutes. The service is fast, and the clientele seems like a local crowd.  When I was there at 7:30am, the place was packed. Among the crowd was a big table of eight or nine middle-aged men eating bacon and eggs, two little old ladies chatting in the corner, and a lone woman working her way through a giant omelet.

I also stopped at the Chicago home of the president, first lady Michelle Obama, and daughters Malia and Sasha. It’s a huge red brick house in the affluent neighborhood of Kenwood, with a big back yard. The whole block is cordoned off for security. Apparently people who live on his block have to sign all their guests in and out with the Secret Service.

You can just glimpse the Obama home beyond the barriers and through the trees.


But South Chicago neighborhoods can be very different from each other. The house where first lady Michelle Obama grew up isn’t far away, in the middle-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood of South Shore.

Michelle Obama spent her formative years here.


The house looks big, but the family of the girl who was then Michelle Robinson lived only in the upstairs section, renting an apartment from an aunt who lived downstairs. Michelle and her brother Craig shared a bedroom in their modest lodgings. Their father worked for the city water plant, and their mother took up secretarial work once they reached high school.

But despite humble beginnings, Michelle was an excellent student. She followed her brother to the prestigious Princeton University and proceeded from there to Harvard Law School and the Chicago office of international law firm, Sidley Austin, where she met future husband and president, Barack Obama. Since then, despite her law degree, she has built a career on advancing social causes, a focus she brought to the White House in 2009. She has launched the “Let’s Move!” campaign to encourage young people to exercise and has established a “kitchen garden” at the White House to encourage healthy eating. All in all, the little girl from South Shore has turned out to be an inspiration.

Ever ‘Green’

Posted November 21st, 2011 at 7:35 pm (UTC-4)
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If you’re like me, you get lots of stories, jokes, anecdotes, offbeat videos and the like in your email inbox.

The other day, a genial acquaintance sent me a tale that, others tell me, has made the Internet rounds for years.  But it was the first I’d seen it.

I’ve fluffed it up a little, but it goes something like this:

A woman of some age is placing items on the check-out counter at a grocery store when the young cashier delivers an admonishment:

Maybe not exactly THIS kind of "green thing."  (bark, Flickr Creative Commons)

“You should bring your own cloth bags,” he intones, righteously.  “Plastic bags aren’t good for the environment.  It’s the ‘the green thing.’  Eco, ya know?”

The woman apologizes for her thoughtlessness, explaining that “we didn’t have this ‘green thing’ back when I was your age.”

That should have been the end of it, but the young enviro-snob continues his scold.  “That’s the problem today,” he says.  “Your generation didn’t care enough to save our environment for future generations!”

This gets the old lady’s back up.  “No,” she tells the supercilious clerk. “Our generation didn’t have the ‘the green thing.’”

A returnable milk bottle, circa 1920, with a stack of day-of-the-week bands to identify the vintage of its contents.  (Library of Congress)

A returnable milk bottle, circa 1920, with a stack of day-of-the-week bands to identify the vintage of its contents. (Library of Congress)

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over.  I think you call it “recycling.”

She was just warming up.

We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building.

We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks.

We washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine.  Wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in the “olden” days.

Back then, kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing.

We had one radio in the house, and later one TV ­— not a TV the size of Montana in every room.

A very ordinary, and typical, American kitchen in 1939.  No mixers or microwave ovens or blenders here.  (Library of Congress)

A very ordinary, and typical, American kitchen in 1939. No mixers or microwave ovens or blenders here. (Library of Congress)

In the kitchen, we blended and stirred and sifted by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us.

When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded-up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam peanuts or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power.

We exercised by working.  And we got up 15 times an evening to change the TV channel, rather than click a couple of buttons on a remote.  So we didn’t need any health clubs or treadmills that suck on electricity.

We wore cotton and wool clothing, not chemically “stretched” slacks and thermo-gear.

We drank from the tap or a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a plastic bottle or a big, rented jug of designer water.

We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying new pens, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But we didn’t have “the green thing.”

Even getting ON this New York City streetcar in 1913 was good exercise.  (Library of Congress)

Even getting ON this New York City streetcar in 1913 was good exercise. (Library of Congress)

Back then, people took the bus or streetcar, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service.  And we played, and played, and played — outside, from morning to night.  The only time we sat or stood around playing video games was at the fair or on short vacations at the beach.

We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances, and we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint.

We didn’t need to pay extra for “organic” food because we didn’t feed our chickens and cows hormones or inject pesticides into our apples, eventually polluting the ground and water system.

The old lady concludes, “So you might think a minute before calling us old folks wasteful because we didn’t have ‘the green thing’ back then?”

Unfortunately the version of the story that I read says nothing about the clerk’s reaction — or that of the customers waiting in line behind the old woman. Read the rest of this entry »

Polygamists in Wisconsin

Posted November 16th, 2011 at 4:43 pm (UTC-4)

I drove up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to meet a polygamous family: Rich and his three wives, Julie, Brandy, and Angela, and five kids plus a dog. By U.S. standards, that’s quite a big household and it definitely felt that way. Kids were running all over, showing off in front of our cameras. The yard was full of a million different toys and the pantry was crammed with so much canned food, you might think Armageddon was coming.

In this family, three -- or more -- is not a crowd.

You can see Rich and two of his wives in the photo; the third, Angela, was at work when I was there.

I was interested to know what it’s like to be a woman in a polygamous relationship. I spent a long time talking to Julie, about her experience. She writes a blog. It’s worth a look.

Polygamy is relatively rare in the U.S. and mainly associated with the Mormon population, even though their church has officially banned the practice. But Julie is a bit of a different story. She didn’t come to polygamy from a religious perspective (her parents, who are more traditional Christians, have cut her out of the family since she became a polygamist), but she says, because she was lonely. She was married before and ended up spending a lot of time on her own, dealing with all the housework.

For her, polygamy was the answer.

But she was also pretty honest about the downside. Life can be chaotic and sharing a husband can be tough. “Cat fights” amongst the women are common, mainly about who Rich spends his time with — but, surprisingly, not who he shares his bed with. Each of the wives has her own room and Rich does a rotation, so usually each wife gets the evening and bedtime with him every third night.

Rich told me that it’s his right to be a polygamist. There’s an attitude now among some polygamists that because gay marriage has become legal in some U.S. states, polygamists should be the next group to earn that right.

I’ve been checking out some online blogs written by women in polygamous marriages. Escape from loneliness seems to be a recurring story. I sent a few emails back and forth with a girl who blogs as Megan. She went through a really rough time as a kid and when she was 17 just wanted to settle down and have babies. She said no males her age in her area were ready or stable enough to have a family, so she opted instead for polygamy.

This is what she says about her decision: So I married Steve and my family and I accepted the sex and the patriarchy as part of what I chose to do all on my own. Because even with the things that are hard, this is still almost a dream compared to what I left behind.

Strange Places I’ve Been

Posted November 16th, 2011 at 12:30 pm (UTC-4)
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As you know if you consult this space regularly, I love geography, travel, and words.  Especially when writing about America.

A good friend of mine, Walker Merryman, whose personality fits his surname, wrote recently to tell me he, too, has been a lot of places of late.  Why, he said, he’d been in Cognito, but nobody recognized him.  And in Capable — more and more often, unfortunately, as he ages.

That’s nothing, my friend.  I’ll have him, and you, know that in the past year alone, I’ve been . . .

In Communicado.  When you didn’t hear from me for a while, that’s where I was.

In Stinct.  Just had a feeling I’d like the place.

A view from my window in Clement.  (Golden_ie, Flickr Creative Commons)

A view from my window in Clement. (Golden_ie, Flickr Creative Commons)

In Clement.  Nice enough place, but it poured rain every day I was there.

In Somnia.  Noisy.  Didn’t sleep a wink.  Didn’t have that problem, though, over in Audible, where you could hear a pin drop.

In Cahoots, with Carol.

In Dex.  Orderly place.

In Fantry.  Even more organized.  People kept asking me to give them their marching orders.

In Tellect.  College town.  Smart folks.  Stuck up, even.

In Ferno.  Sweltering dot on the map, down by the Mexican border.

In Dent.  Didn’t stay long. Stuck my head in and left.

In Decent.  Nudist colony.  The stories I could tell!

In Genue.  Prettier girls there than in Sipid, trust me.

In Gress.  Easy to get into.  Harder to get out.

In Kling.  Thought I’d like it there for no particular reason. Just a gut feeling.

In Surgent.  Troublemakers everywhere.  Couldn’t wait to leave.

In Tention.  Well-meaning people there.

In Quire.  Suspicious bunch.  Questions, questions.

In Sulin.  Got out of there fast.  I’m pre-diabetic.

I found the folks kind of clumsy in Ept.  (HikingArtist.com, Flickr Creative Commons)

I found the folks kind of clumsy in Ept. (HikingArtist.com, Flickr Creative Commons)

In Ept.  Friendly enough folks, but not very helpful.  Same thing down the road in Competent.  But the worst was in Bred.

In Sect.  Gave me the creepy-crawlies.

In Dict.  They pronounce it “Dite.”  Not a very friendly place.  You’re always on the defensive.

In Nuendo.  Sorta like Dict, but more subtle.

In Cumbent, which the same bunch has been running for 50 years.

In Ebriate.  Party town!

In Grain, where you soon learn that things are done a certain way.  Same attitude over in Flexible.

In Finite.  Took forever to get there, and even longer to get through.

In Trigue, where everybody’s a conspiracy theorist.

In Firm.  Retirement community. Read the rest of this entry »

No Comment

Posted November 14th, 2011 at 2:31 pm (UTC-4)

As those of you who check in regularly know, I was away for a couple of weeks on a trip from which I’ll have a few stories for you in the days ahead.

One of my nearly 2,000 emails sent, unread, to TRASH was a pitch for a hair-replacement product.  The nerve! (brain_blogger, Flickr Creative Commons)

One of my nearly 2,000 emails sent, unread, to TRASH was a pitch for a hair-replacement product. The nerve! (brain_blogger, Flickr Creative Commons)

I returned to find 1,800 emails on my office computer.   These included faithful reports by my colleagues to their editors that, yes, they’d be working on a given day, their wips and wabs* and lookaheads, announcements about vacancies, messages sent in Chinese characters that I couldn’t read even if I wanted to, money-saving offers on fall flowers and hams and flights to Iceland, and social-network requests from strange women (and some men) to be my friend.

*Wips (short for “works in-progress”) and wabs (“whereabouts”) and the like are in-house shorthand for updates required of us by those who plan VOA’s news and feature coverage.  Why they need to share 25 or so colleagues’ wabs with me, I’ve never been clear.

I had to fish through all this chaff to get the valuable stuff, such as a report on the 2011 submarine championships, send to me by friend.  It included a gallery of photos . . . of the surface of the sea . . . and closed with the note: “Well, what did you expect to see?”

I also returned to find a couple dozen comments on my recent blogs. THESE I sort of look forward to — rather than eagerly anticipate, as I once did when I began blogging three years ago.

Back then, I was thrilled to receive such comments as this:

Say what?  (Marco Bellucci, Flickr Creative Commons)

Say what? (Marco Bellucci, Flickr Creative Commons)

great publish, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector don’t realize this. You should proceed your writing. I am confident, you have a great readers’ base already!

The imprecise syntax didn’t bother me, as I realize that English is the second language of most of my readers.  While the praise was vague, it was positive feedback nonetheless — the elixir of the blogs!

For a while, I’d routinely publish these comments, and sometimes even answer them with a note of gratitude for their kind remarks and perceptive eye.

Then VOA’s webmeister took me aside and delivered the bad news:

These aren’t genuine.  They’re mass-produced phishes or something.  Bait, designed to get inexperienced, flattered bloggers to publish them.  When we do, the sender apparently gets some sort of validation that he or she can use to sell products, or something of the sort.  Or there may be an even more sinister barb on the hook, enabling the wrong sorts of people to gain entrée into our computer system.

So that writer didn’t think I’d produced a “great publish, very informative” at all.  He or she — or it — hadn’t even read my blog.

No, hold the huzzahs (or the boos) about the blog unless there's substance to them.  (PRINCESS THEATER - Raising the Curtain, Flickr Creative Commons)

No, hold the huzzahs (or the boos) about the blog unless there's substance to them. (PRINCESS THEATER - Raising the Curtain, Flickr Creative Commons)

I’m now wary of empty praise, of comments — positive or negative — that say nothing specific at all about the blog in question, and of messages from senders whose Web site urls lead directly to commercial ventures.  I’m craftier now, in other words, even if I still can’t tell you exactly what “url” stands for.

Here were some of the messages I found upon my return, and promptly trashed:

Thanks, I be enduring recently been searching instead of intelligence on every side this point during ages and yours is the pre-eminent I’ve discovered so far. But, what upon the conclusion? Are you solid about the source?

The writer of this bogus accolade, of course, neglected to cite or discuss my “pre-eminent point.”

I have been browsing online more than three hours these days, yet I never found any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is lovely value sufficient for me. Personally, if all web owners and bloggers made excellent content as you did, the web shall be much more useful than ever before.

That person’s Web site sells some sort of games involving bubbles.  I am not kidding.

This robo-comment did NOT "hit the nail upon the top."  (meddygarnet, Flickr Creative Commons)

Undeniably believe that that you stated. Your favorite justification appeared to be on the internet the simplest thing to consider of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed even as other people think about worries that they just don’t know about. You controlled to hit the nail upon the top and also defined out the whole thing with no need side-effects , other people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thank you

This person or computer program put a lot of work into creating gibberish, eh?

This is certainly probably the most powerful web blogs I have read in a really long time. The amount of information in here’s spectacular, such as you pretty much has written the book on the subject. Your blog perfect for everyone who desires to understand this content more. Awesome stuff; please keep writing!

No thanks to people or computers like you, I will do just that. Read the rest of this entry »

Wit Watching at Wintzell’s

Posted November 9th, 2011 at 6:59 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

For 73 years, one of the must-visit locations in the moss-draped city of Mobile, Alabama, has been Wintzell’s Oyster House.  And not just for the “oysters fried, stewed, or nude.”

Wintzell's was a hit with the locals long before it became a yummy tourist attraction.  (Wintzell's)

Wintzell's was a hit with the locals long before it became a yummy tourist attraction. (Wintzell's)

Nude, as in raw, served on the half-shell.

While some restaurant owners display celebrity photographs and autographs on their walls, Wintzell’s has hundreds of little signs all over the joint.  Don’t worry.  Wintzell’s won’t mind my calling it that.  The place was founded as a six-stool oyster bar, and even though the family sold it in the 1980s, it’s as down-home as ever.

Each of the signs contains one of founder Oliver Wintzell’s homespun sayings, and to understand why they’re a regional legend, you should know a little more about him.

If ever there was a southern “good-ole boy,” it was James Oliver Wintzell.  He was so countrified, he called his wife “Cooter.” The son of a barber and pool-hall owner, Wintzell was born in 1905 in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, named for a gun battery placed there by the French who first settled the little Gulf of Mexico shrimp- and oyster-boat port back in the 1780s,

Oliver learned how to shuck and cook oysters from his parents, who started a little restaurant called The Olive.  People came from as far as Mobile, 40 km (25 miles) away, just to enjoy their gumbo, a savory soup.  Oliver worked in a nearby canning factory but left to try his luck in college. “I quit because I couldn’t major in oyster opening,” he would write later, displaying some of the wit you’ll soon read more of.

In 1938, during the depths of the Great Depression, Oliver and Cooter moved to Mobile. They opened that tiny oyster bar, where they sold the quivering, delicious little mollusks for 15 cents a dozen, cold and raw, on the half-shell.  Oyster-loving Mobilians mobbed the place, and pretty soon it expanded into a full-scale seafood restaurant.  It’s even bigger now, but still humbly appointed.

Oliver Wintzell liked to eat, smoke a bad cigar . . . and nap.  (Ben Newbold)

Oliver Wintzell liked to eat, smoke a bad cigar . . . and nap. (Ben Newbold)

The customers came, too, for the slogans, plastered on signs all over the walls.  Oliver Wintzell wrote most of them himself, or “borrowed” them from friends and customers.

The very first one, which also featured the hand-drawn image of a pretty girl, read, “A man can sometimes get a pearl out of an oyster, but it takes a pretty girl to get a diamond out of a crab.”  It was one of his many plays on words: crab, as in crabby, or grouchy, person.

Taken together, Wintzell’s aphorisms are a barometer of the times.  Not OUR times.  The Old South, circa 1955, on through the “hippie” era of the 1960s and ’70s.

Not surprisingly, Oliver didn’t think much of hippies.

Reading these slogans is especially a trip back in time when it comes to the “battle of the sexes,” keeping in mind that Wintzell’s has always attracted more male than female diners.  Put it this way: Ms. Magazine won’t be publishing them any time soon, although there’s not a raunchy saying among them.  A double entendre here or there, but no smut.

There’s common sense, if not outright wisdom, in some of the sayings.  Others are terrible groaners.  Or terrible, period, depending on the length of the groan.

This looks like a more svelte Oliver at the cash register in Wintzell's early days.  His slogans were everywhere even then.  (Wintzell's)

This looks like a more svelte Oliver at the cash register in Wintzell's early days. His slogans were everywhere even then. (Wintzell's)

Even if you don’t agree with the sentiments, I think you’ll smile reading them, out of admiration for the cleverness that went into them.  “When we are rushed with a big crowd,” Oliver Wintzell wrote in 1984, “the customers have got something to amuse them and don’t realize the service could be better.”

So relax and step into the Fifties or Sixties as I dish out a sampling of Oliver Wintzell’s gems.  I wish I had a plate of those oysters — nude — as I type them.   Here goes:

• No matter what happens, there’s always someone who knew it would.

• The older generation thinks nothing of getting up at five o’clock in the morning.  The younger generation doesn’t think much of it, either.

• It’s not the minutes you spend at the table that make you overweight.  It’s the seconds.

• I finally talked my son into cutting his hair, and I regret it.  Now I can see his earrings.

• The best time to make friends is before you need them.

• A quartet: A good singer and three of his friends.

• Never go around with another man’s wife unless you can go two rounds with her husband.

• Once you have a mouthful of super-hot coffee, whatever you do next is wrong.

• Inflation is a fate worse than debt.

The oyster bar area, set apart from the main dining room, today.   (Wintzell's)

The oyster bar area, set apart from the main dining room, today. (Wintzell's)

• Don’t smoke in bed.  The ashes left behind may be your own.

Diner: Say, waiter, this steak is awfully small.  Waiter: Yes it is, sir.  Diner: And it’s tough.  Waiter: Then you’re lucky it’s small.

• The world’s best labor-saving device for women: a husband with money.

• Pleasure trip: driving your mother-in-law home.

Politician: Did you hear my last speech?  Voter: I certainly hope so.

• Not long after a boy graduates from being a Boy Scout, he becomes a girl scout.  (This is one of those that may take an extra read or two.)

• A pedestrian: A man whose child is home from college.  (This one, too.)

• Political speeches should carry a warning label: “May be harmful if swallowed.”

• Observed on a highway sign:  “You are now leaving Texas.  Why?”

• A woman rushes up to a police officer.  “That fellow is following me,” she says.  “He’s drunk.”  The cop takes a look at her and says, “You’re right.  He must be.”

• If at first you don’t succeed, you’re fired.

• Quiet people aren’t the only people who don’t say much.

Dad: Jimmy, don’t pull the cat’s tail!  Jimmy: I’m not. The cat’s pulling.

• He who indulges bulges.

• When today’s teenagers dance, they don’t talk, and they don’t touch.  It’s as if they’ve been married 30 years.

• When a man is pushing 70, that’s exercise enough.

• Farmer’s formula for success: Rise early.  Work hard.  Strike oil.

• The two best times to fish: Right before you get there, and right after you leave.

• Cannibal: Someone who’s fed up with people.

• A lot of people are smarter than they look.  They’d better be!

• How times have changed.  When a father and son go out together now, it’s the son who has the beard.

Joe: Our dog is like one of the family.  Moe: Yeah? Which one?

• Money won’t buy you friends.  But it will buy you a better class of enemies.

Delicacies from the deep!  The shallows, actually.  (Wintzell's)

Delicacies from the deep! The shallows, actually. (Wintzell's)

• Build a better lawn, and the world beats a path across it to your door.

• A diplomat is someone who thinks twice before saying nothing.

• When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing.

(An apt one for today) • A man went to his physician for a checkup.  “You’re as sound as a dollar,” the doctor told him.  The man fainted.

• Hotel walls are terrible.  They’re too thin when you want to sleep and too thick when you want to listen.

• I’m constantly amazed at these young things with their fancy hairdos and skin-tight pants.  And the girls are even worse. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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