Sunday, July 26, 2015

a few words for Nebraska

Nebraska doesn't have much of a reputation. For many, it's just the flat area you drive through to get somewhere else. But during my recent trip it provided some genuine, and some quaint, tourist attractions.

Norfolk, Nebraska. The only town of over 20,000 - and not much over - in the northern half of Nebraska, Norfolk is a fairly prosperous and bustling place, madly proud of its biggest claim to fame, that it's the hometown of Johnny Carson. A main street bears the supplementary name "Johnny Carson Blvd.," and there's a sign marking his childhood home on it. Downtown in a parking lot is an affectionate if badly-painted mural of his career. The Elkhorn Valley Museum in town has a room devoted to a Carson display. There's many photographs, his collection of Emmys, and a TV set running clips from The Tonight Show, with a huge comfy couch in front. We were there for well over an hour and it did not repeat. I'm not a huge Carson fan (though my brother is), but I enjoyed this. Carson had affection for his roots, and you can rent a viewing of a documentary made of a return visit he made in 1982. Also learned from the museum that another media figure was a native of Norfolk: Thurl "They're grrrrreat!" Ravenscroft.

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park. I'd read about this site in Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, and had it on a mental list of places worth visiting if I ever was in those parts. Though out in the middle of uninhabited nowhere, it's only an hour's drive from Norfolk. It's a 10-million-year-old water hole that was covered by ash from an explosion of the Yellowstone caldera, and is packed solid with the fossils of ancient rhinos (rhinos, in Nebraska?) and even weirder animals such as saber-toothed deer, a variant I would not have thought necessary. The keepers have built an enormous shed, for weather shelter, over the main fossil bed. It's cool inside on a hot summer day, even without air conditioning, and from the walkway you can look down at the mass of exposed skeletons, with among them the occasional undergraduate on summer internship, slowly chipping away and learning to be a paleontologist. Looks like this. A bit creepy, but an even more vivid display of fossils than La Brea.

Tilden, Nebraska. A nondescript wide-spot-in-the-road village that we quickly passed through on the way back from Ashfall. I only looked it up afterwards out of curiosity for its name: was it named for Samuel J. Tilden, Al Gore's predecessor in having the presidency stolen out from under him? It was, but even more surprising was to learn that what I'd just passed by was the birthplace of L. Ron Hubbard.

Wahoo, Nebraska. Speaking of birthplaces, this smallish but more substantial town with the silly name (I kept saying "Yahoo"; it's actually an Indian word for a local shrub) has an unusually large cluster of notable native sons, all of them honored in the county museum: Darryl Zanuck the movie producer, Howard Hanson the composer (my biggest interest), an early pro baseballer named Sam Crawford, and Nobel-winning geneticist George Beadle, who's of interest to me because, after he took a visiting professorship at Oxford for a year in the 1950s, his wife, Muriel, wrote a book about her experiences as an American housewife living in austerity Britain and dealing with Oxford social customs. It's a delightful book, as can be discerned from its title, These Ruins Are Inhabited. Anyway: my brother tells me that Dave Letterman used to make jokes about Wahoo being his "head office," and downtown there's a large sign designating an adjacent phone booth (with the phone ripped out) as the place.

Licorice International. It's a store in the vintage shopping district of downtown Lincoln that sells packages of dozens of varieties of licorice from little bins. Many have more delectable flavors than default licorice, like pineapple.

Gerald R. Ford Birthplace. A presidential site listed in very few tourist guides, but well worth visiting for buffs. The house in the more palatial section of Omaha burned down years ago, and the site is now a gardens with grecian-style plaques engraving the names of all the presidents. There's even a small museum of Ford's connection with Omaha, in the form of display panels in an outdoor kiosk. Walk by it and a motion sensor will trip off a recording of Ford's voice telling you about it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Hugo voting report

The Puppy affair roused my slumbering patriotism in science fiction enough to prompt me to buy a supporting membership in the current Worldcon, so that I could vote a straight anti-Puppy slate in the Hugos. Over the course of my recent vacation, I read most of the Hugo voting packet on my elderly Nook, though to keep my reactions fresh I have avoided reading reviews of the nominees.

Now that I'm about ready to cast my vote, however, I can let you see my reviews if you'd care to. Here, for the categories for which I feel I have something substantive to say about the nominees, are my voting choices. I'm of the "Nothing from the Puppy Slates goes above No Award" school of thought, but that doesn't mean I don't have differential opinions among them if I don't get my way, so I at least looked at their nominees.

1. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The opening section, the part set in 1969, I thought one of the most gripping pieces of fiction I'd read recently, though until the end of it I was uncertain what was going to be science-fictional about it. After that it rapidly dropped off in interest, though I still think this is the most Hugo-worthy of the nominees in this category. I wish authors wouldn't put lists of characters at the front: the thought that you're going to have to know who all these people are is disheartening, though in the reading I had no trouble. Oh, and by the way: As someone who's named his cats after literary characters, I'd just like to point out that Wang Miao would be a perfect name for a male cat.
2. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I enjoyed this, though as the blurb says it's a novel of court intrigue. The sfnal and fantasy elements feel like window-dressing.
3. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie. Maybe it's because I didn't read its predecessor, but I found this impenetrable. After a few pages my eyes simply refused to take in any more.
4. No Award
5. The Dark Between the Stars by Kevin J. Anderson. Although I didn't get far into this, and my interest in the "folks roaming around on starships through already-existing universes that I don't know anything about" subgenre of SF is limited, this looks pretty well-written.
6. Skin Game by Jim Butcher. I actually read the entire 86-page excerpt that was included in the Hugo packet, but don't ask me to remember anything about it, or, indeed, to have understood the story at the time I was reading it.

1. No Award
2. "Flow" by Arlan Andrews. I recall this as being not bad, but on looking it over, I find my memory of it has been entirely overlain by Lou Antonelli's "On a Spiritual Plain."
3. "One Bright Star to Guide Them" by John C. Wright. If you're going to tell a story about characters remembering things the reader knows nothing about, you have to be a better writer than this. It would also help not to be so wordy.
4. "The Plural of Helen of Troy" by John C. Wright. This might have been a good story if it weren't so convoluted, talky, and all-around garrulous.
5. "Pale Realms of Shade" by John C. Wright. Sorry, stories that devolve into religious tracts don't do it for me. This is the sort of story that makes C.S. Lewis at his most didactic look good. (And Wright's "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus", the story removed from the Novelette category, was so bad in that way that it made this one look good.)
6. "Big Boys Don't Cry" by Tom Kratman. War war war war war. Of purely specialized interest to war buffs, and boring as hell to anybody else.

1. "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. This is an exceedingly memorable story, I'll give it that, though it's pure whimsy, not even fantasy. (Why would a reversal of gravity - already an impossible notion - not work on air or water? Because everyone left would immediately suffocate, and there'd be no story.) The real problem is that this story is the perfect embodiment of what the Turkey City Lexicon calls "Squid on the mantelpiece." Heuvelt's narrator finds the upending of the world and the deaths of most of its populace to be a trivial concern next to the fact that his girlfriend had just left him. I can understand why he feels that way, but he can't expect me to agree with him. Worse, judging from the afterword included in the Hugo packet, the author intended this effect. Intending to write a story badly is no excuse for doing so. Nevertheless, it's memorable enough that, even in a non-Puppy year, I'd place it above No Award. Barely.
2. No Award
3. "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium" by Gray Rinehart. Let me get this straight: This is a story about a dying man who plots (sorry) to have himself buried so as to offend the aliens living on the same planet who find burial sacrilegious. Yep, it's as dumb as it sounds.
4. "The Journeyman: In the Stone House" by Michael F. Flynn. Characters who make sophisticated sarcastic jokes while talking like Tonto.
5. "The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale" by Rajnar Vajra. I gave up on this one three pages in when the narrator introduces an expository lump with the words, "Lecture time, quick I promise." Why am I not tempted to stick around long enough to learn if you'll keep that promise?
6. "Championship B'tok" by Edward M. Lerner. I gave up on this one three pages in when the author explains that, though this universe has AI of human-level intelligence, it doesn't have intelligent robots because that would be creepy.

Short Story
1. No Award
2. "On a Spiritual Plain" by Lou Antonelli. Another story about aliens trying to understand human funeral customs! Yet I actually liked this one. The ending was a particularly satisfying wrap-up. Yes, even Puppies can show good taste on occasion.
3. "Totaled" by Kary English. And another story about dead people! Having the dead person be the narrator made the story a little bloodless - you'd think she'd be more invested in the narrative - and the plot wasn't as clear, but it's not a terrible story. (English's Campbell nomination storypack consists of two stories about dead people and one about someone plotting to disappear: is she trying to tell us something?)
4. "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond. A story in which the narrator commits suicide at the end, taking the adversary with him/her, and in a Japanese setting? (More death!) Sorry, but it's been done already, and done a lot better than this, and it won a Hugo, which it deserved: this doesn't.
5. "The Parliament of Beasts and Birds" by John C. Wright. Ever read Lord Dunsany's "The Use of Man", which has a similar premise? I have. That one was simplistic enough, and I have no use for this one. And so garrulous it was hard to maintain the premise that it was animals speaking.
6. "Turncoat" by Steve Rzasa. War story. Obsessed with numbers.

Related Work
1. No Award
2. "The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF" by Ken Burnside. This would be interesting, if I were at all interested.
3. Letters from Gardner: A Writer's Odyssey by Lou Antonelli. If you thought The Early Asimov was self-indulgent, get a load of this. It starts off with the stories Antonelli wrote that were rejected - and you can see why, and if you can't, he'll tell you what's wrong with them - while the "letters from Gardner" that the title promises are mostly just encouraging notes scribbled in the margins of rejection slips. What's most disturbing is the exceedingly hard-boiled attitude towards life that Antonelli shows in his stories, such as the one whose setting is a nuclear bomb explosion in the U.S. but whose focus is on the protagonist keeping his car running. It reads like Antonelli wanted to write a story about the car and merely stuck in the nuclear devastation for motivating background. Nevertheless, this author is serious about developing his craft.
4. Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth by John C. Wright. Wright's windiness as a writer made this essay collection difficult to read as a book; it was easier to tackle one essay at a time. Wright can actually be pretty insightful when he sticks to SF, especially on the theological side: he has some good strictures on the spiritual philosophy of Arthur C. Clarke, for instance. (But, considering how much he hated the second Hobbit movie and Philip Pullman's third Golden Compass book, why did he like their predecessors? He doesn't say.) However, especially towards the end of the book, his sweeping denunciations of What Feminists Think, What Modernists Think, What Progressives Think, are simply lunatic. They bear no discernible relationship to what any of those actual people actually think or behave, and not just because, pace Wright, none of these categories consist of identikit cadres. This is the true SFnal part of the book: it's from another planet.
5. "Why Science is Never Settled" by Tedd Roberts. There are far better articles out there explaining the scientific method than this one. I hope no anti-scientists come across this: they could use it maliciously to tear holes in any science-based viewpoints.
6. Wisdom from My Internet by Michael Z. Williamson. My ghod. This makes even Mallard Fillmore look like a model of wit and incisiveness. What made anybody, even the author, think that these witless and inane quips were worth collecting … it boggles the imagination.

Best Fan Writer
1. No Award
2. Laura J. Mixon. The only non-Puppy I'm putting below No Award. Look, I suppose Mixon performed a public service and all, but it's not an achievement I feel like celebrating, nor do I find there's anything about the quality of the writing as such that's award-worthy. Maybe not Mixon's fault, because she had a complex story to untangle, but it was a slog to get through.
3. Jeffro Johnson. If we were going to honor someone who writes about classic fantasy in an RPG context, we should have given a Hugo years ago to John D. Rateliff. Still, Johnson is a good writer, if somewhat condescending towards his topics, and though of crabby social views, he does not spend his time whining about SJWs, which sets him apart from the rest of this category.
4. Dave Freer. There's the shards of an interesting guy to talk with in here, but his mischaracterizations of the SJWs he repeatedly gratuitously brings up are dismaying, and worse is his appallingly clumsy attempt to prove bias in the Hugos by contrasting the results with mathematically random events. Totally inappropriate analogy.
5. Cedar Sanderson. I gave up on this person at the description of the fuss over the "shirtstorm" at the Rosetta comet-lander press event as "epic bullying."
6. Amanda S. Green. This person's mind is just filled with bile, and apparently nothing else. It's a very unpleasant place to visit, and I certainly wouldn't want to live there.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Schubert ahoy

So the Menlo Festival's program plan this year is to plow through Schubert, notionally in chronological order. On assignment, I took B. to the first concert, which covered early Schubert, from the ages of 14 (yes, 14) to 22, and I reviewed it thus. B. liked it because it included "Erlk├Ânig" and "Gretchen am Spinnrade", two of Schubert's most famous songs. It also included "Die Forelle", which is only famous for its re-use as the theme of the variations movement of the "Trout" Quintet (and since "Forelle" means "Trout", that's how the Quintet got its name). It's got a cute tune, but no real drama or development, and the verse is by a far lesser poet than Goethe, who wrote the other two. It ends with an expostulation against the angler who catches the trout, which the singer gave bite to by giving a small vexed pout, earning an audience chuckle.

The Overture in C Minor was not worth preserving except as a curiosity item (well, he was only 14), but the "Trout" Quintet sure is.

Also in the music journalism field, the Redwood Symphony urged me into a feature article on their anniversary. This was not the time to re-air my own querulous feelings about Mahler, but I could honestly praise their performances. Now they want me to attend the upcoming Stravinsky-Orff concert (much of a muchness), but - ha ha - I shall not go, as I have other things on my plate. Schubert still beckons.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

another indication that I am not human

Candy manufacturers are now making fruity candies only in red. Because people like that color so much.

But I'm not a person. Red is just about the only fruity candy color I won't eat. I hate artificial cherry and berry flavors of all kinds (so I won't eat blue, either). I'll only eat red candy if it's cinnamon, which I love, or in the rare case that it's apple. Throughout childhood I thought I hated real cherries and berries, too, until I tried them. I love cherries, accept strawberries, and will eat raspberries. But I still hate the artificial flavors of them. Not true of the artificial flavors of other fruits I like: just these. Favorite popsicles: pineapple, watermelon, grape, followed by almost anything citrus.

I detest red-fruit flavors so much, in fact, that red is my most unfavorite color in general, although my astrological sign says it should be my favorite. Throughout childhood, it was associated in my mind with candy I didn't want to eat, and it's retained my permanent disfavor.

haven't read it

I'm curious to read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, but I thought I should re-read To Kill a Mockingbird first. I've only read it once, maybe forty years ago; I haven't seen the movie in nearly that long, either: I figured I should refresh my memory.

Then I saw this English professor looking for people to read Watchman* who haven't read Mockingbird at all. He's gotten one offer; I wonder if I should offer myself as a semi-hemi case. After all, of the set of people likely or able to read Watchman, few even of those who haven't read Mockingbird won't at least heard of it and know how it goes.

But I have read a lot of discussion of the new book, enough to have some thoughts on the "Is Atticus a racist?" question. Perhaps I should have remained silent on this until reading the book myself, but if the testimony of others who have read it is worth anything - and if not, what would my testimony be worth once I have read it? - I see a consistent pattern emerging even from the contradictory views.

My tentative conclusion - subject to revision later - is that Atticus is a racist, but there are different kinds of racists. Atticus is a paternalistic racist, not a hostile one. From the quotes given of his talk that drives Jean Louise so angry, he considers the blacks ignorant and politically undeveloped. There's no assumption that they'll always be that way, that they're inherently that way, that they're malevolently out to take "our" women and drive "us" into the slavery that had been their state, which is what a hostile racist would say, which is what the Charleston shooter did say. Those who say Atticus is not a racist mean that he's not a hostile racist, and with that modification they appear to be correct.

And Atticus' concern about political infancy is real. Political infancy is a flaw in society: it's politically infantile whites today who are supporting Donald Trump, for instance. It was only universal public education, introduced in the late 19th century, that made universal adult suffrage a practically feasible notion, and we desperately need a little more universal public education today, in hopes fewer people will be quite as dim as Mr Trump. What makes Atticus racist is not his concern, but his policy for responding to it: keep 'em down. That's paternalistic condescension at the very least, and applied to a race of adults, it's racist, by definition. A liberal would say, if they're repressed and uneducated, then educate them and stop repressing them, pretty damn quick!

It's also been pointed out that even the Mockingbird Atticus is not the moral ideal he's usually pictured as. The image of Gregory Peck in those stirring courtroom scenes has clouded our vision. Really, Atticus has to be a racist: it would be impossible for a white man of his time and place not to be one. He'd be too pure and noble to be believable. But he is believable, even in Mockingbird, and his flaws - his passivity towards his client, his refusal to believe in malevolence in the accusers' hearts - are what make him so.

*Every time I see that word alone in a headline, I find myself expecting an article about Alan Moore.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Schubert metaconcert

Having already attended one concert (more on that later), I went back to Menlo today for a lecture by Christopher H. Gibbs, a Schubert scholar - Schubert is this year's festival theme - who collaborated with Richard Taruskin to reduce the latter's monumental Oxford History of Western Music to a one-volume edition.

Gibbs' talk was a somewhat randomized account of public concerts in Schubert's Vienna, which, he pointed out, musically was Beethoven's and Rossini's Vienna. Rossini wasn't there much in person, but his music was. (The difference between Beethoven and Rossini, he noted, was that while Rossini would make one overture do duty for four operas, Beethoven wrote four overtures to one opera.)

Public concerts in those days were unusual, though not rare, events. There were no regular venues nor performing institutions to host them. They had to be planned far in advance, and were usually planned by composer/performers or charitable organizations to raise money. Schubert only ever held one (the famous Schubertiades were private, invitational events performed by friends, not paid musicians), and he'd been talking about it in his letters for four years already.

Contrary to modern concert planning which typically brings together works for the same ensemble but from differing times and places - musical indigestion, Gibbs says - these concerts tended to be festival-like in focusing on then-modern music but of a variety of kinds. Symphony movements might be interspersed with arias or piano improvisations. He read us one concert announcement which included a violinist who would play on one string, with the violin upside down.

And audiences were expected to applaud. Frequently! If there was no applause between movements, how would the performers know which movements to repeat? After all, no recordings in those days; you might never get a chance to hear that symphony live for full orchestra again.

As for the "death" of classical music, Gibbs noted that concern over that goes back 200 years. Not that the concern is necessarily misplaced, but in quality and frequency of performances, now, not then, is the golden age.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Stands for "Uncle of Groom." That's the hat I wore, or more precisely what appeared on my nametag, for much of this weekend as B. and I joined in while by far our eldest remaining unattached nephew and his bride took over much of San Francisco to celebrate getting hitched.

We all stayed in an elegant-modern high-rise hotel near Union Square, taking hired buses-in-the-shape-of-cable-cars to the events. (I'd seen these tourist buses around the city before, but had never ridden in one, preferring the real cable cars when I wanted the experience.) The rehearsal dinner was at a seafood restaurant in Ghirardelli Square, and, for the ceremony itself, plus receptions both fore and aft, dinner, and the party that ran till who knows when (because we bailed after the wedding cake) the couple hired the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The whole thing. (They're both minor Google honchi, and thus among those who can afford such munificence.) The post-ceremony reception was down amidst the Steinhart Aquarium. Big and ugly fish competed for attention with hors d'oeuvres. None of this meant that the wireless microphones at the ceremony worked properly: there's some techy lesson in that.

A string quartet played as we waited for the ceremony to begin. They were not quite ready for prime time. They played Bach, Tchaikovsky, and (of course) Pachelbel's Canon. As the bride walked down the aisle, they played something I didn't recognize but which made most of the attendees laugh. I was told later it was called "The Final Countdown".

Saturday morning and afternoon, while busy for some, was downtime for others, so I took my brother-in-law the FoG over to Sears - the restaurant, not the department store - just a block away for a late breakfast. We walked it off for a bit via Chinatown, then I ventured down through the Powell Street cable car terminus crowds - tourists, tourists everywhere / nor any stop to think - to BART for a quick trip to Borderlands for part of the Wesley Chu/Helene Wecker event. I'd read part of Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni on B's Kindle already and was reminded that I want to finish it.

So it's been a long and tiring weekend, but the couple look blissfully happy, they expressed their emotional feelings eloquently (especially remembering that they're both engineers), we wish them the best, and we'll see them again at his brother's wedding in November if not sooner.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Steeleye spasm

Thursday morning I was still in Omaha (actually Carter Lake, Iowa, a long story involving a 19th-century flood and the U.S. Supreme Court), but I returned to San Francisco in time to get to the Great American Music Hall - a venue I frequented much 35-40 years ago for acts ranging from Martin Carthy to the Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, but haven't been in for at least 20 years - for the Steeleye Span concert.

I didn't see anybody in the audience I knew, but everybody looked as if they ought to be people I knew, an observation made to me by the fellow I shared a table with, concerning himself, before I could make it to him. They were almost all grizzled folks of about my age, which has been true of most folk-music concerts I've attended since we were grizzled folks in our 20s.

But it's been a long time since I've been to many folk concerts, and I'd almost forgotten how much fun they can be. A great classical concert offers more ethereal bliss, but for sheer enjoyability, this was the best. It's not that I'd want a CD of it, it was the experience of being there.

For this tour, at least, Steeleye has gone back down to a five-piece, with a slight improvisation. There was Maddy Prior the lead singer, long the last surviving founding member, and long-time drummer Liam Genockey, plus newer members Julian Littman (guitar, who looks in person like Fred Thompson) and Jessie May Smart (violin). The bassist on this tour was supposed to be Maddy's son Alex, but when they crossed over from Canada last week he was stopped at the border, so they picked up a substitute, whose name I believe I caught as Niels Petersen, who did very well (and who looks like Bill Laubenheimer, especially in the beard).

This was my first close encounter with Julian and Jessie. I like them. More than with some of the recent past newer members, I feel that Steeleye would be in good hands if Maddy and Liam retired and they chose to carry on. Jessie is a more emotive violinist than Peter Knight, her predecessor, and has a greater variety of tone, and it's all employed in a thoughtfully appropriate style, insofar as I could hear her (sound balance was down on the violin and up on the drums throughout). Julian is at his best on acoustic guitar, quietly accompanying Maddy in a couple of her pre-Steeleye songs ("Dancing at Whitsun" and "I Live Not Where I Love") and Maddy and Jessie singing an old Maddy and Gay Woods duet ("My Johnny Was a Shoemaker"). In livelier numbers he was energetic and dedicated, though his voice is more rock-oriented and could be deflatingly monotonous when channeling Bob Johnson ("Jack Hall", the only post-classic Steeleye song on the program aside from two from their latest album, Wintersmith) or Martin Carthy ("Boys of Bedlam", which with "When I Was on Horseback" was one of two early songs they rocked up, a la the remake of "Twa Corbies" on the album Time). On the other hand, he was great at "King Henry", which was one of the two classic-period songs I most hoped they'd do. The other was "Long Lankin", which they also did, after which I said to my table-mate in blissful satisfaction, "That's it. They can go home now."

Liam's drumming, though over-miked, was restrained, and in a few quieter numbers he sat silent or served as an additional acoustic guitarist, including in "The Lark in the Morning", the most beautiful performance of the entire concert. Maddy's voice has lost some of its range over the years, but she's deepened in expressiveness and character. The way she croaked out the word "beware" in "Long Lankin" was unexpected but exciting.

Other highlights included the two Steeleye basics, "Thomas the Rhymer" and "All Around My Hat". Maddy professed herself delighted that this audience accepted with enthusiasm her invitation to sing along on the chorus, rather than looking puzzled or having to be taught the words as some audiences do. Another notable performance from the same album was the acappella "Cadgwith Anthem" with four voices (Liam sang too), a very different sound from the Tim Hart-Peter Knight days but quite satisfactory.

There were a few topical comments from the stage, too. Introducing "Blackleg Miner", Maddy commented that this 1840s song was a quaint period piece when she first sang it, then it became vividly relevant during the miners' strike of 1984. Now it's a quaint period piece again. That's the thing about folk songs: they're always the same but they always change.

Steeleye changes too, and I enjoyed the incarnation of Steeleye I heard last night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

a capitol vacation

Besides Presidential Libraries, my trip to the outer midwest included four state capitols within a week. With such close proximity, I can rate them, from most enjoyable to most, um, memorable.

1. Iowa. This is a nifty building that's bright and shiny without being gaudy. It's got a big dome and four subsidiary minion domes, possibly minarets, for no other reason than that the designers liked this idea. They look like this:
Inside is the even more fabulous Iowa State Law Library, a room so beautiful it makes you want to sit down with a cozy volume of the Federal Reporter. It looks like this:
Iowa is proud of its open access government. We were told you can enter any office in the building where there isn't a meeting going on. We milled around the governor's reception area as a phalanx of Sharply-Dressed Young Persons got up from the reception couch on which they were seated and trooped into the inner office for a meeting with the governor.

2. Kansas. A pretty basic standard model capitol building from the outside, with sunflowers planted around it, its glories are on the inside, with the tall and impressive dome which you can climb inside on precarious stairs all the way up.
Also impressive, at least to us, was the large county outline map of the state engraved on the floor in the lobby.
But most impressive was the long historical mural on one wall. It's by an at-the-time controversial 1930s Kansan nationalistic artist named John Steuart Curry. The most famous part of it depicts John Brown in Bleeding Kansas days and looks like this:
You know what was the most controversial part of it? The tornado and prairie fire in the background. People didn't want it getting out that Kansas had those. Must never have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Kansas gets honorable mention for having the best tour guide. Young, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, he not only gave a lively and intelligent presentation but also offered to take us up the dome even though that wasn't supposed to be part of our tour. Like Iowa but unlike the others, Kansas has metal detector security; like Iowa's but unlike an airport's, the guards were friendly and reasonable.

3. Missouri. An even bigger standard model capitol building, it bears the additional intimidation of being situated atop a hill, meaning you're already tired by the time you get inside. Inside it's darker and more intimidating than the previous two, except for one legislative reception room that's not dark but sure is intimidating, as three walls are completely covered by a riotously colorful and action-filled historical mural by Thomas Hart Benton, which looks like this:
That's Huck and Jim on the upper left, over the door, with various 19th century-style economic and political scenes occupying the rest of the visible area, less than half of the whole, which goes all the way up to Pendergast. The guide's hand is extended near the part that made this mural controversial, a baby's bare bottom being diapered.

4. Nebraska. What the hey? Designed and mostly built during the 1920s futurist era, this looks both outside and inside like an escapee from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (with about as much color sense, too). The outside is something of a cross between Hoover Tower, only much uglier, and the Dark Tower from C.S. Lewis. It looks like this:
The inside corridors were dark, gloomy, oppressive and depressing, and reminded my brother of something out of a Tim Burton movie.
Our tour guide was so deadly dull we abandoned the tour after ten minutes. Apparently, from the sound of it, a fully paid-up member of the Slow Talkers of America, he spoke with the weird emphases of an insincere TV news anchor, and took us down the corridor in minute increments to explain the symbolism of each floor mosaic in greater and more numbing detail than the last.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Hoover and Truman and Ike, oh my

The U.S. is littered with Presidential Libraries, museums extolling the histories and persons of our more recent presidents. I've just been to three of these scattered across the midwest: Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa (just outside Iowa City), Harry Truman in Independence, Missouri (adjacent to K.C.), and Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, Kansas (not near anything).

Hoover is the earliest president covered by the national system (there's also an unofficial one for Rutherford B. Hayes, which I've also been to), and it's the most modest of a generally grandiose lot. Well, "a modest man with much to be modest about," as Churchill said of Attlee. That's not true, actually: Hoover was tremendously successful and renowned at everything he did up until he reached his Peter Principle level of incompetence as president. The museum had some old home reminiscences for me in the form of artifacts from Hoover's undergrad days at Stanford (I've worked for the Hoover Institution, which I guess gives me a connection), and it faces the disaster of Hoover's presidency reasonably straightforwardly, with only partially self-serving exculpations. (By contrast, you should've seen what the Nixon Library used to say about Watergate.) Hoover recovered some respect in later years, and he really did say to explain this, "I outlived the bastards." Strong words for a homely Quaker boy who's literally buried within site of his birthplace, a tiny cabin in a pristinely restored section of his small home town, right by the library. If you want to eat, go to Iowa City.

The alliteration of all the references to "the historic home of Herbert Hoover, humanitarian" got to us (my brother was with me) and we began fantasizing about Herbert Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Hopkins, Henry Higgins, Horatio Hornblower, and Hoppity Hooper in Happy Hollow with a hula hoop.

Truman's library is the trickiest. You go in, you watch the two overlapping movies with narration by David McCullough, you see the rather facile display of the challenges of Truman's presidency (admits that Truman was unpopular during his presidency, but never explains why: nothing about the tawdry or scandals), you visit Truman's book-filled office and the graves out back, and you think, "Is that it?" No it isn't: the personal museum with all the interesting artifacts is hiding in the basement. That aside, though, it's well laid out and interesting, giving you a real sense of the man. Some of the best stuff, though, is not in the library at all. A mile away in central Independence you can get tickets for walking tours through Truman's house, which has been left just in the simple state it was when Bess died in 1982. Bess and Harry would eat in the modest kitchen, its 1950s decor the most modern part of the house. Hey, we had that can opener when I was a kid. Across the street in Truman's cousins' house is now another small museum on Truman in his home context, the best part of which is a video display of daughter Margaret interviewing her parents for Person to Person, the only time they let those newfangled camera things into their home.

The striding statue of Truman is in front of the old courthouse (also visitable) downtown a few blocks away, near the visitor center where the tickets are obtained and also by a worthwhile German restaurant with lots of schnitzel.

Ike's is the most grandiose, being on a "campus" where his boyhood home is preserved like a fly in amber, complete with a mumbly young tour guide who says "And this is the parlor 'nstuff, and that's the family Bible 'nstuff." The Library proper is a separate building from the museum, and between them is a huge oversized statue of the General with his hands on his hips. The museum is unbelievably dense. Huge blocks of text, hard to read because of the dim lighting, covering WW2 in minute detail - here's the display on Luxembourgish resistance to the Nazis, just what you always wanted to read while standing up - and the presidency in not much less. Mentions Sherman Adams and the vicuna coat, and even has the punchline of the "And what if Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president?" joke, but though there's a photo with Kay Summersby, there's not a word about her. I came away feeling a lot less acquainted with Ike than with Harry or Bert. The movie makes a real silk purse out of the sow's ear of Eisenhower's lack of charisma, of speaking ability, etc. Gift shop has the best selection of books of all three.

Abilene is a hopeless town for the food-seeking traveler. Even the fast-food places clustered by the freeway are unappetizing. There is a decent farmhouse restaurant (in both senses: it's in a farmhouse and serves that kind of food) out of town on a back highway. It's called Mr. K's, though I didn't ask why: in an Eisenhower context, that name conjures up images of Khrushchev.

Monday, July 6, 2015

concert and movie

The concert was a solo cello recital from the Silicon Valley Music Festival, which I attended on Thursday, wrote up Friday morning, but the review didn't appear until this afternoon, thank you holiday weekend.

It was held in the large open atrium of an office building downtown, a venue that made me uneasy for its acoustics as soon as I saw it. But it's tolerable for a solo recital, at least, and the location has the great advantage of being right in the middle of downtown and close to most of its best restaurants. I wandered down fairly early for dinner. One thing in particular I wanted to check out: a recent news article on the closing of an outlet of Sonoma Chicken Coop - a once-popular local eatery that seems to be falling on obscurity - linked to the corporate website which listed just one remaining outlet, and it wasn't the one downtown. Had that closed too? I could find no other evidence that it had. So I looked for it on Thursday, and yes, it's still open, with a sign in front saying "New Ownership", so I guess it's spun off, like the LA Good Earths did (which enabled them to last years longer than the main chain). I decided to eat there, partly because they're quick and I was running shorter on time than I wanted, but mostly to check to see if the food was still the same. It was, and that's good.

The movie was Alexander Payne's Nebraska, which I finally got around to watching because I will shortly be in Nebraska, and, it turns out, specifically in the part of Nebraska where most of the movie takes place (around Norfolk). It begins, however, in Billings, Montana, which meant that it began to remind me of Fargo, a movie whose title is cryptic because it mostly takes place in Minnesota. This one turned out to be more connected with the place it's named for. It had a good helping of the dry humor that people are always fantasizing that they see in Fargo, and without any of the gruesomeness, either. Most bloody thing that happens is that Bruce Dern falls down and gets a big cut on the forehead.

The message of this movie seems to be: "Yes, there are good people in Nebraska. But they're kind of drowned out by the other kind." Ah, doesn't that make you eager to go?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

jambalaya festival

I've finished making the last of the seven different locally-produced jambalaya rice mixes that I brought home from my trip to Louisiana in April. Some of them I bought at a tourist shop in New Orleans' French Quarter, some at a supermarket in Houma, and one directly from its vendor. None of them I'd ever seen before; the only mix that makes the supermarket shelves here these days is Zatarain's, which I don't consider very good (I ate at a Zatarain's restaurant on the trip, and didn't consider it particularly outstanding either).

Some of the mixes I got I considered better than others, and I'd rank them approximately as follows, with links to where they can all be ordered online, and don't think I won't be doing that:

1. Cajun Country Creole Jambalaya Seasoning Mix With Rice (this was the tastiest: I just couldn't stop eating it)
2. Konriko Brand Jambalaya Mix With Rice (extra points for this one for being the only one with an option to bake the jambalaya - my favorite way of cooking it - on the package)
3. Cook Me Somethin’ Mister! Jambalaya Rice Mix (the brand name made me doubtful, but it was quite good)

4. Punch Daddy Jambalaya Mix (yes, there's an anthropomorphized map of Louisiana, wearing boxing gloves, on the package: it isn't that bad, really)
5. Louisiana’s Cajun Land Brand Jambalaya Mix

6. Jody's Jambalaya
7. Chef Hans’ Cajun Style Jambalaya Readi-Mix

What the two least good had in common was that both included chicken drippings in the ingredients list. I don't think that was such a good idea. The meat should come from what the cook adds at the time of preparation. But they were still OK; I'd give them 3 stars and Zatarain's 2.

I had a lot of good food in Louisiana, and am happy to have brought some home with me.