A new definition of pain and suffering

My friend’s post about recycling at the local football stadium reminds me of a story I saw last week in the university’s newspaper. Apparently the football stadium is the nexus of all sorts of good-doing: there are plans to build a seating area for child patients from the university hospital. From what I can see, though, there hasn’t been a marriage of good ideas and good design. Some of the conceptual drawings look like how I always imagined the insides of a sarlacc, where sick children will be “slowly digested over a thousand years.”

Back to the drawing board, please.

Escape to New York

Homer: New York is a hellhole. And you know how I feel about hellholes!

Marge: It’s wall-to-wall landmarks! The Williamsburg bridge! Fourth Avenue! Governor’s Island!

“The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson”

I moved away from New York almost ten years ago and I haven’t been back to visit the city in over five. Much is as I left it, but some has changed. The World Trade Center and its ancillary infrastructure are still being reconstructed. There is more security around town, especially in the Financial District, including cops and closed streets and bollards and French barricades. It appears the security mission there has evolved from counterterrorism to counterrevolution. Zuccotti Park was quiet but there were still some protesters occupying the steps of Federal Hall.

My wife and I, along with her parents, stayed in the Millennium Hilton, the Space Odyssey Monolith style building right across from the World Trade Center. The last time I saw the Millennium Hilton it was closed and covered in dust. From our room we could look down at construction in the World Trade Center plaza and look up at progress on 1 WTC, now the tallest building in New York. In fact, I think we got good deals on the rooms because of the construction noise. Every morning at 8 o’clock the clanking would begin. It was not a place for sleeping late.

Sleeping late wasn’t necessary anyway. Almost everything we visited on this trip I had been to before, though we saw in four days what I had spent many much shorter excursions seeing. In fact, though I got some good photos, I felt like I was re-taking many from my pre-digital camera days (which were not so long ago). The most notable exception was the new National September 11 Memorial—more on that later. The other novelty was a quick stop at Alexander Hamilton’s grave in the Trinity Church cemetery, something that as a nerd I had always meant to visit.

Like every place I’ve lived there are things I miss about New York and things I don’t miss. One thing I miss about New York is that there is so much of it. Its limits are not obvious like they are in other cities. The size and density of New York’s parts obscure each other. In New York I feel like I could wander around forever looking at interesting things without ever leaving or passing the same place twice.

I don’t miss the crowds which in New York have a certain Soylent Green quality. My family and I rediscovered the crowds as soon as we wandered onto the Brooklyn Bridge from the street by way of a creepy staircase. For a bridge that was originally built for pedestrians, there is not a lot of room left there for them. The walk was busy: walkers in one lane, bicyclists in the other, joggers on the broad stripe separating them, and two-way traffic in each. The stretch from Manhattan to the observation deck around the west tower was probably more clogged with tourists anyway.

While on the bridge I had a good, quick reminder of something else I don’t like about New York’s crowds besides their existence: regular outbursts from the insane people among them. An angry cyclist approaching the bridge from Park Row shouted at pedestrians to “go back to the subway and stay off the bridge!” Like a lot of New York’s kooks, this cyclist:

  1. Lived in a crowed city that is completely unfriendly to his lifestyle, yet expected tourists, commuters, and other pedestrians to clear the way for his benefit.
  2. Tried to remedy his problem at once by shouting at random passers-by.

Clearly this man was not getting the mental health care he needed. At around 10,000 people per square mile, such problems of our nation get magnified and focussed in Manhattan.

I had a more energizing experience with the crowds as I ran some errands the morning of our departure. It was rush hour in the financial district and everybody was trudging to work. I pushed my way upstream and across the street to a deli. Aside from the construction workers taking their breaks in the back, the deli was a study in New York fast. I was in and out of there with our breakfast in five minutes. The guy at the counter even talked fast.

There were some good surprises: the renovated Staten Island Ferry terminals looked really nice and seemed actually pleasant. They are shiny and cheerful and modern where they were once unfortunate places you had to pass through before and after you rode the boat. The day’s weather was dismal in spite of the gleaming facilities: rainy, cold, and windy—terrible weather for taking the ferry. The visibility wasn’t too poor, though, and while we could tolerate the conditions we stood on the open deck and took pictures of the Statue of Liberty.

In Midtown we poked around the now-fashionable Rockefeller Center for a while. While the statue of Prometheus is the best-known public artwork there, I never paid much attention to the other installations which, along with the Art Deco buildings, gush the propaganda of progress. Interesting carved stone or metal reliefs decorate the outsides of each building, and the lobby of 30 Rock (or the GE Building, as my mom would call it) has some very cool and epic murals.

Even though it is much younger than either trendy Rockefeller Center, the eternally classy Chrysler Building, way-too-fancy-for-a-train-station Grand Central Terminal, or the monumental Main Branch Library, United Nations Headquarters looked worn and dated. They were doing a lot of construction there while at the same time attempting to hide it. In fact, the complex was disappearing behind a high iron fence (something I don’t recall from previous visits and which appears new), another victim perhaps of security paranoia. The tour we took was pretty lame; our guide was more of an escort who periodically activated our multilingual listening devices with a radio transmitter.

Another place doing a lot of renovation was the American Museum of Natural History. Both the main hall and the room with the whale were closed (though we could see the whale through a doorway from another room). Thank goodness the dinosaur exhibits were still open or I would have simply died. We got in and out of the museum through the adjacent subway, ignoring the jazz musician playing for tips until he helpfully reminded everyone that the B trains don’t run on weekends.

Bloomington, Indiana

The snow here in Iowa held off until my plane was due to land in Cedar Rapids. We didn’t see the ground until we were fifty feet above it. I was returning from a business trip to Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is not a whole lot different from Iowa City. They are about the same size and dominated by big state universities. Bloomington has a good collection of unusual “ethnic” restaurants (Burmese, Turkish, Tibetan, Afghani).

A woman watches a man bowl a ball in a bowling alley
We bowled after a long day of work.

Our workshop was at the Indiana Memorial Union at the university, which combined a hotel, meeting rooms, food court, and recreation center. “Hoosiers” played regularly on the hotel’s in-house movie channel. The recreation center included a bowling alley, of which my colleagues and I made use. I could have gotten away with not leaving the building until I left for the airport today, though that would have been a little unhealthy. The Indiana University campus is pretty: an august-looking collection of limestone Italianate-style buildings. It has lots of quadrangles.

A graveyard surrounds a limestone chapel on a university campus.
This pretty chapel and cemetery were just outside our meeting room.
Sculptures with elliptical bodies and dangling tentacles hang from airport ceiling.
Neither an airport nor Indianapolis seemed appropriate for jellyfish sculptures.

On the way to Bloomington, I arrived in Indianapolis for the first time. We had a good view of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as we landed. It’s big. The Indianapolis airport is not so enormous for a large city and felt a little empty. The spacious terminal is only a few years old. There are these weird jellyfish sculptures handing from the ceiling—not ugly, just out of place—and of course the obligatory light display in one of the connecting corridors that airports of big Midwestern cities seem to like so much.

An unoccupied ticket counter in a spacious new airport terminal.
The Indianapolis airport was spacious but empty.

I noticed some changes in the Detroit airport during my layover today: signs and announcements in Chinese. On previous trips I’ve noticed signs in Japanese; I presume these signs reflect either Detroit’s actual international trade or the trade it aspires to attract.

Christmas in Minnesota

We crossed the state line into Minnesota around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday night and it immediately started snowing. This was our first legitimate trip to Minnesota (I don’t count flight layovers). The small towns we drove through all have nice welcome marquees that are lit up at night (Stewartville: The Future is Bright!). I ate walleye and wild rice and discovered that many Minnesotans do talk like the characters in “Fargo”.

We spent a night and half a day in downtown Saint Paul. After breakfast we walked up to the Minnesota State Capitol, another fine palace of democracy. Excepting the gilded horse  sculptures the outside is serious and gray like the December sky, but the inside is spacious and bright with many colorful varieties of polished stone. We also walked to the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a compact domed basilica perched upon a hill overlooking the city core.

On the long, dark drive from Saint Paul to International Falls, we stopped in Virginia at the heart of the Iron Range, for dinner. Northern Minnesota with its forests and mines certainly doesn’t look like Iowa. The most intriguing road sign of the trip was north of Virginia:

EMBARRASS
BABBITT
EXIT 69

I thought it was a message to the former Secretary of the Interior but apparently Embarrass and Babbitt are two little towns off the same exit of U.S. Highway 53.

Because of the dark winter evening we didn’t see much of the North Country until the next morning when we woke up at the lodge just outside Voyageurs National Park to our view of a frozen section of Rainy Lake. A couple of inches fell overnight. It was not enough to ski or snowshoe on, or at least not enough for the park ranger at the visitor center to rent us skis. He did recommend some trails for hiking and told us a little about the bears, wolves, and moose in the park. The bears were asleep for the winter but the wolves and moose were out and I hoped to see some. Lore was glad the bears were asleep and not was as enthusiastic about the wolves and moose. The gray wolves in the park are pretty big (there was a huge stuffed one in the museum exhibit) but the ranger said they stay away from people.

International Falls was cute but didn’t smell so nice. I suppose the massive paper mills on the riverfront were the reason. The supermarket was busy on the Friday of Christmas weekend. The old lady behind us in the express checkout lane eyed our 14 items suspiciously. It’s fair to say we didn’t look like International Falls residents. People kept asking us why we were so bundled up in our hiking fleeces and snow pants as it was unseasonably warm in the high 20s and low 30s. International Falls looks like more of Carhartt town anyway.

The area around International Falls is quite the winter wonderland, though. There were snowmobiles and ice fishing huts and even a couple of ski planes parked on the lake. On some state trails we found plenty of snow to ski on, but since the national park was the only rental game in town we contented ourselves with trampling over the ski tracks with our boots until some old guy chased us off.

Our big day of hiking was along the Blind Ash Bay Trail near Ash River, a trek highly recommended by our ranger. The day started out cold but the sun came out around 10:00 a.m. and stayed out for a few hours. The trail was four miles round trip through conifer forest. Judging by all the tracks in the snow it looked like an animal highway. Right at the trailhead were some canine-looking tracks, the closed thing I saw to a wolf all weekend. The extent to which deer, cats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits shared the trail with humans surprised me. Then again, maybe trails are trails for a reason. One tiny animal’s tracks ended abruptly in a dent in the snow made perhaps by an owl’s underside. We saw some chickadees and red squirrels but otherwise all was very quiet except for some woodpeckers and snowmobiles in the distance on the lake. Our best sighting was a ruffed grouse which crossed our path. It let us get pretty close before we went our separate ways.

The trail ended at Blind Ash Bay, a little cove in Kabetogama Lake. It was completely frozen over and covered with snow but we didn’t venture out onto it. The sun was out in full winter force and the white lake dazzled us as we stood among dried cattails and looked across. We moved uphill to a clearing for a snack, where it was warm but not blinding. We made the two miles back in just over an hour and drove to the next trailhead for our leftovers sandwiches at Beaver Pond Overlook.

When we got back to International Falls, we stopped for some soup to warm up. The waitress, seeing us in our fleece and snow clothes, asked, “Are you on foot?”

“No, we drove here.”

“Oh,” she said, looking perplexed. We explained we were hiking. She pointed out what a nice day it was. She was wearing a tee-shirt.

On Christmas morning we woke up early, exchanged gifts, and then hit the trail again. We parked at the boat ramp near the visitor center and walked across Black Bay. For Lore’s sake I pretended to not be afraid but I’ve never walked across a frozen lake before either. The ranger said it was fine to walk across but there was still a mental barrier to cross. Instead of following the snowmobile tracks we walked the short way straight across to Kabetogama Peninsula and followed the shoreline north to the dock where the hiking trails started. Once on shore we picked up the hiking trail and walked about half a mile to a frozen beaver pond. We sat in the snow overlooking the pond and ate our trail mix and granola bar breakfast with ice-cold water (the food was not the high point of the weekend).

That was it for hiking. We went back (by now old pros at crossing ice) to the lodge for lunch and naps. We kept catching the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS at the same part of the movie where Ralphie beats up Scut Farkus and had to return to it a few times before we saw the whole thing. The staff had deserted the lodge and, as on the trails, we were by ourselves. It was a beautiful and quiet Christmas.

Saint Paul, International Falls, and Voyageurs National Park

Capital City

A large, domed limestone courthouse building.
Polk County Courthouse

We were in Des Moines a couple of weeks ago and had some time to wander around downtown. Sometimes I think Des Moines is what the writers of The Simpsons had in mind when they created Capital City. After five years in Iowa City I feel like hick looking up at the tall Whatever-It’s-Called Building. The streets were weirdly deserted for lunchtime on a Monday. Perhaps many had left early for Thanksgiving, but the streets were really empty. Then I remembered the downtown Skywalk, the system of enclosed overhead walkways that connect buildings in some of the bigger cold-weather cities. We went up and, sure enough, there were the city’s pedestrians.

Deserted city streets around a downtown corporate campus are crossed with covered skywalks.
The deserted streets and skywalks of the Nationwide campus.

Our infrequent trips to Des Moines are always good for a pound of sliced bologna, plus olive paste, homemade pasta, and Italian sausages from Graziano’s. For some reason, deli-sliced Boar’s Head bologna is absent from Iowa City (as are proper delis for that matter).

Giant figure of a crouching man composed of painted steel letters.
I am Nomade. I am perfect.

We also walked down to the newly installed Pappajohn Sculpture Park which has about twenty large outdoor sculptures. Some were good, some were not, some looked like bowel movements. Our favorite was Nomade by Jaume Plensa, a huge crouching figure composed of metal letters which you can walk into.

Colorful downtown office buildings and skyscrapers.
See? Des Moines is all right.

Mendoza and Maipú

My trips to Argentina have been usually confined to the city of Córdoba and its environs. I’ve wanted to see a little more of the country and so we took a side trip to Mendoza, the city at the heart of Argentina’s wine country.

A city seal is diplayed in lights in a plaza at night.
Plaza Independencia is lit up at night.
A tree grows out of a deep open ditch on a city street.
Shade trees grow out of the deep irrigation ditches.

Mendoza is a little smaller than Córdoba and without the big universities the population isn’t quite as youthful. It doesn’t have the elegant churches that you practically trip over in Córdoba. Mendoza does have rather deep open stone-lined gutters—more like trenches—along both sides of each street; you really have to watch where you step so you don’t fall in. The arid region has an extensive irrigation system that supports its agriculture and at first I assumed these ditches were a relic of this old system. I realized later that they are still being used for agriculture: Mendoza’s famously shady streets are lined with London plane trees which grow at orderly intervals out of the ditches.

Students on a field trip gather at a plaza fountain.
Students gather at the fountain in Plaza Independencia.

In addition to shade trees, Mendoza’s centro (downtown) is filled with tidy plazas, including the massive Plaza Independencia and the spectacularly tiled Plaza España. West of downtown is Parque General San Martín, a massive Central Park-like place we wandered around in common cold-induced stupor during our second day in the city. The park has some quiet sunny meadows which, when you’re sick and checked out of your hotel room and have eleven hours to wait for your flight out of town, are excellent for time-wasting naps.

A women rides a bicycle on a tree-lined country road.
We road our bikes along Calle Urquiza in Maipú.

But while still healthy on our first day in Mendoza, we took a city bus just out of town to Maipú, home to a number of wineries and olive oil factories. In Maipú you can rent a bicycle and tour the various bodegas (wine cellars). The terrain is very flat and the town even has a ciclovia (bicycle lane) through the main part of town. South of town the ciclovia disappeared but the scenery was delightful: a shady rural road that passed by vineyards and olive groves. The irrigation ditches flowed with water. We rode out to the edge of town (about 12 kilometers) to Laur, an olivicola (olive plantation and factory).

The museum displayed antique olive presses.

A tour of the facilities included a visit to the trees, the factory, and a museum with a collection of antique presses. The tour was in Spanish, but the guide spoke very clearly so I was able to practice listening. With great concentration I can understand Spanish well enough; my main challenge was tuning out a small group of Americans in which one of the women was providing an English translation.

A shallow pit marks a vacant space among a row of olive trees.
The rows of olive trees were just starting to bud.

I learned that olive trees live for a thousand years but these lazy plants only produce olives for about four hundred years. Each tree produces about twelve liters of oil each year. If I had to guess I’d say that Lore and I go through no more than two to three liters per year, earning us a small minority share of one dusty green olive tree on a farm like this somewhere.

A row of barrels marked with different labels of wine at a vineyard.
Wine barrels with the bodega’s different labels were lined up outside.

After sampling some finger foods prepared with the house aceite de oliva (olive oil), we crossed the street to Carinae, the neighboring constellation-themed winery. We found a couple of Americans from the olive oil tour ready to begin a tasting. The guide spoke excellent English; more impressive was her command of wine jargon which is like its own little dialect.

Before we began the tasting, the guide asked us where we were from, a classic tour guide ice-breaker I have come to dislike and have discarded from own professional methods. It’s never a simple answer with us, Lore is from Córdoba and I am from New York but I prefer to just say that we live in Iowa whereas Lore prefers to relate our respective origins.

One of the American women said, “But you are not from Iowa. I can tell you are from New York.” Back home I make a regular practice of ignoring as many of my compatriots as is practical, and I would have been pleased to continue that routine 9,000 miles away from home. But the guide was surprised and intrigued and wondered how the lady had known that even though I had barely said anything. I didn’t comment (and didn’t care to, though I later suggested to Lore it probably was because I was wearing a rain jacket in the desert—”New Yorkers always come prepared,” an amusement park clown in Florida told my raincoat-clad family while making small talk with us on another vacation twenty years ago). The American lady, who was from San Diego, and had probably seen slicker-wearing New Yorkers jostling their way across her own rainless homeland, added that I probably stood out in Iowa too. I replied that I didn’t think so. This lady was the second person I’ve met on a trip abroad who was both from San Diego and intent on needless gum-flapping (the other was a blowhard in a London bed-and-breakfast about ten years ago who informed me about post-September 11 conditions in New York City).

Stacks of wine barrels in a cool, dark, concrete room.
The bodega had an above-ground wine cellar.

Anyway, we tasted a couple of Malbecs, a Torrontés, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Syrah. I’m not a discerning wine-drinker; they were all very good. The guide then took us on a short tour of the bodega, switching to Spanish for my educational benefit since the Americans skipped the tour. They label each bottle by using a little hand-operated machine.

We wound up the afternoon with a pleasant ride back to the bike rental. The sky was still overcast and cool but the sun came out enough to make the shady country road appealing.

Argentina, 2011

Iowa City, occupied and otherwise