Baseball reason

It’s been raining all weekend, which means spring is almost here and also baseball. And for that reason I was thinking about this: back in the late eighties, the Yankees radio announcers were a bunch of Greatest Generation-aged meathead ex-athletes. They included the beloved Phil Rizzuto and some other lesser personalities. They knew a lot about baseball and very little about anything else.

For example, once they were talking about a letter they received from a fan, who told them that because the baseball field was a “diamond,” the distance between the bases couldn’t have been exactly 90 feet, but some number fractionally short of that. The announcers spent at least half an inning trying to figure it out, probably only dropping it after their producer, or somebody else with at least a fourth grade education, told them they were being put on.

Another time they were talking about a new player for the Toronto Blue Jays, Cecil Fielder. They noted that he pronounced his name SEH-sil, rather than SEE-sil, as in the well-known Cecil Cooper of the Milwaukee Brewers. They reasoned that north of the border, Canadians said SEH-sil and south of it Americans said SEE-sil.

I mention this because I consider it the only downside to baseball season: a multi-billion dollar sport played by, run by, and announced by complete idiots.

Biker face

I was at the supermarket this morning. In one of the check-out lines was a heavy-set, denim-clad, bearded, middle-aged man who looked like he should have a Harley-Davidson permanently welded to his butt. Maybe I’m just stereotyping but, oh yeah, he had tattoos and studs all over his face. The face tattoos definitely said, “I’m not just some CPA with a weekend motorcycle hobby, I’m a genuine bad-ass” yet he seemed kind of pathetic waiting patiently for some shop clerk to ring up a box of Lean Cuisine or whatever like the rest of us squares. I mean, if I was a tattoo-faced hard-ass bike gangster, I would drive through the supermarket on my hog, grab a 32-ounce can of Manwich and leave, and then maybe, if I was feeling generous, I’d come later to pay with fistful of bills from my next armored car hijacking. Otherwise, what’s the point of the face tattoos?

The world according to the airport gift shop

During layovers I make a little game of learning about a place only from what I see in its airport gift shops. It shows me more of a caricature of the place, but I wonder, a caricature from whose point of view? Is the caricature drawn by the travelers or the locals? In other words, do the Chileans want to sell us penguin and moai chotchkies or is that just how we want to think of them?

A moai model stands guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in an airport gift shop.
A moai model stood guard over shelves of stuffed penguins and flamingos in one of the airport gift shops.
An airport gift shop displays copper yerba mate tea sets in its window.
The airport gift shop also displayed copper mates in its window.

2001

Whenever I want to remember what the year 2001 was like, I pop 2001: A Space Odyssey into the DVD player. That year, the worst thing that happened to us was some mysterious aliens gave us the creepy-baby treatment. At least we kept it secret from those Soviets. I really should have gone on vacation to the moon that year instead of New Mexico.

Baseball witchcraft

I hate to keep harping on Ichiro Suzuki, as I happen to admire his abilities and think very highly of his achievements. But I see Joe Girardi had him batting leadoff today. Which I think says more about Girardi’s limited tactical abilities as a manager than about Suzuki’s limited on-base percentage.

The leadoff hitter will get the most plate appearances in the course of the season, so he should be the best at getting on base (I think Alex Rodriguez would make a good leadoff hitter— he would hit more home runs, he can run around the bases really fast, and everybody is afraid to pitch to him anyway so he walks a lot). Suzuki, in his prime when he was hitting .360, used to fit the bill perfectly. But he doesn’t draw many bases on balls, so when he’s hitting .260 like he is now, he doesn’t get on base very often. He does not belong in the leadoff spot any more.

Then again, baseball managers are infamous for employing hocus-pocus that masquerades as savvy. They seem to be at war with the laws of economics: six-man starting rotations and bloated bullpens means paying more pitchers to pitch less. Only a monopolistic industry run by meatheads (Major League Baseball) can get away with such inefficiency.

The supposedly brilliant Tony La Russa has been known to bat his pitchers eighth in the lineup, and a better hitter ninth. The reasoning is that there are likely to be more base runners ahead of the better hitters at the top of the lineup. To quote an article about Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who copied the tactic in a game this year:

It gives us a couple of leadoff guys, a couple of speed guys back-to-back. I know Tony did it.

Except that, after the first inning, the “leadoff guy” for each subsequent inning is pretty much random (or at least it depends on the performance and disposition of the other batters in the lineup), with the batters at the top of the lineup having a greater probability of another plate appearance. If a batter is good at getting on base (a “leadoff guy”), then he should be in the lineup position most likely to allow him lead off an inning (maybe four or five plate appearances in a typical game versus three or four). Conversely, the worst hitter in the lineup (usually the pitcher) has a greater chance of coming to bat in any lineup position other than ninth. It stands to reason that with this kind of lineup the team is less likely to have runners on base for the good hitters to drive in.

Priorities

Driving around Iowa City on a weekend evening is a good way to see the “stoonts” in action. A young man and his voluptuous blonde girlfriend approached an intersection. The male, full of piss and vinegar in the manner of youth, sprinted across the street to beat the oncoming cars, leaving his more sensible female companion stranded alone on the opposite corner.

Run toward the boobies, young man, not away from them!

The graveyard of democracy

Our last sight to see in New York was the National September 11 Memorial, a short walk from our hotel. Once I was there I felt l had already seen all I needed from our 24th floor hotel room window.

If there is a real monument to the terrorist attacks it is at the security control. Our tickets were looked at, scanned, and marked at three separate checkpoints. We had to empty our pockets and take off our belts (shoes could stay on). Officious volunteers ordered us to “move up, use every available space” even though there were 100 yards or more of emptiness through the rope maze behind us. At one juncture in this march, instead of  following the person in front of us to the left we had to turn right into an empty space and buttonhook around to the left. I have no idea why. In other words: the usual ritual humiliation we’ve come to expect when traveling or visiting other landmarks or other exercises in liberty. I wonder if this was lost on the memorial’s boosters.

The memorial comprises a plaza, an unfinished museum, and two giant square drains in the footprints of the old twin towers. Names of the dead victims are engraved into the parapets. The bottoms of the drains are not visible from ground level. I understood the intent of the giant drains: placid sheets of water falling off dramatically into a deep void evoked sudden calamity and great loss. But memorializing the footprints of the two great towers as if they are sacred ground annoyed me. Look up from the memorial into any building now casting shadow onto it: soon it will be filled with people selling hedge funds or credit default swaps or performing other morally ambiguous duties. Around the footprints of the towers, where some may have leaped to their deaths or were otherwise snuffed out by the buildings’ collapse, is now just a pavement plaza trampled by us gawkers.

Trying to turn a financial center into hallowed space is simply a tasteless idea. Unlike a preserved battlefield we can learn nothing about the terrorist attacks by the present condition of the land, expect perhaps that we were so cowed by them that the memorial now lays beyond a phalanx of magnetometers and x-ray machines. The addition of the victims names to the memorial did nothing to humanize the place. The approach, which may have been novel and effective at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, totally fails to connect me with the dead. In the temporary museum nearby, a dusty wallet recovered from the wreckage and displayed in a lucite cube did much more for me emotionally.

The disconnect I felt came from the proximity in time of the memorial’s design and construction to the event itself. Most Civil War monuments, for example, were erected a generation or two later to rally citizens around other national challenges and to remind new generations of the old hardships as those who knew them first-hand died off. Most Americans saw the attacks on television, live and then in repeats for months and years afterwards. We think about September 11. 2001 every time a soldier gets killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or every time we partially disrobe before flying off to spend Thanksgiving with our families. So are we collectively needy of a memorial? Who does it serve? Isn’t it an expensive guilt trip foisted on us by a small group of extroverted mourners? Can’t I feel the national injury without also sharing in another family’s loss?

The memorial’s excess of sentimentality and its vacuum of meaning made me emotional for the wrong reasons and angry at the wrong people. Visiting the place felt like having our national dignity sucked into a pit of despair. I can’t believe this colossal public grief project has held us up for ten years from putting the World Trade Center back together. Getting the place back to normal quickly would have been the real monument to liberty and democracy.

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.

Long Island whats?

Having joined a fantasy baseball league, I am struggling to come up with a suitable name for my team. I want to go with something Long Island-themed, like the “Terminal Moraines”. That’s how I came up with the domain name for this website after much ruminating many years ago.

Let’s begin with a quick review of Long Island professional sports team names, past and present:

  • New York Islanders. Too literal, sort of like calling a city team the New York Citizens.
  • New York Nets. Now the New Jersey Nets, the name is so totally inappropriate for baseball.
  • Long Island Ducks. Cute—I like ducks—but overused since it was used in the past by a minor league hockey team and is now in use by a minor league baseball team.
  • New York Arrows. They were a soccer team in the old MISL. I have no idea why they were called that.
  • Long Island Rough Riders. This is the present professional soccer club on Long Island. They are Theodore Roosevelt-themed, which I like (he was the only Long Island president), though the Rough Riders had little to do with Long Island itself.
  • Long Island Lizards. The professional lacrosse team (remember this is New York) is named after lizards? In my entire childhood on the island I never saw a lizard or even heard of one living there.

So what to do? For starters, ethnic mascots are out, so exit the Long Island Shinnecocks, Unkechaugs, or Guidos. But as you can see, it is not easy to come up with a team name for Long Island. It lacks charismatic megafauna and fossils. Most of its interesting natural features are glaciological (i.e. terminal moraines) or are unintimidating marine animals and phenomena that suggest only the following:

  • Littoral Drift, which describes the formation and reformation of barrier islands by along-shore ocean currents.
  • Limuli, from Limulus polyphemus, scientific name of the horseshoe crab, one of my favorite animals.
  • Wampum. You can’t walk along a beach on Long Island without the finding purple and white quahog clam shells bits once used by the Indians to make ceremonial currency. Wampum is pretty inert and uninspiring.
  • Quahogs. Along the same lines as above, but it has unfortunate associations with “The Family Guy”.
  • Pine Barrens. The Long Island pines sure are an interesting biome, but how would the logo distinguish pine barrens from pine anything else? Maybe a flaming pine tree?
  • Lloyd Aquifer. A gold star for you if you even know what it is.
  • Nor’easters. That might be a good one (or the “Glorias”).

Long Island also has little in the way of nationally familiar landmarks, historical events, or cultural contributions. The Montauk Lighthouse (after which the local microbrew Montauk Light takes its name) is popular among Long Islanders but is not well known elsewhere. The island’s military history is inauspicious: the Battle of Long Island was rout of the Continental Army at Brooklyn Heights (the “Evacuators”?) and the landing of German saboteurs by submarine is not exactly a point of pride (the “Infiltrators”?). And I’ll pre-empt the Billy Joel references right now, so no Long Island Piano Men or Uptown Girls.

The “Long Island Baymen” is in use by an amateur baseball team in Lake Ronkonkoma (Ooh! “The Bottomless Lakers”!). A local term for near-shore fisherman and clammers, “Baymen” has regional charm and working class connotations but could be denounced by radical feminists are “promoting traditional white patriarchy” (something I heard about my college’s mascot once). And I don’t think the “Baypersons” would cut it. What about:

  • Snapples? Nah.
  • Roast Ducklings? Iced Tea? Maybe for a chuckle.
  • Buttafuocos? I’ll throw that one out with the other ethnic stereotypes. And harem pants aren’t easy to play ball in.
  • Gold Coast, or even better, Gatsbys? Both are dated and each are respectively elitist and tragic.

Long Island is associated with some high-tech achievements in physics, genetics, and aerospace:

  • Heavy Ion Colliders. Pretty esoteric physics stuff goes on at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and from a shadowy federal department to boot.
  • Double Helices. That at least won someone a Nobel Prize, but Cold Spring Harbor Lab was also waist deep into eugenics at one time.
  • F-14 Tomcats or Lunar Excursion Modules. Unfortunately Grumman left Long Island a long time ago.
But now I think we’re getting a little obtuse. Maybe I’ll just go with the “Eagles”. Blah.

A cheesy state somewhere between Massachusetts and New York

A visitor from Kansas commented that Wisconsin is not in the Midwest. It’s in the Northeast, she said.

I accept that everything is relative, that Wisconsin is northeast of Kansas, and that an equitable quartering of the coterminous states might make it part of “the Northeast”, but I have never heard it referred to as so in common usage. Being from the actual Northeast I assert that Wisconsin is certainly not a part of it.

From O to Zinn

I’m about halfway through “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn but at breakfast this morning I set it aside in favor of the back of the Cheerios box. It turns out that General Mills put its high-minded marketing strategies of promoting child literacy and cardiac health on hiatus in favor of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3-D” merchandising. Instead of a bilingual children’s book inside, this box offered a cheap plastic pen in the shape of begoggled pod-racing eight year-old Anakin Skywalker. It was right on top, too. I didn’t have to open the liner bag or dig through puffed O’s of oat dust or do anything to get to it. I felt like I was acting out a little skit about degenerate corporate commercialism right there at my breakfast table while Howard Zinn peered at me smugly from the cover of his book.

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.

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.

September 11

On September 12, 2002 I was still living in New York. The previous day had been very tense. Staten Islanders, already a prickly bunch, were more on edge than usual. There was even more of the road rage, profanity, and other unpleasantries that regulated Staten Island life. In a busy Chinese take-out customers and staff shouted at each other in anger when they usually just shouted because that was how people communicated on Staten Island.

The cause of all this tension was the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The attacks had of course been for a whole year a daily subject of news, conversation, and reflection in New York but the anniversary ratcheted up the frequency and the emotion. The news outlets ran the obligatory remembrances (and there was no shortage of poignancy). But it was like having a big birthday bash when you’ve celebrated your birthday each day all year. It was a little too much for everyone.

Or at least it was a little too much for me. On the morning of September 12, 2002, I sought a return to normalcy in my daily ritual of listening to the morning news but heard yet another stream of stories of victimhood. Maybe it was the stuff that didn’t fit into the previous weeks of programming. At that exact moment I realized that I was ready to move on. I shut off the radio.

I once actually dared to hope that something good might come of that horrible day of September 11, 2001. Like maybe we would reappraise this country’s giant footprint on the rest of the planet which creates these horrible enemies. Maybe we would reevaluate our petty consumer desires and discover what was really important about being the leading citizens of the world. That opportunity for self-reflection was lost to self-justifying jingoism and September 11 became the rationalization for all sorts of American ugliness. I won’t list all my gripes but I’ll give one example:

Our nation’s insatiable security regime has managed to do one thing terrorists were never able to: make me not want to fly in an airplane. I did more flying in the several years after the attacks than I had in my whole life before them. In fact I got on a plane later that very same month for a scheduled vacation (tickets purchased September 10, 2001).

Now I’m just sick of it. It’s not the inconveniences that bother me—those were always part of the travel package—it’s the idea that we’ve let a handful of bearded maniacs prompt the ritual of serial humiliations that is air travel. Last year it was getting scanned with x-ray vision and this year it’s answering questions meant to check if we’re nervous about blowing up the plane. Our government had all the tools it needed in 2001 to stop those savages from flying those jets into those buildings; in the end it happened because responsible people didn’t do their jobs. So if there’s something that makes me hate those animals more and more as time passes it’s that they’ve got us playing their game: living in fear of their next move.

I haven’t changed my mind since I snapped off the radio one year and one day after September 11, 2001. I am not interested in reliving that day. It was not a good one for me or anyone else I know and now that I’ve pegged the exact moment of our national decline to it I want to remember it even less. I am not up for another prolonged national catharsis through our news media. It stunts the process of grieving and healing. If I had lost someone that day, I hope that ten years on I’d have been able to find new love, focus on my surviving family and friends, and renew my purpose for living. I wish the same for our country.

Boyhood home of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was the president of my childhood. I remember him mostly as an object of ridicule and fun, though his admirers have made him more of a caricature than any cartoonist by distorting his legacy and conveniently forgetting his more temperate actions.

A white two story frame house with a porch and grass lawn.
Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home on Hennepin Street

After driving past Dixon, Illinois, his boyhood home, several times in the last couple of years, we found some time to visit the house on Hennepin Street where he lived during his preteen years. The house is owned an operated by a local private foundation. It’s in very good condition. There’s a short video in the visitor center about his childhood in Dixon and his return as president to visit the restored home.

A simply furnished boys bedroom with a wood dresser and college pennants.
Ronald Reagan’s bedroom in his boyhood home

The house is not large and tour was nice and short. Photographs are allowed (“Take all the photos you want,” one of the volunteers said with a wave of her hand). The Reagans were renters and the house on Hennepin Street was one of several they rented in Dixon.

An American flag flies against a blue sky behind a bronze horseback sculpture.
Begins the Trail horseback sculpture of Ronald Reagan on the Dixon riverfront

Neither the video nor the tour related the house or Reagan’s childhood to his politics or his presidency, but an new statue on Dixon’s waterfront does. Titled Begins the Trail, it offers a twist on the horseback statue. Reagan was of course not a mounted general like Andrew Jackson, but he did once march in a local parade on his horse.

Reagan’s birthplace is in Tampico, not far from Dixon. We’ll go there another time.

The inchworm

A green caterpillar crawls along the rim of a blue glass bottle.
The inchworm was forever condemned to circle the bottle rim until I saved it.

Even more exciting than seeing American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago was waiting for lunch, which we took in the museum’s courtyard cafe. There was an empty blue glass bottles on each table to hold down the paper menus. On our bottle was a little green inchworm marching in circles along the rim of the bottle. Every couple of revolutions, it would venture down the threading, only to find smooth, unclimbable glass below. And so it would return to the rim and continue its circumambulation. It occurred to me that if the inchworm was nearsighted enough, it might never know it was moving in a circle and would be condemned to wandering around that bottle until it died from exhaustion. Even after I brought the bottle to a nearby yew to shake the caterpillar off it was still reluctant to let go, so I liberated the little booger-like creature with a flick of my finger.