All 50!

Welcome to Idaho

photo: pixabay, creative commons license

A highlight of our recent Yellowstone trip was the detour we took into eastern Idaho. I was excited because Idaho was my 50th state! Given the number of stickers plastered on the welcome sign, Idaho must be a notable destination for people from a lot of places!

When we stopped the rental van near “Welcome to Idaho,” I hopped right out to stroll back to the sign. That gave my six family members time to prepare a surprise. They slipped off their overshirts to reveal Idaho-themed T-shirts underneath. As we gathered for pictures, they gave me the ball cap below, a saucer-sized “All 50!” refrigerator magnet, and membership in the All Fifty States Club, signed by President Alicia C. Rovey. It’s hard to say which of us was most excited! Me, the family, or my new friend Alicia!

all 50 ball cap

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

I mentioned this forthcoming accomplishment to the watercolor instructor at the Old Faithful Inn. Turned out she’s been to all 50 states too. Her 50th was North Dakota. Apparently North Dakota is the last state for a lot of people (we can guess why), and the locals make a big deal of it—pictures, T-shirts, the whole deal. I suggested I get my cup of coffee free at the café in Driggs, Idaho, but no. Besides full-price coffee, the town also is home to the Teton Valley Historical Museum, a great lunch spot, and a lovely shop selling local artists’ work.

Michael Pollan’s fascinating book, The Botany of Desire, describes how the obsession with certain crops—apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes (to which list I would add tomatoes)—has from time to time created agricultural craziness. Pollan had convinced me that Americans’ love affair with the french fry had turned much of Idaho into an over-farmed, over-fertilized, and over-pesticided moonscape. Around Driggs, however, the farm fields, rolling terrain, and distant mountains were beautiful. Still, for lunch, I ordered a salad. Just another beautiful spot in the fifty!

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.

The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.

The Cheese Course

Cheese pairings

Recently, I took a local class on cheese appreciation. Great, something where I already have skills! Having a husband from Wisconsin, how could I not be? Look up Olsson’s Fine Foods online and you’ll find that the owner, Dutchman Rudie Smit, teaches numerous cheese appreciation and cheese-making classes. He’s a fount of knowledge and lot of fun. Highly recommended.

Our small group of enthusiasts learned the history of cheese—which became popular in part because the originating people from the Tigris-Euphrates area were lactose-intolerant, and cheese is easier to digest than plain milk—why certain cheeses are the way they are, how to pair them with wine or with sweet and savory accompaniments, and how to design an appealing cheese plate. This came in very handy over the holidays, when I inflicted elaborate cheese plates on a succession of dinner parties.

But who would have thought the class would provide inspiration for my crime-writing? Such as:

  • What really happened up when Pietr was alone up at the mountain hut, supposedly making the cheese?
  • Did Lady Fauxpas seal her fate when she insisted blue cheese be served with the bottle of fine champagne?
  • Where was the characteristic tweed pattern on the rind of the “manchego” that poisoned G. Lutton?

You see the possibilities. Say cheese!

La La Land

traffic, Los AngelesEnvision nine days in Los Angeles Thanksgiving week. Is this what you see? This terrifying photo’s  from 2016, and I’m happy to say it wasn’t that bad this past week. With GoogleMaps directions, we survived. Most days, we got around pretty well. No dents in the rental car. No need to reenact “Another Day of Sun” from the hit movie La La Land. Are you curious how they turned a traffic jam into a musical extravaganza? Watch how they did it!

We stayed downtown at the Hilton Checkers, which was close to great restaurants and other walkable destinations—practically straight uphill to the cultural attractions at The Music Center and Center Theatre Group though. For that, we used Lyft.

It’s a 188-room boutique hotel, with a Spanish-style façade, designed in the 1920s by Charles Whittlesey, who designed the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. Online sources differ regarding the origin of the name—the staff didn’t know—with some saying it’s named after Chequers, the traditional country retreat of the UK Prime Minister. “Richard Nixon’s dog” gets my vote.

To ease into a different time zone, our first night we ate dinner in the hotel. Given that there were only about three tables of diners, and despite our modest expectations, the food was amazingly good. If we hadn’t had so many other cuisine choices and logistical considerations, we would gladly have eaten there again. Staff was terrific.

Friends who stayed at the Checkers a few years ago report a beautiful rooftop pool. The Internet has pictures of it. We were there nine days and never saw or heard a thing about it. It may be gone or out of season.

Related travel tips:

coffee mug, traffic

My favorite museum gift shop coffee mug.

Now THAT’s devotion!

Big Thanks for Small Blessings

Turkeys

photo: Paul VanDerWerf, creative commons license

“Family and friends” people say when asked what they are most thankful for. I agree, though as a run-up to Thanksgiving I’ve been thinking about the small things that warm my heart. Here are five:

  • Our local farmer’s market, considered the best in New Jersey (which is, after all, “The Garden State”) has added immeasurably to our family’s quality of life
  • The color blue—not just any shade, the blue of mysotis and morning glories. This will come as a surprise to everyone who knows my favorite color is green. I am not alone:
  • The fish and frogs who call my pond home. Not the snakes.
  • The folks who’ve come up with new taglines for the news media “Democracy Dies in Darkness” (Washington Post); “Stand with the Facts” (NPR).
  • The Oxford comma and other grammar rules and conventions that help bring order to the words I put on the page.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Travel Tip: Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Cuyahoga VNP

photo: Cuyahoga jco, creative commons license

If what springs to mind when you hear “Cuyahoga River” are the images from 1969 when the highly polluted waterway actually burned, the long, narrow Cuyahoga Valley National Park will be a more than pleasant surprise. Not only did the infamous fire prompt environmental legislation that led to a desperately needed clean-up of rivers nationwide, it got some folks thinking about the positive aspects of the river and the beauty of the valley through which it flows. Once nearly barren of fish and wildlife, it’s now a thriving habitat.

I’m told the word Cuyahoga comes from a Mohawk Indian word for “crooked,” and this river does indeed twist and turn repeatedly on its 85-mile journey, first southward, then north, eventually emptying into Lake Erie in the city of Cleveland. The Indians would make the eight-mile portage from the Cuyahoga to the Tuscarawas River for access to the Ohio, then the Mississippi and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brandywine Falls, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: David Fulmer, creative commons license

What To Do There

As Europeans settled the area, the Cuyahoga become the waterway that enabled construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal between industrial Cleveland and tire-manufacturing mecca Akron. The meticulously maintained canal towpath is now a centerpiece of the park’s offerings, well traveled by walkers and bicyclists.

Also nestled in the valley is a historic train line, which runs the length of the park. From the train, you can not only appreciate the surrounding woodlands and adjacent villages, so removed from urban bustle, but you also may view wildlife. Passengers on our trip saw hawks, a young eagle, turtles, deer, and the tourists swarming the bicycle rental shop in the tiny town of Peninsula.

The Park has nearly 125 miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty for hikers, skiers, and horseback riders, camping options (we stayed at a ritzy B&B), canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, and lovely Brandywine Falls (pictured). We visited a huge marsh created when beavers were introduced into an area that was the former site of an auto salvage lot. A green heron visited when we did.

covered bridge. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

photo: Tim Evanson, creative commons license

Villages incorporated in the park harbor interesting features: a covered bridge (closed in the evening for clog-dancing), huge farmer’s market, canal locks, a ski resort, golfing, nature education centers, canal history, and the famous Blossom Music Center concert venue. So near to major cities, on weekdays at least, it’s a true getaway for all seasons.

 

Distances:
Planning on a visit of a day or two or just a stopover when driving through, here’s how close you are when you’re in Cleveland: 24 miles, 36 minutes or
Pittsburgh: 123 miles, two hours.

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng – beautifully written novel about the unexplainable death of a teenager
  • All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House by David Giffels – a young family’s trials when reclaiming a rubber-baron’s elegant Akron mansion from the forces of nature (rain, critters, wisteria)
  • Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner – a novel about social class, city movers and shakers, and the Cuyahoga River—“funny, tough, elegiac”
  • The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case by James Neff – the real-life 1954 murder case that made F. Lee Bailey famous

Road Trip: Paterson, New Jersey

Paterson NJ

photo: Tony Fischer, creative commons license

Inspired by the recent charming Jim Jarmusch film Paterson about a city bus driver/poet played by Adam Driver, we drove up there one recent Sunday to take in the sights and cultural offerings.

Paterson’s Great Falls, which drop some two million gallons of Passaic River water a day are about a tenth the height of our sentimental favorite Niagara, but nonetheless quite lovely. If all goes as planned, the area around the falls, now a National Historical Park, will become a full-fledged national park with expanding historical attractions over the next few years.

Alexander Hamilton founded the city. When shown the falls the first time, he was asked what he thought of them. He didn’t say, “lovely,” or “nice view,” he said “power.” (In recognition of the city’s founder, the score to the musical Hamilton plays in the visitor center.) And he was so right.

As in Niagara, a portion of the river’s flow is diverted to power a hydroelectric plant. The power generated by  the falls brought Paterson to prominence as the first planned industrial settlement in the nation and enabled development of its textile, locomotive production, paper, machine tool, and other industries. Many of those brick factories still stand, prime loft-conversion properties. The National Park Service offers guided tours of the falls area, and our good-humored, lively guide (who coincidentally grew up in Paterson) was a gem.

Eventually I hope the Park Service offers tours of Hinchliffe Stadium, home of the Negro Baseball League’s New York Black Yankees, among other teams. The stadium has been preserved as part of the park.

Lambert Castle - Ken Lund

photo (cropped): Ken Lund, creative commons license

The local museums were of considerably less interest, though we enjoyed a trip to Lambert Castle in the Garret Mountain Reservation, home of the Passaic County Historical Society. This little castle was built in the late 1800s by a prominent Paterson silk mill owner and once displayed the owner’s extensive art collection. The house itself was interesting, and has fantastic views of the New York City skyline, but we’d timed our visit to hear a concert by an extraordinary Ukranian pianist, Sophia Agranovich. Hearing her challenging selections played in the castle’s music room, while seated in the three-story atrium where the sound could swell, was a memorable experience.

Finally, we partook of Paterson’s well known multicultural scene, with dinner at a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant (reportedly the best in the state), Al-Basha, 1076 Main Street. Order the Mazzah appetizer platter!

To Read While Strolling: