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.

coffee mug, trafficBack to the traffic issue for a moment. Here’s 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:

The CIA: A Commitment to Illusion

lipstick, makeup

photo: Maria Morri, creative commons license

This week The Cipher Brief offered an inside look at one of the more arcane activities of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) through an interview with Jonna Mendez, who worked as the OTS Chief of Disguise, retiring in 1993.

Although she began as a secretary with the Agency, when she took some photography lessons from the OTS, a new career was born. At that time, she was the only woman on the technical side at the Agency, and her first role was as a clandestine photographer. “I had cameras in lipsticks. I had them in key fobs. I’d put a camera in just about anything,” she said. When she started in the OTS, it was creating much of its hardware, like hidden cameras, but today it can buy a lot of what it needs off-the-shelf and upgrade from there.

Mendez later worked in the disguise unit, with the goal of enabling officers “to instantly change the way they looked.” Initially, the staff learned the art and tricks of making masks from the experts in Hollywood and, again, adapted them to CIA requirements. They also worked with Hollywood magicians to deconstruct the sleight-of-hand and distraction methods they use “to consistently and successfully deceive you.” (Read several startlingly entertaining anecdotes about the power of these illusion and distraction tools here.)

The office created a mask for Mendez, in which she “became about 15 years younger, much prettier, with a fabulous hairdo.” Wearing the mask, she met President George H.W. Bush and a group of high administration officials in the Oval Office. The mask was so realistic, no one realized she was wearing one, and she said they were shocked when she took it off.

When agents were given a mask or a disguise, they might initially be reluctant to wear it—“You don’t meet many men who want to put on a wig”—but they’d send them out into the community where they’d learn no one noticed, and they’d seat them near their colleagues in the cafeteria where they’d see no one recognized them. That usually convinced them, Mendez said.

Of course, being in a foreign environment and blending involves more than appearance. She’d teach agents the characteristic behavior of people in the places where they would be operating and what behavior to watch for and mimic.

Jonna is married to Tony Mendez, the CIA’s exfiltration expert who masterminded the escape of six American diplomats from Tehran in 1980, portrayed by Ben Affleck in the movie Argo. Their 2003 books about espionage in the waning days of the Cold War is Spy Dust. Tony’s book about his experiences, The Master of Disguise, contains the episode turned into Argo. You can order them with the affiliate links below.

White America’s Fears Have Deep Roots

Jane McCrea, Indians

The Death of Jane McCrea, by John Vanderlyn (1804)

Corrosive racial fears got a strong start in early American history, according to historian Robert G. Parkinson in a recent talk at the David Library of the American Revolution. While today we may think abstract concepts like “liberty” and “patriotism” motivated colonists to go to war with Britain, Parkinson suggested something quite different in his new book: The Common Cause.

The founding fathers faced two almost insurmountable tasks: uniting the colonists and persuading them the British were a deadly enemy. Many fault lines weakened the prospects for union: North versus South, Tories versus colonials, religious differences, city dwellers versus frontiersmen. Almost half of colonials themselves were English or Welsh. The redcoats were their soldiers, George III was their king. Getting them to unite and take up arms would require a powerful threat.

The Set-Up

The war planners set about inventing one: savage Indians and rebellious slaves. While most students of the Declaration of Independence focus on Jefferson’s stirring opening paragraphs and skip to the end, the Declaration also lays out a long list of grievances against the King, ending with:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

Only a strong union, with people working in common cause, could protect against these supposed dangers. Parkinson’s research in colonial newspapers reveals a deliberate and ongoing campaign to exaggerate Indian atrocities, publicize the risk of slave rebellion, and paint the British as ruthlessly allying with these “uncivilized” forces.

He points for example to coverage of the murder of Jane McCrea, murdered by Indians in Upstate New York. McCrea’s death was reported in lurid, if not always accurate, detail in every single colonial newspaper (and was one of the inspirations for James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans). Only two other news stories—the announcement of the Declaration of Independence and “the shot heard ʼround the world” opening the Revolutionary War—were so universally covered; even the victory at Yorktown, which ended the war, received less media attention, said Parkinson.

A Lasting Legacy of Fear

So deep was the colonials’ fear of the Indians that thirty-five years later, in the War of 1812, outnumbered British troops could still make American forces retreat in disarray by mimicking Indian war cries. The legacy from this dark side of the American Revolution—the fear of white citizens’ order becoming unraveled as Chris Hayes describes it in his new book—continues to plague our country today, sparking the Black Lives Matter movement on one hand and anti-immigration sentiment on the other.

If you’re not familiar with the David Library, it’s a gem, located on the fringes of Washington Crossing Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a boon to my genealogy club, and the host for many prestigious scholars speaking about the Colonial era, the Revolutionary War, and U.S. history 1750 to 1800.

More Arizona Travel Tips

Next time you saddle up for Scottsdale or Sedona, these tips are for you!

Western Spirit: Museum of the West

Scottsdale, Southwest, purse

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Scottsdale’s two-year-old Museum of the West houses a changing array of artwork, artifacts and memorabilia related to the history and culture of the Southwest. Only two exhibits are permanent: a recreated town street, with the kinds of stuff people needed in the Old West (guns and gambling equipment) and a display of remarkable Indian pottery, in the works.

The special exhibits when I visited included paintings by the Taos Society of Artists and a fantastic collection of fancy saddles, spurs, and other cowboy paraphernalia.

The museum has an enclosed sculpture courtyard, whose walls evoke basket-weaving and the state’s copper-mining history and a nice shop where I bought this handbag.

The museum is in Old Town Scottsdale (3830 North Marshall Way), close to everybody’s favorite 1950s pink palace for desserts, The Sugar Bowl.

McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park

Got the kids? Just a mile or two up Scottsdale Road, this Railroad Park may be the perfect  blowing-off-steam spot after a museum visit and sugar high. The 30-acre park includes playgrounds, a mini-trainride around the property, classic carousel, and loads of fun exhibits. You can tour the actual Presidential Pullman cars used by Presidents Hoover, FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, which are nothing at all like Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor accommodations, believe me. The museum also boasts a 10,000-square-foot model train exhibit. There’s lots of room to run around, picnic facilities, summer concerts, and snacks too.

Scottsdale Railroad Park

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Especially noteworthy is the train car emblazoned with coats-of-arms of regions of France. After World War II, the United States sent France a 250-car train packed with donated relief supplies. The following year, the French people reciprocated with the “thank you” (“Merci”) train, which had 49 railway cars like this one. The French people had nothing to spare, yet “generously gave what was most dear to their hearts”—toys, war medals, wedding dresses, musical instruments, handmade lace, and much, much more.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument, Sedona, Indian

photo: Alan English CPA, creative commons license

The National Park Service pairs this set of ruins, located north of Phoenix near Sedona, with Montezuma’s Castle. The two make an interesting contrast. The Castle (not visited) is a Sinaguan dwelling nestled in a high cliff, whereas Tuzigoot pueblo is located atop a hill with a fantastic 360-degree view of the Verde Valley.

At one time, Tuzigoot was a settlement of some two hundred people near the tree-lined Verde River. (There’s a nice walk along the river from Cottonwood, as well). It was an ideal situation, strategically, though the idea of having to get everything (like water) up that hill is daunting! Today, you can drive it, and will want to do so before the sun gets too hot.

Also near Sedona: Clarkdale’s eye-popping Copper Art Museum

Southwest Reading Adventures

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – Reading McCarthy’s bracing prose is a test of nerves, and unforgettable
The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott – one of the best thrillers I read last year, set in west Texas Big Bend Country
The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson – picked up on the recommendation of the crime fiction mavens at The Poisoned Pen (your local bookstore, no matter where you live!)

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.

Cincinnati: Pure Fun!

carew tower view, CincinnatiThough we took in some high culture on our recent visit to Cincinnati (more to come on that), some of the sights we saw were plain fun—a tour of the Cincinnati Reds stadium, a nighttime horsedrawn carriage ride through downtown, zipping up to the Carew Tower’s 49th Floor observation deck, and enjoying the holiday displays at the Cincinnati Zoo and Krohn Conservatory.

Great American Ball Park

The storied Cincinnati Reds play here, on the banks of the Ohio River. A wonderfully informative and entertaining guide walked us through the exclusive clubs, down to the field, and “backstage.” It seemed a long way from home plate out to the “batter’s eye,” a black screen required in all ball parks after Chicago Cubs fans (ahem!) would sit right in the batter’s line of sight wearing their white shirts when the opposing team was at bat, and change to black shirts when the Cubs were batting. “All the better to see the ball with, my dear.” You knew about this, right? Lots of interesting memorabilia. Loved “the toothbrush” light stanchions.

great_american_ball_park, Cincinnati

photo: wikimedia commons

The GABP is the Reds third ball park. The team started 135 years ago, and from 1912 played at a stadium called Crosley Field (that Mr. Crosley was a great story!), then moved to Riverfront Stadium in 1970, at the onset of “the Big Red Machine” era, then to the GABP in 2003. Our guide asked, “Who is the only guy to have played all three—Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium, and here?” Puzzled looks and wracked brains among the baseball trivia nuts in our group. Answer: Paul McCartney.

Below decks we passed the room where the  umpires get ready and take their breaks, identified with an embossed-letter plaque and—confirming the worst fears of every baseball fan—braille.

Cincinnati Zoo

We visited the Cincinnati Zoo at night to see the magical Festival of Lights (video clip)—voted #1 zoo lights display in the country–so the only animals we saw were homo sapiens. As to the lights, there are 2.5 million of them. What more need be said? I wanted to ride the little train but was outvoted. Seasonal snax (hot chocolate, s’mores-n-more).

Krohn Conservatory

Not to be outdone at the holidays, the Krohn Conservatory has an enchanting indoor display full of toy trains and depictions of the city’s landmark buildings and bridges, created from plant stuff—gourds, seeds, and other natural materials. While its varied greenhouse exhibits would be beautiful at any season, I’m a sucker for model trains, so found lots to enjoy. On display until January 8.

krohn-conservatory, Cincinnati

photo: WVXU, Cincinnati

What to Read if You Get Rained Out

  • The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds
  • Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed the Nation

But Where Do You STAY in Cincinnati?

cincinnatus

Cincinnatus (photo: Lucas, creative commons license)

Cincinnati takes its name from Roman farmer Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who exemplified unwavering service, civic virtue, and a willingness to set aside personal power for the good of the nation.

Similarly, George Washington was admired for stepping aside after two terms as President (while some framers of the Constitution wanted the President to have a lifetime appointment). You may recall this event being recognized in the musical Hamilton, in which Washington sings about “how to say goodbye.”

The Society of the Cincinnati, named in honor of Washington’s act, was set up for veterans of the Continental Army and is the nation’s oldest military hereditary society. Cincinnati was the first major American city founded after the Revolution (1788) and is named for the Society.

Cincinnati an overlooked gem. Even my family’s recent week there didn’t do it full justice. But where do you stay?

Netherland Plaza

Dear reader, no question about it. You stay at the French Art Deco palace, the Netherland Plaza, now a Hilton. The name came about because this landmark hotel is built on the flat land, the Netherland, of the Ohio River’s flood plain below the steep hills for which the city is famous. Its name also came about because the owners originally planned to name it the St. Nicholas Plaza, but ran into legal obstacles after they’d received all the monogrammed linens, china, silverware, and stationery. They needed a “SNP” name—fast. Thus for a while it was the Starrett’s (the builder’s) Netherland Plaza.

netherland-plaza, Art Deco

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The interior, dining rooms, ballrooms, and every tiny detail are a feast for the eyes. It’s hard to believe such an investment was still doable when construction began in January 1930, a few short months after the big stock market crash.

It was all painted over in the 1960s, of course, in a bid for modernity, but restored lovingly in the early 1980s. Alas, the ice rink in the middle of the restaurant Pavilion Caprice is no more, nor the garage’s automatic (driverless) parking equipment. I’ve seen pictures and cannot imagine how it worked, but it did.

Orchids in the Palm Court is one of only 63 AAA five-diamond restaurants in the United States, and the only one in Ohio. The stunning decorations—murals! marble and rosewood! silver nickel sconces!—would be worth savoring even if the food were less spectacular.

Maybe you won’t luck out like my cousin did and be given the Churchill Suite for a week—yes, Winnie stayed there—but all rooms on the high floors have wonderful views of downtown and the River.

Cincinnatian

Another highly rated hotel is The Cincinnatian, but we spoiled ones found the décor only so-so and the Christmas decorations downright tatty. Still well worth a visit for the delicious high tea, served the third Sunday of every month.

21C Museum Hotel

Now for something completely different. The 21C Museum Hotel is part of a small chain of boutique hotels that feature—and celebrate—contemporary art. We took a tour with a super-knowledgeable guide, and it was thrilling to see so much thoughtful, creative work—painting, sculpture, photography, tapestry, interactive, unclassifiable.

One mesmerizing piece was a clock that uses Big Data to tell the viewer how many x have happened since noon that very day until the current hour and minute. In the ever-changing graphic display, “x” might be “new cases of syphilis” (29 that day),  “dollars spent at US Walmarts” (you don’t want to know), “cases of Svedka vodka sold” (thousands), ad infinitum. Upstairs, a photo exhibit.

Literally hundreds of framed artworks are in the hotel’s Metropole restaurant. Tasty and unusual. Condé Nast travelers named this the “#1 Hotel in the Midwest” in 2014. Loved it lots! Also the yellow penguins’ surprising appearances.

21c-museum-hotel, penguins

photo: Ohio Redevelopment Projects, creative commons license

What to Read in Your Hotel Room

Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, co-authored by Jim Obergefell, a Cincinnatian whose same-sex marriage to his dying partner was one of the four lawsuits prompting a 5-4 Supreme Court decision favoring gay marriage. Co-authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper. (Click carefully; other books have the same title.)