In the Sea and Under It

A recent trip to the Windy City (temperature: -1⸰) included a visit to the marvelous, that is, full of marvels, Shedd Aquarium. If you’re ever in Chicago on a business trip, don’t miss it; it’s right downtown.

We were minding the two kids, ages 7 and 9, and we thought by keeping them engaged there, we could spare ourselves the embarrassment of losing chess games to them.

We caught the new special exhibit “Underwater Beauty,” with over a hundred species, only one highlight of which were the charming blue polka-dot jellyfish you see one of here. Of course the reef fish were bright and colorful, and the seahorses adorable, but there also were creatures called “weedy sea dragons” I’d never seen before, pictured below. Rather astonishing.

The Oceanarium show with the beluga whales and dolphins, a sea lion and an owl (?) is always a hit. As is the penguin play area, though they’re outgrowing that. They enjoyed the nearby pet-a-starfish exhibit even more. I could be mesmerized by the lobby’s circular, 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank for hours. In the 1930’s water for the aquarium’s saltwater tanks was brought up from Key West on railroad tank cars.

What did the kids like best? Petting the bony backs of the armored lake sturgeon, where they plunged their arms into the water so deep and so often I ended up buying them new (dry) T-shirts. That -1⸰ thing again. Flooded with atypical modesty, they were reluctant to take their wet shirts off until a nearby mom opened her coat flasher style to give them some privacy.

photos: jellyfish, Vicki Weisfeld; weedy sea dragon, Magda Ehlers for pexels

Cape May’s Off-Season Delights

Maybe not this past week, with temperatures in single-digits, but off-season can be a fun time to visit beach towns, like historic Cape May, New Jersey, which clings to the far southern tip of the Garden State, and is actually south of Baltimore and almost directly east of Washington, D.C. On a narrow peninsula, surrounded by water, Cape May is full of extravagant Victorian homes (many of them now B&Bs), impressive restaurants and a range of attractions.

Visiting off-season, you find the summer crowds have disappeared like the flocks of migrating birds you can see there spring and fall—at “one of the greats migration hot spots on earth!” The Cape May Lighthouse has a hawk-watching platform, the city has a nature center, an Audubon Society bird observatory, and several other attractions catering to birdwatchers (and the curious). Even after the big migration, there are a lot of shore and wading birds.

Jersey Shore Alpacas is a place where you can pet, feed, and find out whatever you might want to know about this interesting breed of animal (and buy luxuriously soft alpaca-wool items and gifts). The farm (whose motto is “furry fun for everyone!”). Nearby is the Cape May County Park and Zoo, which, unbelievably, is free. It features some 250 species, including lions, and zebras, and giraffes, though if the day is too cold, you may not see some of them. Just a guess, but the snow leopards are probably always on view. There’s an indoor aviary for the tropical birds, and the raptors are outside. Winters, it’s open from 10 to 3:30 and, again, not crowded.

A 10-mile drive north brings to you the town of Wildwood, whose two-mile long boardwalk is almost impassable with tourists in summer. The stilled amusement park, the silent roller-coasters, the shuttered ice cream stands suggest the set for a B-movie. Sparse traffic encourages a drive past the Wildwoods’ collection of doo-wop motels, architecture straight out of the 1950s!

The Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) at the Cape May Airport is home to an aviation museum in a converted hangar (dress warmly), which includes an array of aircrafts, engines, and interactive exhibits. It has a moving display about the 9/11 “All Available Boats” rescuers too. When I walked inside, I thought it wasn’t going to be that interesting, but I ended up fascinated. It’s not at all slick, and seems to be a labor of love.

Cape May offers some spectacular restaurants. Our favorites included Tisha’s, Union Park Dining Room, and Fins Bar and Grill. There’s pleasant shopping, and the town has been an artists’ inspiration for decades. Evidence is this bouncy Bud Nugent song and my short story “Windjammer” about a vengeful sea captain whose ghost haunts one of Cape May’s arriviste residents.

Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

Sicily: Beyond (and Before) the Corleones – Travel Tips

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia, public domain

Our two-week trip to Sicily ended recently, and what an interesting and beautiful region it was. The food was pretty spectacular too. We traveled with a British tour company called Esplora, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, this is one. Esplora and its founder Damian Croft, specialize in small-group tours of several Mediterranean countries, as well as Armenia, Georgia, and, soon, Iran.

There were a dozen of us on the tour, six Brits, an Australian couple, and four Americans. We had two charming guides (Chiara and Simona) and our irreplaceable driver/major domo, Carmelo. Our guides were language and art history specialists. How nice, I thought, in advance. How essential, I’d say now. Here’s why (and before I go on, I’ll tip you that we saw the impressive architectural remnants of all these civilizations.)

The earliest tribes in Sicily, the Sicani, documented to around 8000 BC, were followed by the Sicels and some minor groups. They lived in caves, and some of their caves are still in use for storage, as shelters for goats and chickens, and in extremis, habitation.

Sicily was a crossroads of the ancient world, and for at least some period, Siracusa was the most important city in Europe. This importance began with the arrival of the Greeks, who set up independent colonies in Siracusa, Agrigento, and elsewhere. Domination of the island was passed back and forth in practically nonstop wars between the Greeks, Romans (who established colonies under Roman authority), and barbarians, namely, the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths.

The Byzantines annexed Sicily in 535 AD, and were harassed by invading Arabs from Carthage (now Tunisia) in north Africa. Next came the Normans—yes, those same Normans who invaded England in 1066. This was a surprise! They established liberal government, tolerant of the many ethnicities and religions who lived on the island. That couldn’t last, of course.

Swabian Germans took over, followed by an insurrection to remove the French (Normans) and the people turned to the Spanish for aid. The Spanish Inquisition in 1492 resulted in expulsion of all the Jews from Sicily and other depredations. In the next two hundred years, the island also suffered devastating earthquakes, and the plague.

The Bourbons were next, with Sicily fighting on France’s side in the Napoleonic Wars. Guiseppe Garibaldi had a strong presence in Sicily in his successful effort to unite the separate regions of Italy into a united Kingdom of Italy (1861).

In the 20th century, assaulted first by waves of crime from the Mafia then invaded by the Allies in 1943, this little island of less than 10,000 square miles—not much larger than the state of New Jersey—was once again at the crossroads of history.

Historians will shudder at the elisions and probable errors in the above. Whole books have been written about this, of course, and here’s a really good one:

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases–a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. If you click the photo above to order this book, you’ll help me fill the jar.

Read my new short story in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.

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!

Bison and Eagles and Elk!

Old Faithful

Old Faithful – photo: pixabay

Recently my family spent nine days in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Seven people, three under 10, stayed in four different historic hotels in different areas of the park, in order to see the most, yet avoid the park’s infamous traffic. The hotels were each different and fascinating, and early morning starts meant we had few problems. We also covered a lot of territory on foot, with at least some short hiking every day, manageable for all ages (that is, me).

The first three nights we stayed at the beautiful Old Faithful Inn, right by the eponymous attraction. Much within walking distance of the Inn is every bit as interesting as Old Faithful itself—hot springs, steaming geysers, mud pots—all connected by boardwalk, since you cannot walk on the hot ground without injury to yourself or it. As the park contains the world’s largest collection of steaming, bubbling, and bursting features, you have to wonder what early visitors thought of it, whether migrating natives or European trappers and fur-traders. I was reminded of the 70-year-old adventure story written by Pulitzer-winner A. B. Guthrie, The Big Sky. You’ll get an indelible picture of how those early explorers felt about the American West.

A short drive takes you to the nearby Geyser fields include the Grand Prismatic hot spring, largest in the United States, which is one of those things that looks like it can’t be real, but is.

GrandPrismatic

Grand Prismatic – photo: supercarwaar

We were pleased to find so many tourists enjoying the park, a million a month in the summer, and a good many of them were French, German, Spanish, and lots of Chinese, especially.

We had a tour of the Inn (in the park, lodging and food services have been privatized and are run by Xanterra, with varying success from one property to another). The food was better and more interesting at the Snow Lodge behind the Inn, we learned belatedly.

From the Old Faithful Inn, the more reckless of our party went ziplining in Bozeman, while I took a watercolor class. There were artists-in-residence at each hotel, as well as nightly musicians, usually pianists, and one violinist. Gift shops too—the nicest at the Lake Hotel.

We took a wildlife tour, and over the entire trip we saw moose (with binoculars), elk, deer, prong-horns, bison (at a distance, close up, and in the road), a coyote, bald eagles, marmots, ospreys, trumpeter swans, and trout (on our plates). No wolves or bears, which is too bad, because we wanted to get a picture of the kids petting one. (Really, people have done that!) Lots of warnings about keeping your distance from bears and bison and instructions in how to use bear spray. Moose and bear had mostly moved to higher elevations for the summer where it’s cooler, though the park is 7000 to 8000 feet above sea level already.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

We moved on to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where elk graze on the lawn in the evening. The hot springs themselves are fascinating, looking like terraced rice paddies formed by the minerals in the spring water.

Then two nights at the Canyon Lodge, which was the least congenial spot, though a convenient jumping off place for seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its spectacular gorge and waterfalls. At almost 700 miles long, the Yellowstone River is America’s longest undammed river, a tributary of the Missouri. We skirted the edge of the wildlife-heavy Lamar Valley, and had a Ranger-led boat tour on Lake Yellowstone. The Ranger tours in national parks are usually fantastic and not crowded.

Finally, we spent two days in Grand Teton National Park at the luxurious by comparison Grand Teton Lodge, not a Xanterra property. From there we set out for a whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River, which is one place we saw bald eagles. They were gliding down the river in front of us—fantastic! We spent the day waiting for our flight in Jackson, visiting the ski area in summertime.

A great trip thanks to family trip-planner in chief, Neil!

Grand Tetons

Grand Tetons – photo: goodfreephotos.com

 

Austin’s Plant-Based Attractions

Not counting an early morning trip to my cousin’s impressive community garden in Austin, Texas, where we picked tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes, as well as peppers, onions, and eggplant, most of our touristy activities in the capital of the Lone Star State involved plants.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

It was hot, yeah, but the walkways through this lovely 284-acre facility are abundantly shaded. The center is the botanic garden for the University of Texas at Austin, and its educational mission is evident, but it’s not just for students. Homeowners go there to learn about the conservation of native plants and creating back yard environments compatible with local conditions. It was great to see little kids enjoying the water features, a sandy play area, and the animal sculptures. The grounds are planted with more than 800 native Texas species that, over the seasons, display successive waves of color. Naturally, the one plant that didn’t have a label was the one that fascinated us (woolly ironweed, above, which looked like fireworks), but the volunteers and staff were quick to sort us out! A lovely facility and nice gift shop too.

Zilker Park, Austin, waterfall

photo (cropped): Glen Pope, creative commons license

Zilker Botanical Garden

Located on 26 hilly acres in the heart of Austin, this is another shady retreat, with a lovely waterlily pond out front. Its Japanese garden has a small pavilion and a meandering stream stocked with koi that runs under a classically arched wooden bridge.

We walked the Woodland Faerie Trail, where organizations and families have constructed tiny scenes in which fairies might live. Those that used natural materials were the most charming. Minimal gift shop with excellent air conditioning! The facility includes many specialty and seasonal gardens, including a vigorously blooming rose garden. Alluring, but in full sun, no.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

photo: Lanie, creative commons license

Charles Umlauf (1911-1994) was a widely-collected American sculptor, born in Michigan, and a long-time art professor at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. He donated his home, studio, and the surrounding lands to the city of Austin, along with some 168 sculptures. The grounds are now an outdoor sculpture garden displaying mostly his works, and an indoor pavilion houses temporary or more weather-susceptible exhibitions. Many of his bronze and stone sculptures on display here have classical or biblical themes, and he went for stylized facial features. Although his artistic style is not my favorite, it’s a pleasure to see his work in such a beautiful setting.

Books to toss in your suitcase

Paper Ghosts – by Julia Heaberlin, a young woman’s Texas road trip with a possible serial killer in her passenger seat

Fonda San Miguel: Forty Years of Food and Art – we ate at this beautiful restaurant. You can drool over the cookbook while you’re there, and recreate awesome Mexican food on your return home

Texas Two-Step – new crime novel by Michael Pool. Two Colorado stoners plan to sell their last marijuana crop in rural east Texas and become embroiled in bigger problems, with a Texas Ranger and Austin police detective on their tails.

Travel Tips: Columbus, Indiana

Columbus, Indiana

National Historic Landmark by Myron Goldsmith

Enticed by seeing the small movie Columbus last year, we put this mecca of modernist architecture on our post-Derby travel itinerary. It had long lurked in the back of my mind as a place to visit one day, but the movie crystallized that wish. In it, an architect’s son, played by John Cho, stays at an elegant bed and breakfast (The Inn at Irwin Gardens, where we stayed too!) and helps a young Columbus resident (Haley Lu Richardson), understand what’s so great about the buildings she’s been surrounded by her whole life.

It started during World War II with a church. First Christian Church member J. Irwin Miller, the head of the area’s largest employer, Cummins Engine Company, persuaded the congregation not to build another faux-gothic pile, but a modern church. Eliel Saarinen’s design became the country’s first “modern” church. It was followed by the first modern bank building.

Post-war, the city experienced the baby boom and the need for new schools. The first were pre-fab structures, truly awful. Miller gave the school board a list of five U.S. architects and promised that, if they chose one of them for the next school, his foundation would pay the design fee. The result was so successful that many more architect-designed schools, followed by fire houses and libraries, as well as other churches, banks, and factories followed.

Flamenco

Flamenco by Ruth Aizuss Migdal; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Buildings by such architectural luminaries as the Saarinens (Eliel and Eero), Robert A.M. Stern, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, and I.M. Pei. Landscape architects and significant sculptural pieces followed, with installations by Henry Moore, Dessa Kirk, Dale Chihuly, and Ruth Aizuss Migdal (Her “Flamenco” was a favorite).

Miller and his  wife (a woman from a modest background, whom he met over the bargaining table. He was Management, she was Labor) built a home designed by Eero Saarinen, with interiors by noted graphic artist and architect Alexander Girard, that is both modest and magnificent. One of seven Columbus buildings deemed a National Historic Landmark, its most appealing feature for me was Saarinen’s ingenious tic-tac-toe lines of skylights that deliver bright outdoor light to almost every room of the house.

The Visitor’s Center provides maps, tours of the Miller House, and a lovely gift shop.

So near?

From Louisville: 72 miles
From Columbus, Ohio: 189 miles
From Chicago: 227 miles
From St. Louis: 284 miles

Books to toss in your suitcase

Columbus, Indiana – photographic essay by Thomas R. Schiff
The Cathedral Builder –  Biography of J. Irwin Miller by Charles E. Mitchell Rentschler
Alexander Girard: Popular Edition – by Kiera Coffee and Todd Oldham

Kentucky Travel: “Not Barry Manilow and a Glass of Wine”

Derby HatThe first question everyone asked when they learned we were going to the Kentucky Derby this year was—“Do you have a hat?!” Yes, I did, and here’s the photo to prove it! It was like wearing a dinner plate on the side of my head.

Unlike the unlucky folks who didn’t spring for under-cover seating, we were nice and dry, even though the May 5 race was the wettest Derby on record, by far. Our seats were great—right across from the winner’s circle and in full view of the finish line.

Given the television coverage, which we watch year after year, mint julep in hand, we were prepared for the elegant hats, the snazzy men’s suits, even Johnny Weir. But we were surprised Churchill Downs’s food options aren’t any better than those at our local AAA baseball team. Our Derby package came with a tent buffet (only so-so), and I pitied the patrons who had to depend on the track’s concession stands. Though we’d been warned off the premade mint juleps readily available, the one the bartender in the tent made from scratch was delicious.

The Derby itself—“the most exciting two minutes in sports”—was of course the pinnacle of the Louisville portion of our trip, but we saw lots of other sights in town, notably:

  • 21C Hotel Art

    Art at the 21C Museum Hotel; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

    The Louisville Slugger museum and a tour of the factory, which makes millions of baseball bats every year. Down Louisville’s Main Street are plaques in the sidewalk commemorating key ball players, along with life-sized replicas of the bats they used. And here I thought if you’ve seen one baseball bat, you’ve seen them all.

  • A guided tour of the modern art collection at our downtown hotel, the 21C Museum Hotel (If you’re interested in modern art and don’t know about this small but growing boutique hotel chain, you’re really missing something!).
  • The Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. The 12th president’s tomb was of peculiar interest to me, because recent genealogical research unearthed a photo of the gravestone of my three-greats grandmother, which says she was a descendant of President Taylor. A modicum of digging proved this to be more fake news.

Lexington horse farm

Lexington horse farm; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

  • The nearly 300-acre Cave Hill Cemetery, with its graves of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark, Muhammad Ali, Col. Sanders, Confederate and Union dead, and more than 100,000 other Louisville residents, famous and not-so.
  • A bus tour that took us to Lexington and two horse farms, where we “met” the sire and grandsire of Derby winner “Justified” and saw lots of new foals. Also were briefed on racehorse breeding. “It’s not Barry Manilow and a glass of wine,” our guide said. No indeedy.
  • A pleasant self-guided walking tour of Old Louisville, one of the country’s largest remaining Victorian neighborhoods.

Where we fell short was on the Urban Bourbon Trail. We visited only three of the 40 or so bourbontastic watering holes included in our passport, and even forgot have it stamped in one of them. On a five-day visit, that performance would have to be judged weak.

Reading on the Go

When you travel to Kentucky, here are some books you might take along.

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

ICYMI: American Folk Art Museum

American Folk Art MuseumThe free American Folk Art Museum at 2 Lincoln Square, shares its modestly sized space with the Manhattan temple of the Church of Latter Day Saints, across from Lincoln Center on Columbus Avenue at 66th Street. This location is one of the Museum’s two outposts. The other, in Long Island City, displays items from the permanent collection, whereas the Manhattan space has  rotating exhibitions.

When we visited recently, the exhibit was a fascinating display of “self-taught” art, along with the artists’ written commentaries about their work. Twenty-one artists from the United States and numerous other countries are represented, and the exhibition will be on display until May 27.

What the works have in common, over space and time, is the intensity and focus of the artistic vision applied. Many of the artists struggled with mental illness and art may have been a way of coping with and an expression of their challenges. Collectively, the exhibition catalog says, the artists through both their works and what they say about them demonstrate the “idiosyncratic structure of their lifelong, intricate, and nonlinear narratives.”

The first set of pencil drawings we examined, by artist James Edward Deeds, Jr. (1908-1987), was mounted so you could see both sides of the paper on which his drawings of steamboats, horse-drawn carts, and circus wagons were created. The paper on which they were created was unused forms from the state mental institution where he lived for 37 years. A few years after Deeds’s death, a curious teenager rescued the artist’s 283 drawings from the trash.

I was drawn to a display of more than a hundred 8 x 10-inch topographical drawings and paintings fitted together like a map—“Journey to Another Dimension” (photo below)—by Michigan artist Jerry Gretzinger, The full set of almost 3500 of these panels could cover the floor of a basketball court and has been shown in its entirety only once (on the floor of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art). A fascinating video shows Gretzinger talking about his elaborate, random process for revising individual panels, which allows for organic change in the set.

There’s a group of 80-year-old drawings of children by Henry Darger (one is featured on the Museum website) that at first look playful until you read the captions; Spanish artist Josep Baqué’s fantastical creatures; and a pattern on paper that looks like dots. The museum conveniently offers a powerful magnifying glass to let you see the dots are very, very teensy words.

It’s fair to say that all the works were intriguing, some even startling, but perhaps not as much as the inspired minds behind them. I hope to go back regularly to see what this museum is up to! A fantastic gift shop, BTW.

Gretzinger Map

photo: Nicholas Helmholdt