US

Round and Round We Go

First off, a hearty welcome to the nearly 200 (!) of you who started following this blog in the past few days. WordPress picked up my Finger Lakes post about waterfalls in Watkins Glen, NY as one of their “Discover” favorites (see the cute little medallion at right), whereupon my email inbox immediately exploded with hundreds of views, “likes”, comments, and subscriptions from an astounding 41 countries. The power of the Web! But now I feel obliged to feed the proverbial beast with a new post.

If I had been alive in about 1890, I might have had the insight that people would pay money to get a panoramic birds-eye view of their surroundings. And so I would have built an open-frame tower with some kind of elevator-like platform. People would buy a ticket and I would hoist them up and down maybe a half dozen times. Maybe I’d called it “Rich’s Tower”.

One day, a guy named George Ferris might come along, ride up and down a few times, then come up to me and say, “You know what, Rich? You’ve got the right idea but you are a moron.” Then he’d punch me in the nose and go invent the Ferris wheel.

Natl Harbor DC Ferris Wheel-001

Well, the last four words of that tale are basically true. George Washington Ferris , Jr. (1859-1896) did in fact invent the modern version of the Ferris wheel, building a 264 ft (80.4 m) iron behemoth for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893. He was motivated by wanting to “out-Eiffel” Gustave Eiffel, whose eponymous tower (which is much taller) had opened in Paris four years earlier. Ferris’s original wheel could carry over 2100 people at a time.

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So-called “pleasure wheels” had actually been around for centuries, made mostly of wood and usually quite small by modern standards. Ferris’s contribution was an all-iron design and construction — particularly the central axle — that could support much more weight and thus be made much bigger. Here’s a view of a contemporary bit of Ferris’s handiwork, the hub of the 180 ft (54 m) “Capital Wheel” just outside Washington DC. (All of the photos in this post are from that wheel, which is about a half drive from our home.)

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Ferris’s name is thus famous throughout the English-speaking world, entirely because of its association with his wheel. But most other countries have left him out of the nomenclatural picture: in most languages, the object is simply called the equivalent of “giant wheel”, or something similar. One of the exceptions is Spanish, in which it is a rueda de ferris. But as for most of the others, see for yourself:

  • Dutch/German:        Reuzenrad/Riesenrad
  • French:                      Grand roue
  • Italian:                       Ruota panoramica
  • Russian:                     колесо обозрения (koleso obozreniya, “overview wheel”)
  • Japanese:                   観覧車 (kanran-sha, “viewing wheel”)

…and so on. But my favorite is definitely Farsi, in which it is چرخ فلک, pronounced charkhe-falak. It means “wheel of the universe”, which I find very poetic. (Shout-out to my friend Mo K for telling me this!)

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The name notwithstanding, the world seems to be engaged in some kind of Ferris wheel arms race to see who can build the biggest one. The famous London Eye, built for the Y2K millennium celebrations in 1999, was a wonder of the world at the time, 443 ft (135 m) high, but has since been eclipsed by 476 ft (145 m)  and 525 ft (160 m) ones in China and a 541 ft (165 m) giant in Singapore. But this is America, dammit, and if we’re going to Make America Great Again we need the biggest Ferris wheel on the planet. Which is why the tallest in the world at this moment, at a stratospheric 550 ft (167.6 m), is in… Las Vegas! It is called the High Roller, which I must grudgingly admit is extremely clever. But there’s an even taller one being planned for New York City.

Of course, the world being what it is, this won’t last. As I type this, the oil-rich sheikhs in the Middle East are with characteristic understatement constructing the Dubai Eye, which will give a panoramic view of sand — lots and lots of sand — from a dizzying 690 ft (210 m) height.

Alice and I are Ferris wheel fans, though not obsessively so. We’ve been on a few famous ones, e.g., in Vienna (which has appeared in a number of movies), Santa Monica, and Capetown. As it happens we will be in London in late September and will certainly ride on the Eye. So I will close with this shot from the Capital Wheel, in which a (literally) reflective Alice surveys her domain from on high.

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Art and Watercraft

In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, anthropologist Jared Diamond makes a case that geography is destiny, i.e. that a lot of the major currents of history (such as the conquest of the Meso-americans by the Spanish) were consequences of geographical particulars. In the case of the Finger Lakes, the argument would be that geography is demographics. That is to say, the fecundity of the soil and glacier-flattened terrain makes this good dairy farming country — there are ice cream stores everywhere — which for reasons I do not pretend to understand seems to be associated with a politically conservative mindset. At the same time the bucolic setting attracts a lot of artists, who tend to be at the other end of the political spectrum. Then of course there are the wine growers — no idea where your typical vintner sits on the ideological spectrum — and the harsh winters, which attract rugged individualists, which is to say oddballs.

The upshot is that the Finger Lakes are a place where you can attend an art festival (as we did, in the town of Penn Yan on the northern end of Keuka Lake) that includes a collection of vintage trucks…

… and truck engines, here being admired by some locals who at the risk of stereotyping I somehow doubt voted for Hillary Clinton:

At the same time — and at the same arts festival — it is easy to find some local color of a more charmingly outré nature, like this retro-looking young woman:

She is no doubt on her way to visit the artists’ kiosks exhibiting carved cutting boards, sculptures crafted from farm implements, and — this seems to be a local thing — jewelry made from antique buttons.

We spent a pleasant hour or two at the festival before making our way south back to the town of Watkins Glen at the lower end of Seneca Lake. Our goal this time was not the state park with its many waterfalls, but rather the lake itself, or more accurately a boat ride on it. But here’s a relaxing view of the lake from the southern docks. You should now be hearing Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the dock o’ the bay…” in your head.

Our conveyance was the beautiful teak two-masted schooner True Love, operated by  Schooner Excursions out of Watkins Glen. At $45 for a two-hour tour (yes, yes, you can start singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song now) it was a great deal and a wonderful outing on a warm sunny day blessed with scenery like this:

One of the things that struck me during the trip is that the water seemed a lot clearer than I remembered it from when I lived here in the 1970’s. (Indeed, I made a remark in my last post about how silty it was.) Turns out that this was not my imagination: our crew members/tour guides informed us that the dreaded zebra mussels have arrived: that highly invasive, prolific, and aggressive freshwater species that has become the scourge of North American freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders — they feed by pumping water through their bodies and extracting microorganisms, algae, plankton, etc., along the way. As you would suppose, this causes the water to become very clear, which sounds great but which is actually terrible because said water is also now nutrient-free. As a result, Finger Lakes fish populations — notably freshwater trout — have plummeted. Remarkably, this has all happened in 25 years: the first zebra mussels were discovered here in 1992. So if you’ve ever wondered how long it takes to completely filter 3.5 trillion gallons of water (which is the actual volume of Seneca Lake), the answer is 25 years if you have enough zebra mussels.

The True Love itself (which is not the small sailboat in the above photo) has an interesting history of its own. It was built in 1922 and appeared in the 1956 movie “High Society” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. (Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong also make appearances.) Here’s Bing Crosby serenading Grace Kelly aboard the boat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZ1ZLiyGrE0.  You can see the ship itself in the first few seconds.

There was not a lot of serenading going on during our outing, which is probably just as well, but it was an idyllic way to close out a long weekend.

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Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

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Watkins Glen NY-012

Pretty cool, huh?

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Finger Lake-in’ Good

In case you happen not to be familiar with the geography of New York State, the central region of the state — north of Pennsylvania and southeast of Lake Erie — is dominated by the scenic and aptly-named Finger Lakes region. It’s called that because, um, well, look at the map:

There are technically 12 Finger Lakes, but the “big four” are Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua. Those intimidating-looking names are from the Iroquois language, the Iroquois having populated the region well before we did. The lakes themselves were carved by the retreating glaciers a mere 20,000 or so years ago. They’re all long, skinny, and very deep, as much as 600 ft (180 m) in places. They’re also cold and silty — fine for boating, not so much for swimming or diving. (One of my college friends actually learned to scuba dive there. The water was so opaque that he never saw a thing, including his own hands.) But the entire region is extraordinarily scenic.

The region is dear to my heart because everything about it hearkens back to my long-receded youth: I went to college here, at Cornell University in Ithaca, at the south end of Cayuga Lake.  So it seemed a natural destination when we were discussing a joint getaway weekend destination with our friends and occasional traveling companions Laura and David.

Thing is, this is wine country. There are over 100 wineries in the region, which is great if you like wine, which I do not. So it was pretty clear that I was going to be the permanent designated driver on this trip, which I do not mind.

Wineries and quaintness always seem to go hand in hand for some reason; vineyards somehow make otherwise economically depressed areas seem attractive. The Finger Lakes are no exception. We are staying at a B&B in the town of Geneva, a small lakefront town at the top of Lake Seneca, whose downtown is graced by 1940’s building facades and Gothic churches and which is otherwise ringed by spectacular venerable estate homes on the water. The B&B itself, look many such establishments, has a picket-fence, overstuffed-furniture wholesomeness to it, as you can tell just by looking at the front.

It’s a very pleasant inn, the kind of place whose room decor includes this:

And there are of course wreaths. If you live within a block of a B&B you apparently must have a wreath on your door.

But back to the wineries. Visiting all 100+ was not a practical option, but our B&B host kindly presented us with free tasting coupons for several nearby ones. David handed me the car keys, and off we went.  As we approached our first destination (out of what would eventually be five), Laura expounded a very profound insight: “You know you’re at a winery when there’s a chandelier in the barn.” True dat.

The day consisted of a great deal of sloshing, spitting, and pronouncing. (“Too acidic.” “Notes of oak, cinnamon, cat dander, and feldspar.” “Hey! This is Diet Coke!”) They tasted, I photographed (and drove), we all admired the scenery.

Now here is today’s riddle for you: what do wineries and the Special Olympics have in common? Answer: everybody gets medals. There is not a winery on the planet — or at least not in the Finger Lakes — that does not boast a slew of awards of mysterious provenance. The Governor’s Cup. The Decanter Awards. The Chardonnay Showdown. La Mouffete d’Or. Whatever. Here’s a set won by a local winery that you’ve probably never heard of.

No matter… I don’t drink the stuff anyway, and everyone had a good time. It was crystalline sunny day, about 80F, when the area is at its most beautiful. Tomorrow we will visit some spectacular local waterfalls, our admiration doubtless punctuated with more wine.

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Lights! Camera! Christmas!

OK, so why do people put up all those lights on their houses at Christmas? I ask this because my wife and I spent a pleasant half hour last night driving through one of the more over-the-top local displays, which I’ll show you in a moment. I’ll start you off with something very traditional from that display, your basic go-to Peace On Earth setup:

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I’ve been told that the tradition of Christmas lights is actually some kind of Gentile copycat thing rooted in Judaism’s Hanukkah menorah with its eight candles. (Just like the whole Hanukkah gift-giving thing is basically a result of Jewish kids getting jealous of their Christian counterparts.) It’s a really interesting theory with no basis in fact, although in researching this I did stumble across my favorite headline of the day: “Jewish Hanukkah Menorah Now a Favorite Irish Christmas Tradition.” Since Ireland has all of 2500 Jews (about the same as Morocco, as it happens), I have no idea how this came about. But I digress.

Christmas lights are a surprisingly recent tradition, the whole candles-on-the-tree thing having started only in the 17th century. Many people — hopefully those with good fire-suppression systems in their homes — still follow it. My ex-wife is one of them. I can remember many happy Christmases when the kids were growing up, when she would light the candles and everyone would bask in their Christmassy glow while I glowered from the corner with a fire extinguisher in my lap.

The whole thing really took off in 1880, when Thomas Edison introduced the first outdoor electric Christmas display; you can pretty much take it from there. The first electrically-lit White House Christmas tree was turned on by President Grover Cleveland in 1895. In 1925 a consortium of 15 lightbulb companies created the NOMA corporation, which became the dominant Christmas light purveyor for decades before folding in 1968. It was during the 40’s and 50’s when decorative bulbs became available that things really took off and gave rise to today’s elaborate displays of holiday electrical oneupmanship.

One of our best local displays is at a nearby state park on the Chesapeake Bay (I live in the seaside town of Annapolis) , and as you might imagine has a fair number of nautically-themed setups:

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So you’ve got your sea monsters, anchors, sailboats, etc. But this being Maryland, you’ll drive among a bunch of electric crabs, oysters, and herons as well. Not to mention flying saucers with friendly-looking three-eyed aliens, who I suppose attended the birth of Jesus. (“We bring gold, frankincense, and the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Demodulator.”) Speaking of whom, even a newly-incarnated divinity needs to eat (at least, I assume so), so our local display includes this one, sponsored by a local pizza chain:

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(Yes, the pizza at upper right is animated and flips up and down out of the Elf Baker’s hands.)

I’ll close with the World’s Scariest Electric Teddy Bear (about 15 feet tall), and my personal take on Heironymus Bosch’s driveway at Christmas. You can see the complete set (14 shots) at https://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacman/sets/72157674697937173 . Happy holidays!

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New York City is Also Not Japan

…but it is in many respects pretty close to it. We spent a long weekend there celebrating my wife’s birthday, charging from one art museum to the next as though they were going to be outlawed tomorrow. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cooper-Hewitt, MOMA, the Whitney, and more: it was a museum kind of trip, capped off by the Broadway performance of Wicked.

But enough narrative; New York is New York and probably deserves its own planet. Here are my photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacman/albums/72157668571406892. You can take it from there.

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Arizona (Not Japan)

Yes, yes, I know I said our next trip was to Japan. And it is, if by “trip” one means a journey of longer than 4 days. But, as we do about twice a year, we have just returned from a 4-day weekend with our old and dear friends Larry and Jean in Scottsdale, Arizona, and since Arizona is such an photogenic and unusual place I decided it was worth a blog entry. It is the kind of place where you can walk into a bar and actually see this:

One of these customers will be Donald Trump's vice president.

One of these customers will be Donald Trump’s vice president.

I was disappointed at the lack of a tinkly, off-key piano, that would of course fall silent the moment we walked through the door. I think they traded the piano for the computer terminals.

In case you’re not up on the geography of Arizona, Scottsdale is an affluent and scenic suburb about a half hour’s drive northeast of Phoenix. Like all such population centers in the American southwest, it is basically a very attractive crime against nature: the greater Phoenix area, (which includes Scottsdale) hosts over two hundred golf courses, each of which requires about elenvty gajillion gallons of scarce water to maintain. People — including many, many retirees — flock to Scottsdale for the sun, the golfing, the snazzy malls, the desert scenery, and the convenient location of several Mayo clinics.

Arizona is divided into 15 enormous counties, several of which have more area than a number of the smaller US states though they are on average very sparsely populated. Scottsdale and Phoenix are in Maricopa County, one of whose biggest claims to fame is its controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, “controversial” in this context meaning “racist, autocratic, and fascist”. Good old Sheriff Joe has been hanging in there since 1993, getting reelected like clockwork every four years despite having cost Arizona taxpayers something over $140 million to date defending himself against assorted Federal civil rights lawsuits and investigations. It has gotten to the point of the legislature having to invent brand new ethnic groups for Joe to discriminate against and oppress, having used up all the known ones.

But we are not here to talk about Joe Arpaio. We are here to talk about Jerome.

Who?

That’s the wrong question. The Jerome of interest is not a “who” but a “where”: Jerome, Arizona, population 444.  The view from its main street looks like this:

Arizona 2016-001

Jerome is a former gold and copper mining town, located 5200 ft (1600 m) up in the mountains about a 2 hour drive north of Phoenix. It got its start in about 1880 after the first mining claims were staked and enjoyed about a 50 year heyday until about 1930 when the Depression caused the price of copper to collapse. At that point it had reached its peak population of about 5,000, then entered its decline.  Mining stopped completely in 1953, at which point the city fathers decided it was going to be tourism or nothing if the town was to survive. On the strength of its mining history (which included a great deal of labor unrest including violent strikes), the town was granted national historical status in 1967 and has more or less remade itself as a local tourism center and art colony since then.

So now it’s the kind of place where the street (about three blocks long) is lined with art galleries — some quite good — while the former gold mine has reopened as a gift shop, so kitschy that even the many flies buzzing around it are wearing poor-taste teeshirts. It is difficult to straddle the line between artistic modernity and an “Old West”, so you get a bakery that looks like this:

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…and a post office whose boxes look like this:

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…and you attract people from a different decade who drive VW Microbuses decorated like this:

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My favorite place, though, was the kaleidoscope store. I love kaleidoscopes, and so an entire kaleidoscope store is definitely where I want to spend my time in a place like Jerome AZ. So I’ll close with a few photos from it:

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