Into the Silence

When I went to Half Price Books the other day, I knew I’d come away with something. Even more because I had a gift card, though I don’t remember where or when I got it. The code on the back was scratched off, so I couldn’t tell whether it had any value by checking online. I figured the clerk could tell me, and so she did: $15.

More than enough to buy Into the Silence by Wade Davis (2011), subtitled “The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.” That subtitle alone was almost enough to sell me on it. Not that I have a particular interesting in books about mountaineering, though I’ve read a few. But I do have an interest in the Great War and about journeys or expeditions to remote places, during which the participants die or not.

In this case, of course, Mallory and Irvine did not come back from Everest in 1924. Mallory managed to survive the war — which many of his friends did not — but Everest got him. I remember reading about the discovery of Mallory’s body in 1999. Irvine has yet to turn up, and no one knows whether they made the summit or not.

Also the fact that Wade Davis wrote the book was a recommendation, though I haven’t read any other books of his, even the one about Voodoo. Not yet. Anyway, he’s an insanely accomplished fellow, so I suspect I’m in for a good read.

Peanut Butter, Honey & Banana

Around lunchtime today, I had a hankering for a peanut butter, honey and banana sandwich. It had been good while. All of the ingredients were on hand, so voila!

I don’t take nearly enough pictures of the food I’m about to eat, so here it is. (I don’t think it’ll end up on Facebook, though.)

peanut butter, honey and bananaTom’s Tabooley in Austin used to serve a dandy pbh&b sandwich for a very modest price. At least it did in the summer of 1981, when I would eat there occasionally. I checked today and discovered that Tom’s Tabooley has closed. That didn’t surprise me — that’s the way it is in the restaurant trade — but what did surprise me was that it closed in 2016.

As I enjoyed my homemade pbh&b creation, it occurred to me that Elvis was fond of them, too. Or at least I thought I’d read that some years ago in Amazing But True Elvis Facts by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo (1995), which I picked up on a remainder table sometime in the late ’90s. I know that because the price tag on the back of the book says, “Originally $6.95 SALE PRICE $.97,” a bargain for sure.

So I checked. I wasn’t quite right. Memory is an unreliable narrator. P. 59: “At home, [Elvis] loved to munch a sandwich of peanut butter, sliced bananas, and crisp bacon.”

In the same book, p. 143, you can also discover that, “Elvis’s favorite film was Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It featured one of the King’s favorite actors, Peter Sellers, in three different roles. Elvis watched the 1964 British-made film at least fifty times in his life.”

Remarkable, considering he only lived to be 42. Apocryphal or not, that “amazing true Elvis fact” makes me smile.

Thursday Residuum

Remarkably rainy January so far. Even when it hasn’t been raining these past weeks or so, the skies have looked pregnant with rain. So it’s been a wet January, not an icy one. That was the case at UIUC, as the last of clinging frozen matter thawed, as it might in a normal northern March.

UIUC January 15, 2017

Blame it on climate change? I’d be tempted, but weather isn’t climate. Besides, there’s a blizzard lurking out there in the near future, or at least heavy snow. Winter will not be denied.

A few days ago, I approached a four-way stop to make a left turn. Directly across the intersection another car arrived to make a left turn. To my left, a third car arrived to make a right turn. We all got there at about the same moment. We all made our respective turns concurrently. Can’t remember when that happened before. Had a fourth car to my right wanted to make a right turn, it would have been truly remarkable, but we had to settle for a three-way synch.

At a World Market last week, I saw bottles of Tito’s Handmade Vodka for sale. I couldn’t ever remember actually seeing any before, as opposed to hearing about it, though I don’t go to a lot of liquor stores.

Last month, I heard Tito himself on the radio, pitching his creation. He didn’t quite sound like his high school self, no one would, but it was him all right. I was pretty sure I hadn’t ever heard advertising for Tito’s beyond sponsorships on public radio (the ad I heard was on a commercial station). Maybe Tito’s needed to up his ad budget in the face of competition.

I’m most of my way through the book River of Doubt, about the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition into the deep Brazilian rainforest. Reading it, you think, how did anyone survive that trip? They faced untreatable diseases, looming starvation, dangerous animals, venomous bugs, an extremely hazardous river, a murderer among their crew, and the potential for Indians to attack at any time and wipe them all out. At one point, a very sick Theodore Roosevelt seriously contemplated overdosing on morphine. Not too end his pain, but to avoid being an impediment to the rest of the expedition. His son Kermit wouldn’t allow it.

Amazing how close TR’s bio came to ending with, “Led expedition down the River of Doubt in Brazil, 1914. Never seen again.”

Divers Content on a Freezing Cold Thursday

Inspired by yesterday’s natterings, I stopped at the library and checked out River of Doubt (2006) by Candice Millard. Subtitled “Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” it’s about TR’s expedition into darkest Amazonia in 1913-14. As the book makes clear from the get-go, the journey nearly killed him. Even he-man action presidents have their limits, after all.

I didn’t know until today that Andrew Sachs died not long ago. There are many clips available of him in fine form as Manuel, such as this one or this one or this one.

I’ve had these glasses for a few years now. Bought them at a garage sale for (I think) a quarter each.

Coke Cans Make of Glass

They were clearly some kind of promotional item from Coca-cola but also McDonald’s, because three of them have McDonald’s arches on the bottom. The interesting thing to me is that they’re precisely the same size and shape as a 12 oz. soft drink can.

While writing about a hotel today, I encountered something in the hotel biz known as a “spiritual menu.” The concept isn’t exactly new, but I’d never heard of it. The following is from the Christian Post in 2008.

“A hotel in Nashville will be the first known in the nation to remove the standard Holy Bible from its rooms and replace it with a ‘spiritual menu’ that includes other religious books… Hotel Preston, a boutique owned by Oregon-based Provenance Hotels, will require guests to call room service to order their religious book of choice…

“The religious book list includes the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Torah, the Tao Te Ching, The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, Bhagavad Gita (a Hindu text), books on Scientology, as well as the King James and New American Bible versions.” @#$%&! Scientology?

Hm. The Gideons can’t be too happy about being replaced. And the following lyric just doesn’t have the same ring: Rocky Raccoon/Checked into his room/Only to find a spiritual menu.

Lull-Time Reading

The lull time between Christmas and New Year’s is also a good time for reading, so I alternatively read Between the Woods and the Water, the second part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s remarkable travels on foot in Europe in 1934, and American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell (2013) by Deborah Solomon.

I picked up the latter at Half-Price Books not long ago after reading a bit of it in the store, and realizing that I knew next to nothing about Rockwell, besides what his paintings look like, and that he’s been the subject of revisionism lately. Maybe more than one cycle of scorn and then revision have come and gone, for all I know.

Solomon skillfully makes the case that Rockwell’s work is well worth thoughtful attention. “Each of his Post covers amounts to a one-frame story complete with a protagonist and a plot…” she writes. “In some ways, Rockwell’s paintings, which are grounded in the rendering of the particulars, demand to be ‘read’ like a story. The experience they offer is literary as much as visual, in the sense that he cared less about the sensual dazzle of oil paint than the construction of a seamless narrative. The public that saw and appreciated his paintings walked away from them thinking not about the dominance of cerulean blue or cadmium yellow but about the kid on the twenty-foot-high diving board up in the sky, terrified as he peers over the edge and realizes there is only one way down.”

As for Rockwell the man, he comes off as a decidedly odd duck. An enormously talented odd duck. While perhaps not the most colorful of personalities — which is often just a way of denoting a jerk, anyway — he’s worth reading about too. (Then again, his family might have had some thoughts on Rockwell as a jerk.)

“On most days, he felt lonesome and loveless,” notes Solomon. “His relationships with his parents, wives, and three sons were uneasy, sometimes to the point of estrangement. He eschewed organized activity. He declined to go to church. For decades he had a lucrative gig providing an annual painting for the Boy Scouts calendar, but he didn’t serve as a troop leader or have his own children join the Scouts.

“He was more than a bit obsessive. A finicky eater whose preferred dessert was vanilla ice cream, he once made headlines by decrying the culinary fashion for parsley. He wore his shoes too small. Phobic about dirt and germs, he cleaned his studio several times a day. He washed his brushes and even the surfaces of his paintings with Irovy soap.”

Naturally the book is well illustrated with his work, though only a fraction of (say) his Saturday Evening Post covers, since he did so many (323 from 1916 to 1963). That made me look up more images posted by the Rockwell museums, one in western Massachusetts, another in Vermont (seemingly more of a store for Rockwelliana), both places that he lived. Just more things to see if I ever make it back that way.

Thanksgiving ’16

One of the good things about Thanksgiving is that, while the next day technically isn’t a holiday — and some years ago, I worked for a skinflint who insisted that people work that day — it really is part of the holiday. So for me the thing stretched from Wednesday afternoon to Sunday afternoon (I usually get back to work on Sunday evening, since things need to be filed Monday morning).

Our Thanksgiving meal was pretty much the same as it has been for the last few years, after Lilly took over the making of the major starches: mashed potatoes, stuffing, macaroni and cheese. The meat, ham. The bread, King’s Hawaiian. The drink, Martinelli’s sparkling cider. The dessert, pecan pie. Call it habit, call it tradition.

Time to read: a valuable commodity. Needing something light, I buzzed through Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015), a popular history by Sarah Vowell, which guarantees a humorous tone. Humorous, but with genuine historical information included and, something I particularly like, accounts of her visits to often obscure places and monuments associated with the subject. In this case, sites associated with Lafayette. In the case of the only other book of hers I’ve read, Assassination Vacation, sites associated with the deaths of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.

There was also time over the holiday to watch a few movies, two on the small screen, one on the big screen. Radio Days, which I hadn’t seen since it was new. I appreciate the wonderful soundtrack a lot more now than I did then. Then there was Twelve O’Clock High, a first-rate war movie and Gregory Peck vehicle that I’d never seen before.

On Saturday, we all went to a nearby movie theater. Lilly and Ann wanted to see The Edge of Seventeen, a coming-of-age flick. Yuriko and I weren’t interested in that, so we saw Doctor Strange, a superhero movie about a character I knew virtually nothing about. Been a while since I’ve seen a comic-book inspired movie, especially in the theater. It was better than I expected. The story wasn’t great, but it managed to avoid outright stupidity, and the CGI was astonishingly good.

I also saw pieces of movies over the holiday. Days off or not, I see more pieces of movies now than whole ones, because there’s work to do, but also because I often don’t feeling like sitting through a whole movie, especially ones I’ve seen before, or already decided I don’t need to see.

Between Wednesday and today, I saw pieces of (no more than 30 minutes, no special order): Swing Shift, The Gay Divorcee, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Marie Antoinette (2006), The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Capote, Juno, and Gran Torino. The last two were the only ones I’d never seen before. I lucked into some justly famous scenes in a few cases, such as the escape from burning Atlanta in GWTW, and the particularly memorable Phoebe Cates scene in Fast Times.

The Pigeons of ’48

Missed the big-hairy-deal debate last night. Nothing either of them could say at this point is going to change my mind. This election has gone on long enough already.

Instead I worked, as I usually do on Monday nights, and late in the evening read for pleasure, as I often do. Currently I’m working my way through 1948 by David Pietrusza (2011), which is about (as the subtitle says), “Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory,” or the story of an election that didn’t go on quite so long, and had its share of surprises. I read Pietrusza’s book about presidential politics in 1920 some time ago, and it was fairly good. So is 1948.

I haven’t been in a hurry to get through 1948, diverting into other books as well, such as a second reading of The Right Stuff (first time was in the early ’90s, and well worth the re-read), and first readings of The Basketball Diaries and Death Comes for the Archbishop. It’s a rare time when I just read one thing all the way through to the exclusion of others. I might even take up News from Tartary soon, since it’s been much too long since I read any Peter Fleming.

1948’s got some interesting detail. Here’s an anecdote about the Democratic National Convention that year that I like: “With the convention running three hours and forty-three minutes behind schedule, [Sam] Rayburn nevertheless undertook one last chore before introducing the exceedingly patient Truman: ‘I want to introduce Mrs. Emma Guffey Miller, Pennsylvania delegate-at-large. She has a surprise for us which I hope the convention will enjoy.’

“The plump, white-frocked, seventy-three-year-old Mrs. Miller, younger sister of former Pennsylvania senator Joseph Guffey, had prepared an elaborate, six-foot-high floral display composed of red and while carnations, in the shape of the Liberty Bell. Imprisoned inside it for several hours were forty-eight caged white pigeons, officially and symbolically designated ‘doves of peace.’ In the horrible heat, a couple had already expired. The band stoked up ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and the surviving birds — crazed by the noise, lights, and the heat — exploded out of the opened ‘Liberty Bell.’

“Pigeons flew into the rafters. They dive-bombed delegates. Men and women shouted, ‘Watch your clothes!’

” ‘Though the press delicately did not mention it,’ noted Clark Clifford (who did), the ‘doves of peace began, not surprisingly, to drop the inevitable product of their hours of imprisonment on any delegate who had the bad luck to be underneath them.’

“Some birds landed on the platform. Rayburn frantically shushed them away. One nearly landed on his glistening, bald head… ‘Get those damned pigeons out of here!’ he screamed over live radio and TV.

” ‘As [Truman] spoke,’ Time reported, ‘pigeons teetered on the balconies, on folds of the draperies, on overhead lights, occasionally launched on a quick flight to a more pigeonly position.’

“Thus, Harry Truman’s choice of a crisp, double-breasted white suit that evening may not have been the wisest choice of the campaign…”

Nevertheless, Truman’s ’48 Democratic Convention acceptance speech famously turned out to be a barnburner: “Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it — don’t you forget that!”

Departures and Arrivals

Been reading Departures and Arrivals by Eric Newby (1999) lately. It was his last book, and gives the impression that Newby and his publisher had a conversation something like this:

Publisher: Newby, old man, have you got anything new for us?

Newby: I’m afraid not. As you know, Wanda and I are getting on.

Publisher: Nothing at all?

Newby: Well, there’s always something. I’ve a few files of unpublished pieces.

Publisher: Places you’ve written about before?

Newby: Some of them yes, some no.

Publisher: Let’s see what we can do with that.

So the book reads mostly like a series of diary entries. Mind you, these are Eric Newby’s, so they’re really good diary entries, including items about traveling to places that no sane person would now visit, such as Syria. Also, many of the items were about trips he took in the 1980s and ’90s — times and a few places (England, China) I have first-hand experience with, unlike the Hindu Kush in the 1950s. Somehow it feels different when you read about a more familiar time, even if the place is unfamiliar.

Speaking of reading material, I’ve been receiving AARP’s magazine lately. It’s well edited, of course, since the organization probably devotes more resources to its production than most magazines get. But it also has the same irritating tendency as many other mags to focus on celebrities. I can’t say that I care much what Cyndi Lauper (for example) thinks about life, now that she’s pushing 65 pretty hard.

Even so, AARP is a lobbying group I can get behind as I get older.

One Summer: America, 1927

Bill Bryson’s a most entertaining writer. Recently I spotted his One Summer (2013), subtitled “America, 1927,” at the library and I had to pick it up. I’ve only read a few chapters so far, with accounts of Lindbergh’s flight, Babe Ruth’s season, the Great Mississippi Flood and much more still ahead (which reminds me, I want to read Rising Tide).

So far I’m enjoying it. Among other things early in the book, Bryson discusses the rise of the tabloid in America during the 1920s, kicked off by the Illustrated Daily News in New York, which Col. McCormack had a hand in creating. The following is about a clearly colorful character I’ve never heard of.

“Such success inevitably inspired imitators. First came the New York Daily Mirror from William Randolph Hearst in June 1924, followed three months later by the wondrously dreadful Evening Graphic. The Graphic was the creation of an eccentric, bushy-haired businessman named Bernarr Macfadden…

“Macfadden was a man of strong an exotic beliefs. He didn’t like doctors, lawyers, or clothing. He was powerfully devoted to bodybuilding, vegetarianism, the rights of commuters to a decent railroad service, and getting naked. He and wife wife frequently bemused their neighbors in Englewood, New Jersey by exercising naked on the lawn…

“As a businessman, he seems to have dedicated himself to the proposition that where selling to the public is concerned, no idea is too stupid…. When tabloids became all the rage, Macfadden launched the Evening Graphic. Its most distinguishing feature was that it had almost no attachment to the truth or even, often, a recognizable reality. It conducted imaginary interviews with people it had not met and ran stories by figures who could not possibly have written them… The New Yorker called the Graphic a ‘grotesque fungus,’ but it was a phenomenally successful fungus. By 1927, it’s circulation was nearing six hundred thousand.”

That’s only a small part of the strangeness of Bernarr Macfadden. He even had a go at running for president, though it isn’t clear how seriously. Sounds like a man who liked to hear himself talk. Under just the right circumstances — as we’ve all been reminded of recently — that can get you pretty far.

Wednesday Leftovers

Fine warm day today, the latest in a string of them. Rain ahead. Back again on May 31, after Memorial Day and Decoration Day, one in the same this year. It’s possible I’ll see a few things between now and then.

Some evenings, lights illuminate the baseball field behind our back yard.

Nighttime baseball 2016If the lights suddenly looked like that to our eyes, we’d be alarmed. One of these days, maybe I’ll read the instruction manual for the camera on the subject of nighttime picture-taking. Or maybe not.

This one-panel Bliss from May 2009 was hanging on my office wall until recently. Now it’s in a file. I’ve taken a few things down.

I like a comic that assumes you know “The Rime of Ancient Mariner.” Bliss is still in the Tribune, and still amusing. Not long ago a panel showed a woman opening up blinds to reveal the sun, while a tired-looking man in bed under a blanket says, “Must you press the issue?”

I’m reminded of “When Potato Salad Goes Bad.” Has it been over 20 years since Larson discontinued The Far Side? Apparently it has.

Speaking of a writer that assumes his readers have a certain amount of knowledge, what follows is a passage from Ninety-Two Days (1934) by Evelyn Waugh, which I recently finished. The book’s a highly readable account of his journey through the British Guianan bush and across the border into Brazil, where he comes to the town of Boa Vista.

“Already, in the few hours of my sojourn there, the Boa Vista of my imagination had come to grief. Gone; engulfed in an earthquake, uprooted by a tornado and tossed sky-high like chaff in the wind, scorched up with brimstone like Gomorrah, toppled over with trumpets like Jericho, ploughed like Carthage, brought, demolished and transported brick by brick to another continent as though it had taken the fancy of Mr. Hearst; tall Troy was down.”

Bird update: the young robins seem to have left the nest. That was fast. I’m pretty sure I saw one of them flapping its wings yesterday, getting ready to go. Haven’t seen it since.
Both the duck and the drake were on the garage roof yesterday afternoon, when it was quite warm — mid-80s, which must be warm enough for the duck to leave the eggs a while.

Lately Mars has been in the southern sky, and the nights have been warm enough to spend a few moments looking at the red-orange planet. A small delight. I take them where I can get them.