Monthly Archives: January 2009

Poll Results

Our inaugural poll, which asked what you’d like to be eating right now, has gone off to take a nap.  “Manicotti” got no votes; perhaps I should have specified how that pasta dish would have been prepared.  “Cheese enchilada” and “cheeseburger” tied for third with 19% each.  A quarter of the poll’s respondents selected Filet Mignon, putting it in second place.  The winner, with 38% of the vote, was Profiteroles.  Evidently a majority of you follow the maxim, “life is short, eat dessert first.”  

Thanks for participating — give yourself a hand.  And an antacid tablet!

Wright Flight

A replica Orville on the actual Wright Flyer, National Air and Space Museum

A replica Orville on the actual Wright Flyer, National Air and Space Museum

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first powered, sustained, and controlled flight of an airplane.  The modifier “controlled” is a crucial distinction, because there had been earlier attempts at flight that lacked that component.  Those aviation pioneers were, presumably, identified by their dental records.

Why, then, did the Wright brothers succeed when others had wound up creating debris fields?  Encyclopedia Britannica states it succinctly:  “The Wrights did not make the mistake common to many of their predecessors; i.e., to attempt powered flight without first learning to fly.”  That seems like a fairly important detail, one that would be hard to overlook, but as we know, there are also lots of cars on our highways being operated by people who never learned to drive.

The Wright brothers studied birds, then kites, then tethered gliders and eventually gliders in free flight.  After all that research they felt they were finally ready to attempt powered flight with a man aboard.

And who, you may ask, was that man?  Even though that first flight is always credited to the Wright brothers collectively, obviously only one of them was aboard that flimsy little 600-pound biplane.  The pilot on the first successful flight was Orville Wright, the younger brother.  How was it decided that Orville should have the controls that day:  superior hand-eye coordination, better “feel” for flight, paid-up life insurance policy?  No, as with so many history-making events, it was random chance — a coin flip.

That coin flip had been won several days earlier by Wilbur, as it turns out.  He made the first attempt on December 14, and things didn’t go well.  It took a couple of days to retrieve the broken parts and lash them back together.  A modification was also made to the layout of the takeoff track at Kill Devil Hills.  So now it was Orville’s turn, on a blustery day with 20 mph headwinds.  “Go for it, bro,” Wilbur said.

Orville’s historic flight gained an altitude of twenty feet, lasted twelve seconds, and covered a distance of 120 feet.  The wing span of today’s 747-400 is 211 feet, by the way, so Orville could have taken off and landed on one.  There were three subsequent flights that day; Wilbur, on the final attempt (around noon), stayed aloft for fifty-nine seconds and covered 852 feet.

The Wrights were both lifelong bachelors so had no direct descendants, but their achievement that day left quite a legacy:  long lines, missed connections, cramped seats, infuriating flight delays… in short, an industry so poorly managed that it needs government handouts to survive.  Thanks, guys.

Which Super Bowl Is This?

Maybe the announcers could call the game in Latin

Maybe the announcers could call the game in Latin

This year’s game will be Super Bowl XLIII, but I’d be surprised if there are more than DC or DCC football fans in all L states combined who could tell you off the top of their heads that XLIII is number 43.  Roman numerals may be appropriate for royalty:  Louis XVI, Elizabeth II.  We also tolerate the use of Roman numerals for legal documents:  “The provisions of Title IX, as the plaintiff asserts, are hereby…” and so forth.  But to use that system of numerical notation for a head-knocking, bone-crunching game of football just seems wrong.

I wonder if the National Football League decided to go with Roman numerals to cover the mistake they made by naming it the Super Bowl.  OK, the prefix super–  does mean “above” or “beyond”, and the league’s top brass probably wanted to suggest that their bowl was above and beyond all those bowl games the college kids play.   In common usage, though, super has lost its value; it has become prosaic, as in “Your hair looks super today, Joyce,” or “Did you want to super-size that burger?”

Back in MCMLXVI when the NFL executives were brainstorming about what to call their biggest game, maybe they should have stayed at the conference table a little longer…

“Whatd’ya got, Ernie?”  “I dunno — Sun Bowl?”  “Already taken.  Dwayne?”  “I’m thinking — you ready for this?  The Hegemony Bowl.”  “…The what?”  “”Hegemony.  It means world domination, and I think that kind of captures what we’re all about here.”

After a lot of paper shuffling and throat-clearing, it was agreed that Super Bowl would be a place-holder name — just for the time being, they assured each other.  Then someone suggested that using Roman numerals to designate each year’s edition would give the game a touch of class.

“Hm.  Yeah, it’s pretentious — I like it.”

With that, the meeting was adjourned, and we’ve been stuck with Super Bowl ever since.

As far as the 2009 Super Bowl is concerned, here’s my prediction:  Pittsburgh Steelers XXVII  Arizona Cardinals XXI.  Enjoy the game.  Oh — and Hail, Caesar!


Czech, Please

Main train station, Prague (Praha)

Main train station, Prague (Praha)

One of the challenges of traveling abroad is the language barrier.  I speak some Spanish, although a lot of it is phrases I remember from school.   Many of those phrases, I have discovered, have little application in real-life circumstances:  “¿Donde está su cuaderno?” (“Where is your notebook?”) hasn’t come up all that often in my travels.  Other than Spanish, I have a little grab-bag of French, Italian and German words.  When we go to countries where those languages aren’t spoken, I make a point of learning a few words and phrases in, say, Turkish or Greek or Czech — whatever is appropriate for the country we’re visiting.  And in those countries, I always arm myself beforehand with the five words that are absolutely essential to communication anywhere in the world:  “yes”, “no”, “please”, “thank you” and “beer”.



Less than a decade after the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe had ended, I made a journey by train from Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Vienna, Austria.  The following is an entry in my travel journal for July 2, 1998.  It illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to speak in something other than one’s native tongue…

The main train station in Prague still has signage in Russian, and looks like what we always thought Iron Curtain countries had to endure in terms of amenities… or lack thereof.  It’s gloomy.  The train did pull away from platform 2 promptly at 9:21.

The villages and Czech countryside are picturesque, but the larger towns tend to reflect the “progress” inflicted by the previous regime:  boxy concrete buildings and rusty train stations.  My “first-class” cabin shares space with a middle-aged couple who speak Spanish; across the aisle are two Americans, presumably mother and daughter.  I’m pretty sure they are stowing away in this car.  When the conductor came to check tickets, they pretended to be asleep.  He eventually got them to wake up, and they had to pay a supplement.

The rolling farmland occasionally gave way to hillsides covered with pine and birch, and there was a river that ran alongside the track for several miles.  I managed to avoid speaking to anyone for a couple of hours.  Then I gave myself away to the Spanish speakers (who proved to be from Chile) when I tried to point out a deer (“¡ciervo!”) in the woods to the señora.  After that, they referred questions to me in Spanish — things about where we were, would the authorities stamp our passports, etc.  It was strange — I was having to summon up my Spanish after several days of trying to communicate with a handful of Czech words.

The process for crossing the frontier by rail was stressful.  At the border town of Breclav, two Czech policemen boarded the train to inspect passports; they were followed by a platoon of armed Austrian border guards.  I spoke Czech to the Czechs, German to the Austrians, all the while explaining the situation in Spanish to the anxious couple from Chile.  After that experience I treated myself to a croissant (French word) and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell pivo (the Czech word for beer).

Aboard the Smetana (the name of my train), the Chileans tried to keep a conversation going all the way to Vienna, which, mercifully, wasn’t too much farther.  The train pulled into Sudbahnhof station about 2:45 p.m.  I waved farewell to the Chileans —  I probably said “vaya con queso” — and stumbled off the train with a blinding headache from my multilingual efforts…

We Knew It For The Test

Capital of Vermont... starts with an "M"...

Capital of Vermont... starts with an "M"...

Back in our school days, most of us developed the ability to fill our short-term memories with facts.  We would retain things like “What is the symbol for silver on the Periodic Table of Elements?” (Ag) or “What is an attributive adjective?”  (Your guess is as good as mine).  By the time the school term ended, though, those facts had been flushed from our brains so that we could make room for the next batch of facts on which we’d be tested.  As a result, many of us can no longer recall from high school, say, the capital of Vermont (Montpelier) — what we remember is important stuff, like that kid named Leland in Geography class who used to pick his nose and wipe it on his pants.

Try this one:  Why is January 20th Inauguration Day?

Come on, we all used to know this… let’s see, did it have something to do with — no, that’s not it…

Time’s up!  Pencils down.  Originally Inauguration Day was March 4th, but the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution changed the date to January 20th.  The Twentieth Amendment, as we also used to know, was ratified in 1933, so Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20th.

The primary purpose of the amendment was to shorten the time between the election and when elected officials actually went to work.  The Founding Fathers and their successors knew that a newly-elected president needed time to close up his cottage and hire a carriage to take him to the far-off U.S. capital, which is why March 4th had originally been established as report-to-work day.  Among other things, the 20th Amendment reflected 20th-century modes of travel.

By the way, I didn’t remember the details about the 20th Amendment, either — I had to look them up.  One thing I do know is that I’m going to remember this particular inauguration, and what it says about the United States of America, for the rest of my life.

Blondin’s Question

Blondin -- Niagara Falls, 1859

Blondin -- Niagara Falls, 1859

For a couple of summers in the mid-19th century, many thousands of Americans thrilled to the exploits of a Frenchman who, on several occasions, crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  He was called Blondin, or sometimes The Great Blondin, although his real name was Jean Francois Gravelet.  On June 30, 1859, he made the first transit of the gorge below the Falls.  (It’s tempting to say that he made quite a splash by not making a splash, but that’s too easy.) 

After that first walk, he did it quite a few more times, always adding some new daredevil element.  Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on stilts, on a bicycle, blindfolded, at night… one time he pushed a wheelbarrow along the tightrope;  in the wheelbarrow was a stove.  When Blondin reached the middle of the tightrope, he got out the stove, upon which he cooked an omelet.  He ate the omelet and then completed the crossing.

I first heard of Blondin’s exploits in a sermon many years ago.  The minister cited Blondin to illustrate the difference between mere beliefs and actual faith.  He told a story that may or may not be factual, but the gist of it was that Blondin was discussing with an associate the next variation for crossing Niagara Falls.  He had hit upon the idea of walking that tightrope, 160 above the water, while carrying a man on his back.  Blondin asked his friend if he thought it was possible.

“Of course,” the guy said.  “After what you have already accomplished, it should be no problem to cross the Falls with a man on your back.”  Blondin nodded his agreement and then responded:

“Will you be that man?”

Although the minister’s point about having the courage of our convictions was made in a spiritual context, it applies to ethical, political and matrimonial issues as well.

Blondin’s fifth crossing of Niagara Falls was with a man on his back.  The man, incidentally, was his manager, Harry Colcord.  There is no historical record of whether Colcord then demanded a higher percentage from his client.

Is Something Up?

Down the hatch?

Down the hatch?

Even in hard times — perhaps especially in hard times — people drink.  That has been the historical pattern, but apparently not so these days.  A recent issue of the Los Angeles Times Business section (1/10/2009) reported the following:  “In July, trade publication Wine & Spirits Daily reported that more than 40% of bar managers, bar owners and bartenders surveyed said they had seen a decrease in consumer traffic, while 25% noted a decrease in the number of drinks ordered and 22% said that customers were ordering less expensive drinks.”

It’s true that this news is not all bad, because it presumably cuts down on the number of drunk drivers on our roads.  That’s a good thing.  But the reduction in bar business is one more example of the downward trend in, well — pretty much everything.  On a daily basis we’re getting news that retail sales are down, movie ticket sales are down, construction is down, jobs are down, broadcast TV viewing is down, car sales are down, etc.  Now we find out that even “bottoms up” is down.

But everything can’t be down, can it?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that if, for example, new car sales are down, then auto repairs (for the clunkers we presently own) should be up?  That may not be the ideal illustration; I’m just saying that even in difficult financial times, people don’t just sit in a corner and stare at the wall for 18 hours a day.  Here’s what I’m wondering:  What’s up?  (Besides anxiety, of course.)  Any thoughts?

Blackout in Belize


Hard to imagine, but this Belize airport was once a jungle

Hard to imagine, but this Belize airport was once a jungle

 Belize (formerly British Honduras) is a small Central American country on the Caribbean coast.  It has a lot to offer in the way of natural beauty, but not much in the way of infrastructure, like paved roads or reliable electricity.  Belize has no generating plants, for example — it buys all its power from neighboring Mexico.  In spite of those liabilities, it somehow became a trendy place to go for honeymoons and so-called destination weddings.   One of the places we stayed was full of guests who were there for those reasons; none of us had been told before we arrived that the lodge where we were staying was under repair due to a recent fire that had destroyed much of the “resort”.  The following is an entry from my travel journal, dated May 16, 2003:

…Several of us attended the marriage of guests Frank and Claire.  Even the workmen took a break from their incessant hammering and sawing to watch the proceedings.  Once the ceremony was over, we jumped back in the swimming pool, there being no reception.  When we got back to the room, we had neither water nor power, so Sally and I sat on our porch, drank a beer, and enjoyed each other’s company.

Eventually a trickle of water came out of the shower head, so we were able to wash off the sunscreen and bug repellent and chlorine and perspiration.  Then we went back out on the porch.  While we were there, two little boys came by on a bicycle.  Suspended on the handlebars were two coolers filled with coconut bread and pies that their mother had made.  We invested a dollar (BZ) in their enterprise, and enjoyed a very tasty small round loaf of still-warm bread.

It was now late afternoon and the power was still off.  The owner of the lodge passed by and informed us that the power was out in the entire country!  They expected it to be back on between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m.  Sure enough, it came back on at 6:32.  And failed again two minutes later.  We were served dinner by hurricane lamp.  Frank and Claire sat with us on their wedding night.  They were supposed to get a romantic dinner on the beach, but since the power was out it was going to be too dangerous for employees to bring them dinner without lights.  They were stuck making small talk with us.

We were given candles and matches to take to our rooms, since no one knew for sure when we’d have electricity again.  Sally and I sat on the beach and admired the play of moonlight on the water.  The juice came back on about 8:15 p.m.  Way up the coast we could see that the rest of Belize was getting power back, too…

Saint Sebastian: That Had To Hurt

St. Sebastian -- Mantegna, c. 1455    Kunsthistoriches, Vienna

St. Sebastian -- Mantegna, c. 1455 Kunsthistoriches, Vienna

It’s an image that, once you’ve seen it, is pretty hard to forget:  A near-naked guy, tied to a post, has been shot full of arrows.  The victim, identified as Saint Sebastian, is the subject of hundreds of paintings and sculptures.  Among the artists who have painted that gruesome scene are Botticelli, Rubens, Bellini, Van Dyck and (shown here) Andrea Mantegna.  There were many earlier artists who also commemorated Sebastian’s agony, but the Medieval painters were still having their struggles with things like perspective and human facial expressions, so images from that era aren’t as powerful.  In Hans Memling’s version, for example, Sebastian almost appears to be smirking, as though he’s tolerating a youthful prank.

I’ve seen Sebastian suffering in several art museums and churches, and wondered what his crime was, and why his attorney wasn’t able to get his sentence reduced to, say, having his fingernails yanked out.  I went to the semi-official Catholic website (where by the way, they currently have some great deals on saint medallions) to find out what the story was.  As with most of the “biographies” of early martyrs, a tiny nougat of fact is heavily encrusted with legend and tradition.

Sebastian lived in third-century Rome, and was supposedly a Captain in the Praetorian Guard.  Those guys were, in effect, the Secret Servicemen for the emperors.  Sebastian was part of the bodyguard detail for Diocletian,  whose reign was notable for adminstrative reforms and persecution of Christians.  Somehow Diocletian found out that Sebastian was a Christian and had been converting some other members of the Praetorian Guard.  In 286 C.E., Diocletian ordered Sebastian tied to a post and shot with arrows, giving later generations of artists something to paint.

Get this, though — Sebastian didn’t die from his wounds.  A woman who later became known as St. Irene nursed him back to health.  Once all those arrow holes healed up, though, Sebastian confronted Diocletian, calling him out in front of a bunch of the emperor’s subjects.  Diocletian didn’t take any chances this time.  Depending on which source you believe, the emperor either had Sebastian stoned to death or beaten to death with clubs in 287 C.E.  Sebastian’s body was taken to the Appian Way and turned into part of the roadbed.

For reasons that aren’t clear to me, Sebastian is now the patron saint of athletes.  Perhaps it’s because, as we can see from the many paintings of his torso, he was buff.  (Or “cut”, as we body-building enthusiasts like to say.)  Saint Sebastian’s feast day is January 20, and is a national holiday in Spain.  In the U.S., January 20 is known, every four years, as Inauguration Day.  There is no connection between that and Sebastian; I’m just noting the coincidence. 

Let me be among the first to wish you a happy Saint Sebastian’s Day, and remind you to use your bow and arrows responsibly.


rose-bowl-2004There were 34 college football bowl games this year, which means that 68 teams got to participate.  That’s more than half of the 119 schools in Division I;  about a dozen of those teams are actually good.  In other words, there were a lot of mediocre teams whose fans got to travel to some exotic location like Shreveport or Detroit or El Paso during the holiday season.

For even the most devoted football fan, it’s simply not possible to watch the telecast of every game, since life’s responsibilities intrude — things like eating and sleeping and opening Christmas presents.  As a public service, here are a few notes on games you may have missed…

Sun Bowl:  Oregon State 3  Pittsburgh 0

The game’s only score came when Jason Kahut trotted onto the field dressed in a football uniform and kicked a field goal.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s offense was amazingly balanced:  the Panthers had a total of 89 yards rushing and 89 yards passing.

International Bowl:  Connecticut 38   Buffalo 20

UConn running back Donald Brown carried 29 times for 261 yards, a 9.0 average.  Immediately after the game he announced that he’d be turning pro in spite of earlier assurances that he would return for his senior season.  His girlfriend now wonders if he really meant it when he told her earlier, “Of course I love you, Sugar”.

GMAC Bowl:   Tulsa 45  Ball State 13

This was contested in the closest conditions to playing in an actual bowl — a bowl full of water.  A driving rainstorm throughout the game in Mobile, AL, was partly responsible for Ball State QB Nate Davis completing only 9 of 29 pass attempts.

Outback Bowl   Iowa 31  South Carolina 10

The Iowa Hawkeyes were the only Big Ten team to win a bowl game (out of seven that tried).  South Carolina QB Chris Smelley replaced starter Stephen Garcia, who was downright stinky:  he threw three interceptions and also fumbled.

Music City Bowl  Vanderbilt 16  Boston College 14

This was Vanderbilt’s first appearance in a bowl game since 1982, and its first win in a bowl game since 1955.  Apparently it took the Commodores a while to get comfortable playing the game while wearing helmets and facemasks.

Champs Sports   Florida St. 42  Wisconsin 13

The game’s MVP award was given to Florida State punter Graham Gano, who averaged 48.2 yards on 5 punts.  This is an actual post-game quote from Gano:  “I think this was my best game punting.  It really has a lot to do with the other guys; Zach (Aronson) snapped the ball well and I didn’t have any pressure so the guys blocked really well.”  Gano’s counterpart for Wisconsin punted 6 times — he must have been steamed that he didn’t win the MVP.

In a few months we’ll be revisiting college football; I have no plans to turn pro (at this time).