Monthly Archives: April 2009

Name Calling

"You're right, Mr. Shakespeare, this abscess does smell as sweet."

"You're right, Mr. Shakespeare, this abscess does smell as sweet."

In one of his most popular dramas, playwright William Shakespeare had a character named Juliet muse rhetorically, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose would smell as sweet.”  It was her way of rationalizing that she and a kid named Romeo should turn their backs on their feuding families, fall passionately in love, and (spoiler alert!) wind up dead by the end of the play.  The name Romeo, of course, has since come to characterize any guy who’s a lady-killer:  “Watch out for him, Cindy.  From what I hear he’s a real Romeo.”

Makes you wonder if Mr. And Mrs. Montague could have avoided a lot of heartache if they hadn’t called their baby Romeo.  What to name the baby has been important to parents forever, and over time, tastes have changed quite a bit in that department.  Old favorites from the Bible, such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah, were standards for quite a while; then Anglo-Saxon names like Edward and Jane and Elizabeth had their heyday. Old standbys William and Susan and John began to fade in popularity during the 1970s when names like Lake, Stream, River and Tributary started showing up on birth certificates.

When naming a child after a terrain feature or a mythical beast began to seem passé, a few parents took the step of abandoning existing nouns; they would simply string some random vowels and consonants together, as in “Cryrsthmik”.  Then they would frostily inform you that it’s Welsh, and it’s pronounced Brendan.

The latest trend in baby naming has surfaced in the Dominican Republic, where a judge has submitted a proposal that would establish limits on odd names.  What set off Judge Aquinas (first name José) was the deplorable tendency among some Dominicans to give their children monikers that are trademarked brands, or even body parts.  The country’s civil register yielded the following examples of names the judge would like to have banned:  Mazda Altagracia, Toshiba Fidelina, Querida Piña (Dear Pineapple), Tonton (Dummy) Ruiz, and Seno (Breast) Jimenez.  I have to agree with the judge:  naming a child Breast is inviting a lifetime of unwanted comments.

The proposal probably has no chance of becoming law, but in calling attention to the problem, Judge Aquinas gave me an idea:  why not sell naming rights for children, just as cities do for ballparks?

What would be so wrong with calling your daughter AT&T or PETCO, if the corporation came through with a hefty donation to her scholarship fund?  If a major fruit-drink producer can afford to pay Houston $170 million to have its name on the stadium, I’ll bet they’d cough up a few grand to call your little guy Minute Maid, don’t you think?  OK, let’s get this rolling — I’ll give you ten bucks to name your kid Tom Reeder’s Blog.  And you can even keep your last name!

Isn’t It Romantic?


monument-valley1In the travel brochures, your prospective destination always looks perfect:  the sun is shining, the sky is clear, perhaps there’s a puffy cloud or two on the horizon.  That’s because visitors’ bureaus are smart enough not to publish photos of, say, Paris in a driving rainstorm, or Yellowstone the day after a forest fire.  When you make your travel plans, though, there’s no guarantee that you’ll arrive on a day that has those ideal conditions you had allowed yourself to expect.  Of course, the unexpected is one of the reasons you travel. 

Sally and I had mapped out a road trip through the American Southwest that included a stay in Monument Valley.  Near the Four Corners, where the borders of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico meet, its buttes and mesas have been the setting for countless Western movies.  Monument Valley is a serenely beautiful place.  It was in the travel brochures, anyway.  We got a somewhat different view of it, as noted in my journal for April 25, 1998:

Monument Valley is operated as a Navajo Tribal Park.  There is a Visitor’s Center, which charges $2.50 per person.  On the grounds surrounding the Visitor’s Center are many tour operators eking out a living.  We looked around briefly, then headed for Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post.  Somewhat surprisingly, our room was ready when we presented ourselves at about 12:25 p.m.  We inquired about the tours which Goulding’s operates.  Sally had mentioned that this was our wedding anniversary — the desk clerk recommended the sunset tour as being “very romantic”.

We had lunch in the dining room — soup and salad bar.  As we came out, skies were darkening, and not long afterward, a little rain fell.  On the horizon, there were flashes of lightning.  From a photographic standpoint, the monuments were getting less and less picturesque.

The tour was to depart at 4:00, and even though the sky wasn’t promising, we decided to go for it.  After all, it would be romantic, even if our pictures weren’t great.  (Incidentally, the 3½ hour tour was $30 per person.)  Eight of us — and two more joined us later — piled into the back of a converted pickup truck.  There was a framework which supported isinglass flaps.  The side on which we chose to sit had the flap rolled up, so at least our view wasn’t obscured.  The scenery is dramatic, all the more so for the threatening clouds.  Our driver and guide was a Navajo woman named Carol.  We set off into the valley on deeply-rutted dirt roads.  There was a cold wind blowing across the desert, which coated all of us with a layer of red dust.

We were jostled by the ride to the extent that one of our fellow passengers compared it to white-water rafting.  The truck threw us around violently as it lurched along the dirt track, we were cold, we were dirty, our teeth got gritty from the dust.  So what else could we do?  We laughed.

That day was our 29th wedding anniversary.  On April 25th this year, we celebrate our 40th.  Among other things, that number represents a lot of romance, much of it expressed through laughter.

A Brief History of Tomatoes

tomatoesOne would assume there is a lot of tension in the hall when tomato historians gather for their professional conferences and symposia.  That’s because there is general agreement among them on only a few basic facts; after that, tomato lore is a stew of opinions, legends, and outright falsehoods.

To separate fact from fantasy, let’s begin by summarizing the points on which tomato authorities are able to agree.  The plant is native to South America, and somehow made its way to Mexico, where it was grown by Aztecs.  There is evidence that they ate tomatoes in a mixture with peppers, corn, and salt — in effect, a primitive salsa recipe.

How tomatoes got from Central America to Europe is one of the many scholarly disputes.  Some credit Christopher Columbus; others insist that Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, was responsible.  In any case, the first mention of tomatoes in European literature was in 1544 by an Italian botanist.  It was incorporated into Italian cooking in the late 17th or early 18th century — a difference of fifty years or so and of no real consequence.  (Unless you’re a tomato expert and have your professional reputation staked on it!)

In Britain and its colonies, the tomato was believed to be poisonous, or at least inedible, until the mid-1700s.  That may have been due to its being of the genus Solanaceae, making it a cousin of deadly nightshade.  The British had a lot of experience with inedible food since that was pretty much all they ate, so someone eventually bit into one and convinced others to do likewise.

How Americans were persuaded to try tomatoes is frequently explained by an anecdote that has gotten wide circulation, but is sneered at by the cognoscenti.  Supposedly people in the United States were afraid to eat raw tomatoes until 1830 (or 1820, according to some), when a man named Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, New Jersey, and dared to eat one (or several, depending on whom you believe).  The assembled crowd gasped, expecting Col. Johnson to drop dead.  When he didn’t, hearts and minds — and appetites — were changed.  It’s a nice story, but in his groundbreaking work The Tomato in America, author Andrew F. Smith insists it isn’t true.  Even if it isn’t, it should be noted that the tomato is now the state vegetable of New Jersey.  That is in spite of the assertion by some that the tomato is not a vegetable at all, but a fruit.  Space does not permit us to explore that controversy.

In 1897, Joseph Campbell put condensed tomato soup on the market, increasing American consumption of the vegetable (or fruit).  Today, the United States produces around eleven million tons of tomatoes, making it second in worldwide production to — who else — China, which grows thirty million tons of tomatoes annually.

So now you’re up to date.  And before you try to lure me into the toe-may-toe/toe-mah-toe dispute, let’s call the whole thing off.

The Midnight Ride

Granary Burying Ground, Boston

Granary Burying Ground, Boston

If you were born before, oh, 1970 or so, you had an English teacher who swooned over Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  That teacher may have even made you memorize one of that poet’s most famous works.  See if this seems familiar…  Listen, my children, and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,/On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;/Hardly a man is now alive/Who remembers that famous day and year.

Since the day and year Longfellow mentions was April 18, 1775, his assertion that hardly a man is still alive is factually correct.  That’s one of the few things in the poem that is true.  This being the 234th anniversary of the event, I thought it might be worth comparing the poem to what actually happened.

First of all, Paul Revere did ride that night, but he wasn’t alone, as Longfellow suggests.  There was a second rider, by the name of William Dawes.  They were both headed for Lexington, a town about ten miles southeast of Boston.  The objective was to warn John Hancock (later famous for insurance and signatures) and Samuel Adams (Mmm, wouldn’t a cold Samuel Adams go good right now?)  Those two needed to be alerted that the king’s soldiers were headed to Lexington to arrest them.

Paul Revere did arrange for the sexton of Old North Church to signal with lamps from the steeple:  “one if by land”, as the poem says, and “two if by sea”.  But Longfellow got it wrong on a couple of counts.  Two if by sea?  What sea — the Red(coat) Sea?  It was actually “two if the soldiers are crossing the Charlestown River to head for Lexington.”  Furthermore, the signal wasn’t for Revere, it was for the benefit of the colonists in Charlestown, in case both Revere and Dawes got captured.  In other words, the steeple signals were a sort of Plan B — Paul Revere had already ridden, and, by a different route, so had William Dawes.

Both riders reached Lexington, Revere about a half-hour before Dawes.  They tipped off John Hancock and Sam Adams that the troops were on the way.  The plan now called for Revere and Dawes to head on to Concord, where the locals had hidden their arsenal.  They were joined by a third rider, a doctor named Samuel Prescott.  He happened to be in Lexington and awake at that hour because, according to at least one historian, “he was returning from a lady friend’s house”.  Joining the ride probably gave him a good excuse when he got home the next morning and his wife demanded, “where the hell have you been!?”

Not long after they left Lexington, Revere, Dawes, and Prescott got stopped at a roadblock by the king’s troops.  Dawes escaped by jumping his horse over a low wall, but shortly thereafter he fell off his horse and was done for the night.  Paul Revere was detained at gunpoint for questioning.  Dr. Prescott escaped and was the only one of the three who made it to Concord to warn the militia there that trouble was on its way.

Incidentally, as he rode through Middlesex County, Paul Revere did not yell “The British are coming!”  According to his own later account, what he said was, “The regulars are coming out!”  At that point, most colonists still thought of’ themselves as British, so they wouldn’t be alarmed that the British were coming; if they heard somebody hollering that, they merely would have wondered how much that loudmouth on horseback had to drink.

I’m not suggesting that Paul Revere didn’t do anything important that night — he certainly did.  It’s just that he doesn’t deserve all the credit.  And I suppose you can’t blame Longellow for making a hero out of Revere at the expense of the others.  It was just the rotten luck of Willam Dawes that his name didn’t make for stirring rhymes:  flaws, in-laws, coleslaw… Nah.

Every Good Boy Does Fine

Won't need this map, I have a mnemonic device.

Won't need this map, I have a mnemonic device.

A number of years ago there was a politician in California who was competent in most ways, but he had a serious liability for anyone in his profession: he had trouble remembering names.  Influential citizens and donors — especially donors — like to think they’re on a first-name basis with the governor, and a blank stare shatters that illusion.  An aide to this particular politician urged his boss to use this helpful memory aid:  “When you’re introduced to someone, imagine that they just gave you a hundred-thousand bucks.”

We all use tricks like that in an effort to memorize stuff.  The fancy term for these memory aids is mnemonic devices (pronounced Neh-MON-ic).  Not that I knew that when I was six or seven years old and was learning to read music.  My piano teacher taught me that the lines on the treble clef (E-G-B-D-F) could be remembered by the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine”.  My piano playing demonstrated that was nonsense; I didn’t do fine at all.  Or maybe I was deluding myself that I was a good boy.  The spaces on the treble clef, by the way, spell FACE.

Another early memory aid was A Rat In The House May Eat The Ice Cream, which helped me remember how to spell arithmetic.  A few years later, I correctly answered a test question about the names of the Great Lakes by remembering HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior).  I still recall the names of  U.S. presidents #9 through 15 by splitting those names into groups of three and making the middle name in each group a violent verb:  Tyler -POKE (Polk) – Taylor; Fillmore – PIERCE – Buchanan.  For adolescent boys it was a fun way to learn, especially if there was a classmate nearby to poke and pierce with an elbow or fist while reciting the list.

My wife Sally was taught a mnemonic device by her father that he probably learned from his.  It was a bit of doggerel that helped her remember the north-south streets in downtown Los Angeles, when traveling in a westerly direction:  “From MAIN we SPRING to BROADWAY and over the HILL to OLIVE.  Wouldn’t it be GRAND if we could HOPE to pick a FLOWER on FIGUEROA?”  Now that there’s MapQuest and GPS, you would think she could safely erase that from her memory bank, but no — it’s stuck there forever.

Similarly, I can’t banish the mnemonic “Do men ever visit Boston?” from my brain.  It helps me remember something that is utterly useless to me:  the ranking order of the British peerage.  There’s absolutely no reason for me to need to know that, in descending order, it’s Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron.  It’s not like I’m rubbing elbows with peers of the realm on a daily basis, remembering to call a duke “Your Grace”, but only greeting an earl with “My Lord”.

That’s the value of a good mnemonic device, of course.  No matter how inconsequential the facts it helps you retain — you’re simply not going to forget them.  What about you?   What mnemonic device is permanently imbedded in your cerebral cortex?  Also, do you have one that will help me spell mnemonic without looking it up?

The Middle of Down Under


Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia

Because Australia is so far from North America, it’s not the sort of place you can conveniently go for a long weekend.  Even if you could, it wouldn’t be advisable: there is simply so much to see and do there that you’ll need more time than you have, no matter how much that is.  When we planned a visit in 1995, I was determined to pack as many sights as possible into the two weeks we had.  Sydney was a must, we knew… and Melbourne… and the Great Barrier Reef, of course… and the Outback.  Even with a hurry-up-let’s-go schedule, we were only able to sample a small portion of Autralia’s unique charms.  What follows is a portion of one day there, as noted in my travel journal.

I should mention that we began the day in the city of Cairns — the staging area, so to speak, for visits to the Great Barrier Reef.  We had been there for a couple of days, and now I had us headed into the Outback for a visit to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock.  Located in the center of the continent, it is an enormous red monolith that rises from a flat plain extending many miles in every direction.

This excerpt also makes reference to the digiridoo (there are alternate spellings, but I’m going with this one).  It is a musical instrument, usually made from the branch of a eucalyptus tree that has been hollowed out by termites.  The digiridoo is typically several feet long — sometimes up to ten feet.  The musician blows into it, and it produces a deep, droning sound.  Trust me — it won’t have you snapping your fingers and tapping your toe.  OK, so here’s some of what I wrote about our day on April 26, 1995:

…Our flight to Ayers Rock was via Alice Springs.  On the way, the man who was sitting next to Sally defiled Scotch by mixing it with (shudder) Coke.  In the Alice Springs airport, a gift shop employee occasionally gave performances on the digiridoo.  It’s a small enough airport that it was filled with the droning sound of that Aboriginal instrument.  At one point I had to go to the counter and say, “Excuse me, but because of the digiridoo, I couldn’t quite hear that last announcement.”  First time that’s ever come up.

The flight from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock takes 37 minutes, and the flight attendants must set some sort of speed record.  They managed to distribute sandwiches and fruit and beverages on a 37 minute flight. 

We checked into the Sails In The Desert Hotel, which is part of a group known collectively as The Ayers Rock Resort.  We made arrangements for a taxi service to take us on a sunset drive around Ayers Rock.  The driver picked us up at 5:00, along with several other travelers.  Seen from a distance, Uluru (as the locals call it) reminded me of the back of an enormous whale emerging from a flat sea.  The rock is the only thing that breaks the horizontal plane of the plain for many miles around. 

We made a circuit of the rock, stopping once or twice for photos.   Whenever any of us got out of the van, we were swarmed by small black flies, who particularly seemed to be interested in the mucous membranes of our eyes, noses, and mouths.  The driver has apparently gotten used to them, but the rest of us found them quite annoying.  Swiping your hand in front of your face to shoo away the flies is known as The Ayers Rock Salute.

We got to a sunset viewing spot around 5:30.  There were perhaps 50 or 60 cars already there, along with quite a few motorcycles.    As we stood watching Ayers Rock change hues of red with the setting sun, our driver Peter served us each a glass of champagne…

From This Point, Your Wait Will Be…

An April morning in the Louvre

An April morning in the Louvre

A British publication called the Art Newspaper annually publishes rankings of the world’s most visited museums, based on attendance figures.  Publicizing the throngs of visitors is a little like someone telling a first date that he’s broke and has a violent temper.  Why publicize your least attractive trait?  I seriously doubt that anyone chooses to go to an art museum based on the likelihood of getting jostled by German tourists.

The figures are also a little misleading because the list only includes art museums; attractions like the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., with its five million annual visitors, are excluded.  For what it’s worth, here are the world’s most visited (art) museums for 2008, with a few comments of my own…

1) The Louvre, Paris     8.5 million visitors

Once the palace of Louis XIV, it became a museum in 1793.  This massive building displays over 35,000 works of art and houses many, many more.  In addition to European paintings, there are Near Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities — well, a lot of just about anything that is considered art.  It is not only the most visited, it is arguably the most famous museum in the world — if not necessarily the best.

Visitor Info:  Closed Tuesdays.  Admission is €9 for the permanent collections; €13 for permanent collections and temporary exhibitions.  In the past, admission has been free on Bastille Day (July 14), but I’m not sure that’s still the case.

Star Attractions:  Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Slaves.

2) The British Museum, London     5.93 million

Masterpieces of painting are on display elsewhere in London, so this is not what we often think of as an art museum, with gallery after gallery of canvas in ornate gilt frames.  The museum opened in 1759 when the British Empire sprawled across the globe, so loot from around the world was brought here.  Some countries are trying to get their treasures back, but in the meantime — they’re in the British Museum.

Visitor Info:  Open every day.  Admission is free, except for some special exhibitions.

Star Attractions:  The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon), the Magna Carta.

3) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.     4.96 million

A relative newcomer among the world’s great museums, it opened in the early 1940s, thanks to the donated collection of financier Andrew Mellon and others.  The National Gallery is located on the Mall, at 4th and Constitution.  A second wing, the East Building, opened in 1978.

Visitor Info:  Open daily; admission is free.

Star Attractions:  Ginevra de Benci (Leonardo da Vinci), Woman Holding a Balance (Vermeer), Self-Portrait (Vincent Van Gogh).

4) Tate Modern, London     4.95 million

This branch of the Tate was created in 2000, residing in what was an abandoned power station on the Southwark side of the Thames.  The original Tate, now called Tate Britain, was named for its principal benefactor, Sir Henry Tate.  (He got stinking rich by patenting a method to make sugar into cubes.)  The collection outgrew the building, so Tate Britain now has only British art; Tate Modern exhibits international modern art.

Visitor Info:  Open daily; admission is free except for major exhibitions.  A ferry runs between the Tate Modern and Tate Britain — cost for the boat ride is £5.

Star Attractions:  Water-Lilies (Claude Monet), The Three Dancers (Pablo Picasso), The Kiss (Rodin).

5) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City     4.82 million

American tycoons got a relatively late start in acquiring art — Europeans had been at it for hundreds of years before Americans jumped into the market.  The Yanks were able to make some fine purchases, though, and a lot of them eventually wound up here.  The museum opened in 1872, but moved to its current Central Park location in 1880.

Visitor Info:  Closed Mondays, except holiday Mondays.  Admission:  $20 for adults; children under 12 free.

Star Attractions:  Aristotle With A Bust of Homer (Rembrandt), The Musicians (Caravaggio), Washington Crossing The Delaware (Emanuel Leutze), Juan de Pareja (Velázquez).

In spite of my earlier grumbles about the crowds, I encourage you to visit an art museum soon.  With luck, maybe you’ll be there on a slow day.

Who Were The Vandals?

Not exactly the sack of Rome, but vandals were here

Not exactly the sack of Rome, but vandals were here

Recently our car got “keyed” in a parking lot; some vandal used a car key or other sharp object to put a long gouge into the paint.  Whenever we encounter an act of vandalism, it probably occurs to all of us, “Why?  What’s the fun of doing that?”  After our little incident, I also found myself wondering who the original Vandals were, and what they did to have their name become synonymous with senseless acts of destruction (my mind wanders a lot).

The historical Vandals were a Germanic tribe that got chased out of their original home by the Huns, and headed west.  They looted and pillaged and spray-painted their way through Gaul, made a left turn into Spain, and eventually settled in North Africa around AD 400.  Apparently Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, saw the strategic value of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) as a good base for raiding the Mediterranean.  There are various accounts of how the Vandals took Carthage, but the one I like has the Vandals entering the city without a fight because the Carthaginians were all at the hippodrome watching the horse races.

In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, turf wars were going on among the various gangs of Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Huns and so forth, but what they all seemed to have in common was bad intentions toward the Roman Empire.  By the fifth century, the Romans weren’t doing themselves any favors, either — things sort of go sour when your emperor is eight years old (Valentinian III). 

The barbarian tribes took turns sacking Rome.  The Gauls got the first shot at Rome’s goodies in 387; the Visigoths were next in 410.  Then, when the insurance companies had finally settled all the Roman citizens’ claims and the grandeur was restored, King Gaiseric led the Vandals into the Eternal City for fourteen days of pillage and plunder in AD 455.  The Roman citizens said, “Oh, crap, not again” when the Ostrogoths rolled into town in 546.  There were several more waves of extremely rude tourists that occupied Rome after that, but you get the idea.

So with all those sacks of Rome, why were the Vandals singled out to have their name sullied?  According to most experts, the Vandals weren’t guilty of significantly greater atrocities than any of the other tribes who ripped the Romans a new one.  It was historians a couple of centuries ago who defamed the Vandals; the verb “vandalized” first appeared in print around 1800.  Maybe it was easier to say than, “Poor Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins.  A scoundrel Ostrogothed their carriage.”

Some of the resentment of the Vandals may have had to do with their fierce persecution of Catholics; after all, a lot of the early note-taking was done by monks, giving them an opportunity for revisionist revenge.  Perhaps the strongest connection between the Vandals of history and the property destroyers of today is due to the relatively low body count during their sack of Rome.  Supposedly Pope Leo I had worked out a deal with King Gaiseric to throw open the gates of Rome in exchange for Gaiseric’s promise not to murder its inhabitants.  So the sack by the Vandals was relatively violence-free, but the crimes against property — specifically, looting Rome’s treasures — were extensive.  The Vandals tried to be nice guys, slaughter-wise, and the thanks they got was to have their name permanently associated with senseless destruction of property.

Why the University of Idaho chose to adopt the nickname “Vandals” for its athletic teams is anybody’s guess.  And why anyone finds pleasure in defacing a temple or scrawling paint on a wall —  or scratching a car —  is also anybody’s guess.