Monthly Archives: January 2011

Knowing Where to Stand

Why national parks now have signs that say "Caution! Stay on Trail"

You may have looked at the color photograph of Yosemite that serves as the header, or “flag”, on this blog and thought, “Tom bought a postcard in the gift shop.”  It’s flattering that you would think that, but the truth is, I actually took that picture on one of our visits to Yosemite, back in 1984.

That view is familiar, of course, with the massive granite wall known as El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the center, and Bridalveil Fall on the right.  Those are perhaps the best-known landmarks in the park, but they aren’t the only jaw-dropping vistas.  Yosemite National Park is roughly the same size as the state of Rhode Island, and I mean no disrespect to the Ocean State when I say that when it comes to sheer physical beauty, Yosemite may have a slight advantage.

In addition to the attractions mentioned above, there is Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America.  There is the Mariposa Grove at the southern end of the park, with its giant sequoia trees.  Vernal Fall… Nevada Fall… Glacier Point… Tuolomne Meadows… Mirror Lake… almost everywhere you look is scenery that inspires an “ohhh!” and provokes the impulse to click the shutter of your camera.

The renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”  There are lots of great places to stand in Yosemite, and if you’re planning a visit there, here’s how you get to the place where I took the flag picture.

Let’s assume you’re approaching the park from the south, on California Highway 41.  After you enter the park, keep heading toward Yosemite Valley for, oh, I’d guess it’s about 25 miles.  You’ll come to Wawona Tunnel, which is almost a mile long.  As you emerge from the east end of the tunnel, believe me — you can’t miss this spectacular sight.

There is a parking lot on the north side of the road which, depending on the time of year, may be full of tour buses and cars and people taking in the panorama.  This spot is commonly known as Tunnel View, but the scenery is a whole lot better than that unimaginative name.  You will not be the only one with a camera, looking for just the right place to stand.  Unless you accidentally put your thumb over the lens, though, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo from this spot.

Now, as for the black-and-white image that accompanies this post… it was taken at Glacier Point in Yosemite by one of my wife’s ancestors, sometime during the 1920s.  Sally found the photo in an old family album, but the photographer’s identity is a mystery.  The names of the daredevils sitting on that rocky outcropping thousands of feet above the valley floor are also unknown.

The one thing I can say with certainty is that you would never, ever catch me standing there.  Or sitting there, for that matter.

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Platitudes Spoken Here

"I mean, I'm just trying to, you know, do whatever I can to help the ballclub..."

Language enables us to communicate thoughts, but it is used for that purpose only occasionally.  A lot of the time, what is spoken (or written) is pretty much devoid of original content; what gets conveyed instead are platitudes.  I’ll admit it —  at times I’ve been guilty of speaking in platitudes, those remarks that are supposed to be profound, but when examined are really just empty words.  They may have had some value a while ago, but have long since passed their expiration date for freshness — and they’re everywhere.  Can I get an “amen”?  See, there’s one now.

  You’ve probably noticed that politicians and their interpreters are only capable of speaking Platitude, at least in public.  They rely solely on a vocabulary that includes phrases about ideals and fiscal responsibility and job growth and tough decisions.  When facts need to be found, they vow to leave no stone unturned.  They insist that they will never compromise their principles, which some of us suspect is part of the problem.

Businessmen exhort their employees to strive for success (in selling things like acne remedies or carpet cleaning), noting that “failure is not an option”.  What does that mean?  An option, by definition, is a choice.  Are they implying that their workers view failure as one of several attractive choices?

Personal failure or disappointment is sometimes attributed to the platitude “it wasn’t meant to be”; that may contradict the frequently expressed view that “it is what it is”.

Platitude is the universal language of sports.  Stick a microphone in an athlete’s face, and between the “I means” and “you knows”, he’ll serve up a big helping of dull, trite phrases about the great team effort and how they’re “going good” and “just have to keep it going”.  Do these interviews serve any purpose?

Does the sideline reporter really expect to get a candid answer from the football coach leaving the field at halftime when she asks him, “You’re down by seventeen points, Coach.  What adjustments will you make in the second half?” 

The truthful answer is “Hell if I know.  My mother was right — I should have become a dentist.”  Instead, he’ll mutter platitudes about his quarterback needing to “play within himself”, or “we have to do a better job of controlling the tempo.”  Did we gain any insight from that?

Experts who analyze basketball games will inevitably inform us that one team or the other “really came to play today”.  Ah, so that’s it.  Judging from their uniforms, I had mistakenly assumed that the team had come to participate in a seminar on the development of the steam engine and its role in the Industrial Revolution.  Incidentally, since these guys are paid enormous sums of money to participate in games, shouldn’t they “come to play” every time?  Or are we supposed to draw the inference that some teams only come to play on, say, dates divisible by the number three?

Well, maybe all my complaints about platitudes sound a little harsh, but when I sit down at the keyboard, you know what?  I bring my A game and give it 110%.  After all, failure is not an option.

Larger Than Life

Rembrandt van Rijn, "Night Watch" (1642)

An acquaintance of mine brought his mother out to California for the first time when she was in her late 70s.  She had lived in rural Indiana all her life, never traveling more than a few miles from her home.  Richard drove her to Santa Monica so she could see the Pacific Ocean;  they took in the magnificent vista of blue ocean stretching as far as the eye can see.  Eventually Richard asked, “Well, Mom, what do you think?”  She considered a moment and then replied, “I thought it would be bigger.”

I had the opposite reaction when I saw Rembrandt’s most famous painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam:  I hadn’t realized how big it was.  We’ve all seen reproductions of the painting popularly known as “Night Watch”, but when you see it printed on a page, somehow the dimensions — 11’10” x 14’4″ — don’t sink in.  Try this comparison:  football goal posts are 10 feet high by 18½ feet wide.  The painting isn’t quite as wide, but it’s taller.

“Night Watch” is so big, I couldn’t help but wonder how Rembrandt painted it — what was the physical process?  You certainly don’t put a canvas that size on a conventional easel.  Did he work on a ladder for hours at a time?  After I got over the technical challenges  its massive size must have presented, I began to appreciate the artistic details, and it is loaded with them.

Rembrandt van Rijn painted “The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch” in 1642; it didn’t get dubbed “Night Watch” until many years later.  The painting was a commission from that particular band of Civic Guards.  There were many such groups in Amsterdam which had their origins in defending the city — they were, in effect, militia.  By the mid-seventeenth century, though, the Civic Guards were primarily social organizations.  The members got together to drink, shoot, and march in parades.

That means the subjects of this group portrait were not on watch, in the sense of providing security — and the scene isn’t really at night, either.  Layers of smoke and varnish accumulated over time, darkening the painting.  When it was cleaned in 1946, the sunshine reappeared.

Captain Cocq is the central figure; he’s the guy dressed in black, with the red sash.  Lieutenant van Ruytenburch is in yellow — he seems to be getting marching orders from the captain;  members of the Civic Guard surround their leaders.  Other group portraits of these fraternal organizations by other (lesser) painters had the subjects lined up stiffly and staring out at the viewer.  Rembrandt’s painting was admired then and now because his composition is so unusual — the subjects are in motion, almost as if this is a snapshot of them.

The weird little girl in the middle of the picture is not a member of the Civic Guard, obviously, so why did Rembrandt “light” her in a way that makes her so prominent?  Apparently the dead chicken on her waistband and the goblet she’s holding are metaphorical symbols of Captain Cocq’s group; she seems to be a sort of mascot or figurehead.

Because of its huge size, one can stand and study it for a long time.  It’s hard to imagine, but the painting used to be even bigger.  When it was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall in 1715, some knucklehead lopped off part of the painting so it would fit between columns.

Oh, and by the way — the disappointingly small Pacific Ocean is a mere 64 million square miles, give or take.

The Other Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty, formally known as “Liberty Enlightening the World”, is located at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.  A much larger version of the statue can be found in New York Harbor, and my research indicates that the east coast version actually predates the one in Vegas.

In fact, the statue off the southern tip of Manhattan was dedicated on October 28, 1886.  It was a gift from France, commemorating the friendship between that country and the United States.  The sculptor was Frederic Bartholdi; his creation, which is 151 feet tall, is made of copper sheets that were hammered into shape by hand.  The sheets were then attached to a framework designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel.  As you may have guessed, he is the same man who dreamed up the Eiffel Tower, the main attraction at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

When the statue was completed in 1885, it was disassembled and shipped to New York.  The U.S. had been trying to figure out where to put it — when you get a gift that weighs 225 tons, you can’t just stuff it in the hall closet.  There was space for it on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island, and money was raised to build an appropriate pedestal.  Once that was finished, the Statue of Liberty was reassembled at its present site.

In 1982 it was discovered that the arm holding the torch had not been properly attached, causing it to sway in strong winds, potentially risking… uh, disarmament.  It was also noted during Lady Liberty’s physical exam that the head had been installed a couple of feet off center.  Movement in the wind caused one of the rays of her crown to scrape against that same arm.  These signs of wear and tear were corrected in time for the statue’s centennial in 1986.

The headline on this piece is a little misleading, since it implies that there are only two Statues of Liberty.  The truth is, there are hundreds of replicas of Bartholdi’s creation in places like Norway, Japan, and Australia.  There’s one in Duluth, in Birmingham, in Fargo.  Harrisburg (PA) used to have one made of venetian blinds, and I read about a large one made of Lego “bricks”.  For all I know, your neighbor may have a Statue of Liberty bird feeder.

The “other” one I was thinking about, though, is in Paris, France.  Paris actually has three of them, but there’s one in particular I wanted to mention:  It’s on a man-made island in the middle of the Seine (see photo).  My wife and I discovered it more or less by accident — we spotted it from the Eiffel Tower (the one in Paris, not Vegas).  It was apparently given to the French by expatriate Americans a few years after the real one settled in New York Harbor.

Sally and I studied our map and figured out how to get to this statue on the Île des Cygnes (Swan Island).  It’s only a one-fifth scale replica, but — at least on the day we were there — had the virtue of drawing only a handful of visitors.   Lady Liberty stands serene and beautiful,  facing west toward her big sister in New York.  We enjoyed our visit to this unpublicized attraction, and didn’t mind one bit that there wasn’t a craps table or slot machine nearby.

There’s a Word For It

I think it's a boat, but we could look it up to be sure.

Have you ever looked up the word “dictionary” in a dictionary?  Let me save you the trouble — here’s what it says in Webster’s:  “A book containing a selection of the words of a language, usu. arranged alphabetically, with information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, blah-blah-blah.”

No, of course it doesn’t say blah-blah-blah; it goes on in real words.  People sat at their desks, sweating profusely as they struggled to come up with a precise definition.  Whoever they are, they never seem to say to themselves, “Why are we bothering?  Everyone knows what a boat is.”  (“A vessel for transport by water, propelled by rowing, sails, or motor.”)

Most of these scholars — called lexicographers — toil anonymously, but a few have gained fame for compiling dictionaries.  Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was not responsible for the first English-language dictionary; over a dozen had been published since the early 17th century, but Johnson’s became the standard.  As literacy among the general public increased in the 1700s, it had occurred to a group of British printers and booksellers that the time was right for a high-quality dictionary, so they approached Johnson, who was well-known as a poet and essayist.  The idea appealed to Johnson, partly because it’s tough to make a living as a poet and essayist.

Samuel Johnson signed the contract in 1746; A Dictionary of the English  Language was published in 1755.  During those nine years he had accumulated over 40,000 entries, some of which reflected his colorful personal opinions.  Consider his definition of “oats”:  “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” 

Johnson did not reap a financial bonanza from his dictionary, but his reputation increased — at his death he was far from rich, but was buried in Westminster Abbey, acknowledged as one of the important  figures in English literature.  It’s worth mentioning that Samuel Johnson, who devoted his life to words, had been born in a bookshop.

Unlike Johnson, the man whose name is synonymous with dictionary, Noah Webster (1758-1843) was not primarily a writer.  Among other things, he was a lawyer, a lobbyist, and a teacher.  Webster had served briefly in the American Revolution, and maybe that contributed to his determination to differentiate American culture from British traditions.  His dictionary, called An American Dictionary of the English Language, was published in 1828; Webster used it to “correct” the spelling of many British words, like “traveller” and “flavour”.  Even without all those extra letters, Webster’s dictionary was roughly twice as big as Johnson’s had been, with something like 70,000 entries.  The similarity between the two dictionaries was their lack of profitability.  Webster’s estate sold the rights to George and Charles Merriam soon after Noah’s death.

A classic dictionary of the German language, called the Deutsches Wörterbuch, was written by two brothers who were 19th century academics.  It wasn’t their dictionary that brought them fame, though; Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm were already well-known for their collection of fairy tales.  Yes — the same guys who gave us “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” also gave the world a book that includes the definition of boot:  “Schiff für den Transport von Wasser.”  You can look it up if you want.