Monthly Archives: April 2011

Three Reasons to Avoid Travel

A cruise doesn't have to be expensive.

A friend once said to me, “Why should I go to Europe?  You go, and then I’ll look at your pictures.”  As far as I’m concerned, that’s almost as illogical as saying, “Rather than eating a meal, I’d prefer to have you describe food to me.”  There are some things that just have to be experienced personally, and travel is one of them.

That’s how I feel about it, anyway, but I’ll admit that I enjoy traveling, and I realize that there are people who don’t.  In an effort to see their perspective, I’ve listened to their complaints and tried to analyze their apathy or antipathy.  The reasons for not traveling seem to boil down to these three points.

1.  The Hassle:  Over the last couple of decades, the airline industry has done everything in its power to insure that passengers have an unpleasant experience.  Well, not everything — they have not yet resorted to public floggings of its customers, but when they do, you can be sure that they will charge extra for it.

Yes, “airline travel” is a synonym for “hassles”, but there are other inconveniences, too.  If one is contemplating travel abroad, getting the appropriate visa(s) or innoculations can be a pain.  And lost luggage or a hotel desk clerk with no record of your reservation could have been avoided by simply staying home.

2.  The Expense:  There is no denying that it can be costly to travel.  However, shopping online for bargains has made it possible to visit other parts of the world without surrendering the proverbial “arm and a leg”.  In some instances you can get a week in a four-star hotel for an arm and only part of your leg — and breakfast is included!

An even thriftier option is to stay with friends or relatives.  Bear in mind that after a few days of exposure to them, it’s possible that the savings won’t seem worth it due to #1 above.  You’d heard a rumor that Uncle Edwin had been institutionalized; now you discover that his “quirks” run in the family.  Even though your lodging is free, there’s something a little unsettling when your hosts lock you in at night.

3.  The Unfamiliar:  This doesn’t get mentioned very often by non-travelers, but I suspect that it’s an important factor in their preference for staying home.  We all tend to know what we like, and like what we know.  In other words, we are comfortable with the familiar, so the unfamiliar makes us uncomfortable.

Having to get up at some ridiculous pre-dawn hour to be on a tour bus is not part of most people’s routine.  Trying to make yourself understood by a waiter who does not speak your language is challenging, especially when your phrase book doesn’t include a translation for, “I did not order brains”.  You finally figured out how the TV remote in your den works, and now you have to figure out this train schedule?

With those three strikes against it, why would anyone want to step out of his or her comfort zone?  No, really — I’m asking.  For you, what makes travel worth the inconvenience and expense?  Or, if you feel as my friend does, what was it that made you decide to stay on your couch?

The Tycoon’s Trove

Officer and Laughing Girl, by Johannes "Jan" Vermeer -- Frick Collection, New York City

Almost everyone has a collection of some kind, whether it’s stamps or beer steins or Beanie Babies.  Just the other day I looked in a drawer and realized that I have a collection of socks without mates.  Not to brag, but some of them appear to date back to the 1970s.

One of the virtues of sock collecting is that there is relatively little expense involved.  That is in stark contrast to the hobby passionately pursued a century ago by a tycoon named Henry Clay Frick.  His collection — named, for some reason, the Frick Collection — cost him millions of dollars.  It is also probably the best privately-held collection of European art in the United States.

Frick made a fortune in coal, steel and railroads in the late 1800s, and started acquiring paintings by the Old Masters:  Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian and Van Dyck.  He purchased sculpture, procelains and furniture, too, to decorate the mansion he built on New York City’s 5th Avenue in 1913.

In his will, Frick stipulated that upon his death the mansion and the art works it contained would become a gallery, open to the public.  He did thoughtfully allow his widow to stay in the mansion after his death, which is why the Frick Collection didn’t open to the public until 1935;  Mrs. Frick didn’t have to greet tourists while still in her bathrobe.

Because it was originally a residence, the Frick Collection is not like most art museums.  They tend to arrange the works by style, region and/or time period — here’s the hall of 17th century Italian artists, for instance, and that wing over there is Dutch genre painting.  In the Frick, most of the art objects are where he put them when he lived there.

He’s got an El Greco in the living room over the fireplace.  On the wall next to that, where you or I would probably put our big-screen TV, is a portrait of Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein.  As often as I’ve visited the Frick Collection, I still marvel that Mr. Frick lived with these treasures all around him.

And as much as I like the Frick Collection, I should mention that my taste in art doesn’t always mesh with Mr. Frick’s.  He was so fond of rococo art that there is an entire room full of Fragonard paintings, and another of works by Boucher.  I tend to speed walk through those rooms to avoid gagging.

Well, not really.  It’s just that there are so many other art works that I admire a lot more.  Among them are:

     •  St. Francis in the Desert, by Giovanni Bellini (1480), is a relative rarity in the collection, which is mostly portraits and landscapes.  Frick apparently gave low priority to historical tableaux and religious paintings, but this is an important exception.

     •  Officer and Laughing Girl, by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1657), is one of three paintings by Vermeer in the Frick Collection.  This is the one that always makes me smile back at the young woman in the picture (see above).

     •  The Rehearsal, by Edgar Degas (1879), represents a venture by Frick into Impressionist art, which was sort of daring at the time.  The young ballerinas are now a familiar subject, but I wonder if Mr. Frick may have been a bit out of his comfort zone when he purchased this.

The Frick Collection is well worth a visit, and is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday.  Regrettably, viewing of my sock collection is by appointment only.

Unbreakable Records

Hall of Famer Roy Campanella once said, “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.”  It seems to me that to be a baseball fan, you gotta have a lot of accountant in you.

For some reason, statistics and record-keeping are important to an appreciation of the game.  If you say “Roger Maris” to a diehard fan, the fan will instantly respond “Sixty-one”.  (In case you’ve forgotten, that was the number of home runs Maris hit when he broke Babe Ruth’s record — Maris did it in ’61, by the way.)

That record has been broken a couple of times since, and the current home run mark will be surpassed again someday.  There are a few baseball records, though, that I’m pretty sure will last forever…

Every fan is certain that pitcher Cy Young’s 511 career victories will never be topped, nor will his 749 career complete games.  Here’s a record that is more obscure, but no less remarkable.  In 1904, Jack Taylor of the St. Louis Cardinals set the mark for consecutive complete games: 39.  Yes –consecutive!  By comparison, baseball’s current best pitcher, Roy Halladay of Philadelphia, has a total of 58 complete games, spread across a 14-year career.

With today’s inflated salaries, pitchers’ arms are treated by management as if they are made of porcelain and held in place with cotton candy.  Can you imagine any current pitcher being allowed to stay in a game for 26 innings?  That’s the record for longest complete game; it is jointly held by Leon Cadore (Brooklyn) and Joe Oeschger (Boston Braves), who went the distance against each other on May 1, 1920.  Incidentally, the entire contest lasted only 3 hours and 50 minutes, which in modern-day games is around the time when fans rise for the traditional 7th-inning stretch.

The shortest nine-inning game was played on September 28, 1919, between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies.  It went 51 minutes.  Had it been played in Los Angeles, spectators would have been leaving after 45 minutes to beat the traffic.

 It doesn’t seem possible that Walter Johnson’s record of 110 career shutouts will fall — Halladay currently has 19 — but that isn’t even Johnson’s most remarkable record.  “Big Train” set the mark for highest batting average by a pitcher (season), hitting a cool .433 in 1925.  OK, that was only 42 hits in 98 at bats, but he was 38 years old when he did it.

Stealing home has become so rare that many avid baseball fans probably can’t tell you Ty Cobb holds the career record with 54.  No active player even has 10.  There was a brief eruption back in 1996, when there were 38 steals of home — by all major league teams combined.  Lou Brock, second on the all-time list for stolen bases had a total of 938, but not one of them was stealing home.  You get the idea:  Cobb’s record will not be broken.

Well, that’s what I think, but I’ve been wrong before — for over 60 consecutive years, in fact, and I’m going for the record!

Guilty of Being a Woman

Some people think I look cheap.

In his opening remarks, District Attorney Richard Crowley stated the case against Susan B. Anthony.  On the 5th day of November, 1872, she had voted — and, Crowley said, “At that time she was a woman.”

Her lawyer, Henry Selden, responded, “The defense wishes to concede that Miss Susan B. Anthony is indeed a woman.”  That didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the courtroom.  Over many years she had been working to promote women’s rights; she had traveled the country making speeches and writing articles.  Along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she was the best-known of the women who were involved in the struggle for equal treatment under the law.

She had become the defendant in United States v. Susan B. Anthony because she contended that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote.  It grants privileges of citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”  From a legal standpoint, then, the question in this case became, “is a woman a person?”

Prior to the election of 1872, she had consulted Selden, who had been a judge and New York state official.  He agreed that her reading of the 14th Amendment was correct; that under its provisions, women were entitled to vote.

Miss Anthony (as she was known) took Selden’s written legal opinion to the registrar of voters in Rochester and demanded that she, along with several other women who had accompanied her, be allowed to register.  The registrar probably thought, “Damn, why does stuff like this always happen on my shift?”

Following the election, Susan B. Anthony was charged with Unlawful Voting.  The trial began in June, 1873; the presiding judge was a guy named Ward Hunt.  He was an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a shockingly bad judge.  Among other things, Hunt did not permit the defendant to testify in her own behalf.  She was not deemed competent — after all, she was a woman.

At the conclusion of the trial, Judge Hunt directed the jury to find her guilty, and didn’t even send them out to deliberate!  He announced “their” verdict, and then read an opinion that he had obviously written before the trial began.  Hunt ordered the defendant to pay a fine of $100, to which she responded, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”

She didn’t, either, but Judge Hunt didn’t pursue the matter.  He undoubtedly knew that if he pushed it, Susan B. Anthony would appeal, and he’d wind up looking — well, like the jerk he was.  The case was important because it increased attention on the issue of equal rights, but it wasn’t until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, that women finally gained the legal right to vote.  Susan B. Anthony didn’t live to see that day; she died in 1906.

Her vow to never pay a dollar is a little ironic, since her likeness was put on a U.S. dollar in 1979.  It was the first portrait of an actual woman (not an allegorical character) to appear on U.S. currency.  The Susan B. Anthony dollar was not a popular coin because it was too similar in size and shape to a quarter (see photo), so people frequently overpaid with it in vending machines and such.

Here’s an idea, though — maybe we should gather up 100 Susan B. Anthony dollars, take them into the District Court in upstate New York, and pay her fine with them.  You know, just to sort of say on her behalf, “So?  What do you think of me now?”

A Wreck and a Rock

The Natural Bridge, Aruba (2000)

For many visitors to tropical islands, the favorite activity is “none”.  These guests are content to sprawl out on the beach or by the hotel pool day after day until their skin is a deep shade of maroon.  Sally and I like the tropics, but our approach is to slather on sunscreen and keep moving.  Often that involves being in the water (as opposed to beside it), or exploring the island.  Here are a couple of examples from our April, 2000 visit to Aruba:

We boarded a small boat and were transported to the site of a shipwreck.  It was a German ship called the Antilla, which had been scuttled by its captain at the outbreak of World War II.  The fish population was impressive there, and included the biggest parrot fish I ever saw.

Unfortunately, the waters around the Antilla were also teeming with human beings.  The cruise ship Majesty of the Seas had docked the night before, so there were presently a lot of tourists in Aruba.  There were 5 dive boats like ours picking up moorings around the Antilla, which meant there were probably 150-200 snorkelers in the water.  It was difficult to swim without bumping into someone…

Later that day we negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to the other side of the island to see the so-called Natural Bridge.  Incidentally, the official currency of Aruba is the Florin, but in every instance, prices were quoted in U.S. dollars.  We piled into the cabbie’s battered old Toyota station wagon.  There were no seat belts, and it had almost 180,000 miles on the odometer.  That’s a lot of driving on an island that is only 19 miles long and a few miles wide.

It took a little over 20 minutes to get to the Natural Bridge — the last couple of miles were on a dirt road.  Along the way we saw thousands of little stacks of rocks which had been piled one on top of another.  We later heard that these stone piles are called “cairns”, and are put there as monuments or tributes or wishes for good luck.

The Natural Bridge appeared to be volcanic rock which had been undercut by the sea, forming an arch about 100 feet long.  We spent a few minutes checking it out and taking photos of it.  Our driver was tacking on $3 for waiting time, so we admired the Bridge as quickly as we could.

We met up with the driver in the nearby snack stand.  He more or less insisted that we should buy something.  We bought smoothies, which we drank on the ride back to town.  At times it wasn’t easy to get the cups to our mouths while traveling at a high rate of speed on an awful road.

When we returned to the dock, I gave the driver $40, even though the previously agreed-upon price had been $35.  He was happy to get the extra money, and after the way he drove, we were happy to be alive.

Unfortunately, the Natural Bridge did not survive much longer:  It collapsed on September 2, 2005.