Monthly Archives: August 2012

Cross That Bridge: Ten Favorites

Golden Gate, San Francisco (photo by Sally Reeder)

Because people need to live near a water supply, we also tend to live near bridges.  Chances are you’re within a few kilometers of a bridge right now, unless you are currently trekking in the Gobi Desert and have paused to surf the Web.

Most bridges go unnoticed because they merely do their job of conveying traffic over water, but there are some that do catch our eye; some are even tourist attractions in their own right.  What follows is a list of ten of my favorites.  These are not chosen for the feats of engineering that brought them into existence, but mainly because I find them aesthetically pleasing.

10.  Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai — The distinctive feature of this bridge is its spiral approach, which corkscrews up to great views along the Huangpu River, especially at night.

9.  Seven Mile Bridge, Florida — This ribbon of concrete and steel connects some of the Florida Keys as part of the so-called Overseas Highway.  As the name suggests, one’s car travels quite a distance over water.

8.  Old Bridge, Heidelberg, Germany — A low stone bridge that spans the Neckar River (a tributary of the Rhine), it affords views of Heidelberg Castle and the picturesque Old Town.  Although there have been bridges on this site since the 13th century, the current Old Bridge isn’t very old; it was restored following World War II.

7.  Brooklyn Bridge, New York — The familiar gothic arches span the East River, connecting lower Manhattan and the borough of Brooklyn.  It is counter to the George Washington Bridge across the Hudson on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  The GW has its admirers, but I prefer the comfortable-old-boots look of the Brooklyn.

6.  Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), Prague — This pedestrian bridge is adorned with statues of saints, some dating back to the 17th century.  During the day, Charles Bridge is lively with street musicians and artisans selling their stuff; at night lovers stroll the bridge holding hands (and bottles).

5.  Ponte Vecchio, Florence — When it was built in the 1300s, shops and houses were incorporated into the structure.  Once these were butcher shops; the bridge is now basically a mall of jewelry stores.  Personally, I prefer seeing the beautiful Ponte Vecchio from the banks of the Arno River rather than walking on the bridge itself.

4.  Harbor Bridge, Sydney — The entire harbor has great views in every direction; it’s worth a walk out onto the bridge to take in the nearby Opera House and surroundings.

3.  Tower Bridge, London — Some people mistakenly think this distinctive bridge is London Bridge.  It’s called Tower Bridge because of its proximity to the Tower of London.  This bridge is a landmark; London Bridge, just up the Thames, is relatively forgettable.

2.  Pont Alexandre III, Paris — Decorated with bronze lamps and statuary from La Belle Époque, this bridge is a great vantage point from which to marvel at the Eiffel Tower and all of central Paris.

1.  Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco — It’s painted that distinctive orange color partly to keep ships from slamming into it on foggy days.  When the visibility is good, however, the bridge and the bay and the hilly landscape are components of the most gorgeous urban setting in the United States.

There are lots of other great bridges, of course, like Lion’s Gate in Vancouver and the Rialto in Venice, but these are my favorites (as of today).   What else belongs on the list?  What would be your top pick?

Can’t Complain

Gottfried Franz, “Munchausen Riding the Cannon Ball”

Did you ever stop to consider how many body parts you have?  If you’re a medical student you probably not only know the exact number, you can give all their Latin names.

Most of us, though, would guess several hundred or even several thousand, taking into account that our parts have parts.  For instance, there’s the ear — that’s a part.  But it has the pinna (also known as the auricle), which is the outer flap that the barber trims around.  Then inside there’s the eardrum and the cochlea and the eustachian tube and some other stuff, so there are lots of parts within that part we call the ear.

When we apply that to the entire body, we can reliably estimate that the total number of anatomical parts is… well, a lot.  (As you can probably tell, I was not a science major.)  And not to be excessively gloomy, but for every single part, there are about a half-dozen things that can go wrong with it.

That’s why it is semi-miraculous that while every one of us has some sort of ache or pain or condition for which we are being treated, we are running at least as well as our automobile, which has a similar number of parts.  When an acquaintance asks, “How are you?” we’re usually able to reply “fine” without stretching the truth too far.

What got me thinking about all this was when I learned that, with all of the potential things that could go wrong with a body, there are people who resort to imaginary ailments to get attention.  There’s a name for this condition:  It’s called Munchausen syndrome.

MayoClinic.com describes it as “a serious mental disorder in which someone with a deep need for attention pretends to be sick or gets sick or injured on purpose.”

It should be noted that Munchausen syndrome isn’t the same thing as hypochondria.  “People with hypochondria truly believe they are sick,” according to the Mayo Clinic staff, “whereas people with Munchausen syndrome aren’t sick, but they want to be.”  Which, when you think about it, is sick.

Symptoms include frequent stories about medical problems that are embellished with dramatic details, and eagerness to undergo medical tests and operations.  Some even inject themselves with bacteria or toxic substances to make themselves sick.  Yeesh.

The doctor who first identified this condition named it for Baron Munchausen, an 18th-century German nobleman who told stories of his adventures and exploits that bore little connection to reality.  Among his tall tales was a story about narrowly escaping injury during a battle by hopping onto a cannonball and riding it.  Nope, I’m not buying it, Baron.  You just can’t do something like that without harming some of those many body parts we have.

Just among friends, we’ll probably admit to each other that not all of our thousands of parts are still functionating at 100%… but since we don’t have any imaginary illnesses, we can’t complain, right?

Never Heard of Him

Joaquin Sorolla, “A La Sombra de la Barca, Valencia” (1903-04) — Museo Sorolla, Madrid

On our way into the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a tourist near us showed his admission ticket to his companion.  Printed on the stub was one of Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers.  The man said to his friend, “This is the picture over our kitchen sink.  It’s a copy.”

That clarification seemed unnecessary, but a hundred years ago it would have been possible to put an original Van Gogh over one’s kitchen sink.  Critics and art dealers didn’t decide his work was worth owning until the early 20th century, so Vincent missed out on the lavish acclaim that has been heaped on his work since.  There have been other artists — Paul Cezanne, just to name one — for whom success also came posthumously.

On the other hand, there are painters who were widely admired during their lifetimes, but were consigned to obscurity afterward.  You may be familiar with the work of an 18th-century genre and still-life painter named Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, who was King Louis XV’s favorite artist.  Chardin has been forgotten and then rediscovered a couple of times, most recently in the mid-20th century.  In case you’re keeping score, he is currently considered a genius.

An artist whose work I recently stumbled upon (and they should be more careful about putting stuff where you can stumble on it) is a Spanish painter named Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida.  He is more commonly known as Joaquin Sorolla — but it may be stretching a point to say that he is “commonly known”.  Have you ever heard of Sorolla?

Until a year or so ago I hadn’t, but our friend Susie tipped us off before a visit to Madrid, where he still seems to have a following.

An orphan at the age of two, Sorolla showed early promise as an artist and by his late 20s — in the 1890s — he was receiving international acclaim.  In the early 20th century, exhibitions of his work were garnering praise and generating commissions, including a portrait of the U.S. president, William Howard Taft, that was painted in the White House.

Sorolla’s portraits have a lot of charm, but he was equally adept at landscape and genre painting.  There was a lot of sunshine in his palette, and my favorite works by Sorolla are scenes at the edge of the ocean, many painted on the beach at Valencia.

Sorolla’s style might be characterized as somewhere between Realism and Impressionism, more loosely rendered than the paintings of his friend John Singer Sargent, whose reputation has lasted longer.

Soon after Sorolla’s death in 1923, his fame began to decline.  In the art world, immortality doesn’t always last forever.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Van Gogh’s reputation soared around the same time that Sorolla’s receded, because critics and the public were chasing after the next new thing, which at that time was Post-Impressionism.

It doesn’t seem likely that Van Gogh’s fame will vanish, since there are so many reproductions of his work over kitchen sinks.  It would be nice, though, if the world rediscovers Joaquin Sorolla — that guy could paint.

Let’s Be Unreasonable

Siena was once a Ghibelline stronghold.

When I’m traveling, there’s something strangely amusing to me about the local news.  Maybe it’s because the hot-topic issues in Sydney or Seattle that are being so passionately debated by residents are irrelevant to me.  It doesn’t change my life if the town council votes to knock down the old water tower over by the high school, but there are people who are so vehement about it one way or another that they can be seen on news broadcasts snarling at each other and turning purple.

As soon as the Mayor taps his gavel and says, “The meeting will come to order,” both the Libertarians and the Anarchists consider that a violation of their rights and storm out, scattering furniture as they go.  Because these people aren’t my neighbors, I’m able to look at it as theater.  It is the longest-running play in human history, and might be titled “I Forget Why, But I Hate You.”

There is something about human nature that compels us to take sides, opposing on principle what the other side favors.  You can probably think of many examples — or maybe you can’t, just because I said you can.

For the moment, though, let’s consider the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.  They were two Italian factions that fought each other for centuries during the Middle Ages.  The Guelphs supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines favored the Holy Roman (that is, German) Emperor.

The issue was whether the Italian city-states wanted to be led by a spiritual power or a temporal power.  That philosophical debate lasted for, oh, a few minutes.  Then each side tried to demonstrate the moral superiority of their position by slaughtering their opponents.

Although not yet officially called Ghibellines, that faction began to coalesce around the charismatic Emperor Frederick I, known as Barbarossa (“red beard” in Italian).  While on the 3rd Crusade in 1190, Frederick Barbarossa ignored the old proverb “You can lead a horse to water, but it just might sink.”

In the process he created a new bit of folk wisdom:  “Don’t try to swim when you’re wearing sixty pounds of armor.”  Frederick and his horse both drowned in the swift current of the Saleph River.

Over the next hundred years or so, Italian cities aligned themselves with one faction or the other.  Florence, Bologna and Genoa were predominantly Guelph; Pisa, Siena, Arezzo and Modena were Ghibelline.  They fought incessantly, but the issue of spirtual versus temporal leadership was only one excuse for antagonism.

The rivalries between cities were also fueled by property-holding nobles vs. middle-class merchants.  In 1325, Guelph Bologna and Ghibelline Modena even battled over a bucket stolen from Bologna; 2,000 men died as a result of that provocation.

Eventually the Guelphs prevailed in Italy, but it was only a matter of time before they began fighting among themselves.  In Florence they split into factions known as Black Guelphs and White Guelphs.  The poet Dante was on the wrong side of that division — many other White Guelphs were killed; he was exiled.

It took a while, but cooler heads finally realized the injustice that had been done to Dante.  After a civilized discussion, the city council of Florence rescinded his sentence… in 2008, which was about 700 years after they kicked him out.  Thankfully, that decision did not start another war.

Tom’s Top 25, 2012 Edition

Get ready:  It’s almost time for the resumption of college football’s historic rivalries.  Well, some of them, anyway; because of conference realignments, we also now get unfamiliar matchups like Texas vs. West Virginia (not Texas A&M).  If you’re yearning to see the old traditional battles — classics like Nebraska against Oklahoma — you can hope that both teams have mediocre seasons and fill their respective leagues’ slots in the Insight Bowl.

In the past it was customary at this time of year to pick a team from the Southeastern Conference and make it the preseason favorite to win the national championship.  Since demolishing tradition is now the vogue in college football, I’m picking a team from a different conference this season — pretty wild, huh?

However, I am sticking to the tradition of posting my preseason predictions publicly, despite of a lot of encouragement to knock it off.  So here they are, along with a few random observations.  I’m confident that by the time the championship game is played a few months from now, these picks won’t all be wrong…

1.  USC          Stars like Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and T.J. McDonald feel they have unfinished business.

2.  LSU          Key games against So. Carolina and Alabama are in Tiger Stadium.

3.  Oklahoma         Averaged almost 40 points/game last year; 19 starters return

4.  Alabama          Two national championships in past 3 seasons

5.  Oregon          These Ducks don’t walk, they sprint.

6.  South Carolina          Eleven wins last year, could be even better in 2012

7.  Michigan          Season opener vs. Alabama could set tone for entire season

8.  Florida State          One of these years, high expectations for Seminoles will come true.

9.  Texas          After two sub-par seasons, Texas climbs back toward elite status.

10. Boise State          Coach Chris Peterson’s six-season record:  73-6

11. Arkansas          The big question mark is how Razorbacks respond to the coaching change following Bobby Petrino’s dismissal.

12. West Virginia           Move to Big 12 conference will provide stiffer competition

13. Wisconsin          Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball is back for his senior year.

14. Louisville          Cardinals are the best team in mediocre Big East.

15. Georgia          Easy schedule should help:  Bulldogs avoid Alabama, Arkansas and LSU.

16. Ohio State          Sanctions keep Buckeyes out of bowl game, but at least 9 wins seem possible.

17. Florida          The defense is strong; can the offense score enough points to win games?

18. Michigan State          Same as Florida (above)

19. Stanford          If you’re good enough, you don’t need Luck.

20. Oklahoma State          Finished 3rd in final polls last season, but are missing some important players from that outstanding team.

21. Nebraska          Huskers have a tough mid-season stretch with Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan in four weeks.

22. Virginia Tech          Hokies have 8 consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins.

23. Southern Methodist          Mustangs have a chance to be this year’s dark horse.

24. Georgia Tech          Opponents find it difficult to defend against Yellow Jackets’ bizarre offense.

25. TCU          Four consecutive top-15 finishes, but stepping up to Big 12 in 2012