Jun 16 2014

New England Spring

Jill and I spent two weeks in New England recently. We took our custom camper van–and the dogs, of course. Jill wanted to see a really old house–since New England is the place to see really old houses–so I took her to the Fairbanks House, which is the oldest timber frame building in North America, built in 1636. She was duly impressed but also kind of freaked out about it because “it’s so dark and damp and crooked inside and I can imagine how hard it must have been to live in that house nearly 300 years ago!” We looked up the European population of America at that time: about 1,200 people. That freaked Jill out too. The pioneers, they had to be some kind of crazy to come here and live as they did, isolated in a vast wilderness.

We stopped in Marblehead, MA, for a visit with some friends and got to watch some high-end badminton, which–if you’ve never seen–is quite spectacular and takes athleticism and much skill to do well. Lightning fast reflexes help. Badminton, you should know, is an Olympic sport. The best players are Asian. To get an idea of how popular badminton is in the world, just check out this You Tube video that’s gotten over 7 million views: Crazy Badminton.

Lobster is everywhere in New England–grocery stores, roadside stands, fish shacks–and cheap. We got it more than once, the last time at a roadside place and ate it in the van. We had to use our pliers to get into it. By the way, if you’re preparing lobster yourself and have a live one, put it in the freezer first to numb it, then kill it humanely, as shown in this helpful video: How to Kill a Lobster

We drove through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, which are lovely and surprisingly wild. There was still snow on the distant peaks. We didn’t have time to go north to see the notoriously dangerous Mt. Washington, highest point in the northeast, where the weather is unpredictable and deadly year-round. Jill really wanted to see a moose. At one pint she exclaimed, “Is that a MOOSE?” It was just a fisherman in casting in a river. Actulaly, early spring is the right time of year to see a moose but all we saw were the moose warning signs. As for other wildlife: it was too cool for the black flies but the mosquitoes were numerous. However, they weren’t aggressive: they would swarm and nose around us but rarely bit. I’m not sure what that was about.

Jill made the brave and ill-advised decision to stop for Thai food in Montpelier, VT. I know, you don’t buy Asian food in Vermont, especially when it’s made by a non-Asian cook. I was more than skeptical. But it was great food! I mean, truly memorable and reasonably priced. Vermont is a foody state and Burlington, its hipster hotspot, is a foody town. We hung out with the Preservation Burlington folk and ate well. Oh, and here’s a shout-out to Chris and Sara, a rabbit loving couple we look forward to seeing again.

We’re always looking for cool historic houses to visit. Jill picked out Shelburne Farms, just south of Burlington. It’s a circa 1900 estate that has some similarities to North Carolina’s Biltmore insofar as it was a wholly self-sustained community built around one wealthy man’s vision. The barns and outbuildings are spectacular. The mansion itself is, by comparison, understated but grand nonetheless. We had a very good brunch in the house and bought some of the farm-made cheese at the gift shop.

Once we crossed into New York (I know, this isn’t New England) Jill was determined to find one of the historic vacation camps in the Adirondacks. These “camps” were resorts created by the wealthy circa 1900-1920. We set our sights on a National Historic Landmark: Great Camp Sagamore. But it wasn’t east to find because there was virtually no signage for the place and it was four miles down a dirt road, off a two-lane blacktop. When we got there, we found it not yet open for the season. We were surprised to learn that it’s a very popular place, booked solid through the summer. We talked to the groundskeeper, a flinty mountain-man with a gray-stubbled face and a battered hat. He spoke through a cloud of black flies and didn’t raise a finger to bat them away–unlike us.

As part of my Preservation America project, we stopped in Rhinebeck, NY, so that I could interview the director of Wilderstein, one of our favorite historic mansions. It’s a high Victorian frame house with a grand tower and elegant wrap-around porch that overlooks the Hudson. It was the home of Daisy Suckley, FDR’s cousin and good friend–you may remember the recent movie made about her, “Hyde Park on the Hudson.”

By the time we got home, the van was as crowded as it could ever be: not only were there two dogs in the back but also a cool Arts & Crafts fire screen that Jill had found in a Maine antiques shop, as well as a painting and a rug we got at a flea market, a box of craft stuff and a bag of vintage clothes from a yard sale, a 1960s boat compass, assorted thrift store finds (including a new Marblehead baseball cap and a William Morris necktie), and a box of leftover pizza. Next year, I tell Jill, we’re going to Texas. Lord knows what we’ll bring back from that trip.

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May 28 2014

The World’s Biggest Antiques Market

A couple weeks ago, Jill and I traveled to the nation’s biggest antiques market, held in Brimfield, MA. It lasts six days and occurs outside in former cow pastures, under hundreds and hundreds of tents put up by thousands of vendors over hundreds of acres. Understand that Jill and I are antique fanatics. We’d been wanting to go to the legendary Brimfield show ever since we’d first heard about it over ten years ago. Our friend Scott, an antiques expert, gave us tips on how to manage the visit. If you don’t get advice or do some research in advance, you will miss the hot spots and easily get overwhelmed.

The way Brimfield works is this: two or more “shows” open every day. There are 23 shows. If you’re there for the opening of a particular show, you’ll get the best pick of stuff. The longer the show has been opened, the less good stuff you’ll find there. The challenge for us was threefold: we were on a budget, we were traveling in the camper van with both dogs (so we had no room to carry junk), and we weren’t really in the market for collecting more antiques (see “lightening our load” ) .

Jill and I love to shop and neither of us is good at resisting a bargain. But we were on our best behavior. Then we found an amazing oil painting for $1400 — way over our budget — and we were were swept away, like racing down a snowy hill on a toboggan. We really wanted that painting. But we didn’t need that painting. And we couldn’t afford that painting. We talked about it, pondered our options, and then, at last, we decided against it. This was a notable feat of self-control on our part.

Now liberated from a tremendous temptation, we were steeled to resist any other. We focused on small stuff. Jill found a Occupation-era Steiff kitten. Then we found a small antique Chinese carpet. And then we came upon a quirky unfinished oil painting that we felt we had to have. Everything we bought was relatively cheap–that is, a good bit below retail price. You’ve got to carry cash at a show like this. You’ve got to bargain. And you’ve got to be willing to walk away.

By the end of the day, we had been on our feet for 10 hours. Since we were exhausted and out of money, it made no sense to stay for another day, as we had planned. Some people stay for all six days–and bring big trucks to haul away their finds. We saw rows and rows of panel trucks and vans brought by dealers from all over the country. That cool old tea set you’ll find in an antique shop in, say, Atlanta probably came from Brimfield.

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May 01 2014

Baltimore’s Big Cave-in (in our backyard)

A short walk from our house, you’ll find Baltimore’s big cave-in. Jill and I often walked our dogs along that stretch of 26th Street. For years, it’s been clear that something was wrong beside the railway cut. The street had sunk several feet at the curb to the extent that the sidewalk was angled sharply up to the railway fence.

No doubt, you’ve read about the collapse by now. It’s national news. Helicopters have been hovering over our neighborhood for nearly two days straight. TV crews have been camped out to film the digging. And about six cops are on duty to make sure nobody does anything stupid.

One hundred years ago, the railroad cut a 30-foot-deep passage through our neighborhood to allow trains across town. Train travel remains heavy through the cut. Several times a day, we hear the trains screeching and whining as they pass. I can’t imagine those who live next to cut ever getting used to this racket.

For the record: neighbors have complained of the sinking roadway for nearly 20 years. It seemed obvious that the railroad’s old cut-through was responsible. But the railroad did nothing about it. Now, the city and the railroad are debating the issue. Was the city at fault for not repairing the roadway? Or was the railroad at fault for not reinforcing the cut-through? Maybe it was both.

The collapse swallowed 8 vehicles and has led to the evacuation of about 15 families. Fortunately, nobody was harmed. Still, it raises the issue of infrastructure in America. To be clear: the Baltimore landslide was not a natural disaster. Nature only advanced the inevitable collapse of a man-made problem–a severely compromised road.

Old cities like Baltimore have no resources to upgrade water mains, gas pipes, and roadways until they rupture, break, or explode. And big corporations like CSX railroad aren’t inclined to upgrade their railbeds and retaining walls until they have to because they answer first to stockholders who want a profit. The result is often catastrophic. Increasingly we see things like the Baltimore landslide happening all over the country. For example, a recent study showed that 67,000 bridges in America are “structurally deficient.”

Be that as it may, we love a spectacle, don’t we? This catastrophe has brought a carnival atmosphere to our neighborhood. What holds our attention is the fact that, right here in the midst of an old, established neighborhood, we see suddenly something that is as dramatic as a volcano’s eruption. It literally changes the landscape and so, for a time, we’re transported or upended, reminded that we can take nothing for granted. Not only is it unsettling, it is also invigorating (when nobody gets hurt) because we see up-close how powerful Nature is and how, sometimes, we humans are little more than ants hugging a leaf in a strong wind.

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Apr 10 2014

Why We Like the Grossest Stuff on You Tube

Published by under City Life,House Love

Last week, Jill sent me a You Tube link and told me to check it out. It had 31 MILLION hits. That’s this many: 31, 000, 000. It showed a guy popping a boil on his back. Apparently there’s a huge audience for this kind of pussy spectacle. In fact, you can find just about any gross subject on You Tube: if it can be imagined by the human mind, somebody has filmed it.

But let’s consider the spectacle of a man popping a festering boil on his back. Why should 31 million people find this of interest? Most of us have known somebody, like a childhood friend, who was proud of showing off the marble-sized booger he extracted from his nose or the cheesy chunk of pumpkin-colored wax he pulled from his ear or the coin-sized scab he peeled from the cut on his knee. The gross object is never so gross that we don’t want to see it.

We watch because we’re surprised that our own bodies can produce such things. On the surface, the human body is quite tidy and well-contained. We take for granted that our bodies know what they’re doing and can handle just about anything. Really, we are spoiled by the body’s efficiency. That’s why we’re appalled and filled with wonder when the body goes awry: it becomes amazing in most unsettling way.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. It’s a museum of bodily wonder and, in fact, belongs to the city’s College of Surgeons. There, you can find a tall cabinet filled with tiny toys and other objects extracted from children’s noses. Also the bubbly corpse of a woman who “turned to soap”; the largest colon in the world (removed from a man who could not defecate); wax models of superating eruptions and festering nodules on the faces of hapless patients; even the skull of a woman whose forehead sprouts a ramlike horn.

It’s carnival freakshow stuff and, frankly, I can’t get enough of it. Jill and I have been to the Mutter many times. Needless to say, calling it a “museum” legitimizes the visitors’ morbid fascination with the human-body-gone-wrong. Part of the attraction is that we who gawk and gape at these awful things are reminded vividly that we are more fortunate than the “victims” who are on display.

This is not to say that we take delight in others’ misfortune. It’s more complicated than that. Part of us understands that, with a little bad luck, we could be the guy on You Tube with the steamy red boil on his back. Or the patient with a nose that looks like a smashed persimmon. Life is rife with frightening possibilities. So, it’s with gratitude that we watch somebody else drain the puss from his startling wound. Our gratitude mingles with awful wonder, too, as we consider how something so intimate to our own selves–our bodies–could, like a sudden turn in a funhouse, bring us to a frightening end.

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Apr 01 2014

When a Cat Loves A Dog

Published by under House Love

Our cat, Frankie, loves our bulldog, Sadie. I’m not sure when we noticed it but, soon after we brought Sadie home from the rescue shelter, Frankie strode up to her, put his head to hers, then gave it an affectionate butt. Sadie stared at her in surprise, it seemed. We knew Sadie was okay with cats but you never know the extent of that okay until it’s tested. Frankie was willing to test Sadie to the max, probably because he sensed that Sadie is a gentle soul. Cats are intuitive that way. Frankie would never head-butt our basset hound, for instance.

The cat/dog dynamic is fraught, as you know, because we assume a dog will chase a cat. But cats are smart about this, too. A cat will not run from a dog if it knows it can’t get away. Instead, the cat will hunker down and/or puff up, readying for a fight. Often times, when a dog charges a cat and the cat doesn’t budge, it startles the dog. Dogs like a good run after something. A cat that won’t run spoils the fun and some dogs in such a situation simply don’t know what to do.

Sadie’s history involves no interactions with cats because Sadie was chained up for most of her life–until she was rescued. We’re not sure what makes Sadie so gentle, except that she was used as a breeder, which is to say she’s had a lot of pups in her time. So she knows about nurture. When Frankie starting courting Sadie, he surprised us becasue we didn’t see Frankie as an especially affectionate cat. If you watch their video (part I), you’ll see that Frankie won’t leave Sadie alone–he wants her to want him.

It’s all quite innocent, mind you. It seems that Frankie wants Sadie to groom him. So Sadie obliges, licking Frankie. Sadie would like more action, actually. She wants to play but, compared to Frankie, she’s a giant. When she attempts to lay a playful paw on him, Frankie can’t bear the weight. At first, we were afraid that, in her exuberance, Sadie might inadvertently harm Frankie. But that hasn’t happened. Our second video will show this.

The current video shows Frankie in full courtship mode and Sadie sleeping through every bit of it. We think this video should be sent to people who aren’t getting along, and especially to people who think war is a solution to disagreements. No two creatures could be so different in temperament and inclination than a dog and a cat. They are the yin and yang of the pet world. As such, these two-Frankie and Sadie–give credence to that now-old utterance of optimism: Make love not war.

Video here: When a Cat Loves a Bulldog

And here:

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: