Perhaps it’s moving out of peak tourist season, or perhaps it’s moving away from peak tourist attractions, but the selfies aren’t going by as fast as they used to. But here are the Selfies of the Northeast (including more Safe Bison-Selfies™).
Most of my blog posts are pretty pedantic and focussed, so I’ve decided I should sometimes just post photos that aren’t part of a larger polemic. Plus I don’t have to write as much.
Greta flew back to Eugene for a week to see Linda, celebrate her birthday, and undertake her final Halloween trick or treat before starting high school. Her focus shifted on to seeing people in Eugene, and she didn’t have me to goad her.
Second, since the beginning of the month, Greta has been participating in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. (http://nanowrimo.org). The goal is to write 50,000 words of fiction during November. This has taken up most of her writing energy, plus she has made friends with a bunch of Australians she met in a NaNoWriMo chat room, and she spends time messaging them. But she has already written 45,000 words, will doubtless meet her goal this weekend, and will be in high gear for writing, able to crank out a backlog of food and museum reviews.
Third, our day-to-day life in the Northeast has been just too full in the last month. When we were out out west, we spent our days driving and seeing things, and our evenings in the trailer in a campground, blogging away. But once we got to the Northeast, our days have been even more full of things and places, and in the evenings we’ve been staying with a succession of family and good friends, sometimes catching up with people I haven’t seen in 15 to 40 years. Blogging actually takes more time than I anticipated, and it’s hard for me to be productive when there’s conversation to be had and whiskey to be drunk.
Our blog is currently stuck in Boston, but we are physically in Charlottesville. We will probably slow down a bit in our travels now, and we will have to time to update our adventures in Lowell, New Hampshire, New York, Paterson, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington DC, Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah Valley. So keep your eyes peeled, and a happy Thanksgiving to all!
When I began planning this trip, the first thing I did was to map out where we had friends all across the country. Reconnecting with old friends, often after decades of separation, has been one of the high points for me (although perhaps farther down on Greta’s list, below eating new foods and seeing cute animals). What’s been most amazing is how these visits haven’t just been exercises in nostalgia; these friends have grown up and changed, and I’ve found I like the new versions of them just as much as I did the older, familiar ones. We’ve had great conversations, usually into the late hours, and I have learned a lot about their lives, the choices they’ve made, and how they’ve made sense of life as they’ve had careers, raised children, dealt with life’s inevitable crises, etc.
We visited friends across the country, but then in the northeast there was such a density that it’s been hard to see all of them (and even harder to blog about it, as we spend all our time talking). Around Boston there were friends from every phase of my life – high school, college, grad school, New York, Eugene. Perhaps the most surprising visits were with friends from high school whom I hadn’t seen in 41 years. After so long you wonder whether you’re going to have anything in common anymore, whether you’ll even recognize each other; but that wasn’t the case at all.
Cos Rappoccio and I spent a lot of time together in high school. We shared many classes, and he was notable as the quiet one who always did well. (He pulled out our yearbook, where my note to him then emphasized how he made us look bad in German class, getting good grades while the rest of us were goofing around.) We weren’t in the same cliques – I was from White Plains, and he hung with his buddies from Port Chester – but one of the best things about our high school was that there was a lot of mixing among all the different groups. Jocks, preppies, stoners, smart kids, greasers – at some level we all knew each other and got along well, with most of us belonging to a few different groups. Cos and I did reminisce about those old days, catching each other up on those mutual friends with whom we’d lost contact.
After high school Cos went to Clarkson and then grad school at Johns Hopkins, with degrees in electrical engineering. He married Mary, a computer scientist, and they settled outside Annapolis, where they raised two children – their son Dave (who lives in Portland), and their daughter Rachel, with whom Greta bonded instantly, when she realized that her dogs were named Merry and Pippin. (Greta has been picking up new friends on this trip – a lot of interesting nerdy girls, who range in age from 8 to 30, and it’s been cool for her to meet other girls with whom she’s felt an instant affinity.)
Cos went to work for Northrop Grummon, and as he puts it, he’s had the same office phone number for 37 years. He’s been involved in projects I can’t really understand, mainly making really small cool things like sensors, but it was interesting how our discussion on our careers showed many parallels in processes, organizational challenges, and how to carve out an interesting niche within a large organization.
Cos has been a bicycling fanatic for years, making me jealous with his Facebook posts showing long rides through beautiful countrysides. He’s recently had health issues which have slowed him down physically, but not in any other ways. We had a great talk into the night, picking it up again in the morning, and he was the same sane, thoughtful guy I remembered. At this point I should put in a plug for Facebook – Cos and I would never have reconnected without social media over the past decade, and it was great to have the opportunity to reconnect with a friend from so far back. We decided to not wait another 41 years to get together again.
Ted Sudol was another of the Corpus Christi / Port Chester crowd in our high school. We too shared a lot of classes, but also had extracurricular interests which put us in contact, perhaps even competition. I was editor of the newspaper, and Ted was a mainstay of the yearbook, and traditionally these groups carried on a low-level war of pranks and other idiocies throughout the years. The percentage of conversation among teenage boys that is sheer bantering is astounding, and Ted and I did our share of that. But Ted was also interested in serious issues, and I remember the depth he brought to such conversations, both in class and out. We spent many an evening drinking beer (the drinking age was lower then) and solving the world’s problems.
Ted went off to Georgetown and then law school at Temple, and we haven’t seen each other since. He married his lovely wife Jill, and they somehow decided that her having twins was a sane thing to do while she was in medical school. They had two more kids after that, and Ted remarked that his children’s accomplishments – an anesthesiologist (like her mom), a creative writing professor, a math-econ-data whiz, and a sports-marketing intern – disprove the concept of regression to the mean, as they all seem to be more accomplished than him. Not that he has been much of a slouch – having had a career mainly in fundraising and development, working for non-profits and universities (James Madison), and now as managing director of a firm which provides development expertise and consulting services for non-profits.
Ted and his family have lived in a number of places, but for the last couple of decades in Harrisonburg, in the Shenandoah Valley. Their kids are all out of the house, and their sixth grandchild is on the way. (This is almost inconceivable to someone who is travelling the country with a 14-year-old, and I wonder how they managed to get this all out of the way so quickly.) True to form, Ted and I talked almost non-stop while we were there; the conversation didn’t even slow down for his cooking exertions (which included creme brûlée french toast, perhaps the most voluptuous breakfast we’ve ever had). It was a quick but intense visit, and we’re trying to convince them to visit us, since they don’t have the kids holding them back.
Bob Ripp showed up during our third year in high school, his family having just moved from Long Island. Despite the hard time we gave him about being from The ‘gIsland, Bob fit in immediately; he became one of our crowd as if he’d been there from the beginning. Bob was always at the center of all teenage adventures, always up for a night out and for never turning in.
In the past few weeks, when I was sitting around reminiscing with the other classmates in this post, it was striking how they all said more or less the same thing about Bob – that he was the most genuinely engaging, friendly, outgoing and happy person they knew in high school. He had a good word for everyone, and I think a lot of people left high school thinking that they were one of Bob’s best friends. We’ve all known a lot of people who give that impression, but with Bob it’s never been superficial – he really is that positive, he really is a good guy, and you know he really is your friend, for life.
Bob had a large and entertaining family, and it became clear that this warmth and gregariousness flowed out from the whole group. His mother and grandfather with their southern charm, his older siblings, his impish little sisters – they were all engaging and fun, and they immediately made you one of the family. Bob’s little brother Michael was a couple of years younger than us, and also became a good friend. Michael joined us for beers one night in Boston, and it was great to see him after all these years, a serious (somewhat), grown-up family man.
Bob went off to Holy Cross for college, where he was a member of the rugby team and lived in the notorious rugby house across from the campus entrance. Rumors reached us of their legendary exploits, and when we visited, the rumors were always proved true. As in high school, Bob acquired a large set of great friends, and by extension, any time we saw Bob we were accepted into this boisterous crowd and dragged along on their adventures. After college, Bob and most of his crew moved into Boston, getting jobs in finance and real estate, and the life continued as best it could, despite the inevitable attrition to marriage and families.
Bob has worked for a number of financial firms, having been at Morgan Stanley et al for quite a while now, ensconced in a tower downtown with a nice view of the harbor. Bob and Beth got married, they settled on the North Shore in a very old town called Boxford, and they raised two girls, Annie and Katherine. We didn’t get to meet them, as they are now off at college and boarding school, but there were so many pictures of them around the house that I’m pretty convinced that they exist. We had met Beth once previously, at Linda’s and my wedding (which doesn’t really count as meeting someone since you’re a little preoccupied), where Beth kept getting mistaken for one of Linda’s sisters. It was great to spend more time with her on this trip, and I enjoyed seeing Beth snap into “mom” mode when she met Greta, something Greta liked too, after being cooped up with just a dad.
Bob and I spent a bunch of time racking around – an amazing tour of the byways of Ipswich, Topsfield, and other beautiful towns, meals and drinks in a variety of locations, and most notably, Bob turning on the charm and talking our way into the Crane mansion when it was closed to the public. In Oregon, I’m generally regarded as a pretty gregarious, funny and outgoing person (right?), but when I’m with Bob, by comparison I feel introverted and lugubrious. After all these years, he still exudes warmth and engagement to everyone he’s with, from old friends to random people on the street. Bob clearly loves the world, and it seems that the world loves him.
Some of these high school friends have been long-lost, but Bill McGowan and I have stayed close throughout the past four decades. Bill was one of the hard core of Croton boys in high school, and a few of us down-county types attached to that core. After college at Middlebury, Bill pursued varied jobs such as scallop and conch fishing out of Nantucket, turning that experience into his first published article in the New York Times Magazine. Bill and I moved back to New York at the same time, and we lived together in a tenement on 82nd and Amsterdam while I was in grad school. Besides being a good friend in that challenging time, Bill was responsible for my having any social life at all, as he actually knew people who weren’t architecture students, and he would drag me along to get me out of the architecture rut for brief periods. (Bill also claims responsibility for introducing me to all my girlfriends in the early 80s, which is mostly correct.) After grad school I moved a whole block away, and Bill and I continued to hang out for the rest of the 80s. Those were the days, when New York neighborhoods hadn’t all been homogenized yet, and we watched the wave of gentrification roll up Columbus Avenue.
I remember Bill having one office job in the past four decades, which he quickly abandoned to pursue the life of a freelance writer and journalist. He has had a remarkable career in that time, publishing many articles in a wide range of journals, and also publishing three books: Only Man Is Vile, a first-hand account of the Sri Lankan civil war; Coloring the News, which documented how political bias distorts much supposed hard news reporting; and Gray Lady Down, on the decline and fall of the NY Times. He also has a blog at http://coloringthenews.blogspot.com, where he is not afraid to advance controversial ideas.
As I contemplated Bill’s career, it occurred to me that he’s managed to find the sweet spot of pissing off everyone on the right and everyone on the left. Liberals find his questioning of accepted pieties and his association with such institutions as the Wall Street Journal to be anathema, while right-wingers are agitated by his unwillingness to toe the line drawn by the plutocrats who fund their think-tanks and magazines. (Bill may be the only moderately conservative journalist in the country who isn’t living a lifestyle funded by the Kochs.) Reading through his articles and blog posts, I find that he is willing to attack those of every political persuasion, based upon some pretty clear principles, and is seldom distracted by the current fads and conventional wisdom. Orwell would have liked him.
When I’d visit New York in recent years, Bill and I would always have an evening where I could pretend I was a bachelor, and we’d go barhopping downtown to all the places where hipsters and supermodels hang out. This has become a little more problematic on recent trips with Greta in tow, but being with Bill still always conveys a sense of being in the middle of the action in the big city, which our little Oregonian finds very exciting. On this trip we met by the Bjarke Ingels building and wandered through Hell’s Kitchen to a fine neighborhood Italian place and had the kind of pizza you don’t get in Eugene. I’ve spent a lot of evenings eating and drinking with this man, and it doesn’t get old.
Throughout the tour of Luray Caverns, Dad and I could not stop making references to Moria. Although there was no mithril to be found, and it was considerably better lit, we did come across a hoard of goblins, aka a teenage school group. But in all seriousness, the caverns looked more like something out of a Doctor Seuss book than something written by Tolkien. Huge calcite spires between shades of red and white towered above us, and reached up from crevices below. The tallest was over forty feet, which is impressive considering that they only grow an inch every century.
There was a particular white spire named Pluto’s ghost. I wish we had gone earlier, so I could have gotten a picture of it before New Horizons. The tour guide explained that it got its name because the people who discovered the caverns kept seeing it, getting closer, and thought it was a ghost, but I think it should be a memorial to Pluto not being classified as a planet anymore.
What was eerily like Moria was the pool. It was perfectly still, and so reflected a perfect mirror of the stalactites above. It looked like jaws, and I kept expecting to hear “gollum, gollum,” coming from its far side.
Near the end of the tour, we were taken to the world’s largest natural instrument, the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Someone had created a organ out of the stalactites, hooking them up to mallets that would hit the right one at the right time to play a song. The idea was cooler than the music it played, which was too high-pitched and complicated, and not actually that good. It would have been better if they had just made it play Blitzkrieg Bop, and they would only have had to find three stalactites.
All in all, a completely different experience than the lava tubes of Craters of the Moon. Perhaps cooler looking and bigger, but there was no clambering involved, and you weren’t allowed to touch anything. There is plenty to see, but not much to do beyond taking the tour and taking pictures.
Harpers Ferry is a place I’d always heard about, but about which I had only a few random associations. John Brown’s raid, battles, rivers, West Virginia (really, is that where West Virginia is?) There wasn’t one clear narrative line about it, which now makes sense to me, as an incredible number of important things have happened in this one tiny place. The history is extremely interesting, but the spatial / geographic / topographic / architectural character is astounding. It’s my new favorite “place” in the country.
It all starts with the geography:
- It’s where the Shenandoah joins the Potomac, one of the major passes through the Appalachians in that region.
- Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia all meet at this one point.
- It is a gorge, similar to the Hudson River Highlands. A big cliff of Maryland on one side, a big cliff of Virginia on the other, and a small, low area at the base of a cliff in West Virginia in the middle, which is the town.
- Because of this geography, important transportation systems cross here: two rivers, one canal, and two railroads.
- Because of the strategic importance of this crossing, lots of important battles and skirmishes happened here, mainly in the Civil War.
- Due to this transportation hub, materials such as coal and iron moved through here, and it became the site for the US Armory, which pioneered manufacturing arms from interchangeable parts.
- Since the armory was here, John Brown decided to take it over and take the weapons for an insurrection.
There are probably lots of other places in the country where a similar series of historical causes and events have taken place, and we haven’t paid much attention to them, because neither Greta nor I likes to stand at a field where something happened a long time ago and try to imagine it. We like to see tangible stuff that remains from these events. The visual evidence at Harpers Ferry is compressed, right there in front of you. For this and other reasons, it is one of the most vivid and beautiful places we’ve been.
The historic town center is run by the National Park Service, with beautifully restored buildings, showing the businesses and residences of the past. None of it feels Disneyfied – it is all simple and direct and appropriate. We were there on a cool autumn weekday – perhaps it is more of a circus in summer tourist season, but while we were there, it felt like we had stepped back in time to this perfectly-preserved ghost town.
Harpers Ferry isn’t a reconstruction – there are lots of things from the past that have been destroyed and not replaced, such as the Armory. There are aspects of it which do not contribute to the experience, such as some intrusive and probably unnecessary constructions by the railroad right in the center of town. It doesn’t try to be perfect, and so it feels authentic, which is probably why it felt like being in Europe rather than America. We’ve been to many historic places on this trip where an either/or approach is evident – either the history is pretty much ignored, or else it been elaborated and “celebrated” in a way that destroys its integrity. (Independence Mall come to mind.) Harpers Ferry gets it just right.
I’ve only met a couple of other people who’ve ever been here, although it’s one hour from Washington. It just seems like it’s farther because it’s in West Virginia. We’re 2 1/2 months and 6000 miles into this trip, and this is my favorite place so far.
When we started this trip in September, Greta had three main goals: Yellowstone, barbecue, and the Smithsonian. So our five days around DC were overwhelmingly biased towards museums. I spent a reasonable amount of time in DC in the 80s and 90s, and I knew that with winter closing in I couldn’t do a comprehensive survey of what was now going on in this big city, so I just went with the flow. However, I did manage to trick Greta into walking around Georgetown and Northwest on our way to and from museums.
I probably hadn’t been in Georgetown in 30 years, and staying there with our friends Bob and Susan provided a good excuse for wandering the neighborhood, and back and forth to the Dupont Circle Metro stop.
As has become the norm in older cities on this trip, the experience of architectural quality, neighborhood walkability and overall urbanity was remarkable. It was also strange realizing that this is a neighborhood of the rich and powerful, and probably many of the houses we passed were occupied by people of whom we had heard. (Bob did point out the black SUV in front of John Kerry’s house, which meant that he was home.) I was totally enamored of the area, until one evening I decided to run out to pick up a couple of beers before dinner. Two miles later, nothing. Georgetown is a place where real estate values and rents are so high that normal businesses have been squeezed out by high-end clothing retailers and home design stores. You can’t run down to the corner to meet any need of day-to-day life, so you probably just send your staffers out to run errands in the black SUV.
Downtown DC has never been known for its quality of modern buildings – too much respectful timelessness, height limits, classical obsessions, conservative tendencies, etc. But even with that low a bar, this building is a standout.
We spent most of a day at the Air and Space Museum, which is memorable for one of the most legible partis in a museum.
and also for meeting my main criterion for a great museum: have lots of real stuff. Not an interpretive center, not solely didactic, not creating a programmed visitor experience. Have cool stuff that can’t be seen anywhere else, and all the other considerations are secondary. The Air and Space may be the best example of this – Greta was constantly amazed that these were the real objects.
The American History Museum was much better than I remembered; I think the new approaches to exhibit design of recent decades have been spectacular. We checked off some iconic pieces, such as the Star Spangled Banner, the display of which unfortunately shows some of the same grandiosity and obsessive fetishism of objects which ruined the experience of Mt. Rushmore and the Liberty Bell. We also caught the greatest of the slightly-nutty representations of a founding father as a Roman republican:
The partially-reconstructed display of an 18th century house from Ipswich is superb, detailing not just the technology of the building, but tracing its social history through the different households that occupied it for 200 years.
The ability of the installations to show the social, economic, technological and political context of the objects was really sophisticated. The section on transportation clearly demonstrated the interactions between the changing transportation systems and the economy, making connections that I’d never fully understood (such as why the textile industry was able to shift to the south when it did). And strangely enough, the section on post-war car culture focussed on Sandy Boulevard in Portland, with this tableau of cruising through Hollywood.
I started the Natural History museum with Greta, but my willingness to look at taxidermy animals is much lower than hers, especially when some of the greatest paintings in the world are across the street. So I ditched her for the afternoon and went to the National Gallery. Back in the 80s and mid-90s I’d always enjoyed business trips to DC, as I could spend the day in meetings and then run out to late hours at the art museums. So an afternoon at the National Gallery was similar to my day at the MFA – a chance to revisit familiar and beloved works, plus notice a few things that were either newly displayed or had escaped my notice.
Highlights included one room full of large portraits by three of my favorite painters -Whistler, Eakins and Sargent – and being able to look back and forth amongst them rapidly, thinking about how different their approaches were. The Italian Renaissance collection is the best in the country, how can such familiar works just knock you out every time you see them? One new favorite is this piece by Jacopo Bassano, which seems to be Maritime Mannerism; to the impossible poses, proportions and colors of Mannerism, we can add the unlikely stability and balance of figures leaping around on tiny boats.
And what can you say to a room with four Vermeers? One of the Vermeers in the permenant collection was on loan to the MFA, but they had thankfully replaced it with a loaner from the Rijksmuseum.
Seeing them reminded me of the time that there was the big Vermeer retrospective in 1995, and the one weekend I was able to see it, Newt Gingrich shut down the Federal government and that was it. There are many reasons to loathe what has happened to the Republican Party in the past 20 years, but that one tops my personal list.
The galleries of the East Building are being remodeled, and an extra floor added on one of the corners, but the atrium remains open. It is still one of Pei’s best buildings, perhaps as it avoids the usual gypsum board abstract detailing. In this case, the Washington penchant for marble and grandiosity does pay off.
It was wonderful seeing these amazing museums, but we had far too little time, skipping about a dozen other museums I wanted to visit. When I was planning this trip, I realized we really needed two years to do it right, and that was very evident in Washington.
If you enter from the National Mall side of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the first thing you see is a mounted bull African Elephant. It is the largest taxidermied specimen in the world, of the largest land animal. On your left continues the Great Mammal Hall. In its entrance, a Bengal Tiger is posed to pounce on you, and a giraffe waves his tongue in greeting through a window. Though the entrance is not laid out in any order I can find beyond looking cool, it quickly segues into being arranged by continent or environment. The region about Australia, being the only continent to house all three subclasses of mammals, explains the differences between placental mammals, marsupials, and monotremes. I’m a big fan of being allowed to poke stuff, so I liked in the polar area where they had a chilled squirrel statue that you could touch, and feel how cold an animal’s body might get during hibernation.
And boasting a giant squid over ten meters in length and a multitude of whale skeletons hung overhead in the two story space, the Ocean Hall of the Smithsonian Natural History museum is an impressive sight. In its section about prehistoric marine animals, it had a Dunkleosteus skull, and the jaw of a shark that basically had a hacksaw as a tongue. I’d say between a quarter and a third of the exhibit was about how humans are destroying the ocean, and how pretty soon it’s just going to be inhabited by massive swarms of jellyfish, which is kind of my worst nightmare.
Human history, even ancient stuff, has never been a great interest of mine, but the Hall of Human Origins presented the information (and I know I sound like a textbook critic here) in a clear and compelling fashion. The hall had recently been re-done, and incorporated videos and technology efficiently. They even had a booth where you could have your picture taken, and then modify it to see what you might look like as another species of hominid. Much more detailed than what you might learn in school, instead of just talking about Neanderthals and Australopithecus Afarensis, the direct ancestor to us, Homo Sapien Sapiens, it had models and statues of others, like the hobbit-sized people of Polynesia.
The third floor, usually home to the dinosaur exhibit, was closed for renovation, but they had a smaller Dino hall set up near the mummies. It only contained a few full skeletons, and was obviously aimed towards young kids, but for a temporary exhibit it was rather well put-together. Like at the Carnegie, they had a fossil lab with large windows, so visitors could look in at how fossils are prepared for exhibits.
The Geologic exhibit held the world-famous Hope Diamond. Not being the kind of girl who’s interested in jewelry, I liked the crystal ball better. A large sphere of clear polished Quartz, when you looked into it, it showed the room and everything in it upside down, like a spoon does when you hold it the right distance from your face. Even cooler than this though, was the large piece of naturally magnetic rock. Not behind a glass case (yes!), it was covered in paper clips that you could experiment with sticking to it.
But surprisingly, my favorite exhibit didn’t contain any taxidermy. The temporary show, Nature’s Greatest Photography, was simply a gallery filled with large prints of the winning photos from the Windland Smith Rice International Contest. One of my favorites in it was a picture of two Bush Rabbits playing, where they are touching noses, with one flying high in the air. To me it seems like a cartoon, where the pretty girl finally kisses the awkward boy, and he’s so surprised and happy he literally jumps. The exhibit actually prompted me to buy a catalogue of its photos in the gift shop.
Unlike the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it’s free. It also will let you in by yourself if you’re under 16, which is why you won’t see a blog post about that museum. I didn’t go into the insect exhibit, but I’ve been told that you should go see the butterflies, if you’re ever in DC.
As I was planning this trip and listing all the old friends we’d be able to visit, I discovered, to my amazement, that Greta was actually interested in meeting more of my college friends. She knew Dan and Mike and Bob, and she found them really entertaining – smart and funny and very offbeat, so she assumed the others would be the same.
I met Isadore Katz because he went to prep school with Bill, one of my freshman roommates. I distinctly remember this very intense person showing up during freshman year, complaining about Rochester and its miserable weather, where he had made the mistake of deciding to go to college. The next year Iz rectified this by transferring to Wesleyan, and he would stop in to visit us when he was back in Boston. He lived with members of our crowd sometimes in summers, and back in 1977 he and I spent a week together hiking the ridgeline around the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains.
Isadore moved back to Boston to work as a consultant after college, so we hung out for a couple of years until I moved to New York for grad school. Isadore started at the Sloane School at MIT at the same time, and when I asked him how business school was, he said, You’d be surprised at what passes for a concept around here. He lived with us in NY during a summer internship in 1983. After school Iz worked in the expanding computer industry, and met his wife Chris, a very cool and laid-back architect who had the good sense to not marry another architect. They moved off to Silicon Valley in the mid-80s, and after I moved to Oregon in 1990, I would see them whenever I went down to the Bay Area. Iz and Chris raised three wild and crazy girls, who have now grown up to be in law school at Berkeley, working in tech in Silicon Valley, and in college at Barnard. (One of the secondary goals of this trip has been to reconnoiter the terrain on how smart and independent girl-children turn out.)
Isadore has always had another one of those jobs where we can never quite figure out what he does, although in this case it’s not due to the vagueness of the job description, but rather to the complexity of the technology involved. He’s mainly been in the management end of the high tech industry, although after the Crash, he spent a couple of years working as a consultant at the Veterans Administration, essentially reconfiguring their database operation. About a decade ago, back in Massachusetts, he started a company that, as far as I can tell, designs software for chip manufacturers to help them model real, versus theoretical, chip performance, before they put a design into production.Is and Chris live in Harvard, Mass, out in the woods past I-495, a short walk from Fruitlands, the transcendentalist utopian community started by the Alcotts and others. Staying with them felt like being home – a modern house with lots of windows looking at the trees, a few days eating and drinking, and relentless storytelling and joking with two of the cleverest people I know. Isadore’s brother Seth, another friend from long ago, dropped in from his home in Florida, and we all got to reminisce about crummy apartments in Somerville and life before we became middle-aged.
Bob Beckman was one of my freshman roommates. I walked into our five-person suite, and saw that half of one room was already occupied, by someone who had left an olive-drab, gigantic filing cabinet, with a bar and padlock across the drawers. I immediately decided to take my chances on the other double room. Bob showed up and confirmed my take on him – a serious science nerd from the Philadelphia area, whose career orientation had been jumpstarted by his technocrat father (who had also supplied the government surplus file cabinet). In high school Bob had been a Westinghouse science competition national finalist with his research into sleep patterns, and this direction continued with his advanced standing concentration as a pre-med.
Bob’s seemed to conform to the absent-minded nerd stereotype: incredibly brilliant and relatively incompetent in dealing with the real world (manifested in such incidents as his first attempt to cook a hamburger, when it became clear he had no idea that you had to flip them). But contrary to type, Bob was one of the wittiest and most social people around. After graduating from college early, Bob worked in a lab for a year, and had weekly gatherings at his apartment for his college buddies, featuring endless guitar jams and truly awful spaghetti dinners. He also began his association with a lab at UW, furthering his research into a mathematically-based approach to understanding cancer. (Yes, Bob has another one of those careers I can’t understand, despite his repeated efforts to explain it to me.) Bob then entered the Harvard-MIT joint MD-PhD program, sharing an apartment with Isadore throughout this period, as his cooking skills marginally improved after determined effort. Bob moved off to California for his residency, where he met his wife Susan, a medical social worker from Rhode Island, whose good sense, unflappable disposition, and extreme competence have provided the bedrock upon which Bob could continue his stereotypical scientist life.Bob worked as a pediatric oncologist, but finally gave up on the clinical career when the unique American medical insurance situation made it impossible for him to practice medicine in the way he knew it should be practiced. He went to work on the East Coast for a succession of pharmaceutical companies over the next two decades, designing cancer drug trials, and trying to survive the corporate politics, while he and Susan raised two great kids, Daniel (now working for the NPS at Saguaro, whom we plan on visiting next month) and Laura, an artist in New York. Bob was appointed a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he furthered his continued interest in cancer research, while still holding down his day job.
A few years ago Bob mentioned that with the kids grown and retirement money stashed away, he’d like to return to research full time, using the last decade of his career to consolidate his theoretical approach to cancer. I warned him that the institutional nuttiness of academia was different from, but not necessarily any better than that in large corporations, but he didn’t listen. So last fall Bob got an appointment as a professor at Georgetown. He works with some graduate students, but his main job is to secure funding and pursue his unique direction in cancer research. We stayed with Bob and Susan in the little rowhouse they’re renting in Georgetown, where they are thrilled with the possibilities of urban life, after a few decades in suburbia in the northeast.
Norman Rave was another resident of our freshman dorm of misfits and savants. He arrived as a relatively conservative graduate of a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati, and along with us other lapsed Catholics, left the trapping of that life behind fairly quickly. Going off to college allows you to reinvent yourself, and Norman took advantage of this in the best possible way, combining his academic interest in biochemistry with his other strong predilections for literature and philosophy. Long rambling conversations with Norman about the meaning of life were some of the highpoints of college for me.
Norman always wore a weirdly wide range of eclectic tee-shirts, which I at first took to be the expression of an extremely ironic viewpoint, but it turned out that he just shopped at a store in Cincinnati which sold remaindered and misprinted shirts really cheaply. When this sartorial approach combined with Norman’s decision to stop cutting his hair or his beard, his appearance became the quintessence of the mid-70s college student, and he was known as Troll thereafter.
Norman got into grad school at Berkeley, so the summer after college, he and Dan Rabin and I drove across the country together, packed into an old Datsun B210 with all of Norman’s possessions. The person riding in the backseat was unable to move at all, and our overall appearance was such that we were shocked at the laxity of US law enforcement in that no one ever pulled us over. This was the first cross-country drive for any of us (I am in the middle of my 11th right now), but it just started a trend for Norman. He decided he didn’t like grad school, so he drove back to the east, and then back and forth a few times as he tried to figure out what to do with his life.
At some point he stumbled upon a position working in a lab at Princeton, which was of little long-term professional import, but where he met Ginny, a post doc in the lab, who would later become his wife. (I didn’t get a good photo of Norman and Ginny, but they still look remarkably like they did 35 years ago, except for the hair length.) They lived in Boston and then DC, as Norman decided he was more interested in the policy side of environmental issues, and he attended Georgetown Law School. Norman eventually ended up at the DOJ, while he and Ginny raised three kids in Rockville. Ginny spent years as a full-time mom, but began teaching high school science about ten years ago, and recently led a group of students on a field trip to the Amazon (she is nothing like any of the science teachers I ever had.)
We got to meet Kate, who is living at home while considering grad school (maybe in Oregon), and Will, who attends George Washington University. (Greta realized she had picked up yet another member for her cool nerdy posse when Kate opened the front door wearing her Welcome to Nightvale tee shirt.) Helen is off at Harvard Law, where she has actually studied environmental law cases that were argued by her father. Greta and I had a great time hanging around with all of them; most of my friends are now empty-nesters, and eating family dinners and spending time with a crowd was a nice change on our trip. And Norman and I got to sit around drinking bourbon and yacking, which we hadn’t done in 20 years.
At one point I asked Greta what she thought about all these friends she’d now met. She said it was fun, but strange. Little kids largely grow up in the world their parents construct for them, listening to the stories their parents tell. Greta had heard stories about these people throughout her life – Bob Stories are an especially iconic category among my people – and long ago they had assumed almost mythical status in her cosmology. So while it was nice to meet the real people, the legends were somewhat diminished now. Greta enjoyed getting to know Norman, but she’ll never have the same innocent fascination with Troll that she had before.
The first time I ever heard about Falafel was in a Batman movie, and I had no idea what it was. Then I ate a bad, horribly dry falafel burger in the cafeteria of the Art Institute of Chicago. Imagine my surprise when I finally tried good, fresh cooked falafel from Two Apple Food Truck on the way to the Mall in Washington, DC. Its logo depicted two cubic apples, which was odd, but also beside the point.
Fresh grilled balls of chickpea that broke apart when you bit them were surrounded by tzatziki, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes, and wrapped in flatbread. The crunchiness of the lettuce and falafel shell balanced nicely with the smooth tzatziki and the chewy wrapping. I ended up with quite a bit of it on my hands, as the whole thing had a tendency to deconstruct as I ate it, because the tinfoil it was wrapped in was not big enough to go all the way around the sandwich.
As the falafel in Batman had been off a food cart, it feels appropriate that my first good falafel was too. I wish I could have eaten more than one sandwich from it, but the next day it had moved on. Sadly, that is the nature of food carts.