Friday, March 30, 2012

LA Boulder

Hey, all you East Coast, Washington politics-obsessed drones, I bet you entirely missed this critical story from the West Coast – from LA, Baby!  It all comes down to a rock – that’s our test of American society and culture.  A fine geological specimen it is.  But is this a triumph? Or a shame?

What I’m talking about is the procurement of a 340 ton granite boulder and its transport some 105 miles to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on a specially designed 176-wheeled transport cradle.  For art’s sake.  All for a mere $10 million price tag (thankfully no taxpayer funds were harmed in the making of this story, as they say).

Levitated Mass is an artwork by Michael Heizer comprised of a 456-foot-long concrete-lined slot constructed on LACMA’s campus, upon and at the center of which is placed a 340-ton granite megalith. As visitors walk along the slot, it gradually descends to fifteen feet deep, running underneath the megalith before ascending back up.  Heizer conceived of the artwork in 1968, but discovered an appropriate boulder only decades later, in Riverside County, California.
The rock parade traveled through four counties and 22 cities and is so large and cumbersome it could only be moved at night on roads closed to traffic, and then only at 5 mph. Officials also had to plan a circuitous route to avoid any overpasses, streets or bridges deemed too weak to support the transporter and cargo. Work crews from about 100 utility districts were positioned to take down traffic signs, overhead wires and other obstacles to let the rock pass and then reinstalled them after the transporter passed. During the day, the rock was shrink-wrapped for protection and parked in the middle of the road.
The rock parade took a total of 11 cold and grueling nights. The media published the route and provided daily updates to the art-starved public. Reportedly, journalists from around the world and hundreds of onlookers, armed with cellphone cameras and noisemakers, turned out to welcome the big rock’s arrival at LACMA on March 11th.  And this in a city where celebs are a dime a dozen.

Here in the Northeast and upper Mid-West we already have mechanism for moving 340 ton boulders – we call them continental glaciers.  And every 100,000 years or so they’ll oblige you by chugging on down from the hinterlands of Canada (no, hinterlands start north of Montreal) and start moving stuff around, including two-story hunks of granite. Glacial geologists (of which there are more around than you have any idea) call these transported boulders, “erratics.”  Come to think of it, that handle could apply in the LA circumstance as well. Hmmm.

Says LA County Supervisor, Mr. Zev Yaroslavsky, "Now this rock has taken the region by storm. People can love it or hate it, but they are all consumed by it. It has the whole town talking, which is what art is supposed to do."

If LA residents get wowed over a boulder, I wonder what they would think if they saw, you know, like an entire mountain? “Oh wow man, like I thought I was consumed over that boulder, but this is like looking at a whole meal – a feast!”  The concept of corralling a boulder in the wilderness, subduing it with cables, and transporting it long distances for public display? If the boulder was an animal, it sounds like we’d have the makings of a zoo. Bringing nature to the urbanites, rather than the other way around.

But back to the societal indicator question. Is what LACMA did a triumph or a shame?  Private funds can flow wherever their owners choose.  But a $10M rock for a display…     

Rogue Geology Causing Trouble Again

This just in from “Northern Neighbor News” - Thousands of wrecks happen every day on highways around the world. It's safe to say most aren't like the one that happened Wednesday in northern Ontario, when a collision and resulting pileup spilled millions of dollars of cash onto a Canadian highway. The wreck happened when a Brinks truck struck a rock outcropping near Kirkland Lake. Much like the Titanic, the rock ripped open the side of the truck, spilling an estimated $5 million in Canadian coins onto the highway in an ankle-deep array. The coins had come from the Canadian Mint and were headed for circulation.

Man, those pesky rock outcrops – drifting around the countryside creating mayhem, just like the Greenland icebergs during Spring breakup. “Gabbro gone wild,” you might say.  Hopefully the Mounties were armed with their rock hammers to subdue the lithographic varmints.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hooray for Nothing!

I don’t know, is a rally of and for non-believers logical in and of itself?  It’s certainly a free country and people gather and protest for a whole spectrum of purposes in the U.S.  But a Reason Rally this weekend in DC to promote your belief in non-belief?  Some participants have touted this weekend as a seminal event, the secular Woodstock – you’ll be forever sorry if you don’t participate. Years from now you’ll be telling little white lies to your friends, claiming you really were there, one among the fortunate.

Two comments that were posted on the Reason Rally’s website are a bit telling:

“As a non-believer, I’d like to get involved. But some atheist groups are just as bad as the religious groups as far as being bullies. Contrary to some atheist’s opinions, not all religious people are ignorant. If only the atheists could set a better example. Otherwise, what’s the point? The last thing we need is another group claiming the moral high ground.”

“There is a big difference between ignorant and stupid. Nobody claimed they (believers) were stupid. Ignorance is ‘not knowing’. However, religious people tend to choose ignorance, they don’t want to know or find out the truth. That’s stupidity. When information is available which you choose to ignore and you still base an opinion and call it fact, that’s stupidity. Ignorance breeds bigotry and hatred. Religion encourages ignorance. I am a freethinking atheist. I took it upon myself to think, therefore I know.”

Woodstock?  Wasn’t that about peace and love? Everyone hum along now (with a pardon to Ms. Joni Mitchell):

“By the time we got to DC, we were a few thousand non-believers strong,
And everywhere there was doubt and secularization.
And I dreamed I saw a Hitchens cloud shinning lonely in the sky,
Turning us into zeros throughout the nation.”

I don’t know everything that I believe in. Personally, I’m unconvinced by many of the dogmas sent my way by established churches and well-intentioned para-church ministries. But I know I don’t believe in nothing.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Iceberg Beer

For about a year and a half my wife and I lived in St. John’s Newfoundland, the “Rock” – the easterly most land in North America.  When we were there Americans were still drinking American beer, if you can believe it.  Oh, I guess you could find a few off-shore beers, like Becks, but generally no Canadian beer, even in New England.  So Newfoundland was a great learning experience, drinking-wise, and Newfoundlanders love both their beer and their Screech (rum). 

But when I was a St. John’s resident there was no Iceberg Beer - made from water derived from the icebergs that float down to Newfoundland from spring breakup in Greenland. Beer made with thousand year old bubbly water.  Sounds good to me. (These same icebergs did in the Titanic 100 years ago this April, by the way).

I gather the distinctive blue bottles and their labels are considered something of a collector’s items as the brewing company is having trouble getting their bottles back, even with the required cash deposit.  Patrons at restaurants have been known to purchase the beer, then buy the empty bottle as a souvenir.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Alto, Michigan

Spent some time in Alto, Michigan with a new client this week.  1 beauty shop, 1 store front library, 1 tire place, 1 bar, 1 American Legion hall.  Are my clients in the Federal Witness Protection Program?

Downtown Alto, Michigan

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Working Off the Grid

I’m with a client in Indianapolis, a nice, but kinda different guy from USEPA’s Chicago office, and we’re conducting an environmental review of the huge Veterans Affairs medical center there in the city (I’m the technical hired gun on this assignment supporting the EPA).  I flew in from out of state but my client drove down from Chicagoland and so he provided the wheels for the 3 days we were conducting this review.

When I arrived at Indy I discovered that I had not packed my AC cell phone charger and all I had with me was the plug-in charger for a car’s cigarette lighter. I had forgotten I wasn’t renting a car for myself.  No big problem I thought in the back on my mind, when I need to I’ll just plug it into my client’s car to get my phone recharged.

Now my client was a bit on the cheap side, as well as slightly eccentric.  His car was a honkin’ big Lincoln Town Car which he explained was a former Illinois State police car that he bought at auction.  Aside from the fact that his ride was a massive hunk of steel to begin with, as a police car this thing had heavy everything – suspension, muffler, battery and electrical system, you name it.  It was meant to be a work horse.

So it’s the third day of our assignment and he swings by to pick me up at my hotel (he never communicated to me ahead of time what hotel he’d be staying in so we ended up a couple of blocks apart in downtown Indy and the VA hospital is located on the edge of town).  My cell phone battery is very low at that point so I whip it out with the charger and lean in the direction of the cigarette lighter socket asking presumptively, “You don’t mind if I plug in my phone (for the 15 minute drive to the medical center) do you?”  To my utter shock, he answers (with a total straight face), “No, you can’t do that. I’m afraid it will overload the circuits.”  I’m waiting for the smile or chuckle – that never came.  The guy was dead serious.  He was afraid my wimpy little flip phone would fry his Lincoln Town Car.  I was stunned as I tried to recover. He had exhibited his quirky side throughout our little multi-day assignment, but this stopped me cold.  He was my client, not my co-worker or goofy friend that I could shame into seeing things my way.  And the car was his personal property. This extra rugged ex-cop vehicle that probably chased the Blues Brothers down Illinois’ finest highways at 130 mph was not up to the task – in his mind.

I sheepishly put my charger away and turned off my phone to preserve what little juice was left for my trip home.  Sure enough, later that evening in the airport terminal when I had several important calls to make, my phone died causing me to search for that vanishing species, the coin pay phone, muttering the consultant’s prayer, “Save me from whacky clients!”

Friday, March 9, 2012


Hard not to feel entitled when you live in a well-off community. We “needed” our own HS - to keep our kids from having to mingle with the working class of the neighboring city of course.  And once you have your own high school, then the sky’s the limit.

“But we have to have a North Korean language class at the HS, how else will our children get ahead in the world?  Why, this Spring the students can take a trip with Jimmy Carter to visit North Korea – you know, to bring peace and love.  And it will only cost $25,000 per student for the week!  We’re asking that 95% of that reasonable fee be covered by the school budget.”

“Now Lovey, what was the name again of that little school that our daughter will be attending this Fall?”  “Why dear, it’s Haaavad.”  “Oh yes, of course, Haaavad.”

Hear Ye

I’ve always had better than average hearing (as demonstrated by childhood testing) that (maybe somewhat) made up for vision that required eye glasses since the third grade. But sometimes I fear that aging may be taking its toll on even my modest auditory advantage.

Last Sunday morning I entered our church’s lobby (“narthex” in church-speak) when the first service crowd as still milling about and gabbing loudly over coffee and tea and the second service crowd was just arriving and making their way into the sanctuary. In our small lobby area even a couple dozen folks talking produces somewhat of a blended din where individual conversations become mashed into a big hum (some might say uncharitably, “racket”).

Through the open sanctuary doors I could see, and somewhat hear, the worship team practicing one of the semi-contemporary pieces for the second service. But filtered through the din of the lobby conversations I couldn’t make out what they were singing, only that they were in fact singing, and playing instruments. There were some bass tones coming through and somehow to me they sounded like the worship band was playing “Louie, Louie.” But when I got into the sanctuary, it was obvious a familiar worship song. No Louie-Louie. Which was OK by me.

But I am developing a post on mis-hearing based on my many years of business travel through airports with their tinny PA systems. I jotted down notes all those years. And while the TSA thought I was observing security systems and plotting to attack the obnoxious attendants at the Starbucks kiosk, I really was just pondering listening vs. hearing. Really.

No Problem, What Are Friends For?

After a serious post about friendship, I thought of two much more trivial examples of friendship – you know, where you can get a free ride or a benefit or something because of a friend.

Several years ago a family moved into our neighborhood from Missouri and one weekend they invited us and some other neighbors over for a cookout at their house.  The husband drove a full size pickup truck and sometime in the conversation expressed, “I don’t know how anyone, especially here in New England, gets by without owning a pickup truck.”  I put my arm around his shoulder and said with my best frugal Yankee grin, “Why, we make sure we make friends with someone who does have a pickup truck, that’s how!”

And then there’s my friend Gerry who worked as an engineer for Anheuser Busch up to his retirement.  Gerry got two free cases of Bud each month for personal use (he was very popular at his family get-togethers as you might imagine).  From time to time the R&D department at his plant would give him a bunch of new brews to “test out” on his friends and relatives.  Sometimes these brews were labeled, looking like they just came off a store shelf (and many would in fact appear in stores in the following week or so).  But sometimes Gerry would have a box of bottled beer with just a paper tape label marked with a number written in magic marker.  He’d be asked to report back which ones his friends liked and which ones didn’t go over very well.  Ah, the la-bor-atory rats have been working hard at their concoctions again and need some guinea pigs!  The ancient photo below is Gerry and I dutifully conducting our taste tests on his porch on a nice summer’s day.  Rough work, but what are friends for anyway?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Cape of Good Friendship

Lasting friendships are forged. Similar to the age-old argument of human personality development and child rearing, is it mostly nature or mostly nurture that does the forging of friendships? I’m not certain, but in my life, it’s been a dose of environment and place that are tied to some very dear friendships.

For me, Cape Cod has long been associated with friendships in one form or another. Attending high school in the Boston area, our gang of friends would trek to The Cape often in the summers, to the many public beaches of course, or a few times scuba diving from a friend’s boat. One of my wife’s best friend’s family had a house that overlooked Buzzards Bay and during our dating years we’d travel there often. Then my wife and I honeymooned on the Outer Cape, and while we had dated for a number of years before getting married, our honeymoon was the start of decades of sharing love and the bonds of a lifetime friendship.

One of my favorite uncles retired to The Cape and I think of him as more of a friend, than relative.  My mother was the oldest in her family, I’m her oldest child, and Ernie was her youngest brother.  So Ernie is only about 8 years my senior.  Growing up and visiting my grandparents in summer at their small poultry farm, Ernie was still at home many of those years, in high school and then in the Air Force on the Cape’s Otis Air Force Base. He was an outdoors kind of guy and would take me swimming, show me how to shoot and take care of BB guns and small caliber rifles, and hand me down Army surplus camping gear from his days as a Boy Scout. We still enjoy visiting Ernie and his wife when we can and keep in touch via e-mail.

After we were married a number of years and before we started our own family, my wife and I returned to the cluster of rustic cottages where we had honeymooned, this time accompanied by a recently-married couple that we had become friends with, and still are to this day. We enjoyed time at the beach, bike riding on the Outer Cape’s back roads, and finding and picking wild bleach plums and then making jelly out of them back at our weather-beaten cottage in the dunes. Shortly after we returned to our jobs and the “real world,” we penned this memento – in our best faux Olde English – as a nod to the Mayflower Pilgrims who had briefly stopped on Cape Cod before moving on to form Plimouth Plantation. I just came across a copy of it recently while organizing old photos and other keepsakes stored in our basement.

Be it known that on a certain daye in ye midft of the dank winter, a compact was formed for a noble experiment. Thus, it came to pass that on ye fifth of September in the year of our Lord nineteen and eighty one, two small steele vessels doth set courfe for ye Cape of Codde laden full with provisions, including stores of foode, blankets, canning jars and iron bycicles. They landed in the mide afternoon on the shores of Whalefleet and made for their staye.  Thar did they reste and relax and partake of ye great beache and mighty sun, with time made to gather ye ancient beache plum, choke cherrie and flipper.  Afront a roasting fire did they down chowder and half cups of coffe beverage.  Amid the surfe sounds, scrabble was played, dreams were dreamt and the Spirit shared.  And the weeke did passe and too quickly it be gone. The experiment deemed a success; they parted each separate and did so as closour friends then whence they had begunne.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bookend Storms

Strange winter season. We’re getting a lengthy snow storm (Feb 29 – March 1) almost exactly 4 months after our surprise Halloween storm in late Fall.  And practically nothing in between.  Naturally my snowblower was lying in wait to break down again just when this new storm appeared.  But then again, it’s not like I run the snowblower when there is no snow to remove – that would be weird.

Of course we really don’t know that this is our bookend storm.  It’s only March 1 – plenty of time in New England for several other walloping storms to plague us.  I personally think winter is not ready to go away.  Just a few weeks ago my goldfish came out from under their ice cover to the air hole I keep open in the pond. They saw their shadows, so back under the ice it was for six more weeks.

I should ask them what they think the odds are of my snowblower getting fixed once and for all this time.  But maybe I don’t want to know the answer to that one.