Memorial Park, Jacksonville

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We’ve been exploring the Riverside neighborhood where Richard has an apartment, and in the process we’ve stumbled upon some of the many parks in Jacksonville. One of the nicer ones is Memorial Park, which is right on the river and features statuary, impressive fountains, Spanish moss hanging from trees, and squirrels being chased by toddlers.

In A Darkened Room

Shhhh! I need to be quiet.

I’m sitting in our darkened room in a bed and breakfast in Jacksonville, Florida. Kish and I are here to visit Richard and have a family Christmas. We got here last night, and Russell is staying at Richard’s apartment.

On these family vacations, it seems that I always spend time in a darkened room. I get up early and don’t want to wake my lovely, slumbering wife by turning on lights, so I will sit in a chair in the gloom, checking my email, watching dawn arrive and the dim light grow through cracks in the drawn curtains and shades of the windows, and trying to be as quiet as a church mouse. I’ve experienced a few stubbed toes over the years, shuffling through the blackness, but it’s worth it.

Sitting in a darkened room says “family travel” to me, because it only happens when I travel with Kish. When I am flying solo, I can spring from bed, turn on every light in the hotel room, and hit the ground running. It’s only on joint trips that I experience this sweet, slow, patient, quiet start to the day.

I hope all of our friends and Webner House readers can enjoy special times with their families this holiday season!

The Scrooge Impulse

Last night Kish and I were downtown walking to dinner when we saw a man and three kids who looked to be about 10 approaching.  It was pretty clear he was going to ask us for money, and sure enough he did — mumbling something about needing cash for a hotel room, a variation on the old panhandling line about being a stranger in town who has been unexpectedly stranded and needing help.

I declined.  Sometimes I give money to street people as an act of simple charity, but something about this enconter struck the wrong chord.  Kish, however, went to her purse, fished out a ten-dollar bill, and gave it to the man.  She noticed that the kids weren’t wearing hats or gloves on a chilly evening, whereas I was focused on the man, and I felt like Scrooge.

We then walked a few steps to the restaurant, and one of the young valet parkers came up to us.  “Just so you know, that guy comes by here every night,” he said.  “It really bugs me how he uses those kids as props for his begging.  Maybe it shouldn’t bother me, but it does.”  And then Kish and I went inside and thought and talked about the encounter.

So the man asking for money wasn’t quite Bob Cratchit, and perhaps I wasn’t quite Scrooge.  Or maybe I was, anyway.  The ethics of panhandling and panhandling responses are complicated.  Most homeless groups say you shouldn’t give money directly to beggars, who likely will use it to feed the bad habits that helped to make them homeless in the first place.  If you want to help the homeless, they say, give to organizations that help them end their addictions and destructive tendencies.  But what do you do when confronted by kids without hats and gloves?  The guy may have been running a scam, but I’m not feeling very satisfied about my reaction.

In Praise Of Christmas Vacation

Squirrrrellllll!

We normally wouldn’t associate the panic-shouted name of a bushy-tailed rodent with Christmas, but any fan of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation knows that a squirrel can play a key role in a  family Christmas — and ultimately in achieving payback against a bitchy yuppie neighbor, too.

Every year come the holiday season I want to see some of the standard shows at least once.  A Charlie Brown Christmas, of course, and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Ralphie in A Christmas Story.  One of the old versions of A Christmas CarolIt’s A Wonderful Life.  And Christmas Vacation, which is one of those movies that I’ll watch whenever I run across it during channel-surfing time.

It’s a guilty pleasure, but the simple story of everyman Clark Griswold and his doomed attempts to achieve the perfect family Christmas — notwithstanding the unexpected arrival of dickey-wearing cousin Eddie and his cheap RV with its chemical toilet, uncooperative Christmas lights, ill-advised applications of food technology to sleds, cheapskate bosses, dinner-destroying dogs, and other malignant forces that threaten to thwart him at every turn — seems to perfectly capture the magic of Christmas in a modern world.

Some might bemoan that our family Christmas traditions now include TV programs and movies as well as Christmas carols and other, more conventional aspects of the season.  I’m not too troubled by that.  In the Webner family, there will be a holiday sit-down to watch Christmas Vacation this year, just as in years past.  Anything that brings families together for some hearty laughter seems like a pretty good Christmas tradition to me.

Mr. Enthusiasm

Yesterday Kish and I had a fine day at our new digs  in German Village. We took some nice walks through the neighborhood and Schiller Park, enjoyed looking at the old homes, discovered a store that sells vintage candy (including Bonamo’s Turkish Taffy, the Great White Whale of hard-to-find candy of yesteryear), and experienced first-hand the straight shot five-minute “commute” to my office.

We had lunch at the Olde Mohawk, a comfortable former speakeasy turned neighborhood joint that I’d never eaten at before. As Kish and I chatted and I was enjoying a very tasty Great Lakes Brewery seasonal Christmas ale and a juicy cheeseburger at the Mohawk, I was brimming with enthusiasm for our new adventure.

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This display of boosterism made Kish smile, because it is a familiar trait. When I quit smoking once and for all more than 20 years ago I promptly began raving about how great it was to be smoke-free and how I couldn’t believe that I — or anyone else for that matter — ever smoked in the first place. When we go on trips overseas I wax rhapsodic about the interesting culture, architecture, and food. When Richard and Russell started at their various institutes of higher learning I praised the almost tangible sense of scholarly purpose those academic bastions exuded.

In short, I tend to approach most ventures — that is, those not involving being a sports sports — with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Why not? There’s time enough for brutal reality to intrude and temper perceptions, but if you can’t be enthusiastic at the outset you’re missing out on part of the fun.

Censorship And Safety

Who is responsible for pulling the film The Interview from its planned Christmas Day release in the face of threats from terrorist hackers?  Was Sony craven, as many have suggested, or was it the theater chain owners who triggered the decision to pull The Interview because of liability concerns, as Sony responds?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this:  Totally removing a movie, or any other form of expression, from widespread public distribution because of threats is censorship and sets a terrible precedent.  Does anyone really dispute the conclusion that somewhere in Pyongyang or some other rathole the terrorist hackers are high-fiving over their success in this instance, and that terrorist groups elsewhere haven’t taken note of the new weapon that has now been added their arsenal?  What movie, book, play, or TV show is going to be the next target of this technique?

The Interview isn’t the kind of movie I would ever go to a theater to see, but that’s obviously not the point.  The next time it might be  controversial biography I’ve been eagerly anticipating, or the next installment of the Game of Thrones series because the terrorists disagree with how religion is depicted by George R. R. Martin. Regardless of the subject, a free society cannot tolerate a world in which terrorists dictate who gets to see, read, or consider what.

One other point: if I were an author, actor, or historian, I would be thinking long and hard about who brings my work to market and whether they have the courage to do it in the face of threats.  I don’t think I’d want to entrust my creative work product to a company, or a theater chain, that crumbled and caved in the face of threats.  Are actors, directors, and producers going to shy away from Sony projects?

The Penny Chronicles

My name is Penny.

Something big has happened to our pack. I mean, really big! Yesterday the Leader took Kasey and me to a new place that we have never seen before — but some of our things were there. I’m not sure, but I think we might be staying here.

I don’t know why we left our old place. It’s the only house I’ve lived in. I liked it there. I miss it already.IMG_4277

I have to admit that this new place has some interesting smells.  Kasey and I have had some fun exploring.  But I hate this thing about our new place — the stairs and the floors.  The stairs are way too tall, and I have to really jump to get up them.  And the floors are just too slippery and slidey for me.  Who wants to be slipping and sliding everywhere?

But our whole pack is here — even the old boring guy.  Kasey and I like it best when we are together, wherever we are.  And our food is here, too.  That is a good thing, because with all this slipping and sliding I am hungry!

 

Milestone

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Kish and I have now relocated to temporary quarters in German Village, a distinctive neighborhood dating from the 1800s and located just south of downtown Columbus.

There is a stone marker at the end of our new block, right in front of a small commercial area with a restaurant and a few stores. It looks like the remnant of the kind of markers that used to be used for platting or showing the distance to nearby towns. It seems like an apt symbol for us as we move from the suburbs to a more urban setting. We wanted to be within walking distance of restaurants and grocery stores and shops, just as we were when we lived on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. back in the ’80s, and now we’re here.

Last Loop

This morning, for what will almost certainly be the last time, I took my morning walk around the Yantis Loop walking path.

IMG_4250For many years now — I’m not sure exactly how long, really — I’ve started my day with this walk.  I’ve taken it virtually every morning we’ve been home, rain or shine, save only days when we’ve been blitzed by freezing rain or I was laid up after foot surgery.  I’ve walked it with Dusty, Penny, and Kasey, or accompanied only by my trusty iPod, in darkness and in the golden rays of dawn depending on the season and the vagaries of Daylight Savings Time.

And every day, the path is precisely the same — something that Kish finds very amusing.  It’s left out of our house, left on Alpath Road, right on Ogden Woods Boulevard, and then right — always right — on the Yantis Loop itself, so that the familiar white fence is ever on my left.  Then, past the top of the Loop, over the boardwalk around the pond at number 5 North and following the curves of the Loop as it heads back due north, then veering from the Loop to head up Route 62 to join up with Alpath once again.  All told, it’s about a two-mile circuit.

The sameness of this early morning journey is part of its enormous appeal.  My feet know where to go, the walk clears my sleep-addled brain, and the quiet and peaceful surroundings of the stroll make for ideal thinking time.  I get a little exercise out of it, too.

I’m looking forward to our move to German Village, but my walk on the Yantis Loop is one of the things I’ll really miss about New Albany, so this morning’s final effort was a wistful experience.  I’m going to try to replicate the Loop — somewhat — by regularly walking to work from our new place, but moving through the streets of downtown Columbus can’t really fully substitute for the familiar, bucolic path along the white fence.

The Ruble’s Ruin

Does anyone remember learning in history class about the economy of the Weimar Republic — the ill-fated government of Germany between World War I and the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party?  It experienced hyperinflation and financial calamity, and we read about Germans needing wheelbarrows of cash to buy even a loaf of bread.

We think that couldn’t happen anymore in the modern world — but it can.  In fact, it is happening right now in Russia, as a Fortune article reports.  Some people think that Russia’s currency, the ruble, is in a state of irretrievable collapse; its value against other currencies, like the dollar, is plummeting and even draconian increases in Russian interest rates might not stem the tide.

The reason is oil.  It’s Russia’s one big marketable commodity and the bedrock of their  economy.  The price of oil has been falling for months, which has made investors nervous about how Russian companies are going to pay off their debts given the lack of incoming cash.  So, the ruble trades lower, and the ability of Russian companies to pay off debts calculated in foreign currencies becomes harder and harder — which makes defaults even more likely.  By one calculation, the amount of rubles Russian companies need to pay off foreign debt obligations has increased by 90% just since the start of November.

How is Vladimir Putin going to deal with this crisis?  You might be tempted to say this disaster couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but let’s resist the impulse to enjoy some schadenfreude.  Putin is adventurous as it is, and you have to wonder whether a destabilizing currency failure is going to make him even more likely to wave his big stick to try to distract from his other problems.  And if Russian companies start defaulting on the more than $670 billion they owe, what is that going to do for the world economy?

Keep an eye out for the wheelbarrows.

The Dark Underbelly Of The Elf On A Shelf

Millions of American households with young children have an “elf on a shelf.”  As explained to me — because the elf didn’t become popular until well after Richard and Russell were out of their childhood years — the elf is a little figure that changes its position from time to time and moves from room to room, supposedly so he can keep an eye on things and report back to Santa Claus on whether the kids of the family are being naughty or nice.

Now a Canadian professor contends that there is more to the “elf on a shelf” than meets the eye.  Rather than an innocent yet tangible expression of the power of belief in Santa Claus, she contends that the “elf on a shelf” conditions children to uncritically accept existing power structures and norms and to get used to lack of privacy and being spied upon.

So . . . even if that questionable theory is true, what’s wrong with that?  Speaking as a parent, I wanted our kids to accept the existing power structure — namely, that Kish and I got to call the tune in the Webner household — and to think that if they were doing something bad, it would be discovered and reported.  Fortunately, our kids were little angels at all times.

Of course, the combination of Christmas and spying goes back to well before the “elf on a shelf” first made his appearance.  Santa Claus, of course, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice — so he’s not only spying on your kids, but he’s also judging them.  If we’re worried about the impact of naughty/nice spying on children’s psyches, maybe we also should ask what gives Santa the right to judge our kids?  Obviously, a guy who smokes a pipe, wears real furs, and has a gut that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs is not living a perfect, healthy, blameless lifestyle, so why should he be deciding whether a little kid is abiding by accepted societal norms?

Maybe there’s a deep, dark underbelly here — or maybe professors at the University of Toronto Institute of Technology need to relax and realize that kids trying desperately to control their inner demons for a few weeks each December in order to maximize their presents is part of the magic of the holiday season.

Scratching The SEC Itch

If there’s one thing that drives Ohio State fans to distraction, it’s the Buckeyes’ notorious lack of success against the SEC.  Whether it’s the shellacking Bear Bryant put on Woody Hayes back in the ’70s, or the crushing losses to Florida and LSU in back-to-back BCS National Championship games during the Jim Tressel era, loyal members of Buckeye Nation have endured terrible performances against SEC teams in big games.  And when Ohio State finally seemed to lance the boil by beating Arkansas in a bowl game a few years ago, that victory was snatched away as a result of the “Tattoogate” scandal.

So, what’s an OSU fan supposed to think about the fact that when Ohio State made the first-ever four-team major college playoff this year, it was paired against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the consensus choice for best team in the land and an SEC team to boot, in its first game?

Call me crazy, but I welcome this challenge.  Ohio State might get its butt kicked, but it will never have a better chance to definitively end the SEC Curse and stop all the laughing and name-calling than it does in this game, this year.  Alabama is the SEC personified, and they will be the prohibitive favorite, too.  If Ohio State can somehow prevail — despite the presumptive advantages to the Tide stemming from “Southern speed,” the murderous schedule they’ve played in the world-beating SEC West, and the legions of five-star studs that Nick Saban lures to Tuscaloosa every year, maybe the SEC fans will finally shut up and recognize that Midwestern teams know their way around a pigskin, too.

I’m old school about how sports are supposed to work.  Alabama is the most successful college football program right now; Ohio State aspires to that position.  The best way for Ohio State to achieve its goal is to beat the best in a big game — and they’ve got that opportunity.  Now is the time.  If the Buckeyes lay an egg and Alabama crushes them like it did Notre Dame, we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves, and the SEC buffs have every right to crow and call the Buckeyes an overrated program from a candy-ass conference.  If Ohio State somehow wins the game, however, we’ll lance that SEC boil, once and for all.

I really, really want to lance that boil.

Leaving New Albany

This afternoon we close on the sale of our home in New Albany, Ohio.  We’ll move out later this week, hand the keys over to the new owners, and just like that our 19-year sojourn in the North of Woods neighborhood of New Albany will be ended.

IMG_6180Yesterday Kish and I were madly packing up clothing, books, dishes, and the contents of our cupboards in preparation for the move.  It’s one of those basic chores that fully occupies your lower brain function — you have to pay enough attention to make sure that the boxes are securely packed, after all — but leaves the upper brain free to roam.  In this instance, my mind naturally turned to the notion of chapters ending, and new chapters beginning.

I tend not to be sentimental about homes; people and experiences are far more meaningful to me than structures.  Even so, I’ll miss this tidy wooden house where we watched the boys grow up, where we have put down deep roots and have such a strong sense of place and belonging.  We’ll miss our neighbors and the annual Halloween celebrations, we’ll miss the white fences, we’ll miss our walks to the library and around the block with Penny and Kasey, and we’ll miss seeing the ‘hood  continue to grow and develop.

But, it’s time to move on.  Today is another step in the process.