A Serene Sunrise

This morning I awoke as the first glimmers of the coming dawn penetrated the heavy curtains of our bedroom (4:56 a.m. to be precise) and enjoyed my first Stonington sunrise of 2022. As always, I was struck by the absolute, unearthly, ears searching for any hint of a sound quiet you find up here. The lack of any—and I mean any—background noise makes for quite a contrast with life in Columbus. The beautiful colors and the silence are a wonderful way to start the day.

That First Whiff Of Salt Air

We’re up in Stonington this weekend to do so spring clean-up and planting. It is still very cool up here—the high today will be around 50—but it’s sunny and the weather app indicates that the below freezing temperatures are behind us.

This morning I took Betty for a walk and, as we ambled down the aptly named Sea Breeze Street I caught my first whiff of salt air. Its invigorating tang quickened my step, and when we reached the small harbor next to the mail boat dock, the sunlight was dazzling on the water. We completed the walk by trudging up Granite Street, looping back through town, then heading up the Pink Street walkway. When we crested the hill on Highland Avenue, we were rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the lobster boats in the harbor and the islands beyond.

It’s nice to be back on the coast, even if only for a short while.

That Spring Thing (II)

A glorious spring weekend continued today in Columbus. The grass was lush and bright green, the sky was blue, and the air was warm and bore a light floral scent. It was a perfect day for a walk on the Scioto Mile and the Olentangy River trail—as countless cyclists, joggers, walkers, and skateboarders recognized.

Spring never seems to last long in Columbus; we tend to move directly from winter to summer with barely a breath of spring in between. Even the temperatures this weekend have been more like summer than spring. It’s important to enjoy these beautiful days when they are here. Regrettably, they’ll be gone soon enough.

Morning On The Mall

Whenever I come to Washington, D.C. I try to pay a visit to the monuments on the National Mall to see some old favorites and check out the new additions. On this visit, I was interested in seeing the Martin Luther King memorial. Yesterday morning provided the perfect opportunity to satisfy that urge and, in the process, replenish some good feelings about the country. I headed out from my hotel at 19th and L, walked down to the Mall, and turned right. I was not alone. It was a brisk, partly cloudy day, and a lot of people were out.

I noticed there were many people in wheelchairs out on the walkways and realized that they were an “Honor Flight” group of Vietnam veterans who were heading to the Vietnam War memorial–better known as the Wall, because it is a sunken wall engraved with every name of an American killed in action. I decided to tag along, and I’m glad I did. As I walked over I overheard the veterans sharing their memories with their children, wives, and friends. When we reached the Wall itself it was enormously moving to see these seniors rise from their wheelchairs, search for the names of lost comrades, and give a salute or shed a tear in tribute.

The Vietnam vets weren’t the only people at the Wall. A number of kids were making rubbings of names, and of course people were leaving flowers, photographs, handwritten tributes, and “thank you” notes at the base of the wall, under the engraved names of loved ones who had fallen.

The Wall is a pretty intense experience on any visit, because the sheer weight of all of those names makes a powerful impression, and the personal mementos left at the base of the wall drive home the humanity of each one of the lives that were lost. Add in a group of veterans who have come to search for the names of long-lost buddies, and you’ve got a gut punch reminder of the cost of war.

It’s interesting to recall that when the commission that decided on the design of the Vietnam War memorial chose the Wall, it was highly controversial. Some people felt it wasn’t sufficiently heroic and was too dark and unsettling. How wrong they were! The Wall has a visceral emotional impact that can’t help but make visitors reflect on the war and the men and women who served in it. What more can you ask of a memorial?

From the Vietnam War memorial I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite monument. It remains an awesome experience. There were lots of people there, taking photos. If you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve got to expect to inadvertently appear in dozens of selfies as you walk around. It’s also interesting to hear the different languages spoken by the visitors. It’s clear that Abraham Lincoln is still a historical figure who is of interest not only to Americans, but to people across the world.

Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial I like to try to find a quiet spot where I can stand an get an unobstructed view of the seated Lincoln statue and then read the speeches–the Gettysburg Address on one side, and the Second Inaugural Address on the other–without being disturbed. Given the crowds in the Memorial, this isn’t easy, but if you walk close enough to the statue you’re out of the selfie zone, because it’s too close to get the whole statue in the frame, and you can reflect on what Lincoln somehow accomplished.

You can get a good position to read the speeches if you stand directly behind one of the interior pillars in the Memorial. I took this picture of the carved words of the Gettysburg Address, marveling once again that the most famous speech in American history can be recorded on one wall and read in only a few moments. But even now, more than 150 years later, the stirring words, and the concepts they so perfectly captured, still have the ability to grab you. Lincoln was a great writer who managed to convey more in a few words than other politicians can express in dozens of pages.

When I left the the Lincoln Memorial the crowds were out, taking in the view of the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol in the far distance. I turned right to walk over to the Martin Luther King Memorial, which is across Independence Avenue.

The entrance to the King Memorial is striking. Visitors walk through a rock formation that has been cleaved in two, with a view of the Tidal Basin through the opening. The massive statute of Dr. King appears on the other side of the missing piece of the rock formation, as if he has moved the mountain toward the water, and the theme of the memorial, written on the side of the stone bearing the likeness of Dr. King, is “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”

The statue of Dr. King is colossal and depicts him, speech in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. The Memorial also features statements by Dr. King carved into a low wall that rings the statue, and the combination of the statue and Dr. King’s writings and speeches have an undeniable impact. When you stand by the statue of Dr. King, you notice that the Memorial location affords a fine view of the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, shown below. Interestingly, Dr. King’s statute doesn’t appear to be looking directly at the Jefferson Memorial, but at an angle to the side. I expect that was intentional.

As I exited the grounds of the Martin Luther King Memorial I turned right and walked up the Mall, past the Smithsonian Institution museums and National Gallery of Art, to the Capitol. A parade was going down Constitution Avenue, and the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. When I reached the Capitol I took in the dome and classical lines of the building, as I always do, and thought about the contrast between the graceful beauty and power and grandeur of the building and the petty politics of its occupants. I found myself wishing that our current political class had more of the spirit of Dr. King, President Lincoln, and those Vietnam War soldiers–all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Deadpan America

Yesterday I conducted a random, admittedly somewhat anal check to make sure that I knew where our passports were. I flipped mine open and looked at the passport photo and shook my head. Between the fact that I wasn’t permitted to wear my glasses and the fact that the photo taker instructed me not to smile, the passport photo doesn’t look much like me–in my humble opinion, at least. The same is true of my Ohio driver’s license photo, where the employee at the deputy registrar’s location told me sternly that no smiling was permitted.

The U.S. State Department has published a series of rules and answers to FAQs that apply to passport photos, including several that address smiles. The answer to the FAQ “What pose should I be in for my photo?” is: “Face the camera with your head centered in the frame and not tilted with a neutral expression or natural smile.” And in response to the question “Can I smile in my passport photo?” the State Department advises: “Yes, but it must be a natural, unexaggerated smile. Both your eyes must be open.”

So, what’s a “natural, unexaggerated smile,” which is not a phrase I’m familiar with? The sample photos on the State Department webpage show people with no more than a hint of a smile–and no exposed teeth. Far from looking “natural,” they look like the kind of forced expressions you might see from somebody who really doesn’t want to get their picture taken but knows they have to, anyway. The passport photos you see therefore don’t exactly show people who look very happy about the fact that they are taking a trip overseas.

Why the encouragement of deadpan expressions? Since the whole point of identification documents is to allow the government to identify you, facial expressions that can interfere with identification–either by an immigration officer or a scanning computer–are frowned upon. (Pun intended.) Toothy grins that cause crinkles in your eyes and changes to other facial features fall squarely into that category. (In the case of driver’s license photos, one website advises: “It is best to simply wear a friendly expression, the same one you would be wearing if you were pulled over.” Yikes! That advice, if faithfully followed, is sure to wipe any happy expression from your face.)

The upshot is that passport and driver’s license photos show a deadpan America that is inconsistent with daily reality. If you saw such expressions on the faces of everyone you encountered, you’d question whether the general population has been replaced by pod people–but at least the computers would be happy.

From The Ground Up

Some of the things we can do these days are pretty amazing, when you stop and think about it. Here’s an example: earlier this month an astrophotographer took a picture of astronauts performing spacewalk maneuvers around the International Space Station–from the ground. That’s the photo, above.

Dr. Sebastian Voltmer took the photograph on March 23, as astronauts Raja Chari (from NASA) and Matthias Maurer (from the European Space Agency) were in the middle of a seven-hour spacewalk. Dr. Voltmer took the picture just after sunset, from Maurer’s hometown of Sankt Wendel, Germany. You can see the two astronauts in the photo–which Dr. Voltmer considers to be a “once-in-a-lifetime image.”

What’s amazing is that the ISS orbits the Earth at an average altitude of 227 nautical miles, or 420 kilometers. Dr. Voltmer says he used a Celestron 11-inch EdgeHD telescope on a GM2000 HPS mount and an ASI290 planetary camera to take the photo–which means you probably shouldn’t attempt this with your new iPhone.

A clear photo taken from the ground of astronauts working on a space station, 227 miles up? I guess the future is here.

The Piranha Look

On our walk yesterday morning Betty and I strolled along the downtown riverfront area. As we approached the Main Street bridge the overcast skies and sluggish river flow made the river surface reflective of the suspension arch and the railroad bridge behind, like the river was a metal mirror. The result looked like the jaws of a piranha ready to close on the railroad bridge.

Nevertheless, the intrepid Betty and I decided to brave crossing the Main Street bridge to the Franklinton side, and did so without being consumed.

Underneath The Bridges

The Scioto Mile path offers the walker a choice: you can take the high road, or you can take the low road. The high road pretty much sticks to street level. The low road, on the other hand, hugs the river, and leads you down on a winding path that runs beneath the various traffic and railroad bridges that span the river.

I prefer the low road, and the bridges are a big part of the reason why.

Street-level views of the world are fine, of course, but that’s what we get every day. To me, the engineering underworld of concrete spans and bridge abutments and rip rap is a nice change of pace. It is especially interesting on a cold, clear morning, where the sunshine plays with the concrete and metal and adds a new element to the views.

When we hear debate about infrastructure, bridges are a lot of what we’re talking about. To my unschooled eye, the downtown Columbus bridges over the river look to be in pretty good shape, with no apparent cracks or sags or exposed rebar. And they are interesting bridges, too, from a design standpoint. I doubt if the bridge designers focused overmuch on the underside views as opposed to the topside perspective, but the underside views are compelling nevertheless. Looking at the bridges from below helps you to understand how bridges work, and also leads to an appreciation of the artistry of sound engineering.

Iced Over

The weather over the past few weeks has given Schiller Park a different–and decidedly icier–look. It’s pretty, in a desolate, black-and-white photography kind of way, but difficult to enjoy without some serious risk.

The big snowfall that we experienced recently has not left us, and temperatures have for the most part stayed very cold. But, we’ve had a few days of sunshine since the big storm. The sunshine has melted some, but by no means all, of the accumulated snow, and overnight the frigid temperatures have caused the melted snow to refreeze. Repeat the process for a few days, and you’ll end up with a landscape that looks like what you see in these photos.

Most of the interior of the park is completely encased in a coating of ice that is now inches thick. When I walked by yesterday morning, on a cloudy day, the dim sunlight filtering through the overcast sky gave the ice a kind of evil, frosty gleam that screamed “winter.” Many of the pathways, like the entrance to the park at the end of Third Street, above, and the walk past the gardens to the Schiller statue, below, are fully ice-bound. Only the most foolhardy–or someone equipped with spiked footwear–would venture onto these bumpy, treacherous surfaces. I didn’t see anyone who was willing to risk a hip-busting fall.

As a result of the conditions, the park is a very peaceful, quiet place. The few pedestrians, like me, tend to stick to the cleared streets surrounding the park, figuring that walking among the parked cars and veering around the icy patches on the roads is a wiser course. Only the dog walkers venture into the interior, walking with tiny, penguin-like steps over the ice and urging their canine companions to be quick about their business so they can quickly return to less treacherous footing.

Night Falls On The Shoreline

When we returned from our sunset cruise earlier this week, night was falling to the east while a glimmer of the vanished sunset still lingered on the western horizon. The Ti Kaye inlet is a popular place for large boats to anchor for the night, and a number of sailboats and catamarans were bobbing on the surface of the waves. Some of the boats stay at anchor for days at a time while the occupants snorkel, swim, and enjoy the other amenities Ti Kaye offers. At night, the boats are lit up like Christmas trees–literally, in the case of the one catamaran shown in the picture above.

The beachfront was incredibly peaceful at twilight as we pulled up to the dock, with the ocean waters gently lapping against the pier, the boats swaying on the swell of the surf, and a gentle whisper of wind through the palm trees. The lights of Ti Kaye, which is built into the hillside above the beach, serve as a kind of night light for the boats and for those, like us, who make the trek up the staircase to the upper level.

I imagine the people who spend the nights on the boats at anchor get a good night’s sleep.

Our Sunset Cruise

Yesterday afternoon we took a sunset cruise along the west coast of St. Lucia, heading south to the two peaks–the Pitons–that are a kind of trademark of the island (and that are featured on the label of the local beer which is itself named for the mountains). Visitors can climb the peak on the right in the photo above, following a trail that runs up the western slope and, according to one of the locals, is “two hours heading straight up, then two hours heading straight down.” The eastern peak features a sheer escarpment that can only be tackled by dedicated, and well-equipped, rock climbers. Much of the west coast of the island is similarly rugged, with many cliffs along the oceanfront and small fishing villages located in the sea level areas in between.

The crew plied us with very tasty rum punches and we listened to a great reggae music mix as we sailed along. A school of dorsal-finned sea creatures–the crew said they were small whales that were about the size of porpoises–encircled us as we sailed south, frolicking in the waves before turning west to head toward deeper waters. We also saw many flying fish zipping briefly over the surface of the water before diving back in It was a beautiful evening offering just about perfect sunset cruise conditions with clear skies and the temperature around 80, and other boats were on the water, also enjoying the striking sunset colors and the warm surroundings.

The after-sunset in St. Lucia is a pretty sight, too. There’s about a half hour period where the sunset glow lines the rim of the western horizon, providing enough light to see clearly as the sky turns purple above and you head back to the dock. It’s a great time to drain the last dregs of your rum punch, tap your feet to the reggae beat, and look forward to the dinner to come.

What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

Rediscovering Chicago

We’re in Chicago for a wedding weekend, and it’s giving us a chance to rediscover the City With Big Shoulders, the Second City, the Windy City, and that Toddlin’ Town. I used to come to Chicago regularly for work, and we visited often when Richard was in college here, but more recent planned trips were cancelled when the pandemic intervened–so it’s been a while. But now people, myself included, are deciding that we’re just going to have to live with COVID and all of its variants and get on with our lives–in a prudent way, of course.

It feels good to get out and get back to a really big city. When you haven’t been to a really big city in more than a year, the experience seems fresh and new and exciting. And Chicago is such a great place, for so many reasons–like the cool view from our hotel room window, shown above–it’s a good destination for those of us who want to shed the outer protective coating of COVID Caution and start to get out more.

We drove in, and the first sign that the pandemic has created significant change in the world is that, when we reached the Dan Ryan Expressway, it actually functioned as an expressway rather than a snarled traffic disaster seemingly designed to cause the blood pressure of drivers to go through the roof. Astonishingly, there wasn’t much traffic on the road, and we were able to get to our destination without any stoppage. That’s literally never happened before in countless driving trips to Chicago. For the first time, perhaps, Dan Ryan (whoever he is, or was) is glad that the highway was named after him.

Downtown Chicago was not as bustling as the Chicago of yore, but there were still a lot of people out and about, on the River Walk, on boat rides, and just walking the sidewalks and enjoying some crisp fall weather. We appreciated being out among people, and revelling in the taste and feel and smell and sound of pre-pandemic activities. You still need to mask up when you go into buildings in Chicago, but the great outdoors, and the terrific views of cool buildings that Chicago architecture affords, can be enjoyed blessedly mask-free.

If you’re interested in breaking out of your personal COVID zone, and feel like it is high time to reintroduce yourself to our great American cities, Chicago is a good place to go.