Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Month That Was - October 2009

The Month That Was - October 2009: The month was loaded down with proof that getting old ain't for sissies. I visited Binghamton, New York -- a fine example of an upstate NY college town -- and got in a day trip to Watkins Glen State Park, and did this having forgotten my camera. Then, on two separate occasions I managed to wrench my lower back to the point where walking or bending to tie my shoes required that I take huge doses of Vitamin I (ibuprofen) in preparation. This defeated a plan to do the Great Turtle race on Mackinac Island. Mind is going. Body is going. Soul is already a lost cause. Yet, I live to blog another day.

The Other Upstate
Book Look: The Blue Lantern, by Victor Pelevin
The Python (Monty) Story
There's No Town Like MoTown
Harvest Rainbow

The Other Upstate

The Other Upstate: The task was to meet Kate and Anna for a college evaluation visit, although it was really more of an Anna wants to see her boyfriend visit. The target was Binghamton, NY, about halfway between the east and west state borders, just over the southern border from Pennsylvania. Leave on Friday return on Monday. Driving to Binghamton is about an 8.5 hours chore. You can cut through Ontario or hug the south side of Lake Erie, either way it's about the same distance. I chose to skip the added complications of a border crossing with its passport requirement and sneering suspicions from the U.S. Customs grunts, so that meant an extended time on the Ohio Turnpike.

If there is a more tedious, mind-numbing road to travel in the United States than the Ohio Turnpike, I can't immediately think of it. It is a flat, straight toll road that crosses the width of the state. It offers no scenery to speak of. Generally, once on it, you stay on it so as to avoid any toll gates until you have to exit. There are official rest stops every 30-40 miles -- not bad ones as far as official rest stops go; they are clean and functional and do not horrendously overcharge their captive audience. And that's all there is. If you don't have Sirius, you'll wish you did. It's not a painful experience. It's better than sitting on the tarmac at some airport while to toilets overflow or any number of other potential horrors a traveler might encounter. It's just a persistent reminder that even at its best travel involves long stretches of boredom. The Ohio Turnpike puts that boredom in your face with a vengeance.

Just after Cleveland, you exit the Turnpike and drive for another hour over conventional highways and then through the tiny panhandle of Pennsylvania that borders Lake Erie and finally into New York State. I have driven through New York before. Twice, I think, but in both cases it was literally a matter of barreling through to some destination in Massachusetts. Having now trolled through its heart and wandered about, I see upstate NY as very similar to upstate Michigan. I would refer to them both as having Lake Culture. Of course, there are more lakes and fewer mountains in Michigan, but the lifestyle similarities are striking. It starts with a good sized state that has corners and pockets of urban activity on the peripherals. In Michigan there is Detroit at one corner and Chicago just outside the other. In NY there is NYC/Philly and the Rochester/Buffalo/Toronto region. In both cases, these populations feed into an extended array of quaint, semi-rustic towns loaded down with B&B's and vacation rentals, nominally centered around lakes. Lake Culture requires four distinct seasons, each bearing its own outdoor recreational opportunities -- hunting, camping, canoeing, swimming, boating, skiing, biking, hiking, etc. Then there are the telltale seasonal sensations: hot chocolate around the hearth in a ski lodge or the crackle of ice beneath your boots; the smell of newborn grass in the rain and the sense freedom of the first time you can leave house without your coat; the plunge into a cool freshwater lake on a ninety degree day; the flash of harvest colors followed by the scent of burning leaves. In New York they call it "upstate"; in Michigan we call it "up north". Same thing.

Binghamton proper seems like a fine little college town. Sort of half picturesque and half suburban strip mall chic. There doesn't appear to be too much going on except the University and its own little eco-system. It is situated a little over an hour's drive of the sublime Finger Lakes region. The Finger Lakes are a handful of long thin lakes splayed out over west-central New York. The region is loaded down with state parks, wineries, old-school colleges (most famously Cornell), and quaint towns and villages with historic districts: Lake Culture. We only had a few hours to explore so we made for Watkins Glen State Park.

Not really having any idea what to expect, Watkins Glen SP blew us away with a rim trail of striking cliff overlooks leading down into an eerily beautiful path carved into the rock, running deep into a stream-cut gorge surrounded by walls of heavily layered rock and winding past willowy waterfalls. It made want to punch myself: just after crossing the border into Ohio I realized I had forgotten my camera. That's right, Mr. 500-photos-a-day found himself at a site of extraordinary natural beauty without his Nikon. I was reduced trying to take snaps with my phone camera. In lieu of my usual photo set, I can only offer an image search on Bing. The whole Finger Lakes region is on my target list for future summers, though.

Back in Binghamton that evening we walked across the street to watch the Michigan football game, happened into another Wolverine fan, and ended up drinking beers and swapping Wolverine lore in an Applebee's the middle of upstate New York. You never know, eh?

That was it. Up the next day to grind out the reverse drive home. If find myself hoping Anna ends up going to school at Binghamton. I could show up on the weekend for visit, wander around the dorm in sandals and white socks just to embarrass her, then head up to the Finger Lakes for a little Lake Culture. Sounds like a plan.

Book Look: The Blue Lantern by Victor Pelevin

Book Look: The Blue Lantern by Victor Pelevin: Pelevin is probably the last prominent writer that emerged from communist Russia. His earliest published works nearly coincide with the fall of The Wall and the nine short stories in The Blue Lantern capture characters thrust into unaccustomed and hopeful circumstances, but with the darkly fatalistic weight of communist futility still dominating their minds. In other words, they are very Russian. But that's not to say they are dreary or dire. There is a playful absurdity to them -- partly because Pelevin falls solidly in the magic-realist category -- and there is even a sense of fun, although always we are pulled back to a hollow end.

Workers go about their grinding daily business only to discover that they are actually dead. Transsexual hookers and sailors play a game of chess with potentially deadly consequences. A shed (yes, a shed) has a life story and therefore a consciousness and dreams of freedom. The most endearing story is "Hermit and Six Toes," about two creatures struggling to break free of the limits imposed on them by others of their kind and by the gods. The gods turn out to be humans. The most wickedly wry is "The Tambourine of the Upper World" in which witchcraft is used to raise foreign WW2 dead from the grave as husbands for Russian women trying to get citizenship abroad.

By simple description, many of the stories will sound heavy-handed, and conceptually, many are. But Pelevin is a skilled dramatist so instead of feeling bludgeoned with symbolism and allegory, you end up enjoying the final Twilight Zone twist. I would read more Pelevin if I didn't already have a six foot tall reading list. In some ways he reminds me of one of my favorites, Haruki Murakami -- the deft use of the mystical; the sympathetic characters who experience the collision of the personal and the philosophical. And both have captured the fancy of the inquisitive youth in their home markets. Recommended.

The Python (Monty) Story

The Python (Monty) Story: IFC ran a five-part documentary on the Pythons in honor of their 40th anniversary, Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer's Cut), and it was wonderful. It featured interviews with all the surviving members and it was an absolutely joy to re-live all the old skits and movies. I have scrupulously avoided watching them for the past quarter century or so because I was afraid of how they would age. I needn't have feared. They've aged pretty much as you would expect. The shows were uneven, but the first two movies still rank in the top five funniest movies ever, with Life of Brian being the Python pinnacle.

Some of the more personal aspects of the Pythons were fascinating to learn of. For example, I always thought of them as a kind of close-knit bunch; dearest friends from the outset, like Lennon-McCartney or Seinfeld-David. Not so. While they seem to have had good working relationships, they were not the best of friends, generally going their own way outside of work, and they did have their (temporary) falling outs. I never realized how much the two Terrys were the driving forces behind the movies. For some reason, I always had it in my head the Idle and Chapman were sort of the grand poobahs of the troupe, with Cleese as the main face. I suppose that shows how dedicated they were to getting things right rather than personal promotion. No individual egos really showed through.

And God bless John Cleese for knowing when to end things. It was he who wanted to end the original series when he saw things were getting stale. He left the troupe and the remaining members did another half-season before realizing he was right. He also didn't really want to do the Meaning of Life which was distressingly uneven. Again he was probably right they would have been better off stopping after Brian (although the world would miss Mr. Creosote). Related to that, Cleese also did only 13 episodes of the utterly brilliant Fawlty Towers then stopped, just letting the work stand and its reputation grow over time. Knowing when not to go on is a rare quality in a world with 20 god-awful years of The Simpsons and Law and Order.

What is perhaps underappreciated about the Pythons is what astoundingly good actors they were. You can't tell me you aren't expecting a vein in Cleese's neck to burst while offering training for self-defense against fresh fruit, or Graham Chapman to have a nervous breakdown on the spot in the this job interview. For my money, Palin was the best of all. The variety of characters he played in Life of Brian was a tour de force of comic acting. They did, perhaps, have the advantage of both writing and acting. Comedy is such a sensitive and subtle thing that I suspect in many cases what is funny in the writer's head cannot adequately be described in words -- it's a matter of nuance and timing -- so by portraying their own creations they were able to get the characters pitch perfect. If they had produced some dismal melodrama rather than absurdist comedy these guy would be hailed as artists of historic importance.

In the end, what comes through most from the interviews is the personalities of the Pythons. To a man they were unbelievably smart, witty, engaging, and cleverly rebellious. Each had specific qualities that contributed to the whole -- Idle had musical and business sense, Gilliam had the visuals covered, Jones was the fervent driving force, Chapman and Cleese had star quality, Palin was the affable, do-it-all guy. The confluence of such people is a lightning strike and as they themselves point out when the question of reunions comes up, it can't be repeated; only noticeably mimicked.

Don't over think it. Just kick back and rediscover. Monty Python is not dead, or even pinin'. It's as fresh as it ever was.

There's No Town Like MoTown

There's No Town Like MoTown: I'm back at it. Pummeling away at the city of my birth. Kicking Detroit when it's down may seem ungentlemanly, but it's been down for 50 or 60 years so exactly how long should we wait?

Despite everything, Detroit still has its cheerleaders. This is especially true in sports journalism. understands. They catalog all the ridiculous stories in recent months about how the spirit of Detroit lives on through the plucky, marginal successes of whatever local sports team they happen to be covering. The city may be going down the toilet, but we can still feel good about themselves because of our sports teams. This is the cheap, millimeter-deep trope that makes sports journalists believe they are writing something "important" or "relevant". My favorite line is in one of the comments: "Sports teams play an integral role in stabilizing cities. Few people realize Hartford actually ceased to exist after the Whalers left." Snort.

I blame Mitch Albom for this endless stream of blubbery, sentimental baby talk. (I could, and may one day, write a book about how headslappingly awful 99.3% of all sports journalism is.)

Of course, even our "righteous franchise", the Tigers (as described by Sports Illustrated), managed to crash in the end, blowing a seven game lead and ending up losing a sudden death playoff against the Minnesota Twins who had no reason to play well at all what with coming from a strongly viable city that isn't mired in depression.

The best comment on the Tigers situation came from the profane and hilarious twitter feed "S**t My Dad Says": "I wanted to see Detroit win. I've been there. It's like God took a s**t on a parking lot. They deserve some good news."

Meanwhile we nearly had a riot downtown over Hope-and-Change handouts when there weren't enough applications for everyone.

"People fighting over a line; people threatening to shoot each other -- is this what we've come to?"


After the applications ran out, some scam artists were selling photocopies of the originals for $20 each. They were doing a brisk business, even though the white original forms state clearly on the bottom: "Do not duplicate -- Must Submit Original Application."

Volunteers from the city of Detroit Planning and Development Department eventually handed out yellow photocopies themselves. Intended as temporary assistance to avoid homelessness, the stopgap help will be doled out after private agencies hired by the city ensure applicants meet program criteria.

"I'm not even sure the government will accept those applications," said volunteer Pam Johnson. "But it's almost like they had to pacify people. There was almost a riot. I mean, they had to call out the (Detroit Police) Gang Squad. I saw an elderly woman almost get trampled to death."

In Detroit we provide slideshows of our near-riots. Perhaps they should have handed out Mitch Albom columns instead.

And still, people try. Over at Jaunted (as good a travel blog as you will find; I have in the past contributed to their sister site Hotel Chatter) contributing editor Chanize makes a heroic effort to portray Detroit as a city with "a bad rap" and convince you it might be worth a visit. Clearly a journalist with ethics, Chanize doesn't tell a lie, and is therefore destined to fail in this task. Let's read between the lines in some choice quotes.

Even Hollywood has infiltrated the city, filming shows like HBO's "Hung," and making movies like "Red Dawn" and "Gran Torino" on its streets.

Hollywood has only infiltrated the city because they have been paid to do so by Michigan taxpayers. And to no good end, it seems.

Those still raising their eyebrows over Detroit are usually older folks still channeling 1967 riot memories...

Really? The '67 riots are what everyone is channeling? Not the world-renown murder and violent crime rates that have been pretty much persistent for the last, oh, 40 years?

Yes, Detroit is a bit messy--one street can sport beautiful new buildings, but a block away lies a condemned property awaiting its fate--either remodel or eternal eyesore.

Just "a bit messy". It makes it sound like all that's needed is for someone to pick up their dirty socks and run a Hoover through the city.

Get the skinny on "The D" by taking "The Good, The Bad and The Hopeful bus tour from Feet on the Street."

Let me guess: narrated by Mitch Albom.

The three-hour adventure visits the downtrodden East Side area, but makes a stop at the beautifully bizarre Heidelberg Project-an outdoor art statement of urban plight.

Chicago has Millennium Park and we have an outdoor art statement of urban plight. Aren't you glad you spent your vacation here?

Sounds silly, but in this town it doesn't hurt to make sure your rental car is an American model, if just to blend with the crowd. Rent a Hyundai and you risk getting it smashed. Just kidding. Sorta.

That, my friends, is Detroit in a nutshell. Soil your own nest. React with indignation to those who haven't. Violently act out. Rinse, Lather, Repeat. They barely build cars in Detroit anymore, yet people still behave like this.

Bear in mind, all this is in an article extolling the virtues of Detroit. And Chanize does list some decent things to see and do, but not a single one of them is anything remotely memorable. For that matter, not a single one of them is a reason to get out of your chair, never mind hop a plane. Of the millions of places around the world, and the thousands of places in the U.S., and the hundreds of places in the Great Lakes area, there is simply no reason to visit Detroit. But she gets an A+ for effort. Which brings me to:

Our advice? Ignore the naysayers and head to Michigan.

My pet peeve. Detroit is not Michigan. Equating Detroit and Michigan is like equating the Bronx and the Adirondacks. You should definitely visit Michigan. It is especially beautiful right now. Just don't go into Detroit. We don't, and we live right here.

Harvest Rainbow

Harvest Rainbow: I finally got around to doing something I have been meaning to do for the past couple of years and that is spend a day wandering around my neighborhood here in lovely Dexter, Michigan, capturing the fall colors. You can see the results at Smugmug. Even I am impressed by the vibrancy. Now that I have Windows 7 loaded up, I can put together a rotating background of my favorite photos. Feel free to do the same.