Don’t overlook Baltimore

There are reasons it’s also known as Charm City. Or, as they say of neighboring D.C., it has Northern charm combined with Southern inefficiency. By the way, don’t blame me for that perspective.

USS Constellation, built in 1855, graces the Inner Harbor. (Photo via Wikimedia)
  1. Baseball great Babe Ruth was born here (1895) and poet Edgar Allan Poe died a drunk on its streets (1849).
  2. Speaking of baseball, the Camden Yard ballpark spurred the return of smaller professional arenas to central cities across the continent. Now, if the Birds could only fly higher than the Yankees or Red Sox in their division. They really are doomed in that association.
  3. Speaking of birds, the Baltimore Oriole got its name because its colors resembled those of the coat of arms of Maryland founder Lord Calvert. I have no idea about their religion, but he was an advocate of religious liberty.
  4. The port was second only to Ellis Island in the number of immigrant arrivals in the 19th century. And while the city sits below the Mason-Dixon line and has a Southern outlook, it also has a strong German presence and Northern connection strengthened by the Baltimore & Ohio train tracks.
  5. With his profits from those rails, Quaker Johns Hopkins founded the nation’s first research university in 1876. Today it and its related hospital and institutions are the state’s largest employer.
  6. The metro area is also home to McCormick spices. You can smell it in the humid spring air.
  7. The National Aquarium crowns the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor as a popular destination. The waterfront is also graced by the tall-masted USS Constellation of Civil War glory.
  8. American Methodism was founded in 1784 at the site of today’s Lovely Lane church. And a 1789 conference at Old Otterbein Church led to the formation of the United Brethren denomination of German-Americans (it merged in 1968 with the Methodists, giving them the “United” in today’s name). Also in 1789, the nation’s first Roman Catholic archdiocese was founded in the city; its cathedral was finished in 1821. It even produced a saint, I believe.
  9. A flag waving over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 inspired Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to the National Anthem, the one that was much in the air yesterday, but the music’s from a much older British drinking song. How ironic, especially since it challenges even the most professional singers.
  10. The city doesn’t show up in my fiction, despite my living in the inner city’s Bolton Hill and suburban Owings Mills for three years. Even if the place is so hot and humid you have to turn on your air conditioner on the same day you turn off your furnace. Or, as they say of neighboring Worshington, it’s built over a swamp you know.

Speaking from the left, far from my starting point

Great ideas remain the heart of a revolution. The kind that strike the core of one’s being and inspire action.

They must have a foundation in irrevocable reality if they’re to succeed in the long run.

Not lies, which are shifting sands. Or dreams, which float far from their anchors. Instead, some touchstone that resonates and holds fast, even on the great prairie.

And that’s it, for now.

Carry on.

Respectfully, I hope. Or else.

Lovely and Corky

not exactly anywhere dutiful in all my difficulty gearing up for minor chores regular folks seem to enjoy defining their lives thereby at least scrubbing their ass break back to poverty, Dharma! would be scouring the bathtub one morning or a manuscript or adding oil to the leaky BMW such a thrill put aside long enough it evaporates two months overdue or just punctuates existence, the vacuum of rooms of the mind or the plate and so if one makes other things wait, yes, the grass grows or leaves fall in all that running as in down some sewer of household drain, so how would you handle a valet or fulltime maid

New phone, just as my old camera was dying

Just putting those two items in the same line sends me spinning, as if it’s natural they should ever be synonymous.

Let me proclaim I’m a true conservative, unlike those pretenders using that label. Not that I’m ever confined to tradition.

Take gift-giving in our household, for example, it doesn’t always happen on the intended date, whether Christmas or birthday. And I should point out (again), that it’s often a conspiratorial effort.

One example I’ll give is my new cell phone, which they’d been threatening to impose on me for several years now. They’d given me the previous one maybe a dozen years earlier, replacing the flip phone I had accepted only in case of a midnight emergency somewhere in the wilds of New Hampshire on my commute home from the newsroom.

So much for the history. Perhaps you remember I happen to be somewhat of a neo-Luddite, in no rush to learn yet one more new technology. I’m more interested in spending those hours doing something at hand other than retraining on a new device, like an endless loop of abuse.

Our move to the island was heightening the rationale that I really needed to upgrade. T-Mobile’s coverage here is spotty, and often nil off in the neighboring wilds, and whenever my text messages were arriving through Canada, which was often, they’d get turned into zip files that took forever to download. Photos were even worse.

Blogging, by the way, had prompted my photo shooting hobby years ago leading to the purchase of cheap Kodak point-and-shoot, which they eventually pressed me beyond by having me unwrap the Olympus that has provided many of the visuals here at the Barn. Over the past few years, my wife and elder daughter have been insisting I could do better with a good cell phone, and their many fine photos had me reluctantly agreeing. It’s just that I have a workable system going, ya know, and already have thousands of shots that need further sorting. Can’t I finish that first? Besides, shouldn’t photos be taken by cameras?

Well, no.

Last Christmas, everybody piled on the upgrade-Jnana bandwagon.

I didn’t know I needed the little LED ring to illuminate my face during Zoom meetings. OK, I finally “got” the idea that the lamp was supposed to clamp onto my laptop and glow on me, but I found that bright light in my was face annoying and visually taxing. But that lamp is rather nifty attached to the little bookshelf over my desk, and other Zoom participants have expressed their preference for the warm light setting rather than the clinically cold one. So maybe I’ve needed it.

Nor did I know I needed a short camera tripod, but there was the “lobster” in one of the next boxes I unwrapped. OK, cool, it would work for my Olympus, but what about the next two – the remote selfie button and the macro-micro lenses, both definitely cell-phone attachments?

That’s when they broke the news to me that time was up, the new phone was definitely included, or would be, as soon as they could haul me up to Calais to sign up, something that finally happened in late April.

As you might imagine, I was in no rush, but my Olympus was starting to act wonky. The zoom lens (yeah, zoom as in getting a closer look rather than pressing mute or chat) was getting stuck and failing to deploy, meaning my real, albeit digital, camera wasn’t working. Change would be inevitable, even if I am no longer pressing for a return to film, which I could never afford, anyway.

Off to the UScellular store we went, and I was instructed not to look at any of the prices. I’m still shocked by what we were paying for the family plan we were on, now that it’s been revealed to me.

OK, the new phone, a Galaxy S22 Ultra (does that impress you?), is a vast improvement over the S4 or earlier model it was replacing. The latter had no trade-in value, except maybe to a collector of obsolete technologies. The sales associate was rather kind in calling it a classic and keeping her laughter lighter than a sneering snicker.

Only after we were in the car and on the way home did my wife tell me my new phone retails for a thousand bucks. That’s enough to frighten me from touching it. Oops, a figure oil smear! And kids wear these in the pocket behind their butts? I’m never going there, I’m toting mine securely in the pocket of my messenger bag, next to my nitro pills. Keep your hands off.

Flash ahead, Slim and I are getting acquainted, gingerly, and I’m starting to play with the camera half, too. Hate to admit it, but I’m impressed.

Now, what am I supposed to do with my old phone and my old camera? I can’t just junk them, can I?

Top zoos in North America

Yeah, yeah, I know the concerns about holding animals in captivity. But where else are kids going to learn about exotic fellow creatures? TV? They can’t smell them there. The circus? Few of us even live on farms anymore, and those dogs I see walked up and down the street are hardly exemplary of the animal kingdom. Frankly, they’re more spoiled than most children.

But I digress. Out of view, the best zoos are also places of serious research and attempts to keep gene pools alive.

Here are some of the best in North America:

  1. San Diego. It pioneered the open-air, cageless exhibits, for one thing, and is in a beautiful park, for another. So I’ve heard.
  2. St. Louis. More than 600 species on 90 acres, and you can get around via a mini-railroad.
  3. Omaha. Some of us remember it from a television series.
  4. Cincinnati. Includes a botanical garden, and for years it was also home to the summer opera, the nation’s second-oldest. Now that was an interesting mix.
  5. Bronx. It was the first with a zoo animal hospital and full-time veterinarian staff.
  6. Toronto. Features seven distinct zoogeographic regions – animals and relevant plants and climate displayed together.
  7. Smithsonian, Washington, D.C. One of the most diverse, and admission is free.
  8. Los Angeles. Founded in 1966, it’s one of the newer zoos in America and has zoomed in status.
  9. Columbus. Includes a notable aquarium, a manatee rescue and rehabilitation program, and Polar Frontier.
  10. Philadelphia. Also noted for its success with hard-to-breed-in-captivity species.

Honorable mentions to Miami, Fort Worth, Seattle, Brookfield and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, Houston, and Denver.


Squeaking of clams

all a matter of adaptability, persistence, and resources, of creating right-sized parts, a turn, the way stars turn into snowflakes even in the Home Depot parking lot when a gull rises with a cookie positioned first as a propeller and then as a platter to be released shattering on the pavement the same way they drop shells onto rocks for feasting or at Squirrel’s office, a colleague takes fortune cookies and adds the words, “in bed” and she claims they all come true then, still, if he had a fortune, he’d build the soil to raise his ground taller than the neighbors, yes, that, or to reshape its wetness into sunken gardens vining with secrets, yet either way, imagine the scene from his mattress as geese fly past or in the ceiling, where mice still sound like rainfall

Memorable hikes in my life

One of the blessings and saving graces of my youth was being a member of a rogue Boy Scout troop that included a big hike one weekend of each month and primitive camping on another. The two together introduced me to many essentials of the natural world and real life.

One consequence is that hiking has been a big delight in my life ever since, despite a 20-year gap at one point and the reality that my days of being able to hike a 25-mile stretch are long gone.

Here are a few memories I treasure.

  1. My first backpacking experience, from Clifton above Yellow Springs to Belmont in Dayton, Ohio. You couldn’t do that now, not with all the suburban sprawl and the ban on trekking along railroad lines post-9/11.
  2. The week we spent on the Appalachian Trail, ending at Roan High Knob in North Carolina/Tennessee when the rhododendron were in blossom. I had never seen them before. I was 12, with a 60-pound backpack. Funny, though, I haven’t backpacked since.
  3. A brace of Scouting trails we hiked in neighboring Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, earning a medal and sometimes a new scarf as a result. These included the Daniel Boone country around Lexington, the Lincoln country, even getting hopelessly lost in Brown County because some crucial trail markers had been shot up beyond recognition. Later, when I lived nearby, I realized the big lake now sat atop a road that had been paved with crushed geodes. Now that I’m thinking of it, in my return to the scene, I had a fine late-winter stroll through the same woods.
  4. Mount Washington, New Hampshire, ’74, introducing me to the amazing flowers of alpine terrain.
  5. Mount Rainier, Washington, multiple times from ’76-‘80. Though I never attempted the summit, I did make it up the permanent snowfields to Camp Muir twice. And the alpine terrain continued to dazzle me.
  6. Mount Stuart in the Enchanted Lakes wilderness area, Washington state. It was an early autumn outing. Again, I didn’t tackle the summit, though I was acquainted with the man who had been the first to make it to the top. The crisp late afternoon air abounded in cosmic rays.
  7. Mount Lafayette, New Hampshire, late ‘80s. Another mountain that reaches above the tree line.
  8. Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire, a decade ago. A more difficult climb than its altitude would suggest. But there are reasons the Indigenous people considered it sacred, even before the lovers’ leap story.
  9. Quoddy Head, Maine, three years ago. The day was foggy and wet, adding to the drama as we moved on the bluffs atop restless Fundy Bay water. The open peat bog and boardwalk added to the wonder. It was the first time since my initial encounter with Rainier that I’d felt so amazed by nature. It’s what convinced me to move to Eastport.
  10. Bold Coast, Lubec and Cutler, Maine, the past two years. Forget Acadia National Park. This is unspoiled and uncrowded. And for me, it’s now part of home.

Oh, gee, how can I not mention that crazy hike up the desert slope of the Yakima Canyon, Washington state, where I was among those to first to see the return of the bald eagle to the valley after a quarter century or more? I was looking down on an incredible wingspan and didn’t even know its species until later. It was still winter, ’77, and, because of the rattlesnakes, I wouldn’t have ventured into the landscape otherwise. It shows up in my novel Nearly Canaan.

In the end, turtles

wash and wax the narrative, the car to turn to clearly but a break’s essential : all matters of revision, too : interplay of Caribbean poverty and Philadelphia do-gooders comes to mind now : also find reissued later in the day a heavy grocery supply-run to counter any desire to dine out (the big threat to me budget) also potted greenery to make this shell my candy camp all summer

When one seemingly random thought leads to a mental snowstorm

Do you ever have something float into your mind, seemingly at random, only to have a cluster of related bits fly up all around, too?

I recently had that regarding the Los Angeles Master Chorale, of all things.

I had long assumed that it had grown out of a marvelous ensemble, the Roger Wagner Chorale, which I heard twice in my early concertgoing exposure. The touring group consisted of 24 excellent professional voices blended into velvety perfection by a choral conductor who, at the time, was considered one of the two best in America.

Robert Shaw was the other and went on to eclipse Wagner. That’s another story.

In the day, both directors assembled programs ranging from Renaissance to Broadway and Hollywood – Shaw had even been groomed to be successor to Fred Waring at the Pennsylvanians before being veered off into hard-core classical by Arturo Toscanini and George Szell.

A close friend of mine told of his high school choir director’s annual summer trek to study under Wagner, returning with a sharpened sense of diction – something I never really considered until becoming a choir member myself – along with some mysterious but nifty tricks to obtain it. (Wish I knew more now.) And then Wagner faded from sight, not without leaving some highly regarded musical tracks on well-known movies.

In southern California, the Master Chorale had somehow taken on a life of its own and was best known in the wider concert world for its work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I rather assumed it had morphed into the orchestra’s in-house choir, like the Tanglewood Festival Chorus with the Boston Symphony, but somehow had roots with Wagner. From time to time I’d hear broadcasts concerts.

More recently, in trying to practice for Quoddy Voices on Zoom, I found myself exploring some incredible warmups and performances on YouTube. I chanced across several of a Palestrina motet I’d performed with Revelsingers in Boston, and it was fun to get out my score and sing along. One tape, though, turned out to be 21 minutes of grueling rehearsal with a rather overbearing, name-dropping guest conductor who never let them get beyond the fourth measure, mostly because of diction issues regarding the Latin. Who did he think he was, I objected. The piece itself barely runs three minutes.

Paul Salamunovich?

Turns out he was the Master Chorale’s recently retired leader, and before that Wagner’s right-hand man. And that sent me piecing all of these random thoughts together in a kind of corrective surgery – or is it more like one of those clear-glass globes you turn over in your hand to launch a snowstorm?

By the way, I had the pleasure of watching Shaw live four times in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Bloomington. Maybe I’ll get around to posting that experience someday.