Apr 29, 2010

On a Moment of Selfish Caution and Nagging Doubts

"Hiya doin', buddy - my car just ran out of gas on the corner and I was hoping you could sell me some lawn mower gas so's I can get it going."

This was the way the 40-something interloper approached me as I was watering one of my gardens this morning. Normally I go out of my way to help people, but something about this greasy-haired individual set off my "trouble" alarm.

Maybe it was the way he was dressed that jumped out at me, a style that might be described as "open-shirted, hairy-chested, linguine-overeating mobster," and a person for whom a quality eczema natural treatment would be a welcome addition to the daily personal appearance regimen. Perhaps it was his too-friendly manner, which at first reminded me of those panhandlers who hang around gas stations bumming spare change so they can drive their starving children back to Illinois or whatever bulls**t destination they come up with.

Or it might have been the fact that this guy was way too old to be driving a car to the point where it runs out of gas. Or the fact that a gas station was a mere three blocks away. Or the fact that if I relinquished my small gasoline hoard, I would have to make an extra trip.

And it was a bright, sunny Thursday morning, so it wasn't as if the guy was going to have to trudge through a foot of snow or a driving rain to get his car running again. In fact, the exercise would probably do Mr. Chunky some good.

Anyways, I felt no compulsion to sell (or to give away in a spirit of good karma) the half-gallon or so of gasoline stashed in my tool shed. Yet the longer I looked at his stalled car on the corner, the more I began to question my initial decline to help this guy, even if he rubbed me the wrong way.

Luckily for the man and his companion, their cell phones brought help in the form of a friend or relative who delivered them some gas. Another 60 seconds later and the 1992-ish Pontiac rumbled away, and my doubts about refusing to be a Good Samaritan also passed.

Or did they pass? The doubt lingered at least long enough to compose this blog post.

Apr 27, 2010

On the Aesthetics of Spring Colors

There is an almost infectious quality to the waves of bright colors that appear in springtime, and even the gloomiest of moods can be improved with a few minutes in the vicinity of April's flowering trees. My next door neighbor's trees are the principal subjects in the accompanying photograph, and I chose them simply because my own trees were dulled by evening shadows.

Well, he also has a more interesting contrast of color schemes, too, but I digress.

As I looked down the block I saw more outdoor colors than I can recall from the past, though admittedly my short term memory is not what it once was. Greens meet fuchsias and magentas and scarlets and corals and every other possible combination of hues under the still-warm later afternoon sun.

Add to this the bright blue skies and lazy white clouds, and the result is an explosion of color that borders on the surreal, like baby announcements painted by Vincent Van Gogh.

Apr 26, 2010

On the Miracle of Compound Interest and Consistent Investing

Left: No longer nickels and dimes

My wife and I have been much more aggressive in our savings efforts over the last decade, in part to make up for a boatload of cash we lost in a business we owned for most of the 1990s. We have a number of investment vehicles, including an IRA account we set up about six years ago with our insurance agent.

This account has always been more of an afterthought, and we only deposit $50 a month into the account. The convenience factor was an important part of this decision, as we have the house, car, and life insurance taken out via automatic debit on the first of the month.

Because this account is a relatively minor component of the Brooks Retirement Fund, I have not looked at a statement in a few years, and in the back of my head I had the round figure of "about five grand" as its value. I was quite surprised to see that this rather smallish nest egg had eclipsed the $10,000 mark this quarter.

The account also rode out the instability of the market the past few years rather well, given the fact that it is diversified between small cap, large cap, international, and fixed income components. While the lifetime returns have not been earth-shattering (something like 8 percent), the consistent deposits, compounded interest, and reinvested dividends resulted in a steady growth in our net worth in this and our larger retirement accounts.

So if you are reading this and kicking yourself for a failure to follow up on your intentions to start saving money, get up from the computer and get busy today. It took us only six years or so to accumulate ten grand in this single account, and $50-$100 a month is doable by even people with the tightest of budgets if there is enough will to sacrifice.

I suspect that Social Security payments will be a pittance by the time I retire, and I am planning on retiring on my own savings rather than hoping SSI somehow gets fixed. We will likely pass the grand-a-month savings rate pretty soon, and all those brown bag lunches and Goodwill clothing purchases start to add up to serious cash in short order.

Start saving, brothers and sisters.

Apr 25, 2010

On Remembering Forgotten Child Care Skills

Recently our 5-year-old nephew stayed with us for a week, and while it was fun to have a young kid around the house again, his presence reminded me how much I have forgotten about taking care of younger children. Our youngest child is now 19, and it has been more than a decade since I regularly dealt with a kid this young.

One of the first things I notices was how slowly a short pair of kid legs can go. My nephew and I were walking to the neighborhood park, and I turned to see my nephew lagging about a house behind me.

I had to re-learn kid pace.

Then there is the issue of picky eating, a facet of childhood that has largely disappeared from our meals. If one of my adult children gets picky, well, too bad: they know where the bread and bologna can be found. With a smaller child you have to find a way to accommodate the limited range of foods the kid will even pinch his nose and eat.

I also ran into that "just-so" mindset of five-year-olds, in this case the way my nephew liked his shoelaces "not too long but not too short." He can tie them, but not in the perfect manner he prefers. We spent 20 minutes one day just trying to get the laces dead-on, and though I kept my cool, I have to admit my patience began to wear thin after about the 20th attempt to attain laced perfection.

After a week with us, my nephew went back home, and both my wife and I were a bit exhausted. I had forgotten how much physical effort goes into taking care of younger children, and though we will miss him until the next visit, my nephew's presence was also a reminder how glad I am that we are finished being full-time caretaking parents.

Apr 24, 2010

Chuckle: "Reporters Getting Owned"

I have seen a few of these clips before, but an unknown creative soul stitched together over a dozen clips of news reporters enduring a variety of painful, embarrassing, and dangerous scenarios:

I think my favorites were the professional wrestler putting the smackdown on the reporter who questioned the legitimacy of pro wrestling and the reporter who was upended by the toboggan.

Apr 22, 2010

Tips on Writing a Film Review for a History Course

The following is a handout I developed for my classes, and I thought it might have applicability to people searching the Internet for writing advice.

1. Understanding the genre of a film review.

A film review is much more than a summary of the plot of the film. Rather than a simple synopsis, a film review is a critical essay that evaluates historical cinematography. The purpose of a film review is to demonstrate critical thinking about the films you watch. You will be writing an articulate analysis of the film, discussing its strengths and weaknesses.

2. Choosing a historical film to review.

Select a film on a subject about which you have existing knowledge (unless, of course, you are assigned a specific film). If you lack knowledge on a given subject, instead pick a topic that intrigues you, because you will likely have to conduct some research in order to be able to judge the effectiveness of the director in capturing the history of the topic. If you have been assigned a film by the instructor, you may need to read up on the topic to make sure you have at least a working knowledge of the subject.

3. Actually writing the film review.

Think of your film review as a series of paragraphs. Each paragraph should represent a specific theme of your overall review. Begin your film review by discussing the subject matter of the film. Discuss the director’s scope in covering the topic, as well as any relevant qualifications. You will need to do some additional research to explore what other films the director has created. Assess if the film is created for a general audience, for a small group of film buffs, or for a narrow audience of people interested in the topic.

In your next paragraph, present the main points that the director makes in the film. What is the director saying about the subject and why did the director make this film (besides to make money)? Are the reasons for the film explicitly stated, or does the viewer have to dig to find the meaning behind the film? Do you think the director’s interpretations are sound? Does the film offer anything innovative, such as challenging perspectives or new insights?

Next develop several paragraphs that examine the implicit arguments in the film, using examples to support your arguments. Are there factual or historical errors in the film? Does the director omit or ignore important topics? Does the film seem biased, and in what ways? Do the director’s biases get in the way of telling the story?

Place the film in some sort of historical context. What other films exist on this subject? Does the director of the film you are reviewing seem to accept or reject other interpretations about the topic? Does the film offer new evidence, examine a topic from a new direction, or provide a new interpretation of the topic? Are the director’s assumptions about the history reasonable? How does the film compare with the knowledge that you have on the topic?

Evaluate the quality of the filmmaking, the performance of the actors, and/or the usefulness of the film as an educational medium. Are the characters believable? Does the dialogue seem appropriate for the time and setting of the film? You may have enjoyed the film, but you might offer some criticism as to how it could be improved. Make note of the directing style, camera angles and other visual aspects of the film, and briefly discuss some of the technical details of the film, such as the main actors, the studio or production companies, running time, and audience rating.

Apr 21, 2010

Blue Collar Impresario: Jerry Gray’s Mission at Bozart’s Gallery

This is an article I wrote for the cover of this week's The Star.

The balmy spring air that wafted in through the open front door at Bozart’s Fine Art and Music Gallery on South St. Clair almost matched the affable and contagious optimism that owner Jerry Gray exudes when talking about his goals for the site.

“We hope to be much more than just another place where paintings hang on the wall,” he said. “Ideally we will be a catalyst for greater awareness of the arts in Northwest Ohio, and our presence has already helped bring the work of dozens of visual and musical artists to a wider audience.”

Gray is an atypical gallery owner, and this is not just reflected in the roughhewn and sparse aesthetics of the building. He lives on site in a small apartment carved out of the space with his five-year-old German shepherd Jobo, and to help defray expenses he works as a bartender at nearby taverns.

“Bozart’s is really my life,” he said. “Everything I earn, I pour right back into the place.”

Passersby in Toledo's Warehouse District might mistake the unassuming building for a more mundane use, and among the more recent tenants at 151 S. St. Clair was a towing service. The building that houses the gallery was constructed in 1910, and the place also housed a cement mixing facility in the early 20th century. Gray noted that the 10,000 square foot structure required a significant amount of renovations before Bozart’s hosted its first show in July 2009.

“This is a crazy old building, and I’d have to describe it as a work in progress itself,” he said, pointing out odd angles in the structure’s beams and joists. “When we moved in there was just screwed-in sheets of Plexiglas covering the window openings, and we had to add a bathroom, replace doors, hang drywall, paint everything, and tuck-point the brickwork inside the place.”

Bozart’s is pronounced with a hard Z sound and spelled like what Gray called “an American bastardization” of the French architectural style beaux arts. In the past year the gallery has hosted a wide variety of shows, some featuring solo artists and others that were group showings. The gallery’s recent “Works” production in February utilized an unusual format.

“For three weeks in January a dozen artists worked on site to create pieces for the show,” he said, adding that the gallery relies largely on word-of-mouth and online social media for exposure. “In total we exhibited over 150 pieces to a crowd of hundreds of people who trudged out here on a Friday night in February with over five inches of snow.”

Gray, who is a native of the small town of Delta, has been a fixture in the Toledo arts scene since 2000, and he spent several years living and working at the Collingwood Arts Center. He also operates an art studio and production facility called Quest for Fire in the downtown Secor Building with local artist and producer Kerry Krow.

Gray sees Bozart’s as a “logical extension” of his concurrent work with Krow.
“Though I did not necessarily realize it at the time, everything I have been doing the past decade has been working toward a site like this,” he said. “Ideally we want to expand Bozart’s to include a storefront area so that we can further help artists find audiences and aficionados for their work.”

Among the factors that separate Bozart’s from other area galleries, said Gray, is that the site is “an artist’s gallery.”

“By that I mean that artists are invited to take control of and essentially create the space in which their pieces are displayed,” he said. “They have a great deal of control over the lighting, the music, the ambience, and even the food at the showing – we had vegan artists bring food that reflected both their philosophical and artistic aims.”

Gray said that while Bozart’s does not keep regular hours, the gallery is always available for showings by appointment. In addition, Bozart’s hosts showings that run two to three weeks in length.

“A lot is dependent upon the schedules of the individual artists,” he said, adding that many artists work “regular jobs” to underwrite their work. “We also open up for selected events in the area, like the Arts Commission’s ‘Gallery Loop’ and when there are other occasions when a crowd is likely to be nearby.”

The next major exhibition that is scheduled for Bozart’s is titled “The Bald and the Beautiful,” which opens May 7 from 5 pm to 12 am. The show features the works of local artists Michael Ziegler and Luke Ellison. Gray expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the upcoming exhibition.

“This is going to be a really fun kind of show, definitely not the sort of stuffy elitist exhibition people sometimes think when they hear the word ‘showing,’” he said. “I think people will be amazed at the excellent work that is being created almost in their own backyards.”

Gray, whose own work revolves around mixed media pieces, said that he works with a “fairly large” circle of musical and visual artists in his quest to bring to light local talent.

“So far I have mostly been working with people I have known for a long time and who I trust,” he said, adding that financial arrangements between gallery and artists have been on a “relatively informal” basis. “People who might be interested in what we do should just stop by at a show and get a feel for what Bozart’s is about.”

Bozart’s Fine Art and Music Gallery is located at 151 South St. Clair in Toledo’s Warehouse District. For more information about upcoming shows or private viewing contact Jerry Gray at 419-464-5785.

Apr 20, 2010

On Railroad Crossings and Daydreaming

I deliberately park long distances from my destinations on my various journeys in an effort to force myself to increase my walking. Over the course of the past seven months I put back on 18 of the 25 pounds I lost last summer, and the more I walk, the more I lose.

Thus today I parked at least a half mile west of the BGSU campus and walked through some neighborhoods en route to my regular office hours. In the middle of my hike I began to think about some of the seeds I intended to plant today, and I also thought about planting some of the sunflower seeds I set out for the birds and squirrels to see if they would produce attractive flowers, and


The railroad crossing I was approaching sounded its alarm and interrupted my perambulated reverie. After recovering from my momentary adrenaline rush, I looked each way down the tracks and decided to continue on my way. No trains appeared on the horizon, yet it seemed odd to be defying the vehicular maxim of never crossing train tracks when the boom gates are lowered.

My daydreaming, however, did not survive the aural onslaught of the railroad crossing, and I suspect that any future needs for products like Prevera just got bumped forward a few months.

Apr 19, 2010

Tulip Doubling

While working in the yard today, it seemed that the number of tulips in a section of one of my gardens seemed more numerous than I recalled. Sure enough, I pulled up an image from a post about tulips last year that I created on my photography blog, and the number of tulip flowers more than doubled, from seven to sixteen blossoms.

I wish that I had some horticultural tips to share for my success in doubling the number of tulips in this section in just one year. Unfortunately, I can only chalk this up to "dumb luck," with one possible additional reason being that this spot receives regular watering in spring and early summer.

In reading over some tulip cultivation websites, I learned that I also correctly practice the habit of letting tulip leaves wither and die, and that the relatively dry soil during summer and fall is beneficial.

So perhaps "dumb luck" is an understatement on my part, but I did not knowingly set out to double the blossom yield, as I might with the deliberate purchase of, say, hair growth shampoo. I do, however, enjoy the color they bring to my yard at a time when leaves are just starting to appear on the trees.

Apr 18, 2010

Trampoline Stupidity

I am not sure of the origin of this video, which I uploaded as a GIF animation. However, I never ceased to be amazed at the level of stupidity that trampolines seem to bring to the surface in some people.

The jumper appears to be a grown man, and the prevalence of toys suggest that he has indeed produced progeny. I can only hope that they did not watch dear old Dad make an Internet fool of himself by jumping from a second-story window onto the trampoline below.

Or perhaps it would be useful for his children to see their father's head smack the bricks of the house on the rebound. Maybe the apples will fall farther from the proverbial tree if they used Dad's idiocy as a learning tool.

UPDATE: On a video version of the trampoline jump out the second story window, it sounds like the person filming the jump says "Your mom, your mom, your mom" when the woman approaches. This suggests that the jumper might be a person in his late teens or early twenties and more interested in determining the best acne treatment, thus improving the chances that Captain Imbecile will not procreate.

Rapid Rhetoric: LITOTES

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

litotes (LYE-tuh-teez) n. a rhetorical device by which understatement is achieved by denying a statement's opposite.

Derived from the Greek word λιτότης (litotēs), meaning "simple," this rhetorical effect is easier to demonstrate than to define. For example, I might say that a beautiful woman walking in front of me is "not unattractive" if I were desirous of avoiding my wife's elbow in my ribcage.

I was previously aware of the method, but until I came across litotes in a book called Beyond Realism: Turgenev's Poetics of Secular Salvation, I never bothered to look up the term.

I suppose one could say I became not uninterested in learning more about the meaning of litotes after reading the word.

Apr 17, 2010

Dog Found: Secor-Laskey Area

We found a small dog in the Secor-Laskey area yesterday, and the pooch appears to be a mixed breed such as a Westiepoo. The mystery around this dog is that it came with a heart-shaped ID tag with the name "Peppers," and the dog appears to have been well cared for. However, neither the phone number nor the address on the tag pan out (5422 Harschel), as the property is currently vacant.

Peppers is younger, perhaps five years old, and she is a friendly little dog with a touch of Westie feistiness. Peppers is housebroken and gets along fairly well with the other dogs, though she is not hesitant to growl and put them in their place.

She has been romping around my backyard with our other dogs today, and here is a shot of Peppers bounding toward the fence to investigate a suspicious-looking squirrel:

As you can see, Peppers has a docked tail, and her grayish coloring has a few streaks of brown and white. Her bark is fairly high-pitched, almost squeaky rather than yippy, and Peppers has a lot of energy.

You can contact me at mebrook@bgsu.edu if you have information about Pepper's owners, as I would prefer to help her be reunited with this nice little dog. If we do not find her owner in a few days, we will probably work with Planned Pethood to get Peppers adopted to a new home.

On the Healthfulness and Comfort of a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich My lunch choices when I returned from work this afternoon seemed limited, and most options were varieties of leftover items from meals earlier in the week. My eyes gravitated toward a loaf of plain white bread we bought last week when my 5-year-old nephew visited, and I suddenly had the urge to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

There are few foods more quintessentially American than PB&J, and as a kid I carried quite a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for to school for lunch. Eating a PB&J sandwich as I write this short post brings back a flood of memories, mostly pleasant, from my childhood.

One could live and thrive for quite some time on the humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There is quite a bit of protein in the peanuts, and the jelly and bread cover quite a range of carbohydrates, including dietary fiber. While far from a perfect food, a person could do a lot worse than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

And there is a timeless quality to the simple PB&J, something that reaches back to our earliest years and connects us with the past. Even a young child can figure out how to smear the ingredients and slap together the two halves of the sandwich, and the PB&J can be tolerated by even the queasiest of stomachs and weakest of constitutions (save for those unfortunate to suffer from peanut allergies). I finished my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, smacked my lips, and found the experience to be - at least for the moment - the equivalent of the finest steak dinner.

Apr 16, 2010

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

-- Woody Allen

Apr 14, 2010

Splash of Color

The early start to spring means that my tulips arrived at least a few days ahead of schedule. These particular orange-and-yellow tulips normally blossom around the 20th of April, but they started opening yesterday (April 13).

I have been hedging my horticultural bets and planting seeds a bit earlier than usual, which for me is around Mother's Day. On the seed packets I look for disclaimers like "sow after all last possible frost date" and set those aside, planting only those seeds that a little frost will not harm. The Farmer's Almanac predicts that May 1 is the last frost date for Toledo in 2010, and I have seen dates as early as April 25 and as late as May 15 for this year's last killing frost.

However, I suspect that we may have already seen the last of the frost until autumn. It is over 70 degrees again today, and the 10-day forecast shows lows around 40 degrees for the foreseeable future. Since my bulb plants are at least five days ahead of schedule, the forecast looks good for the first seeds I have planted.

Apr 13, 2010

On Community Colleges, Changing Student Populations, and the 21st Century Workplace

Note: I had this essay collecting virtual dust in a folder on my computer, and I decided to post it before deleting it. I composed this for a job application a few months ago, and I thought it had some residual value for readers of this blog.

I have taught in a variety of settings at the community college level over the last few years, and in that time I have learned a great deal about the important niches that community colleges fill in higher education. Community colleges prepare students for a wide range of careers that universities and four-year colleges ignore, particularly in specialized technical fields. Because of the greater flexibility in program changes, community colleges can also adapt more quickly to the demands of the 21st century workplace.

The significantly lower tuition costs at American community colleges allow a greater number of students to gain access to the post-secondary training they need to compete in an increasingly global marketplace. In addition, many undergraduate students find that required core classes can be completed at local community colleges, saving them valuable tuition dollars as compared with four-year colleges and universities. Moreover, for students who are unsure of their educational and career goals, the reduced cost of a community college means that the process of finding one’s way in the world is considerably lower.

Most importantly, community colleges typically serve a more diverse student population than four-year colleges and universities. Most community colleges offer evening and weekend classes, and I have found that community colleges are much more willing to invest in the technology to create an effective learning environment for online courses. In fact, one major Midwestern university at which I recently taught (Fall 2008) did not offer a single history class online. This is in stark contrast with the two community colleges at which I have taught, and both colleges had better developed DL course offerings than most four-year colleges and universities. Moreover, community colleges serve important roles with non-traditional students, especially adults returning to school and students who are the first in their families to attend an institution of higher education.

In short: the demands of an increasingly global and technologically advanced workplace require the next generations of American workers to possess academic and technical skills greater than at any time in the history of the United States. Long gone are the days when a high school diploma was sufficient to prepare a person for the workplace, and American community colleges will play an ever greater role in the preparation of 21st century citizens for the future wok environment.

Apr 12, 2010

A Few Minutes in Toledo's Warehouse District

South St. Clair Street in Toledo's Warehouse District Over the past five years I found myself bogged down as I finished a pair of graduate degrees. The pursuit of higher education has opportunity costs, though, and one of the negative aspects of full-time, year-round graduate student status is that life in the real world continues without you.

Thus I found myself on South St. Clair street today looking around as if I had never set foot on the downtown thoroughfare. There were a whole hoist of new businesses that have sprung up in the past few years on a street that used to boast little commercial activity, in large part due to the construction of Fifth Third Field and the new Lucas County Arena.

The buildings in Toledo's Warehouse District date back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and many of these old structures possess a great deal of architectural appeal. The close proximity of the ballpark and arena have been a boon to district businesses, and there is a vibrancy in the area that was missing for many years.

I wanted to try out Home Slice Pizza, as I had not yet eaten lunch, but unfortunately the place is closed on Mondays. I instead sauntered over to Downtown Latte and sampled a carrot cream muffin and a double espresso. The place had about a dozen customers, which is not too shabby for the post-lunch late afternoon, and the muffin was fresh and delicious.

There was a steady stream of foot and vehicular traffic in and out of the businesses on South St. Clair, yet parking was available on the street and at nearby lots. The last time I remember walking on this street was a few years ago, and I seem to recall only one tavern being open at that time. Today I could have visited a couple of pubs with food, the aforementioned coffee shop, a gift shop, and several other of what appeared to be thriving businesses.

I used to work within two blocks of this area a decade ago, and at night South St. Clair would be empty except for the occasional person walking to a loft apartment and the usual coterie of vagrants wandering about. While the area was not exactly a high-crime zone, I never really felt comfortable at night, and I used to keep my fists clenched and walk with an attitude while going to my car.

These days the street seems downright busy. I am not sure if businesses are exactly raking in the cash, but I can say that Toledo's Warehouse District is a helluva lot busier than I recall from the year 1999.

Apr 11, 2010

On Lane Blocking Motorists and Construction Zones

Lane blocking motorist on I-275 in southeastern Michigan I have long been fascinated with the phenomena of the motorist or trucker who blocks lanes near construction lane closures. Pictured on the left is a pickup truck driver engaged in the act of blocking such a lane on I-275 who I observed the other day.

I understand the motivation behind lane blocking, which is to prevent obnoxious idiots who want to zoom past a long line of cars and reduce their wait. I share the annoyance of lane blockers at these selfish or clueless drivers, as their unwillingness to merge earlier leads to further backups and occasionally to accidents.

Yet part of me is puzzled at the sort of vigilante justice at work here. Some of these lane blockers are overly righteous, as if they think it is their personal duty to police the roadways. I have seen some lane blockers drive their cars with aggressive and even reckless maneuvers, like suddenly angling out into the narrowing lane or onto the shoulder to block those who try to beat the traffic backup. These self-designated roadtroopers probably cause their own fair share of accidents, especially with their demolition derby approach to highway vigilantism.

Truckers are well known for their efforts to use their semi-trailers to enforce the upcoming lane merging. I have also seen 18-wheelers participate in some highly questionable acts of self-appointed road policing, wielding their cabs and trailers almost like weapons to stop cheaters.

Lane blockers: feel free to post in the Comments section about your motivations in blocking lanes, and everyone else can use this post to vent about the selfish folks who think their vehicular excursion is more important than those of other motorists.

Apr 10, 2010

Documenting and Researching My Grandfather's Memories

Regular readers of this blog already I know that my wife and I spend our Friday nights visiting my 93-year-old grandfather in suburban Detroit. My grandfather is still one of the sharpest people I know, and his memory is excellent despite his advancing years. Over the past eighteen months his wisdom and insights have sparked at least a half dozen blog posts on my part, and I frequently take notes during our visits of pieces of information and recalled memories he brings up in conversation.

While perusing the notebook I use I came across a bunch of small notations of items that I jotted down that are probably not worthy of a lengthy post, but which might be of interest to Internet searchers on very specific topics related to the history of the Detroit area. In no particular order, then, the following is a brief list of some topics we discussed the past few weeks and what I learned in searching for further information.

Call this "oral history meets the Internet," if you'd like.

  • Murray's Bar, Michigan Avenue in Detroit
  • - I have not been able to locate any information on this place, but my grandfather swore this bar and grill had the hands-down best hamburgers ever. He thinks the place was east of the now-demolished Tiger Stadium.

  • Flying Aces magazine - My grandfather vividly recalled being a kid in the 1920s and reading about World War One aviators, and in particular he remembered being mesmerized about an issue that featured Eddie Rickenbacker flying a SPAD-XIII.

  • Peg Leg Bates - My grandfather recalled seeing tap dancing phenomenon Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates on television variety shows in the 1950s. Bates had his left leg amputated above the knee on his family's kitchen table at the age of 12 after an industrial accident, and he persevered as a dancer despite the impediment of a wooden leg. Here is a compilation clip of the inimitable Peg Leg Bates on YouTube.

  • Sharpsteen's Medical Variety Show - I have not been able to unearth any information about this traveling show, which my grandfather believed had been sponsored by a patent medicine maker named Sharpsteen (or Sharpstein). He said that the show was a regular program that offered musicians, comedians, and other vaudeville entertainers at Detroit-area theaters.

  • I plan to make this a semi-regular blog feature over the next few months and years, as I have quite a collection of tidbits from my grandfather. There is no particular order to these chunks of history beyond their appearance in my jumbled notebook, and the process of blogging this material also serves a more selfish aim on my part of forcing me to look up these many anecdotal recollections, kind of like wearing bow ties while cleaning house.

    Apr 9, 2010

    Department of Stupid Headlines: "Many of Haiti's Most-Wanted on the Loose after Earthquake"

    I came across this doozy in the Washington Post in an article about escapees from a Haitian jail and the havoc they are creating in the area in and around Port-au-Prince. "Most wanted" status, of course, implies that criminals are on the loose, which they are indeed now. However, the criminals were no longer "most wanted" when they were, in fact, incarcerated in the Haitian National Penitentiary when the earthquake struck.

    "Most wanted" - on the lam.

    "No longer most wanted" - incarcerated.

    That sort of thing. Admittedly the 4,500 escapees are a serious problem to the stability of Haiti (I doubt that said outlaws are engaging in prosocial activities like a logistics job search) and they are certainly now "most wanted" individuals, but they were not "most wanted" on January 12, 2010.

    Apr 8, 2010

    Book Review: A Hundred Feet Over Hell

    Hooper, Jim
    Zenith Press, 2009
    258 pages

    Hooper's A Hundred Feet Over Hell chronicles the Vietnam War experience of the Catkillers, a group of aviators who made up the U.S. Army's 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. The Catkillers flew the Cessna O-1G "Bird Dog" at speeds of only 100 miles an hour in reconnaissance missions over and near the DMZ to locate NVA troops and call in artillery and air strikes in support of army and marine units.

    Flying slow aircraft with little firepower is dangerous enough in wartime, but the men of the 220th regularly flew in areas in which North Vietnamese troops possessed advanced anti-aircraft weapons. It is difficult for a 21st century observer - in the age of remote digital warfare - to comprehend the sheer audacity these pilots exhibited in their frequently deadly missions, and as Hooper pointed out, luck is the only reason more Catkillers did not perish in combat.

    Hooper followed a roughly chronological approach in his history of the Catkillers in the years 1968-69. The book consists of interviews with participants in Catkiller missions interspersed with historical narrative, and some of the quotes are especially compelling. Catkiller Bill Hooper recalled one harrowing moment in an emergency field hospital:
    As they were rolling me this way and that to take the X-rays, I remember hearing someone scream every few moments. I was thinking I was better off than some poor bastard there, until it registered that I was the one screaming.

    A Hundred Feet Over Hell includes a number of extras, including a section of photographs, a glossary of terms, and a well-referenced index. The book is worthy of inclusion in any library of the Vietnam War, and the insights and recollections of the profiled Catkillers offer a great deal of material to scholars interested in aerial warfare. The book is also highly recommended for general readers interested in the topic, and Hooper's literate-but-concise writing style will not bog down non-specialists.

    Apr 7, 2010

    Rapid Rhetoric: MISOGAMY

    Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

    misogamy (miss-AH-guh-mee) n. hatred of marriage.

    After I came across this word in a lit-crit book about Shakespeare, I realized I could have easily discerned the meaning of misogamy by looking at its constituent parts, both of which are Greek in derivation: μισέω (miseō, "to hate") and γάμος (gamos, "marriage").

    Note to self: cognition and caffeine work hand in hand (pauses to drink a half-cup of black coffee). Ah, much better.

    Misogamy is joined in its antagonism toward matters marital by the noun misogamist ("one who hates marriage") and misogamic ("related to the hatred of marriage"). I have known people with misogamic tendencies, and they are just as likely to be women as men.

    No cracks about misogamy and the Roman Catholic Church, please.

    Apr 6, 2010

    Best Game Ever? Duke-Butler Hoops Final a Thriller

    Left: the shot that almost won the game; courtesy Jeff Haynes/Reuters

    Modern American sporting events occur in a world in which hyperbole is the norm, and I frequently hear commentators extolling a rather ordinary game in the most superfluous of rhetoric. Yet last night's incredible 61-59 Duke victory over Butler surely must rate as one of the best college basketball games in recent memory, and perhaps of all time.

    This was one of those games in which a viewer is afraid to step away from the television for fear of missing an important moment. The lead changed 15 times, and neither team was able to create more than a six-point separation from the other squad.

    And that Hoosiers-esque ending? Gordon Hayward with two chances to win the game for Butler, each of which landed mere millimeters away from making Butler the national champions. I was riveted to my television screen, and it almost seemed like a cruel joke when WTOL momentarily lost the signal with about thirty seconds left in the game. Yet the broadcast resumed in time for Hayward's desperation midcourt shot that almost... almost made history.

    Congratulations to both teams, and the real winners last night were basketball fans like me.

    Apr 5, 2010

    On the Murder of Eugène Terre'Blanche and the Future of Stability in South Africa

    The murder of South African white supremacist leader Eugène Terre'Blanche was especially intriguing to me this week, as in one of my BGSU classes I happened to be leading my students in a unit that examined Nelson Mandela. I included as contrapuntal material an over-the-top essay written by a leader of the far-right Herstigte Nasionale Party (HNP), a group that shares some of the ideology of Terreblanche's Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) (though admittedly the increasingly marginalized HNP rejects the concept of a Volkstaat, claiming instead all of South Africa for Afrikaners).

    A bludgeoned Terre'Blanche was discovered on Saturday at his farm in Ventersdorp. Two black workers were arrested at the scene, and the mother of one of the murder suspects told reporters that her son admitted striking the white supremacist leader with a metal rod after the farmer refused to pay him.

    The Internet is rife with sensational rumor-mongering in light of the killing of Terre'Blanche. A representative of the AWB demanded "revenge" in the hours after the killing, though later reports indicate that the AWB retracted the call for revenge and indicated that there would be "no parade, no flag, [and] no political speeches [at the funeral]." The Drudge Report has been running a hyperlinked headline from The Sun suggesting that the killing "could spark race war at World Cup":

    Left: Matt Drudge in fine race-war form

    Part of the reason for the concern about race relations in South Africa after the killing of Terre'Blanche has been a recent musical campaign by ANC leader Julius Malema, who has been defiantly singing the anti-apartheid song "Shoot the Boer" (Dubul' ibhunu) at rallies despite a government ban against the song. Perhaps Malema will end his insistence on singing the song given the heightened racial tensions in South Africa, but I suspect he will find it difficult to cease his vocal stylings, as backing down will be seen by radical elements of the ANC as caving in to Afrikaner nationalists.

    This is unfortunate, as the song controversy likely would have died a natural death. Unfortunately for South African stability, the killing of Eugène Terre'Blanche has the potential to be political fodder for many factions, and my guess is that we will see several months of ethnic and political violence before calm returns.

    And perhaps only the old man Nelson Mandela himself can the person to to once again bring a measure of peace to South Africa. Let's hope that Mandela, who suffers from age-related dementia and a host of geriatric-related health issues, can summon enough charisma and authority for some timely words of wisdom to calm the metaphorical waters. No one else in South Africa seems to possess the necessary political cachet to lead the country through this difficult time.

    Apr 4, 2010

    Tree Monster

    I paused while passing this old tree in the back of my grandfather's property the other day, momentarily transfixed by the appearance of malevolence in the form of a rotting limb. The decomposing wood, slowly eroding while much of the tree lives on, reminded me of the gaping mouth of some unnamed and bloodthirsty beast, complete with upturned incisors that seemed capable of ripping the flesh of unwary passersby.

    The more I stared, the more the tree seemed to forebode some menacing future, like some arboreal omen of doom, and the thought occurred to me that this was a life form that a person should never turn his back on. The ravenous jaw jutted out like a velociraptor with an underbite and a bad attitude, and I could almost feel the hairs on the back of neck stand up as I let my imagination wander for a moment about the unthinking savagery this monster tree might be capable of inflicting.

    Oh, and a happy Easter to you, too. :-)

    Apr 3, 2010

    On Winning Percentages at Klondike Solitaire

    Some time ago I wrote about lucky runs in Microsoft's Klondike solitaire, a game that is my fallback brain-draining exercise. I recently checked my statistics over the last few weeks, and I noticed that my winning percentage topped the 10 percent mark over an extended sampling of over 350 games.

    Typically I rack up winning percentages in the range of 7 to 8 percent in the three-card draw, three passes through the pile version of this classic card game. I am not sure if the higher winning percentage indicates that my skill level is improving or if this is just an extended hot streak.

    Unfortunately, there is a lack of consensus among researchers about the probabilities of winning at Klondike solitaire. One mathematician suggests that between 82% and 91.44% of Klondike Solitaire games have winning solutions,while another study indicates that 2.5 to 10 percent of all Klondike games are unsolvable. Yet another group of researchers shrugged their shoulders and admitted that "one of the embarrassments of applied mathematics that we cannot determine the odds of winning the common game of solitaire."

    Feel free to weigh in on the debate in the Comments section, as well as to offer your experiences with winning percentages at Klondike solitaire.

    Apr 2, 2010

    On Hank Johnson, Guam, and Metaphors

    Aerial view of Apra Harbor on the island of GuamLeft: Aerial view of Apra Harbor on the island of Guam

    I read a few blog skewerings of the rhetoric used by Hank Johnson (D-GA) regarding Guam. If you missed the C-SPAN clip that has gone viral on the Internet, Johnson suggested that the island of Guam might "tip over and capsize" if plans by the U.S. military proceed to relocate some 10,000 Marines and their dependents to the island from Okinawa.

    Let's employ Occam's razor here. Which is easier to believe: that Rep. Johnson used a metaphor (or clunky wording, or dry humor, or convoluted rhetoric) or that a person with two academic degrees and 25 years as a practicing attorney actually believes that an island can capsize?

    As I mentioned on another site, I'll grant that Johnson sounds less-than-stellar as a rhetorician here, and I might even accept that he comes across like a mush-mouthed tool. However, it is difficult for me to believe that this former lawyer and jurist really thinks islands can capsize. We might also consider Johnson's discussion partner, a naval admiral, when deciding if there is a plausible context to the use of the nautical term "capsize."

    Moreover, while on the subject, Johnson raised an interesting point about sustainability on Guam: with a population density of 839 people per square mile, the population density of Guam is almost as high as Japan. Quite a few invasive species have disrupted the ecosphere of Guam, and the influx of the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force will result in a 10 percent or more rise in the island's population, no doubt adding to the environmental challenges of the island. In addition, during the peak of construction for the new base the island's population is expected to swell by 79,000 people, a whopping 45 percent increase in human beings on the 209 square mile island.

    Perhaps we should be more concerned that the military spokesperson could not provide even rough estimates about the size of the island - you would think if he were testifying before Congress he would be prepped beforehand about geographic and demographic data. The figures that the supposedly brain-dead Hank Johnson pulled off the top of his head were fairly accurate, while Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific fleet, was unable to provide any data.

    Apr 1, 2010

    Record-Setting 80 Degrees in Northwest Ohio

    The morning weather report called for temperatures in the high 70s today, but according to the unofficial temperature recorded at Brooks Weather Central in Toledo we cracked 80 degrees today. This should eclipse the previous high for April 1 of 79 degrees, set back in 1986.

    I found the warm winds blowing from the southwest to be a distraction to indoor work, and when my laptop froze on the BIOS screen, I decided this was a cue to work outdoors. I shoveled dirt, pulled weeds, cleaned up debris, and otherwise engaged myself until my laptop stopped screwing around.

    Alas: it took several more boots to fire up, but the laptop did indeed start working again, and I managed to get the beginnings of a tan outside.