I’m on a Big Boat

sinkshipI think I’m supposed to call it a ship.  I get confused about these things.  All I know for sure is that we’re headed south.

I used to be tough when it came to winter.  Not like strap-on-some-snow-shoes-and-hunt-a-walrus-with-a-harpoon tough, but tough enough that a five month season in Nebraska or Michigan didn’t bother me.  That, however, was then.

I’ve lived in Maryland since 2001.  It’s made me soft.  When I first showed up, I thought to myself: These people are pathetic.  Complaining about their mild, mid-Atlantic winter that lasts all of ten weeks.  Can’t drive worth a damn in the snow. Losers.

And I do still make fun of them for their shitty winter driving and their weird snow amnesia; every year when it snows for the first time (and it snows almost every year), there’s a collective gasp of horror and frenzied panic, as if they’ve never seen the white before.  Two inches, they close all the schools and pillage the supermarket. But by the time it dumps eight inches in late February, they’re acting like seasoned pros, talking about how this one’s easier to shovel than the last one because the snow’s not as wet.  Every year, the same thing, evolving in two months from snow virgins to grizzled winter vets.  Strangest fuckin’ thing I’ve ever seen.

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In Memoriam: Mario Cuomo

Mario CuomoI was nearly 10 years old during the 1977 New York City mayoral election.  Old enough to remember, but too young to really understand.  All me and my friends knew that is that it was coming down to Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo, two city boys, one Jewish and one Italian.

“Did you hear?” my friend asked me?


“There are posters that say Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.”

We laughed at the rhyming ditty.  We laughed at the word homo.  We laughed because that’s what we’d learned growing up in 1970s America: laugh at fags.  They’re ridiculous.

It wasn’t just a 10 year old’s version of an urban legend either.  The posters were real.  For the rest of his life, Cuomo denied having had any involvement or knowledge of the ugly, homophobic smear campaign.

Koch won despite the controversy, and went on to become a three-term mayor of New York.  He would never get married, never publicly admit to being homosexual, and never forgive Cuomo for the slur.

Cuomo would bounce back, however.  Read more »

Sugar Sweet

I recently visited Scotland for the first time.  While there, I did something I’ve not done since I was a child: one day during lunch, I enjoyed a crisp, refreshing 7-Up. And the next day I enjoyed a fruity, robust Dr. Pepper.

Mmmm, mmmm good.

What’s that you say?  Have I not had a mainstream soda-pop in over a quarter of a century?  No, of course I’ve had the occasional 7-Up or Dr. Pepper since childhood.  But I’ve never really enjoyed one as an adult.  And the reason is simple.  More than two decades ago, American beverage producers began using high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar.

I’m not here to squawk about the supposed health hazards of corn syrup vs. refined sugar, which, quite frankly, I know next to nothing about, though for the record, I can’t imagine that either one of them is actually any good for you.  We’re talking about soda, not pomegranate juice.

Rather, I’m merely advocating for good taste.  After all, as any Coca-Cola fan worth their weight in saccharine can tell you, sugar just tastes a helluva a lot better than high-fructose corn syrup.  That’s why each year the savviest of soda drinkers eagerly await the annual production of Coke made with real sugar, kosher for Passover; look for the cans and bottles with yellow tops.

So why the icky, sticky syrup instead of the clean, crystalline taste of sugar in our “fizzy juice,” as it’s known over in Scotland? Read more »

Almost Famous, Californication, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Boomers’ Fading Glory

Almost FamousYesterday I watched the 2000 Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous for the first time.  After taking Hollywood by storm with 1999’s Jerry MaGuire (yuk), Crowe got the green light to make his pet project: a semi-autobiographical feature film about a teenager who becomes a reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1973.

This actually happened to Crowe in real life, and in the movie, the young stand-in protagonist drops out of high school to interview, write about, and follow a mythical band called Stillwater on tour around the country.

The film was okay.  Nothing special and not as good as I’d been led to believe.  But what I found most interesting was its portrayal of Rock n Roll as central to American culture. Read more »

Tchotchkes and Latkes

davenportsI still remember the first time I heard it.  It was back in the late ‘90s, when I had cable.  There was this openly gay guy, bald, a little overweight, a beard I think.  He had some design show about sprucing up your house.

There weren’t a lot of openly gay men on American TV back then.  They were just breaking through into mainstream culture.  There was the sitcom Will & Grace, and those five gay guys who taught you how to dress.  Anyway, this guy, whose name I can’t remember, was enough of a national sensation that Saturday Night Live spoofed him for a while.

I was sitting on my velour davenport watching cable TV.  I flipped by his show.  He was pointing out all the bric a brat cluttering a room and said: “I’m in tchotchke heaven.”

Except he didn’t say it right.  He said choch-kee.  Kinda rhymed with Versace.  I cringed. Read more »

7500 Miles Part IV: O-for-Reno

Igambling awoke in Winnemucca with a start.

It was pre-dawn and I was itchin’ to put it all behind me.  The car was already packed.  I dropped the room key and TV remote through the office door slot, as I had been directed by the motel’s matron, and then hit the road.

It was early.  Too early.  I had lost track of the time zones.  It was an hour before I began to see the sun. Read more »

7500 Miles, Part III: Ain’t No One Gonna Turn Me Around

The ThinkerI’ve made some deep runs in my time.

I once drove non-stop from central Wyoming to eastern Iowa before passing out at a highway rest stop for a couple of hours, waking up with a scrambled brain, driving the short distance to Illinois, then staring with confusion and regret at the chili cheese omelette I’d ordered at a pre-cell truck stop where drivers sat with piles of quarters in front of them at booths hard wired to pay phones. Read more »

Thank You

the roadAfter 9 weeks and 9,000 miles, I made it home yesterday evening.  Last night I slept in my own bed for the first time since August.

The research end of the trip was very successful and I hope to return to South Dakota and Nebraska in the spring to spend more time in the archives.

On a more personal level, I must thank all of the friends and family who opened their homes to me during this grand voyage.  Read more »

7500 Miles, Part II: The Big Stare Down

faklemtAfter stumbling half-way across the continent, I settled into the northern Great Plains for a spell.  Determined to visit a variety of archives, I cris-crossed South Dakota to the tune of a thousand miles.  It’s a big state.

First I spent some time in the East River college towns of Vermillion and Brookings.  A hop, skip, and a jump from the Minnesota border, this here is Prairie Home Companion country.  It’s a land of hot dishes (casseroles) and Lutheran churches.  Of sprawling horizons and “Oh, ya know.”

There’s lots of tall people.  Lots of blond people.  Lots of tall, blond people.  I like it.

But after a week of researching and visiting old friends, I left behind the Scandinavian heritage and Minnesota-style niceties of eastern South Dakota.  I made my way west across the Missouri River and then headed north.  Actually, I crossed the line into North Dakota; Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation is actually in the No Dak town of Fort Yates.

I’m happy to give the tribe some money, so I spent a night at the tribally owned Prairie Knights hotel and casino.  I had a mind to play some poker, but when I went downstairs to investigate, I found the card room was already in the thick of a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament.  So I bought a sandwich, returned to my room, and watch Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium.

After Standing Rock, the plan was to go straight down the gut of central South Dakota to Rosebud Reservation, which sits near the Nebraska border, and then westward to Pine Ridge Reservation in the state’s southwestern corner.

If you were to plot my herky-jerky route across South Dakota, I suspect it would create an exciting new shape that mathematicians would get wide-eyed about.  And then they’d come up with a cool name for this strange but essential new shape.  Maybe something like an “akimus.”  The akimus will shed new light on our understanding of trapezoids.  And of course it will have some mysterious relationship to Pi.

I can imagine this because I haven’t passed a math class since the 10th grade. Read more »

7500 Miles, Part I

the rusted chariotI’m currently circling the nation in a black and orange ‘98 Honda Accord, my rusted chariot.  About 7,500 miles in a little over two months. T hat’s the plan.  As far north as North Dakota, as far south as New Mexico, and as far west as California before closing the circuit by returning to Maryland.  Roughly 26 states in all.

How?  Why?

It’s a massive research/conference trip.  I’m on sabbatical.  A full year at half-pay.

A single semester at full pay is the more common sabbatical leave.  For a full year sabbatical, the typical approach is to get a research fellowship that makes up the lost salary and provides academic focus.

But I usually end up doing things my own way.  I’m not bragging.  It’s as much a blend of chaos and neurosis as anything else.  But in this case the result is, no research fellowship.

Instead, I’ve rented out my house during the semester, and this past summer I took on a freelance writing project.  I co-authored a coffee table book, which will come out next summer.  More on that in future posts.

At the end of August I hit the road.  And thus the journey begins. Read more »

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