The Grand Idea: Joel Achenbach

A Book Tale (Sort of)

I have now written two entire stories about Great Uncle Leadbelly, our shared dislike for both presidential candidates (give us something else!), and Joel Achenbach's book about George Washington and the Potomac.

And twice now I have lost the notebook that contained the story.

I suppose this means I am not destined to distribute that story, so you'll just have to read Joel's book on your own. Keep alert for the feisty Marylander in the book. That's the person I think Great Uncle Leadbelly wants to be.

It also means that once again I must buy a new notebook. Any advice for keeping those things from straying?

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

Our wee vacation to Maine was an exceptional escape from work for a week, but it was also supposed to be a relief from the constant interruptions of my imaginary friends and family. So I found it relaxing simply to sit still on a marble bench near the lighthouse at Port Clyde and stare at the ocean beating itself upon the rocks. Some days, the water nearly seemed to caress the shore as it curled its waves around the stones.

On this particular day, I sat on the bench hypnotized by the rhythms and wondered whether the ocean was trying to punish itself for something.

"Ayuh. When you've claimed as many souls as she has, you feel some regrets," said the man who materialized behind me. His appearance was so sudden I nearly dropped my bag of curry puffs.

"Regrets?" I stammered.

"Aye," he said as he sat down beside me on the bench. He was kitted out in weatherproof getup: a dull yellow vinylized hat covered his ears; a slick coat with a double row of buttons draped to his shins; and his feet were planted in solid rubber boots. He plugged a pipe into his prodigious gray beard and stared icily at the sea.

After waiting for a few moments for him to elaborate, I returned to my bag of curry puffs. He accepted one without comment, or rather: he held his comments close for a few more minutes.

"You see this bench we're perched upon?" he asked, finally. I nodded, but he went silent again. It occurred to me that his sentences were like small islands separated by gulfs of silence. (I later decided that we were both being pretentious.) As a proud member of the "get-to-it" generation, I was a little irritated by being cast adrift like this. If he had something to say, he should just spit it out! But it takes me some time to generate the energy to display that level of rudeness, so before I could start yelling, but not before I had started squirming, he was able to go on.

"It's the headstone of my dear brother Eli." I jumped up immediately. Sure enough, carved into the face were words of memory for Eli Nauzer.

"Sorry, I didn't mean --" I started, but he put up his hand.

"Nah, nah," he said. "We thought that a bench in the safety of the light would be more appropriate than some never-visited gravestone. We meant for people to sit. Sit." He brushed his hand at the spot I had recently vacated. I tried to sit, but found I no longer wanted to sit. I wanted to pace.

"The sea?" I prompted when his hand snaked out to the bag of curry puffs.

"Ayuh. The sea took my dear brother, lad," he said around bites. His beard shifted as he brushed crumbs away, then he pointed out to sea. "'twas a miserable night. The swells were like small mountains, the troughs like Death Valley. Eli was potting lobsters, you see, because the season would end at midnight and he had mouths to feed --"

But he was interrupted by my shout of "Your beard shifted!" I pulled at his beard and it came free in my hand. His eyes went wide beneath bushy eyebrows. I recognized those eyes. Instead of fighting, he reached for another curry puff.

It was my imaginary friend Bertie.

"What are you doing here? And what in the name of all that is holy and just are you doing in that costume?"

"I find it helps the tourists accept the stories a little better," he said calmly.

"The tourists appreciate a psycho masquerading as the Gorton fisherman?"

"People trust the Gorton fisherman," he replied. I simply cried out and rotated three times. Why do these people follow me around? He pulled a book from inside his raincoat. It was Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. "I was reading this book --"

"When did you start reading?" I interrupted, a little rudely.

"We all read," he said. "I was really impressed with the way that Baudolino is able to thrive through the judicious use of ..." He trailed off.

"Lies," I suggested.

"... fictional narrative," he said. "He was able to survive and advance by telling people stories."

"He certainly was able to get himself fed using story," I said, snatching the bag from his hands. "But it all fell apart in the end, don't you think?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Bertie. "He had trouble because he started to believe his own stories, sure. But that is easily avoided."

"How?" I asked.

"Oh, it takes discipline. You must constantly question the world around you, but most of all, you must think."

"So, if I think hard enough, I can see through the fictions?" I asked.

"Ye--" he started, but he could not finish before he disappeared. Satisfied, I sat down on the bench and picked at my bag of curry puffs. The sea was calming.

But when I looked into the bag, it was empty. I crumpled it up and headed for the car. I hoped it would still be there.

Filed under:

A Long Bike Ride (2:15)

I'm on the bench today, so I thought I'd ride all the way to Rosslyn.

  • 6:45 - 7:00 Ridge Road - Southway - Greenbelt Rd (MD 193)
  • 7:00 - 7:30 Indian Creek Trail - Northeast Branch Trail
    • I thought it would be nicer to ride trail than road when still darkish, but I think the road might have been safer with street lights and passing cars. I didn't have a spill, but I might have come upon a branch or rock unexpectedly in that gloaming (is it called gloaming in the morning? It's not really called dusk...)
  • 7:30 - 8:00 Rhode Island Avenue (Rt 1)
    • The worst hill is topped by 1st Street NE. Not sure why I decided to try this instead of the usual U Route (4th St).
  • 8:00 - 8:25 1st NW - Louisiana Ave - Constitution - 3rd NW
    • In spite of the ADC bicycle map, you cannot really ride 1st Street all the way to H Street. I'm not really sure how I got from 1st Street to Louisiana.
  • 8:25 - 8:50 Mall
    • It looks like they're working on paths around the Washington Monument inside the barricades. I bikes are allowed through there, it sure will help my commute.
  • 8:50 - 9:00 Memorial Bridge - Unnamed Path along Arlington Cemetary/Carillon/Iwo Jima - Ft Myer Drive
    • There is path re-construction on the DC side of the Memorial Bridge. The detour is narrow board covered with miniature golf grass. In addition, there are portable toilets blocking the bicycle path at the Carillon.

This is one of those days I wish I'd brought my camera. I saw:

  • Huge Orange Cat sitting on the top rail of a fence along the Indian Creek Trail.
  • Runway Deer, two of them, standing on the path near the end of the College Park runway.
  • FBI massed on the corner of T & 1st Street NW, waiting for the battering ram.
  • Sidewalk Closed to Pedestrians sign at the Mall. Does this mean it's okay to drive on the sidewalk?

My odometer lists this as 11.85 miles, but I never trust the odometer. It also shows only 1:47 of riding time.

To My Fellow Cyclists

My word. It's bad enough riding a bicycle through the city, dodging idiot drivers and avoiding randomly opening car doors. But if cyclists refuse to obey the rules, we have lost our moral authority to abuse the driving population.

So to speak.

Yeah, I'm talking to you Mr. Recumbent Biker-boy. Oh, sure, props to you for riding through the city at hub-cap height, but I mean really. An eighteen-inch sidewalk is not wide enough for a bicycle. Wheels belong on the road.

And I'm talking to you Mr. Red Light Runner and Mr. Wrong Way on a One Way Street. If you're on a bicycle, you surely can't be in a hurry to get to some emergency. Why do you think it's safer for you to break the law than to follow it? And where am I supposed to go when there are cars to my left and you coming straight at me? Sheesh.

Oh, and I'm talking to you Whole Group of Idiots at Memorial Bridge. The path through construction is a skinny wooden platform with railings. Where did you think I would be able to go when we met coming through there? Over the railing, up the chain-link fence, and into the mud-pit? Did the three big orange signs telling bicyclists to dismount somehow escape your notice? Did you think they referred to some other set of bicyclists?

It's time, folks, to take responsibility. And to do that, you have to act responsibly. I stopped at the direction of a crossing guard this morning. The kid walking across the street looked at me like I was some kind of alien. I wanted to say to him, "Hey, you have to follow the rules, if you expect others to play by the rules."


Tired of pictures yet?

The rest of the pictures can be seen here.



We spent our final night in the Tugboat Inn at Boothbay Harbor.

Port Clyde


Well, there was no room on Monhegan, so we took a look at the Port Clyde light.

Down East

ME_StGeorgeLibrary.JPG Well, we are out of the land of wireless access. Today's message is from a lovely small library in St. George, Maine. The view from the back window is of a small bay with an island. It's the loveliest view from a library I've ever seen.

We're waiting overnight in Port Clyde for the mail boat to take us over to Monhegan Island. We had a good time on Mt. Desert Island (Acadia Nt'l Park) in both Bar Harbor and South East Harbor. Cruise ships dump hundreds of folks onto the island, the folks bus up to the top of Cadillac mountain, and they immediately get on their mobile phones to tell their best friends.

ME_BarHarborFromCadillacMtn.JPG Otherwise, the island is beautiful.



The light on Bear Island. This view is from a friendship sloop chartered out of Southwest Harbor on the "quiet side" of MDI.

Reel Pizza


We had pizza and watched Mean Creek at Reel Pizza in Bar Harbor.

Carcassone at Camden Hills


We had to stop immediately for a game of Carcassone at Camden Hills State Park.

Camden Hills

The view from the park (looking south).

Sunrise at Camden

Sunrise at Camden

We watched the sunrise at Camden, then hit the road...

Camden, Maine

View from the Amphitheater

Some strange plant in the amphitheater. Posted by Hello

Yellow House Along Route 1

Posted by Hello


Posted by Hello

Lighthouse seen from the pier at Newagen

Two Van Reid Location Shots

The Jail at Wiscasset

Fort Edgecomb Posted by Hello

Food and Books

We have arrived in the lands of the Moosepath League. Tonight, we stay at the Sheepscot River Inn (wireless available, but it costs $7). We've driven from Delaware this day. Last night's drive through Maryland was horrendous, due to traffic volume and weather-induced driver hysteria.

The national news tells us that today was even worse, with a 50-car pile-up at White Marsh, so we should count ourselves lucky.

We had a good dinner, but lunch was even better. Somewhere along I-84 in Connecticut we stopped for a good meal and a free book. The Brunette is pictured here with her prize -- an early 20th century novel by Kathleen Norris, who is not the same Kathleen Norris who wrote Cloister Walk in the late 20th century.

You can't beat a good sandwich and a free book! Posted by Hello

Lying Awake; The Child That Books Built; Tepper Isn't Going Out; and Eragon

Tiny Tikes Tome Talk

Now, you and I know that Jimmy, the twelve-year-old kid from down the street, doesn’t really exist. Even so, one doesn’t want him to feel bad about it, so if he asks a favor, it doesn’t hurt anyone to lend a hand, right?

That would sound a lot more supportive if I could remember what the tyke’s name is.

"Basically," he tells me after inviting me to join his friends' book group, "the mall cops always run us off when we don’t have adult supervision."

"So you picked me," I say. "That’s --"

"Actually," he says, "We --"

"So what book are we doing?" I ask. I'm just floored that today's generation is doing anything with such an old media. They should be playing Sega or IMing or something.

"This meeting we're all bringing a book to discuss. Since it's short notice, you don't have to --" But he was too late; I quickly leap up the steps to get a book. I find the one I want and we drive off to the mall.

We are the last to arrive. There is amazingly little small-talk, perhaps because they've been text messaging each other all day already. Jimmy introduces me as their token adult and takes charge of the meeting. He asks Jessica to begin. Jessica sits straighter and folds her hands on the table before her.

"The book I have chosen to bring this time is called Lying Awake, and it's by Mark Salzman --"

"Oh, I know that book!" the girl across from Jessica cries. Jessica's eyes narrow and the seashells attached to the ends of her hair click menacingly. "What's amazing to me is that the book is written by a man."

All of the eyes at the table flick to me and then away. Jimmy smoothly turns attention back to Jessica.

"Jessica, what's the book about?" he asks.

"Well," she continues, "it's the story of a nun who has been having intense spiritual communion with God, or at least she believes that she has been, and then discovers that she has epilepsy. The book is built around this crisis and her need to make a decision: should she have surgery to correct the epilepsy, even though the epilepsy might be responsible for her visions? And if the epilepsy is causing the visions, what does that say about her faith? It's an excellent book. Clarissa is right, in a way. The author is a man, but his use of the female point of view is definitely well-done."

"Why can't a man--" I start to ask, but Jimmy quickly turns the table's attention to the lad sitting to Jessica's left.

"Prasad, what book did you wish to discuss?"

"I have to start by saying that I'm well aware of the prevailing sentiment in this group for fiction over non-fiction. However, I have been reading the essays in Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built. Although this book is not fiction, he does speak directly to my fiction-loving heart with his survey of a life of reading. I must say that at moments during my consumption of this book I was transported back to my earlier days when novels truly offered some wonder…"

"Earlier days?" I interrupt. "How --"

"Mr. Blake," Jimmy interrupts me in turn. "Please let Prasad continue."

"But, I mean," I turn back to Prasad. He nervously adjusts his tie. "Dude, you can't be more than eight, right?"

"Eight and a half."

"Exactly!" I say. "How can you look back on your earlier days? Do you mean those wonderful halcyon days when all you had to read was the label on your diaper?"

Of course Prasad's bottom lip starts to tremble and the other kids all frown. Clarissa reaches out a hand and pats Prasad's shoulder with the tips of her fingers. The other little boy in the group picks up his Elmo backpack and starts to struggle into it.

Sizing up the situation, Jimmy says to the group, "Does everyone remember Tepper?" The kids stop their little vibrations and start to meld together again. That Jimmy is a wonder. Of course, I don't have any idea what the heck he's talking about, so Jimmy explains to me that Tepper was a character in Calvin Trillin's Tepper Isn't Going Out. Tepper was on a quixotic quest for a parking spot in New York City. It helped them understand, he tells me, what it must be like to reach a certain age and find yourself useless and outmoded.

Tiffany reaches out to pat my shoulder.

"What book did you bring, anyway?" Prasad asks. As I was absorbing the Tepper story, I decided to sit on the book I had brought. So I only shrug, but the kid with the Elmo bag has been crawling around the table legs picking up Legos. He reads the spine of my book clearly enough for all to hear: Eragon. This is greeted by rolling eyes and hoots of derision. The word "condescending" is passed about.

"What?" I ask. "Don't you like this book? Because --"

"Because it was written by a kid," they all interrupt.

"Sir," Prasad speaks up. "None of us believes that Eragon would have been published had it been written by an adult. In fact, if it had been written by a young person who didn't have connected parents, the book would have remained in the obscurity it really deserves."

"It was a little formulaic," I admit. Snorts all around. Jimmy notes that we're out of time.

"Where do we meet next time," Tiffany asks. Once again, everyone quickly looks at me and then away.

"Don't worry," Jimmy says. "I'll AIM everybody."

Filed under:

On the Phones

On the Phones

A Volunteering Report

We spent Sunday night answering phones for WAMU (88.5 FM). The Brunette has gone on the rest of the week doing the same during the day.

Answering the phones was not terribly exciting, but we did get to meet Ed Walker. These folks must get tired of meeting all these strange volunteers. Oh, the other exciting thing was that during every hour a volunteer was selected as winner of the legibility award. The winner got to sit in the presence of a special bust and was forced to wear a tiara. I spent the whole time going around bumping everybody's table.

I still never won it.

National Book Festival

National Book Festival

Hope you don't mind a bit of photo-albumming, but we went down to the National Book Festival this Saturday. Not only was it well-booked, it was free. The addition of science fiction this year was certainly our favorite part, but it was also nice to see a track devoted to poetry. The whole event renewed my spirit with regard to the state of the book. Kudos to the Library of Congress for putting out such a good event.

Book Signings

Book Signings

The view from Neil Gaiman's line includes the Capitol (through the haze).

Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

His answers to questions were as long as his books, which is a good thing, really.

Frederick Pohl

Frederick Pohl

Frederick Pohl spoke of the very early days of SF fandom. He wants to be Jack Williamson when he grows up.

Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

Shown here with Michael Dirda, Neil Gaiman easily had the loudest crowd.

Connie Willis

Connie Willis

If Neil Gaiman is the rock star of science fiction, Connie Willis is the mom.

Where Will Taleswapper Be This Weekend?

We're going to be answering telephones at our favorite public radio station during our favorite radio show this Sunday evening. WAMU is having its semi-annual fund-drive and we'll be there to take your donations. I'll try not to complain too loudly about their cancellation of Selected Shorts.

Other places to see us this weekend include the National Book Festival and the Maryland Renaissance Festival. We might even stop by Cafe Atlantico to spend our gift certificate. Who knows?

Bad Form

For years, my alma mater, RPI, provided its alumni with free "email for life." Now, they've decided to start charging for what was until now a pretty nice little (and I stress little) service. So, I sent them this angry email:

To those who made this horrendous decision to charge us for email (and funnel us deeper into your fund-raising databases), I say "bad form." Why not keep the current level of service free and charge for the upgrade to larger space? No doubt because few would take you up on such an "improvement."

I've spent the last three years bragging about the forward thinking university I attended. On the cutting edge of technology, serving its students even after leaving school.

I read stories about universities around the country giving incoming students laptops and ipods and free music downloads. What does RPI do to its alumni? Tack on an annoying fee to a relatively low profile service and pretend they're giving us more. Bah! This does not endear me to my alma mater.

Class of '89

Not that it'll make a difference. If I actually donated to the endowment maybe I could threaten to withhold my money or something. "Why not change the world?" Ha! Why not charge the world?

Zoned Out

A Garden Spot

Well, leave it to the Brunette to provide an answer to my query. A month ago, I asked you all to identify a plant from my garden. The answer, it seems, is Coleus. I think ours is the 'Shameless' variety, but who can say for sure?

Coleus are perennials, but only in zones 9-11, as far as I can tell. Here in Maryland, I think we're on the northern edge of zone 7, so for us it acts like an annual. To get the plants to zone 9, we have to move to Texas. I'm not up for that.

What Did Taleswapper Forget Today?

His Antenna

It's not terribly useful to bring along my mobile phone when I leave the antenna on my dresser.

UPDATE: Now, I'm not sure what I did with my notebook. I did have it with me this morning, really.

Tell Him What He's Won, Johnny

A Car Buying Report

At the end of the day, if you can't trust a car to get you to New York and back, there's just no point in keeping it around, is there?

The purple Neon gave up the ghost for good last weekend. Sadly, it decided to do this en route from New York. At any rate, on Sunday, we began our search for a replacement. Now that the Brunette can drive again, there was some urgency to the task. Our ideal choice would have been a hatchback with high fuel efficiency. Keeping the price down and looking nifty keen were secondary, but important goals.

Sadly, there are few two-door hatchbacks on the market these days. We tried the Civic Si, which was fun but did not really measure up fuel-wise. We tried the VW Golf. The engine just sounded grumpy. We tried a Mazda M3 only because we needed a third car to try. It failed on all counts: it felt heavy, it was four doors, and its fuel usage was not impressive. We also toodled out (in our rental car) to Annapolis to try the Mini. I tell you, that car was a blast. Unfortunately, the Mini could have taken as long as twelve weeks to arrive. I couldn't see waiting until after Christmas for transportation.

So we went back on-line and noticed the Civic HX. It's a coupe, but it ran into the 40s for mpg. Put that engine into the hatchback body (like they used to do) and we'd have been sold immediately. However, our trip back to the Honda dealer on Tuesday showed us that we're totally out of the mainstream in desire. Although they had a good number of Civics (clustered inside a ring of SUVs), none bore the HX plate. Needing a car, we settled for the Civic DX. It's a fine car and will carry us around for years with adequate mileage, no doubt.

At this point, we got to begin the purchasing process -- also known as trial by fire.

We're not great negotiators. The dealer offered us a price lower than the sticker and we accepted. That was pretty easy. We filled out a few pieces of paper and they asked us to wait while their financial folks prepared to talk to us about loans. I was pretty confident -- I'd gone and gotten some figures from Lending Tree. I waited for the financial folks to get to us while the Brunette went home to get our insurance card.

When she came back, she found me stomping around in the parking lot.

While I sat at the table staring out the window, the manager came up to apologize. Apparently, they had not noticed that the car we were buying had air conditioning. You see, the DX model doesn't normally come with air conditioning, but they had gotten this particular one from the factory with air because, you know, we live in Maryland and all. Now, he told me, air conditioning usually comes to $1200, but since they made the mistake, they'd meet me half-way and only charge me another $600.

How kind of them.

After arguing with the man for 20 minutes (he stressed that he never makes any money, that everyone can go on the internet and see what he pays for cars--what other business is like that?, that he doesn't know how he's going to pay for health insurance for his family), I walked out to the parking lot. I was ready to walk, but the Brunette brought along a snack that helped me calm down some and we went back in to buy the car.

Then, of course, we had to deal with the financial folks, who don't know how to add or subtract. Twenty dollars isn't much, but it's a straw after arguing about the air conditioner. And when they tried to charge us the destination fee twice (do you have to add shipping onto the end of the price if you go to Burger King?), I just I just ... arrgh. But cooler heads prevailed and we didn't pay that or the $20 and we finally drove away with the car only four hours after showing up at the dealer in the first place.

And it's going to be a good car, I just know it is.

Bungee Bikes

Bungee Bikes I know that the Kryptonite lock is pretty easy to break, but surely it's a better method than this bungee cord I saw at Greenbelt the other day?

And if he'd only look here, he'd find plenty of available locks.

In Training

7:14 - 8:16 Metro to Medical Center (via Ft. Totten)

Trouble on the Red Line seems to be a daily event, but the today's time is not too horrendous. If there turns out to be a two minute difference between the Ft T route and the Gallery Place route, the all-important standing vs. sitting time statistic would have come in handy, if only I'd been keeping track.

Today's delay caused trains to share the same track between Ft Totten and Takoma Park, which, of course, is contrary to the famous law o' physics: two objects cannot share the same track and expect to get people to work on time, or some such thing.

Flatline on the Red Line

Flatline on the Red Line

Good ol' Red Line. What fun we had this morning! Sitting on the tracks near Union Station. Watching the operators run up and down the aisles shouting into radios, except for those who didn't have radios. They just shouted at the people with the radios to yell on the radio for them. They yanked up seats to play around with the brakes.

Finally, another train came along and pushed us. At least, I think that's what happened. Certainly, when they kicked us off the train at the platform, it seemed like two trains went out of service. Two trains during rush hour!