Friday, December 29, 2006
I've enjoyed switching from the website to the blog. It gives me a lot more freedom, and that's good! More people are using the link on the left to TATravel, my travel search engine, and I'm glad it's doing a good job for you. One of my wishes for the new year is that more of you would comment right on the post rather than through email because we would become more of a "community," and it does feel really good when you've said you've visited, or read, or eaten at a particular restaurant. The variety of opinions and suggestions enhances all our experiences.
Thanks again for joining me and Rob on our travels. This sure is a lot of fun!
BTW, I thought it was amusing to learn that her real name is Patricia Neal, a name, of course, that she couldn’t use professionally. Wonder if her mom was a fan.
Anyway, not only is this a great story, sentimental, funny, and serious all at once, but also Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a philosophical exploration into the way we live our lives. Why do some people ride the roller coaster so well? The novel is infused with a palpable southern charm and a small town feeling that is big enough to touch the entire world.
Brilliantly read by Cassandra Campbell who captured the essence of the sad and happy characters and bounces between emotions and events, Fannie Flagg’s tale is refreshingly sweet without being maudlin. It’s not a “chick book.” Rob enjoyed it as much as I. We kept looking at each other as characters disclosed their less attractive sides—and then we’d laugh! We recognized everyone, and some of them were us!
Our heroine, Elner Shimfissle, falls out of her fig tree, thereby launching herself into a wild adventure. She has touched so many diverse people in her long life that the reaction to her accident coming from every segment of the local population astounds the reader. A Bible-toting neighbor, a truck driver Elner knew since he was a boy, her nervous niece Norma and Norma’s gentle husband Mackie, many, many friends, and some very unexpected and unusual characters make their way into this story and are touched by Elner’s way of maneuvering through life’s surreal moments.
Very funny, often touching, I Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a mystery-comedy tackling many of the contemporary issues we face. And then some.
Fannie Flagg and her optimistic octogenarian character deals with one of the most difficult questions we ask ourselves: What’s it all about, anyway? And, by golly, they find an answer. Read it and smile. I wonder why it wasn’t made into a movie.
Tutto Bene is Zagats rated and listed as one of the top 52 restaurants in the DC area.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
After visiting Kykuit, I noted that wealthy, powerful men build homes with views of expansive lawns and water. Let me modify that. Wealthy women do too. Witness Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires where she wrote several of her most famous novels including Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence.
The Mount, Wharton’s home for about ten years beginning in 1902 until her divorce and expatriation to France in 1913, sat on 120 acres in beautiful Lenox, Mass. Today, 49 of those acres belong to the Edith Wharton Trust, an organization dedicated to restoring Wharton’s summer “cottage” to its original splendor.
What makes a visit here so worthwhile is Wharton herself. She broke the mold of dependent Victorian women by taking a full hand in designing both the elegant house where she shunned the Gilded Age’s excess to bring a European-inspired simplicity and symmetry to the design and the elaborate gardens which she envisioned as extensions of the home’s living space. While she worked with an architect and landscaper from Boston, Wharton is recognized as the guiding spirit behind the ambitious project. Her book, The Decoration of Houses, presented Wharton’s theories of design, and it is still in print and consulted more than a century later. She was a believer in symmetry, and if you look at my photos, you will notice how strictly she held that standard—even at the entryway to her home.
Edith Wharton bought the property with money earned by writing, and she thrived as a writer in this magnificent retreat producing short stories, three works of nonfiction, and six novels including The House of Mirth. She once wrote after receiving a check for her writing, “Many thanks for the cheque for $2,191.84 which, even to the 81 cents, is welcome to an author in the last throes of house-building.” I guess even the rich....
Don’t balk at the $16.00 entrance fee. It’s $16.00 well spent. We received a magnificent catalogue (which would easily cost $10.00 or more at other sites) filled with information about Wharton, the house and gardens, and the restoration work done, in progress, and contemplated by The Edith Wharton Trust. Newly completed is Edith Wharton’s library, the permanent home of her 2,700 book collection begun in her childhood and continuing until just before her death.
To begin our journey, Rob and I walked past the entrance into the huge stables. There we viewed an intelligent, informative video on Edith Wharton’s life, works, and home at The Mount. We learned about her background, childhood, and marriage, which, when it dissolved, caused her leave the house and relocate to France for the rest of her life.
We walked the quarter mile from the stables to the Mansion. It looked like a mansion to me although we were assured by the docents that in her day, Edith Wharton’s “cottage” was small and reserved. If you’ve ever been to Newport where the other socialites of her day built their “cottages,” you’ll know that’s true!
Rob and I took two tours of the Mansion, both included in the admission. The first, an hour long tour of Wharton’s beautiful gardens, was spectacular because we were the only two people on the tour, a reward, in part, of retirees’ ability to travel on weekdays. The volunteer guide was well versed in the types and habits of the garden rooms and paths as well as how the restorative work was done on the walks and walls. She indicated the differences in the land since Wharton’s time and how her views out to the water were different.
If you notice the stairs in this photos, you’ll see they are cut into the earth and are made of grass.
Interestingly, in trying to recreate the size of one huge arbor (pictured below), they relied on photographs taken at the time of one particular visitor. By looking at his photos in different areas of the house, researchers were able to establish his height. Then, going back to the proposed arbor, they were able to establish its dimensions. As we listened to stories such as this one, we came to understand the puzzles that had to be solved before restoration could even begin.
On the second tour, the tour of the mansion, we were joined by a visiting group of Red Hatters. The house is exquisite, a stunning stylistic mixture of 18th century French and English sources. Yet, it is 100% American in its conveniences and plumbing! The combinations are seamless; the result is worth seeing with the guide who explained, once again, the painstaking research to recreate in as many ways possible, the home as well as the spirit of the home. Modern day designers put their own touches and approaches to work in each room’s decoration, relying on photographs as well as the information in Wharton’s The Decoration of Houses. For instance, Wharton shunned color descriptions such as jonquil yellow or willow green. She wrote of her attraction to black for staircase railings. At the Mount, the railings are black and the walls are a neutral tint, thus adding a dramatic effect Wharton sought. The designers paid close attention to detail. In the dining room, for instance, there is a cushion near Wharton’s chair for her favorite dog.
My favorite room was the library with its beautifully carved bookcases, shelves filled with exquisitely bound volumes that, in themselves, create an intellectual autobiography. Although Wharton wrote her own books in bed in the mornings, there is a wonderful desk in the library, parquet floors, and floor to ceiling windows to allow for adequate lighting. It’s a glorious room—a room to envy.
I add that there is a European bistro, the Terrace Café, but it was closed when we were there. There are lectures throughout the season (June to Aug.), and a variety of other special events. Famous writers appear—In Aug., 2006 former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky (who I've seen at the Dodge Poetry Festival) appeared as part of an annual poetry series. Visit the Mount’s website for information and some stunning photographs.
The Mount, as well as the entire Lenox area, is an exciting place for a book lover.
Friday, December 22, 2006
Other items of similar consistency
So, don’t pack or carry empty containers.
Limit all liquids, gels, aerosols, and pastes to a maximum container size of 2.4 oz/100ml.
Place all such items in a quart-size, clear plastic, zip-top bag.
Remove your quart-size bag from your carry-on and place in the provided bin as you approach the checkpoint.
To get through the checkpoint more quickly
Leave lighters at home
Leave pocket-knives, files, scissors, and any sharp objects at home or put them in your checked baggage.
Be ready to take off your shoes and put belts, cell phones, and metal objects in your carry on.
Have acceptable ID and your boarding pass ready to show.
Also, check with the individual airline to check on carry-on and checked baggage requirements.
For instance, Rob and I are flying on Delta in Jan. Our carry-on must weigh less than 40 lbs, not exceed 45 inches when we total length plus width plus height, fits easily into their unit (approx. 22x14x9), fits into an overhead bin or underneath the seat in front. Our checked luggage allowance is two bags each with each bag weighing 50 pounds or less and not exceeding 62 inches when length, width, and height are totaled.
Airlines are not all the same, and when you have connecting flights, you should check both airlines.
A very important place to check is TSA’s website for real particulars about prescription meds (even saline solution). You can print a list of permitted and prohibited items. For instance, you cannot wear gel inserts in your shoes, but you can send them in your checked luggage.
We live in a world where these annoying restrictions are, unfortunately, necessary. The best way to maneuver through is to be aware and to be prepared.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
One of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever seen has one of the most uninviting names—the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Ft. Eustis, Virginia. But never judge a book by its cover.
Ft. Eustis, is just eleven miles south of Williamsburg and the home of the Army’s Transportation branch whose mottos is “Nothing Happens Until Something Moves.” Located on six acres, the museum depicts the history of Army transportation from horse-drawn wagons right to the kinds of amazing vehicles one associates with science fiction.
Inside the main 50,000 sq. ft. building, I followed a path featuring dioramas, models, photographs, walls of citations, and many different examples of the creative ways the Army has transported, supplied, and supported soldiers and materiel since the rudimentary Conestoga wagons and ships used in the Revolutionary War.
Ft. Eustis, as you know from our tour there in the July issue, is the home of the Army’s Transportation School, and we would not have thought to visit had Michael not been posted there for training. Just goes, once again, to show there are hidden treasures in unlikely places.
It’s easy to discount the importance of the Transportation Corps or to ignore it altogether. Yet after reading Guns of August (see Sept., 2006), I learned that the very beginning of WWI centered on transportation timing and lead to Germany’s feeling that it had 15 days before all the countries could move enough men and materiel to respond to her attack.
To the museum—In the building exhibit we learned not only of development but also of the Army’s continually evolving philosophy.
We begin with the Conestoga wagons that accompanied the Revolutionary War troops. Just consider fulfilling the basic needs of troops who marched from the Lake George area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains or from New England to participate in the battles around New York City. They crossed the Adirondacks, traipsed through the Hudson Valley, crossed rivers in summer and winter, and needed to be armed, not only personally but also with cannon, needed to be fed, and needed to be clothed. Livestock traveled with them. Everything had to be coordinated. Wagons had to be maintained and repaired. It was a daunting task.
By the time of the Civil War, the railroad had entered service. By WWI, the Army Transport Service was officially established. The expanding need for jeeps and ships during WWII instigated the formation of the Transportation Corps. Hence, it is one of the newest branches of our service, but ironically in existence before our country gained independence. There are exhibits depicting the inclusion of air and armored vehicles as well as all-terrain vehicles—for jungles, for snow, and for sand.
The Army continues to develop experimental vehicles as well, always seeking to make its Transportation Corps more efficient in serving the needs of its soldiers. Some of those innovations become crossovers to the civilian population, and we all know several examples including the ubiquitous Jeep and Humvee.
Outside the museum building are a series of outdoor exhibits illustrating even more strongly the expansive variety of skills needed by its personnel to fulfill the responsibilities of the Transportation Corps. In the Railyard, the Cargo Yard, the Aviation Pavilion, and the Marine Park, I viewed trains, hovercraft, helicopters, landing craft, amphibious vehicles, tug boats, patrol boats—all artifacts actually used by men and women trained by the Corps.
The entire museum is a learning experience. There are pamphlets to describe the various displays. There are videos, newsreels, photographs, dioramas, and scenes of the conditions in which members of the Transportation Corps operate.
This is not a museum glorifying war. It is a place to see beyond the public image of the Army and the soldier into the reality of the work and effort that goes into protecting our country and keeping it whole and free. For me it was an eye-opening experience.
As I’ve been writing, the Williamsburg area is a whole lot more than Colonial Williamsburg. Try it; you’ll like it.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Back in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Rob and I head once again to Asters for a quiet, vaguely romantic dinner for two. Asters’ ambiance remains a lure with its black and light colored décor and subtle candlelight at each table. The staff is friendly, and the service excellent and intent on making the Asters experience a good one. This is a great place to remember.
This time Rob and I sit in the bigger dining room. There’s a lovely fireplace there, and this night it is lighted. The room is warm and comfortable.
We pass on the appetizers though the selection from the raw bar is tempting. We tried entrees different from our first visit, and were equally enthralled.
Yes, this time we do sit back and order dessert and coffee—our reason for skipping the appetizers. Our selection—the same—crème brulee, the top a sweet crust of raw sugar. This luscious dessert is topped with the sweetest strawberry and mango slices. This is telling and important when reflecting about Asters. It’s the little extra touches that make the difference. If you’re intrigued by the little extra touches a good restaurant can offer, take the same advice we gave to the couple sharing the hotel’s spa with us when they asked for an excellent local restaurant—try Asters.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
I just finished an interesting book that you may want to consider adding to your “to read” list. It’s John Hersey’s A Single Pebble. You might remember Hersey’s much more famous book, Hiroshima.
A Single Pebble takes you to China. A 23 year old American engineer, almost fresh out of school, travels the Yangtze River, the one the Chinese call “the Great,” to help his company decide if they want to convince the Chinese government to build a big power project, a dam, in one of the river’s gorges.
The book consists of recollections of the trip after a half century of reflection, and it is, in its own way, a reflection of western thought when it collides with a vastly different culture. That same culture clash is going on today—perhaps it is always occurring in some way—and reading A Single Pebble prompts me to begin my own reflection.
While I’ve never traveled to China, I’ve read, as we all have, of its ancient culture and its traditional ways. So had the young American, the westerner armed with new ideas that could spare the workers the agony and pain of doing things the way they have been done since time immemorial. He expects to be welcomed by people ready to move eagerly toward new, modern methods. Instead he is up against resistance as solid as the gorges’ walls and as strong as the river he seeks to tame. He is baffled at their tenacious hold on the ancient ways.
“How could I span a gap of a thousand years—a millennium in a day? These people on the junk could be said to be living in the era between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror, in the time of serfs and villains, before the Crusades, before Western printing and gunpowder, long, long before Chaucer and Giotto and Thomas Aquinas and Dante. And they were satisfied (or so I thought) to exist in Dark Ages, while I lived in a time of enlightenment and was not satisfied.”
When he emerges from the river at the end of his journey, as Huck does from the Mississippi, he is a different person. He questions whether Progress is always something that builds or whether it destroys as well.
A Single Pebble introduces us to an array of unforgettable characters: the owner of the junk on which our protagonist travels; his wife, Su-ling, who knows the histories and the names of the rocks, the rapids, and the gorges; the enigmatic cook; and most importantly, the head tracker, Old Pebble, who guides the junk through the dangers of the Yangtze just as over past centuries head trackers had done before him, singing the same songs, bowing to the same superstitions and traditions.
With your imagination going full tilt, you will see the pictures Hersey’s words create, and you will begin to question the meaning of time, the power of superstition or tradition, the process of life, and the meaning of progress. You will witness winning against incredible odds and you will read of being humble before the victories of the past.
In addition, as I did, you will probably recognize a certain arrogance in the young man. But the lack of understanding is not one-sided, and neither is the culture clash. It works both ways. I am left with the question of whether we can ever truly understand one another.
BTW, the dam suggested in this 1956 book is, according to The Discovery Channel, slated to be completed in 2010!
This is an interesting book, fast reading and fewer than 200 pages. You might want to give it a try.