Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Kathleen's Big Adventure

Sometime before Christmas, our daughter Sarah and her husband, Vainateya Deshpande (Desh), who live in Washington, D.C., invited my wife Kathleen to visit during Inauguration Week. She left on the train from Elkhart Friday, January 16, in below-zero temperature. It was still pretty cold on Sunday, when the three of them visited Monticello. Here she is at a frozen birdbath outside the house. But to me, she seems a dark-haired Galadriel at her magic mirror.

Kathleen says that the underground part of the house extends beyond the limits of the house itself. Here are Kathleen and Sarah admiring Jefferson's house. Desh is saddled with the Curse of the Photographer. He took all the pictures, so he doesn't appear in any of them.

On Monday they went to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum, in Chantilly, Virginia. It's big enough to hold the Space Shuttle Enterprise, an Air France Concorde, the B-29 Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb), and hundreds of other complete aircraft. Desh got a picture of Sarah and Kathleen in front of a P-47 Thunderbolt, the type of plane my father flew in World War II.

Tuesday, January 20 was the big day. The original plan was to join a friend of Sarah and Desh who was a staffer for Senator Edward Kennedy and observe the inauguration from the balcony of Kennedy's office. Somehow that plan fell through. But since the Senate office buildings are on the other side of the Capitol, there might not have been a lot to observe. Instead, they went to the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, where they could see the procession from the White House to the Capitol and the Inaugural Parade. And they could watch the ceremony on a JumboTron. The Washington D. C. Transit system worked well for them. They took the bus from Sarah and Desh's apartment and arrived without a problem. The problems
began after they got to downtown Washington, where they had to
deal with long lines for security checks. The two hours of waiting did give Desh an opportunity to show the crowd and some of the individuals in it. One of the youngest participants in the festivities charmed everyone who saw her. While most of the people waiting to see the inauguration were focusing on Barack Obama, quite a few
were more than happy to see the departure of George W. Bush from the Executive Mansion. It's been eight very long years.

CNN was broadcasting from the Newseum. From her vantage point, Kathleen saw Cokie Roberts, Campbell Brown (who was noticeably pregnant), and George Will. Even though the people in the Newseum were inside, people kept their coats on. Still, it was a lot more comfortable than being out on the Mall in the 20-degree weather. And if they couldn't see the Inauguration directly, the JumboTron provided a larger-than-life view.
After the inauguration came the parade, with the wedge of police motorcycles bringing up the front. You can see beginning of a long line of portable toilets on the other side of the street. Somehow the crowds weren't that big on that side of the Avenue. I'm not sure the port-a-potties served their purpose.Then came the motorcade--the security and media vehicles and the President's (that's President Obama!) limousine--a stretch Cadillac Escalade--followed by more limousines and and security vehicles. Kathleen saw Sasha's pink mitten in the window. The parade, which went on for hours, included this 1950s-era Washington, D.C. transit bus, which garnered a lot of applause. I once drove a bus very much like this one when I was a student at the University of Iowa and drove the Cambus in a loop around the campus. There were a couple of 1953-vintage buses that were eventually replaced by modern 1956-models. This was in the early 1970s. There were a lot of bands, many from historically black colleges.

The Illinois float, with its John Deere tractor and image of Lincoln, was a highlight of the parade.

With the parade over, it was time to head back to Sarah and Desh's apartment, though not before eating an exorbitantly-priced meal at the Newseum cafeteria ($5 for a Coke, $9 for a personal pizza). Both Kathleen and Sarah came down with colds after their adventure, but it was surely worth it. I doubt whether there will be another inauguration like it in their lifetimes.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Forgotten Books Friday: The Dream-Detective

I first read Sax Rohmer’s The Dream -Detective in the late 1970s, when I was in my twenties. It was a Dover reprint of the 1926 edition, though the book itself came out in 1920. Before rereading it, I remembered it as enchanting. And, in some ways, it still is. The character of Moris Klaw is simply unforgettable. Here’s a description of him from the first episode of the book, “Tragedies in the Greek Room:”

“A very old man who carried his years lightly, or a younger man prematurely aged. None could say which. His skin had the hue of dirty vellum, and his hair, his shaggy brows, his scanty beard were so toneless as to defy classification in terms of colour. He wore an archaic brown bowler, smart, gold-rimmed pince-nez and a black silk muffler. A long, caped black coat completely enveloped the stooping figure; from beneath its mud-spattered edge peeped long-toed continental boots.”

A little further down the page:

“From the lining of his flat-topped hat he took out one of those small cylindrical scent-sprays and played its contents upon his high, bald brow. An odour of verbena filled the air.”

Moris Klaw is the proprietor of a curio shop in Wapping, in the East End of London, described in the second episode, “The Potsherd of Anubis:”

“Somewhere amid the misty gloom of this place, where the loot of a hundred ages, of every spot from pole to pole, veils its identity in the darkness, sits a large grey parrot. Faint perfumes and scuffling sounds tell of hidden animal life to the visitor; but the parrot proclaims itself stridently—

“’Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil’s come for you!’”

And then there’s his daughter, Isis, as described in the second episode:

“He invoked a goddess, and a goddess appeared: a brilliantly beautiful brunette, with delightfully curved scarlet lips and flashing eyes, whose fire the gloom could not dim.”

In the first episode, Klaw sleeps at the scene of a crime, on his “odicallly sterilised” cushion, where he picks up the “etheric storm” unleashed by the last thoughts of the murdered man.

In my work in progress, Things Done and Left Undone, Helena McKechnie wears verbena perfume and bears some resemblance to Isis (though her connection to the ancient world is Persian, not Egyptian). The metaphysician Liane Thorvaldsen can discern people’s dreams. So I’m indebted to Rohmer.

But while Sax Rohmer (the pseudonym of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward), can create unforgettable characters and scenes, his plots are often stale unimaginative. The creator of the inscrutable Oriental villain, Dr. Fu Manchu, Rohmer can be just as stereotypical about other ethnic groups:

“It is wonderful, snake-like, the power of fascination some Hindus have over women—and always over blondes, Mr. Searles, always over blondes. It is a psychological problem.”
-Fifth Episode: “The Blue Rajah."

All right, I’m a little sensitive here because my blond daughter Sarah fell in love with and married a Hindu. And he’s simply a fine man. But then there are the greedy Jews in the Third Episode, “The Crusader’s Axe,”, and the “dagoes” of the Sixth Episode, “The Case of the Whispering Poplars.”
There are a few really original stories: Episode 4: "The Ivory Statue" and Episode 7: "The Headless Mummies" are certainly worth reading. Only the last episode, No. 9, "The Veil of Isis," really delves into the supernatural. It's by far the best story of the book. In spite of the title, Klaw's daughter does not appear in the episode, except in mention.

An excellent essay on The Dream-Detective can be found here.
I lifted the illustration from it.
In spite of the many stale plots and stereotyped villains, The Dream-Dectective gives us a truly original detective. And it's because of Moris Klaw that Rohmer's book deserves to be brought out of the netherworld of forgotten books.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Two Train Journeys, 40 Years Apart

A little more than forty years ago, thousands of Amercans watched as the train bearing the remains of Robert Francis Kennedy rolled slowly by on its journey from New York to Washington, D.C. Last Friday, another train traveling over the same line carried Barack Obama and Joe Biden from Philadelphia and Wilmington, respectively, to Washington. The cold weather and security concerns prevented huge crowds from gathering to watch the Obama train, but there were people who made the effort to watch it pass by.

The pundits and Obama's own staff have likened the president-elect's rail journey to that of Abraham Lincoln. But the analogy is flawed. Lincon was to take the helm of a nation on the brink of civil war. His journey was interrupted not by rallies, but by riots. The country was divided, and Lincoln's election had brought the crisis to a head. Lincoln wanted to be a uniter, but his principled opposition to the expansion of slavery made union impossible.

For me, Barack Obama has much more in common with Robert Kennedy. While I did my part as a high school volunteer for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and considered RFK a usurper, I came to realize that Kennedy was the only candidate who could bring a divided nation together. The people who said they'd vote for Kennedy or George Wallace seemed totally oxymoronic, but we humans are contradictory. People whose prejudices led them to follow segregationist Wallace were also attracted to Kennedy, a man who had former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader (now Congressman) John Lewis on his staff.

Obama has received the votes of many who might have supported a racist candidate in 1968. His optimism and "Yes We Can" spirit have broken barriers between races and between political viewpoints. He has given us the kind of hope that America hasn't seen since the death of Robert F. Kennedy. His presidency is one legacy of the two dreamers who died forty years ago--Kennedy and Martin Luther King, jr.

I can't watch the first video without tears welling up in my eyes. The second, while not as beautifully photographed, reminds us that Barack gives us the hope of fulfilling the dreams of both Kennedy and King.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Devil of Davenport

In my six-month time working in Galesburg, I stayed with my in-laws in Davenport, Iowa. And I occasionally ventured over to the old Northwest Davenport neighborhood where I was reminded of a mystery I had planned to write many years ago. I had a name for the protagonist, and a general idea of the story. Friedrich Teufel is a reporter for a German-language newspaper in Davenport in the year 1916, when Iowa was voting on a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage. The German-American community was strongly against the amendment, as the women's movement at the time was led by prohibitionists. In the end, the amendment lost primarily because the German and Irish communities in eastern Iowa opposed it.
The story takes place before the election. A prominent feminist leader (possibly Carrie Chapman Catt, who was from Iowa) comes to Davenport to speak in favor of the amendment. Teufel tries to cover the event, is tossed out of the meeting, though not before making an impassioned plea that he is not a German, but a native-born American, who would report fairly on the event. A young woman, the widow of a British soldier killed on the Marne, takes notes of the speech, and in an act of defiance to her anti-German relatives, delivers her notes to the newspaper office.
Where it goes from there, I'm not sure. Most likely with the murder of a German-American leader working against the amendment, a romance between the Teufel and the widow, and the two working to solve the crime. And Teufel has to decide whether to vote for or against the amendment.
Teufel (German for devil) is a member the Northwest Davenport Turners, which for years met in the building pictured above. The Turners (Turnverein), founded by Prussian nationalist Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, came to America after the failed 1848 revolutions. Every, Turnhalle had a gymnasium--in fact Jahn is credited for inventing modern gymnastics. A number of American gymnasts, including Paul and Morgan Hamm, have received their training from the Turners.
Thanks to the Turners, Teufel is trained in gymnastics, boxing, and fencing. And he's fluent in German English, and French. But before I try to figure out the McGuffin for the Devil of Davenport, I need to finish Things Done and Left Undone.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Back to Normal for the New Year

Six months ago I started a job in Galesburg, Illinois. I thought it would be ideal--close to Kathleen's hometown of Davenport, Iowa and an affordable place to live. I hadn't reckoned on the exhausting and frustrating nature of the job. In November, when almost everyone I knew was ecstatic about Barack Obama's election, I was too depressed to join in the enthusiasm. I was glad to see, or rather hear, Obama win--I spent election night driving from Elkhart to Davenport--I didn't have that great joy that so many around me had.

When a position opened up at the Bloomington-Normal station, I bid on it. But I was held on the Galesburg position because there wasn't anyone to fill in. But as of Friday, I'll be "back to Normal." With two agents working at the station, it should be far less stressful than it was when I worked there earlier. I'll still be going back and forth to Elkhart as Kathleen and I work on getting the house in Elkhart ready to sell, but eventually, we expect to be settling in Bloomington or Normal--probably Bloomington.

I'll most likely have less access to the virtual world for the next few days.

Happy New Year to all!