Friday, October 27, 2006

Judging Hungarian Wax Peppers

Above: We found the 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers!

A few days ago, I rambled on about the various competitions at the Circleville Pumpkin Show. Now that I’ve returned from a pleasant weekend in Ohio, I may not know the criteria by which Hungarian Wax Peppers are judged, but I can tell you that the blue ribbon went to the best. Look at them (above): the waxy, blemish-free skin, equal size, proportion, and symmetry, and perfect color. Don’t you almost want to pick them from the Styrofoam plate and chomp their ends off? Maybe that’s just me (and Chairman Kaga from the original Iron Chef).

I’ll admit that the laundry list of potential entrants for the fruit, vegetable, and baked goods competitions brought a few chuckles. That wasn’t fair; I have all the respect in the world for farmers, but I couldn’t help it – thirty-three pages???

Above: Normal Girl VannaWhites the prize-winning vegetables.

When we walked into the fruits and vegetables exhibition (also home to the photography and artwork), I was overwhelmed by the display. Look at the table behind Keryn (above). That’s one-third of one aisle.

The cakes and other baked goods were especially difficult to walk past without sneaking a sample. My grandmother once presented a cake to a friend that was actually a round block of wood that had been meticulously decorated. (What a surprise the recipient got when trying to make the first incision!) To guard against such chicanery (and presumably to conduct the taste test), two slices had been removed from each cake and pie, one cookie from each plate. On that note, I remain unconvinced about the Best Plate Tollhouse Cookies. On aesthetics alone they deserved no higher than third place.

Above: Guess which won the prize for Most Unusual Freak...

It’s a good thing Keryn is observant, or we might have missed the freaks. I’m sad to report I failed to photograph the potato who had assumed the shape of a duck, but as you can see above, I managed to sneak a shot of the amazing double pumpkin. I wonder what kind of jack o’lantern it became.

I wonder, too, what happens to prizewinning fruits. Do the winners hold ritual feasts? I know that if the 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers had grown in my backyard soil, I would have a grand party replete with streamers and confetti.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Pumpkin Show 2006: The Food

Above: One of the many things you would not have guessed could be made with pumpkin...

During my youth, our next door neighbor always brought us two tins of pumpkin cookies with chocolate chips at Christmastime—long one of my favorites. Throughout the year, I enjoyed pumpkin bread, pumpkin doughnuts and fritters, and, of course, pumpkin pie. Then, when I lived in Puerto Rico, I learned to savor the hearty chunks of calabasa (Caribbean pumpkin) in the beans and rice. Given my past experience, I felt duly prepared for the menu at the 100th Annual Circleville Pumpkin Show.

I eased into things on Thursday night with a single piece of pumpkin cream fudge. The fudge was spicy with nutmeg and cinnamon. I didn’t need a quarter-pound, but they wouldn’t sell me less. Unfortunately, the fudge did not weather the rain, soaking through the paper bag and becoming an inedible mass of pumpkin goop. It was good while it lasted… Smelled just like the Yankee candles, too.

Friday I was determined to sample zanier treats.

I started my afternoon with an oversized pumpkin creampuff. The puff pastry was exceptional, and the pumpkin taste was not overwhelming. I inhaled the half-pound of fat in five minutes. The day was off to a stellar start.

For five months Keryn told me about the superior kettle korn at the Windsor Fair in Maine, before we learned they didn’t sell it there anymore. Pumpkin Show 2006 to the rescue. Fresh from the giant wok, into a paper bag, the salty-sweet treat. It brought a smile to her face, important because…next, I wanted to try the pumpkin burger. I’d seen the booth on Thursday night and couldn’t believe my eyes. Keryn shook her head at me when I said I was going to go for it. I marched up and stated my order, only to learn that they were sold out and wouldn’t have more for at least forty minutes.

Disoriented by disappointment, I scanned the nearest stands. And there it was, singing its siren song: pumpkin chili. My four dollars were in the woman’s hand before I had time to reconsider. The chili had a rich flavor and proved a welcome source of comfort in the brisk air. The problem with the chili was that if you had given me a cup without telling me the secret ingredient, I don’t think I would have guessed it. The pumpkin may have added something to the mix, but it was so subtle I couldn’t find it.

Above: Fried Twinkies!

An hour later, I gave in to the little boy inside who sees “deep-fried Twinkies” and cannot resist the urge. Yeah, I know it’s not pumpkin-flavored. I should have made a return trip to the pumpkin burgers stand or tried something more exotic: pumpkin crepes, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin pizza, pumpkin waffles… Instead, I saw someone eating a deep-fried Snickers bar and stopped dead in my tracks. It was one of the more difficult decisions of the weekend – deep-fried candy bar, cookie dough, or Twinkie… I went for the Twinkie and was not disappointed. Genius, I tell you. Albert Einstein, Tom Edison, and Copernicus with a warm cream filling.

For our final treat of the weekend, we went for the salt-and-vinegar French fries. I’ve had a lot of French fries in my life, and have devised four ranked categories:

  1. Real Parisian brasserie or café (esp. good with rare steak)
  2. State fair / In-N-Out Burger
  3. McDonald’s
  4. All others
The Pumpkin Show fries were solidly Category 2. Fresh potato, starchy and limp, the kind you can’t quit eating. Spritzed generously with cider vinegar and sprinkled with salt, we went through a large serving in seven minutes. Mmm…getting hungry just thinking about them. Next year we’re going to start with the fries.

Next stop… the fruits and vegetables building…

- Normal Guy (reporting from somewhere in Maryland...)

Monday, October 23, 2006

Pumpkin Show: Parade of Bands (feat. OSU)

Above: Normal Guy and Girl at Pumpkin Show 2006.

We arrived in Ohio after a painless afternoon flight from Boston. As soon as we stepped onto the tarmac, I realized we had not packed for the weather. A tick above fifty, air saturated, I wished for my pea coat and gloves. We’ll cross that bridge, I thought, and headed for the rental cars.

Our hotel was in Chillicothe, twenty-five minutes south of Circleville. Keryn’s grandparents live in the next town over, which made this an exceptionally convenient resting spot. It was a nice hotel, too, well kept and clean, and under $100 per night. We would have stayed closer to the festival, but all the hotels were sold out. Turns out that if you want to stay in downtown Circleville for Pumpkin Show 2007, you had better dash to Expedia this week or next.

The rain started in earnest one minute after we finished dinner with Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa. I suggested the rain might control the crowd some, seeking the silver lining in the black cloud. They informed us that it rains every year at Pumpkin Show, so we had best stifle such hopes…

After narrowly missing out on the last spot in a pay lot two blocks from the Pumpkin Show main stage, we followed orange detour signs down several blocks, fought through a few minutes of frustration, and found a free parking space on one of the side streets. The neon lights of the midway flickered four blocks up Court Street. We bundled ourselves in every sweatshirt and sweater in our suitcases and fought our way into oversized CVS-brand ponchos.

It was that kind of wet autumn cold that cuts through the thickest layers of cotton. Our sweaters and sweatshirts proved ineffective against the mid-forties temps and thick mist. At least we weren’t wearing skirts and tank tops like the cheerleaders or holding our numb hands against cold brass like the players in those marching bands.

We arrived fifteen minutes into the Parade of Bands, which featured representation from area high schools, junior high schools, and youth groups. The parade route was lined four deep on both sides. According to the official formula on the Pumpkin Show website, we calculate that at least 30,000 people endured the elements to watch the bands march past. However, I quickly realized they weren’t there to watch the various festival pageant queens or teenaged trumpeters. No, rumors spread like wild-fire about the assembling band from The Ohio State University. Circleville is solidly pro-OSU, something I learned in fewer than five minutes after arriving on the streets of Pumpkin Show. Everywhere I looked, someone was wearing the colors. Red Starter jackets, baseball caps, umbrellas, raincoats, sweatshirts, ponchos, you name it. I could feel the buzz trembling through the concrete. The OSU band is coming, it’s really coming! They’re here, here for us! Here for the 100th Annual Circleville Pumpkin Show. Not only were they marching the one-mile circuit through town, they were going to present a concert afterwards. This was huge.

According to plan, the OSU concert would start at 9:30pm, but it was already 9:00pm. The rain had caused some delays getting started, and frankly I was impressed they had gone ahead with the festivities at all. Considering the circumstances, I have to give Southern Ohio high school marching bands some credit; they sounded pretty good, and any misplayed notes (there were more than a few) can easily be attributed to the elements.

At 9:30pm, the show stopped, and the onlookers gasped – they stood us up, they’re not going to play. Folks milled in the street, squinting to see whether the band was assembling at an intersection ahead.

“The parade is not over,” the PA announcer said, “please stay out of the streets. The Ohio State University marching band is getting ready to play.”

The crowd’s fears become anticipation once again.

More than two hundred musicians marched past in rows five-to-eight abreast (depending on the instrument), an efficient military machine playing the OSU fight song. I captured most of it on film with my small digital camera. All together, we watched them for one hundred seconds. They marched onward, across Court Street, toward Scioto Street, where they would turn right and continue around the other side of downtown, past thousands more families and children up an hour past their bedtime.

Ten thousand people spilled from the sidewalks onto Franklin Street, whose asphalt reverberated with the steady pounding of marching feet two blocks ahead. Time to go home.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pumpkin Show 2006: 7 Highlights

Above: School’s out for the week—Pumpkin Show is ON!

Our adventures in Circleville concluded yesterday (Saturday) when we flew from Columbus (CMH) to Baltimore (BWI). Over the next 3-4 days, we will be submitting various detailed reports. (I say “we” to put Normal Girl on the spot; what, just because she has a full-time job means she can slack off on her postings? I don’t think so.)

For now, here’s a high-level summary in seven bullets.

1. Ohio was freezing. We were prepared for drizzles, but not for thirty-five degrees. Winter has come far too early for my taste…

2. Folks in Circleville love The Ohio State University. As if the sheer quantum of apparel didn’t make this point clearly enough…tens of thousands shivered in the drizzle until 10pm on Thursday night to see two minutes of the OSU marching band.

3. One can use pumpkin as a special ingredient in almost any baked good. That doesn’t mean the results are worthy of eating… More on this to come.

4. There is always a trick to finding a good place to park and avoiding traffic. Always. Yesterday, we ducked into Pumpkin Show for an hour and sneaked back out to the airport without any difficulty; meanwhile, cars were backed up three miles going in the “front-door”.

5. The prize-winning fruits and vegetables were every bit as impressive as I made them sound in last week’s blog…

6. The Circleville Pumpkin Show is undoubtedly worth a visit. If you’re in the area in late October and you don’t make the trip, you’re making a BIG mistake.

7. Deep-fried Twinkies are seriously awesome.

We’ll be back with much more detail later tonight and over the next few days!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

En Route to Pumpkins…

The day has finally arrived. After months of speculation and planning, Normal Girl and I are boarding a Delta Airlines flight from BOS to CMH (Boston to Columbus) at 1:55pm today. We arrive at 4pm and hit the Hertz #1 Club Gold counter for our midsized rental car (redeeming accumulated Hertz points – total cost for three days, ~$15). No more than two hours later, we will be standing on the corner of Main and Franklin Streets, seeking the 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers...

According to, we can expect “Showers and thunderstorms this evening will give way to steady rain overnight.” Two days ago, the forecast said “showers possible.” Grr…

Good thing Normal Girl advised me to pick up some cheesy ponchos at CVS. I told her that we could probably get some nifty jack o’lantern ponchos on the parade route, but grabbed some $5.99 ponchos nonetheless. Looks like we’re going to need them.

Will be reporting all the fantastic details starting tomorrow...

- Normal Guy

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hungarian Peppers Vie For Pumpkin Show Crown

Slowly but surely, I have been perusing every document available on the Circleville Pumpkin Show website. Yesterday I saw the link for “Rules & Regulations.” I was expecting to find a list of typical festival rules. No alcohol or drugs, proper attire to be worn at all times, that kind of thing. I was wrong -- this PDF defines the rules for the hundreds of varied competitions.

I knew about the giant pumpkins, but had no idea that you can compete with almost any vegetable, fruit, gourd, or pie you can think of. Ten of my favorite grudge matches:

  • Best Plate Limas – Hulled
  • Best Head Cabbage - Trim For Market
  • 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers
  • Most Unusual Freak (this apparently refers to vegetables)
  • Best Plate Any Kind Fruit
  • Best Bundt Cake
  • Best Plate Toll House (isn’t this the recipe from the chocolate chips bag?)
  • Best Plate Pumpkin Whoopee Pies
  • Best Can Catsup (can any of them beat Heinz?)
  • Treasure from Trash
The Pumpkin Show judges hundreds of categories in arts/crafts, vegetables, pies/desserts, window treatments, floats, artwork, children (babies ARE judged). Most prizes are $3-4, but I get the impression it’s more about pride. I picture blue ribbons tacked to barn walls.

I’ll admit a non-trivial ignorance when it comes to agriculture, and I do not mean any of my comments to be insulting. But when I looked through the list of competitions and found it stretched on for thirty-three pages… Wow! The vegetable displays had been at the bottom of my list. (That’s a lie. they weren’t on my list at all.) Now that I’ve glimpsed the full list, though, Keryn and I must spend an hour or two learning what makes Carla’s 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers superior to Wilson’s. (I haven’t broken the news to her yet.)

One thing I found odd: the rules and regulations never list the criteria. To what extent can the outcome vary by the judge? Perhaps I prize color over size, and my colleague values shape and texture most. Does an exhibitor select his 5 Best depending on his knowledge of the judging biases? Hmm.

We arrive at Pumpkin Show in 24 hours. More updates later today.

- Normal Guy

[Incidentally, I notice that the size of the winning pumpkins has increased dramatically over the last five or six years… around 1,000 pounds these days, compared to 500-600 a decade ago. I’m concerned there may be some performance enhancing drugs in play here. I suggest someone launch an investigation.]

Friday, October 13, 2006

Are You Ready For Some Pumpkins?

I’m getting there, psyching myself up for the 100th Annual Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio. Normal Girl is a 1995 graduate of Logan Elm High School there, where we’ll be taking in a football game and probably running into many people she hasn’t seen in a dozen years.

“What is a Pumpkin Show?” you might ask. According to the website, it’s the sixth largest festival in the United States, with 300,000 annual attendees. Other than the expected pumpkin pies and prizes for the largest pumpkin grown this year, the festival features two pageants (the queens preside over the festivities), a dozen parades, varied musical acts, midway rides, and loads of unhealthy concessions.

I couldn’t be more excited.

When Normal Girl moved to Circleville in 1992, one of the first things her new classmates asked her was: “Have you heard of Pumpkin Show?” Apparently the community has the impression that the festival is a bit more world-famous than it is. As I have scoured the website, I’m starting to think it should be more world-famous. And that’s where this blog comes in, spreading news of this show to at least twenty or thirty new people...

According to the calendar of events, the opening ceremony starts at 11am on Wednesday. This is no weekend festival, folks, but a Wednesday through Saturday affair. Kids don’t to school, presumably most downtown business have to curtail their operations, etc. They are not messing around.

Sadly, we do not arrive until late Thursday afternoon. As a result, we’re missing four parades, two pageants, one karaoke session, and the important “Egg Toss” (hopefully we can at least hear an anecdote from Normal Girl on this marquee event). Fortunately, we arrive in plenty of time for the marching band from The Ohio State University and a performance from Time Machine, a classic rock band from Circleville.

Friday, I absolutely can't miss Ukulele Man and His Prodigal Sons, for their band name alone. The Pet Parade might make the itinerary, too… We might have to debate that. I’m most looking forward to the football game that night.

Saturday, we should be around for the Pie Eating Contest, but we will be on an airplane to Baltimore by the time the Hog Calling Contest begins, rendering moot the hours of practice we’ve crammed into our weeknights.

In all seriousness, I am sincerely looking forward to next week's adventure. My hometown had no such grand festivals, and I think it's kind of cool. In six days, we’ll see if Circleville can deliver on the promise of its packed event calendar!

- Normal Guy

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Strong Museum of Play, Rochester (NY)

Above, left: Normal Guy and Girl on Sesame Street; above, right: Normal Guy in Big Bird’s crib.

What does it say about the two of us that we don’t yet have any children, but enjoy strolling Toys ‘R’ Us? Or that we have a hard time resisting an empty swing set without stopping in for two quiet minutes sailing through the air?

When Normal Girl and I last visited Manhattan, we pushed each other on the swings of Central Park. Mid-summer in Bucksport, we chased each other around the Miles Lane playground like schoolchildren. And not long ago, we spent an afternoon in Henry Bear’s Park, a few blocks down the road from Normal Girl’s family in Arlington (MA). For whatever reason, we get a kick out of looking through toys, children’s books and games, etc. I can’t explain it, and I’m not going to try.

In any event, when I was researching Rochester-area attractions, the Strong - National Museum of Play caught my eye. As you may recall from an earlier blog entry, I wasn’t sure whether we would have time for the Museum of Play, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of place I would visit alone.

Fortunately, we ended up with a spare two hours between Normal Girl’s last school visit of the day and our flight home (the one that went so well). So I plugged in the address and let our Australian Guide (“Cat”) show us the way.

The museum, founded by Margaret Woodbury Strong in 1968, is a wonderfully spacious children’s museum that also includes several exhibits better fit for adults. We were there on a September weekday, so the crowd was thin.

For Normal Girl and me, the main draw was the Sesame Street set, which is probably much more familiar to us than to the toddlers running around the day we were there. It was rather surreal, in truth, to sit on a replica of the front-steps on Sesame Street, to climb into Big Bird’s nest, and to walk past Mr. Hooper’s store. But it was a wonderful exhibit, including interactive displays for each of the major players (human and Muppet), various games, and a fun green screen set-up that would allow parents to take home a video depicting their child on-screen with Elmo, the Cookie Monster, or another favorite Muppet.

Throughout the building were tables stocked with arts and crafts supplies. I saw several kids wearing hats of their own creation, though Normal Girl and I managed to remain under control. I thought this was a great touch, though I cannot imagine the chaos on a rainy summer day…

We skipped “Super Kids Market,” a large grocery store replica (Western New York, so it was a Wegman’s branch) where the kids could fill their shopping carts and run the items across the scanner. It looked like the kids were having fun, but grocery shopping long since stopped being a source of fun.

In the interactive “Field of Play” we learned all about the various reasons for “play” and played where we could. The perspective room (where you could look really tall or really short simply by walking from one end of the room to the other) was a hit with Normal Girl, while I got a kick out of the sideways room that appeared level to the eye, but stood at a forty-five degree angle, making it quite a challenge to walk across without tumbling over (and taking out a crew of four year-olds in the process!).

My one complaint, especially prominent in this section, but pervasive in other exhibits, was that many displays were broken. I can imagine it must be hard to keep up, but it seemed that half the displays failed.

Upstairs, we spent half an hour perusing cabinets of toys. Many were recognizable from our own youth: He-Man, Transformers, GI Joe for me; Care Bears, My Little Pony, and Cabbage Patch for her. (Also, Normal Girl’s love for Atari is well documented.) We skipped the aisles of dolls because all those eyes freak me out, like some scene in a horror movie where the dolls come to life. But, the doll houses were truly impressive. Some from the mid-1800s had a dozen or more rooms, each decorated with unique wall paper, china, furniture, etc. I enjoyed the Barbie / GI Joe section, where I learned, for the first time, that the two dated in the seventies after Joe had returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam… (Seriously!) Learn something new every day!

We didn’t have time to see the remaining exhibits of the museum or the various nature exhibits (butterfly garden, aquarium, etc.), but we saw enough to provide an Unqualified Recommendation. If you’re in Rochester and have children or, like us, remain young at heart, the Museum of Play should make your Trip Goals for sure.

The Strong – National Museum of Play is located in Downtown Rochester and provides ample parking. For directions, click here.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Normal Girl on Her Trip Goal: Shopping at Marshall’s

We interrupt the almost-finished Buffalo/Rochester recap for an interlude from Normal Girl, who is on the road this fall visiting high schools and college fairs in her capacity as an Assistant Director of Admissions at a Boston-area college. She's been finding some time for "marshallando" (as they say in PR), or shopping at Marshall's... - N.G.

Above, Normal Girl wearing lots of orange…

Here I sit at the Courtyard Marriott in Wallingford, CT, having almost completed my first three weeks of travel for work. In that time, I have learned several simple truths:

  • The thought of a maid cleaning up after me is liberating…and creepy.
  • Hot tub after standing in heels for 3 hours: Good….
  • Eating out every night is not as exciting as one might think (especially if you are a picky eater).
  • It is easy to become spoiled after living in a hotel for a week… (Just ask Normal Guy, as spoiled as they get).
I have taken it upon myself to accomplish several missions while I travel for the next month and a half. One is to finish two cross stitches, Christmas gifts for my two sisters. Another is to read as many books as I can; it makes eating solo every night a little less lonely. The third, and by far the most important, is….drum roll, please…shopping at every Marshall’s/TJ Maxx I come across in the various cities and towns that I will visit during my trek to thrilling places like Meriden, CT, and Wilmington, DE.

This goal developed during my first week of travel in Williston, VT. I had some free time between my college fair and eating dinner with a friend from grad school who moved to VT after graduation. I entered Marshall’s with the excitement of a child flying a kite for the first time. Fortunately, I don’t run through the clothes like a maniac (like that kid with his kite!), although that is tempting. I am very methodical in my shopping—aisle to aisle, seeking my sizes.

Sometimes I pull out hideous items for fun. Normal Guy has two minutes of proof of his on his camera (blackmail material). I start from the front, moving my way back until I lose steam around the housewares. I often get discouraged if the shoes are in the front, since they never have my size.

[With small feet (size 5 ½), I have been known to wear shoes from Stride Rite, a fact my friends cannot relate to. Ironically enough, I shook my head in disbelief after learning Normal Guy had been a Stride Rite Scholar during his studies at Harvard!]

Anyway, I began my search, and lo and behold, I found a pair of light blue UGG boots, size...5!!! A perfect fit. Only $60 compared to $145 in the 25 Victoria’s Secret catalogs that clog our mail slot every week. Jackpot! I also found a cotton sweater that I love. Needless to say, I felt a sincere sense of a mission accomplished on that sunny mid-September day.

Last week in Buffalo, we spent a fun-filled hour or so in Marshall’s. He filmed me perusing and made me model a wool blazer only meant for a blind 80 year-old. Although I only purchased sunglasses, he bought several items, but kept asking me if he should with his face covered with doubt. I guess being unemployed for the time being ***by choice*** has made him a little more of a bargain shopper…

This week has been less than fruitful (in terms of shopping). Yesterday, with an afternoon free, I learned that there were two, count ‘em two, Marshall’s within 10 minutes of my hotel! I will spare you the gruesome details, but leave you with a few simple facts:
  • When I entered the fitting room with my cart piled shoulder-level, the attendant narrowed her eyes to slits and growled, I swear...
  • You can’t find a suit there if you are a 2/4. It just ain’t happenin’.
  • I bought one sweater for $29.99 (reluctantly… I could have left without it).

Still motivated to visit the second Marshall’s, I hopped in my rental car, turned on some Cowboy Mouth, and drove the six miles to the Cheshire location. Actually, it was more out of obligation than motivation. See, Normal Guy had requested that I visit both and give him a detailed comparison. So be it. I entered the second store with less spring in my step. Again, I will spare you every boring detail:

  • It sucked.
  • I left.
I called Normal Guy to share all about my shopping extravaganza and realized bargain shopping can be exhausting. I needed a nap.

I will be in staying in the same hotel next week, so I may have to belittle myself by visiting the local outlets, since I’ve already exhausted the area Marshall’s. I will keep you posted...

'Til Next Time - Normal Girl

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Visit to the George Eastman House


I became a photography nut rather recently, with my purchase of a Canon ELPH. My previous digital camera was rather bulky for such a basic device (no extra lenses or anything), which meant it came out only for special occasions: traipsing through foreign cities, touring Disney World, weddings. Day-to-day sights I marveled at remained only in my memory. Nowadays, I keep my tiny camera in my messenger bag or tuck it in my pants pocket. Slowly I have been replacing cheap purchased prints with framed 8x10s of my own photographs. They may be far from professional, but they’re real.

When considering the museum/gallery options in Rochester, New York, the George Eastman House was a no-brainer. Fortunately, I know my industrial history well enough to recognize his name... But I wonder how many high school seniors outside Western New York have any idea who founded Kodak.

Getting There

Thursday (Sept 28) was a miserable day in Rochester. The rain started around eight and continued throughout the day, teasing us with interludes of calm between torrents. Normal Girl had the rental car and was making her rounds at area high schools. The front desk at the Marriott ordered me a taxi.

My driver was jovial. He told me all about how his wife (she’s 62) wouldn’t get to take her walk (she walks three miles every day, you know) on account of the rain. He noted that he would be lucky to walk one mile. He has been driving a cab twenty years (he’s about to turn 65). Though born and raised in Rochester, he has never visited the George Eastman House. He figures it must be good, though, since he takes a lot of people there.

East Avenue is one of the more scenic roads in the city, presumably once the wealthy part of town. Several other museums, including the Rochester Museum and Science Center are on this road, and had it been sunny, I would surely have wandered it sidewalks. Oh well.

I arranged for Butch (real name) to pick me up after two hours. It made me nervous to have a deadline like that, but it was better than standing in the rain. I’ve learned that calling a cab in a city that doesn’t have many of them can be a nasty ordeal, characterized by many elongated minutes of frustrated pacing.

Upon arriving, I learned the museum comprises two parts: a photography museum and the actual mansion George Eastman called home. I started with the museum.

Photography Museum

The front room of the museum hosted an exhibition of Pete Turner’s color photography, Pete Turner: Empowered by Color. It blew me away.

For examples of his work, you should check out his website. The colors are more vivid than anything you can imagine, and the Internet does not do them justice. My favorite piece, “Push,” depicts a yellow trash barrel on a white sand beach. It derives its title from the word embossed on the red door of the barrel’s cap.

”Giraffe” (1967), his most famous piece, features the eponymous beast in motion on what appears to be the shore, the sky beyond him fiercely red. It raised quite a stir when displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York... I can see why.

Across the hall, a dozen glass cases held 19th century wet plate cameras, ornate teakwood cameras, the actual Speed Graphic used by Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima, a Technicolor motion picture camera, and dozens of varying models of the “Brownie” (the model Kodak built its reputation around).

[The cynical part of me expected to find the display limited to the Kodak brand, but I was pleasantly surprised.]

Some of the more elaborate cameras were most intriguing:
  • A decorative box lined with pink felt, mirror on the inside of the lid, lipstick and a compact in their places, and mounted on a hinge, a small camera. (Why?)
  • A revolver holding film in place of bullets. That this was described as a “spy” camera rather flummoxed me. Nobody would be suspicious if, instead of pulling a box camera from your coat, you tugged a revolver from your belt, pointed it across the room, and pulled the trigger. Ingenious idea.
  • A reconnaissance camera to be mounted on the underbelly of a plane had a propeller on its butt, which I dismissed as silly until reading the placard, which explained that it was there to power the camera, like a miniature windmill.
In the next gallery, “Why Look at Animals?” runs until January. It takes that simple question and answers it several different ways: because they’re part of our family, because they’re funny, because they’re beautiful, etc. Each answer is flanked by examples, many of them dated before 1900. It turns out that some of the people who could afford photography in the 1860s held their puppies in high regard.

The second half of this special exhibit took the question and provided various avant-garde responses.

Harri Kallio’s unusual dodo series features “life-sized” models of the extinct bird placed, as if living, in its original habitat (Mauritius). Dodos gather on the beach, in the jungle... Interesting, if creepy.

I was, admittedly, freaked out by Chip Simons’ series of people wearing bunny heads and carrying giant carrots.

Rebecca Norris Webb’s “The Glass Between Us” was especially powerful. These photos feature animals in captivity, but the glass reflects the gawking masses. For example: a young girl super-imposed on a captive chimpanzee. One photo stopped me in my tracks: a giraffe pressing his lips to two-dimensional leaves painted on a two-dimensional tree painted in a two-dimensional savannah. Wow.

In the hall outside the exhibit room, the staff assembled a community response exhibit, where real people had photographed their real pets. An interesting idea, but I opted to proceed into the mansion.

The George Eastman House (the mansion part)

Once you have visited Newport, Rhode Island, your definition of mansion sharpens. Visit the Hearst Castle in California, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville (NC), Versailles in France, and you really start to expect a lot from your mansions. Compared to those palaces, I see why they call it the George Eastman House. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a little “m” mansion; it is a lovely home, with many lavish touches. The hidden player organ in the conservatory was worth a glance, and the stuffed elephant head, harvested from one of Eastman’s African safaris is impressive.

Fortunately, the purpose of the house is not is to observe opulence (unlike those other big “m” Mansions), but to learn about how Eastman came into his business. In this effort, the house succeeds.

Did you know there was a major effort by leading businessmen (spearheaded by Mr. Eastman) to change the calendar into 13 28-day months? Or that Kodak actually operated according to this calendar until 1989? Yup, it’s true.

Did you know that rumors of Eastman’s possible homosexuality are so rampant that there is almost an entire room devoted to the matter? It’s even part of the Frequently Asked Questions on the website.

The strangest single piece in the entire house, however, has to be the suicide note. Yes, the actual suicide note, scrawled in nearly illegible blue ink on a piece of standard wide-ruled notebook paper:

    To my friends, My work is done, why wait? GE
Somehow it struck me as odd that the actual note was there before our eyes. It didn’t seem right.

Gift Shop and Café

I will say this about the café: when I pulled a bag of potato chips from the wicker basket, there was a dust bunny attached to the plastic. Seriously.

The hot food looked okay, but after seeing that dust bunny, I opted for hunger.

The gift shop, on the other hand, is exceptional. The various novelty cameras were especially fun to look at. You can buy disposable cameras that will take eight simultaneous images, or place four consecutive shots onto a single negative, produce three-dimensional images... Very cool.

In Summary

When it’s all said and done, I bestow a Qualified Recommendation on the George Eastman House: it’s worth a visit if you find yourself in Rochester with a spare 90 minutes, but I would not go out of my way for it.

I would keep my eye on the forthcoming travel calendar for Pete Turner: Empowered by Color. If it rolls into your town and you don’t see it, shame on you.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Over Niagara Falls In a Barrel

Above, left: Normal Girl framed by a rainbow; above, right: Normal Guy wondering if there’s a barrel vendor nearby.

Say the word “Buffalo” and I think: losing the Super Bowl, chicken wings, and snow (in that order). But Buffalo, NY is also the gateway to Niagara Falls. Normal Girl and I were not going to spend four days in Buffalo without making a voyage across the border.

Normal Girl’s hectic work schedule made it challenging to schedule the trip, but we settled on Wednesday (Sept 27). Somehow, in a rather shocking development, that day turned out to be the magical crystal-clear eighty-degree day Buffalo is so famous for... Honestly, our luck was impeccable; Thursday it rained from eight to eight and topped out at 55F.

We parked on the U.S. side because we weren’t sure about the rental car rules and because the front desk suggested we might save a few bucks.

“How far is it to the falls?” I asked.

“American Falls are two minutes that way,” the parking attendant replied.

“And Canada?”

“Follow the signs to the bridge,” she said. “It’s a five-minute walk.”

Memories from my youth suggested we should go ahead and walk to Canada. We followed the signs and one minute later stood on the Rainbow Bridge. Traffic was light, but the wind swirled, making our casual stroll something of a workout.

Above, left: view of the Rainbow Bridge from Horseshoe Falls; above, right: Normal Guy and Girl atop the Rainbow Bridge.

As we approached, the first signs of the tourist kitsch I recall from childhood came into view: a massive Hershey’s Kiss atop one building and a flashing neon electric guitar announced the Hard Rock Café. Several tall hotels boasted their brand, and those hosting casinos made sure everyone knew.

As we waited in line for the cursory glance through our passports, I noticed everyone was speaking French.

“We’re in Canada,” Normal Girl replied to my observation.

“But this is Ontario,” I said.

Judging by the bilingual placards in the gift shops and duty free boutiques, I guessed French to be lot more prevalent across the nation than I knew. It is kind of amazing, actually, how ignorant most Americans are about Canada. I’m from Maine, for goodness’ sake, you’d think we would have learned a lot more in school about these things. I embarked on a rant about this as we stepped through the back door of passport control, but then the first clean view of the falls came into vision, and I cut myself off.

Above, left: American Falls; above, right: at the edge of Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls.

Instead of an outdoor shopping mall, we stepped into a handsome garden, and descended spotless stone stairs to a manicured cliff-top path.

There were blessedly few tourists; this mid-week-outside-tourist-season thing is pretty sweet.

A visit to Niagara Falls offers a profound lesson in perspective.

Part I: For a solid thirty minutes, we marveled at the beauty of the American Falls; an hour later, hypnotized by the raw power of the Canadian Falls, the former seemed little more than a trickle.

Part II: As we neared the Canadian Falls, thick mist coating our sunglasses and soaking us to the flesh, we finally found our rainbow. Until then, mere fragments of color lingered in the mist.

Keryn’s finger traced a fluid arc through the sky. “Look at the rainbow! Do you see it?” Sure enough, a grand rainbow stretched through the sky. The more I looked at it, the more complete it seemed. We took a picture (the one leading off this blog), and I was shocked at the clarity with which the rainbow was captured. When we visited in my youth, the rainbows didn’t make it onto the film.

My eyes followed the arc into the water, where I saw its terminus, a cluster of rocks two yards from the shore. Though the rocks shone yellow and orange, there was no pot of gold.

The creative side of me whirred: what a photo it would make if Keryn held the camera while I scrambled down the embankment, stood on those rocks, threw back my head, and spread my arms wide.

As we walked the shore, the rainbow’s end moved with us. Further from the shore, deeper into the white-capped swirl. Relativity in action. What would it have been like had I scurried down the hill and stood in the light? Would I have been bathed in red, orange, yellow, green...? From that vantage point, I would not have seen the colors at all. It all comes down to perspective.

We stood at the railing a long time, listening to the water. The other tourists dispersed, until we were almost alone. It was perfect.

Three tid-bits I have to share:
  • Did you know that it costs $0.50 (quarters only) to get back into the United States? They don’t charge a penny on your way into Canada, but you have to pay to come home. We were kind of shocked by this, to tell you the truth.

  • Do you realize how easy it would be to tumble over Niagara Falls? I guess that I assumed from the legends of daredevils who lived to tell the tale, that it would be rather more difficult to pull off. But the water is right there, ten feet away, rushing furiously over the precipice. There’s a fence, but it isn’t much, and up and down the rail, idiots with video cameras climb up to get a preferred shot. If you want to dive over the falls, no one is going to stop you. It is kind of scary, actually...

  • Canadians maintain very clean public bathrooms.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Prelude to Niagara Falls ‘06

Every alternate year from age three to age eighteen, my family trekked from Bucksport, Maine to Houston, Texas to visit my father’s parents and siblings. This was before the advent of discount carriers (or, at least, before discount carriers served the Bangor market), so all but two of those trips began and ended with four or five days packed into the car.

Rather than drive straight through on the fastest route possible, my parents opted for a more meandering path. Every trip included at least one historical monument each way. I think it was as much for them as it was designed to enlighten my sister and me and enhance the journals we were assigned by our teachers in lieu of the normal homework. Sadly, those journals are long gone, buried deep in the Bucksport landfill, so I can’t quote them today.

We saw many sights on those trips. I vaguely recall civil war battlefields, the beaches of Biloxi, Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, caverns in Tennessee, the steep, brake-burning hills of the Shenandoah Valley, and the Smithsonian Museum (Air & Space, as I recall).

One trip took us along the Mississippi, through St. Louis, across Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana, and into Western New York. Once there, we spent an afternoon at Niagara Falls. This was the marquee sight of the road home.

If pushed a month ago to describe the visit, here is what I would have said.

I remember lots of kitschy tourist-trap shit. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, a Guinness Book of World Records museum, crappy souvenir shops, chain restaurants. Sure, I thought the Ripley’s place was pretty awesome. For some reason, I think of a car assembled from pennies, but I’m not overflowing with confidence on that point. I remember the crowds. Crowds did not intimidate me at that age, though they probably should have. I remember rainbows in the mist. The “Canadian Falls” were huge, and the “American Falls” down the river were pathetic by comparison. I remember taking that to heart, and not liking it. I was a Reagan ten-year-old. I knew Niagara Falls was famous as a romantic destination. I probably got that from World Book, since I always flipped through the AAA TripTik as soon as it arrived in the mail, looking for each boldfaced city in the encyclopedia. In that regard, I haven’t changed---only now I start with Wikipedia. As we leaned around other gawking tourists, I remember thinking that I didn’t see what was so romantic about falling water. Then again, I was only ten years old, and chock full of misconceptions.

Last week, I returned to view the Falls again, through adult eyes, girlfriend’s hand in mine. I was excited for the opportunity, but nervous. What if my childhood memories held up?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sharing Our Pain: A Travel Ordeal

We made it back home from Western New York in one piece (well, two pieces), but it wasn’t easy. Friday’s ordeal only further justifies my decision to stop traveling for a while. It was everything I hate about air travel: ground stops, check-in problems, waiting on the tarmac, lost luggage, spotty customer service.

It is always rough when the voyage home leaves a bitter taste. Too many vacations end that way, with a week of fun soured by one rough afternoon. But hey, that’s travel! You have to weather the bad to enjoy the good.

I started to write today’s entry as a full chronology of our afternoon and evening, but halfway through, I realized this would be the most boring ten-page blog ever. Let’s boil it down to the highlights:

- Beware trusting your GPS too completely. Passing an exit that clearly says "Airport" because your Australian tour guide has you taking a different exit further up the highway might not be the best call. (Also, file this under "Normal Girl is always right" – words to live by).

- If you’re behind schedule, pay-at-the-pump will suffer communications errors. You can count on it.

- Don’t brag if you have a direct flight while your colleague / friend / lover has a connection on the way home. You might land at the same time.

- Two hours of high winds at Logan create quite the mess.

- Shame on Delta baggage services. In this case, an ENTIRE FLIGHT DID NOT RECEIVE ITS LUGGAGE. After initially turning away all those passengers at the baggage claim office with a snide "your baggage hasn’t been unloaded yet" they made the announcement the luggage was coming on a later flight. This announcement came ninety-seven minutes after the flight landed--I’m pretty sure they could have figured this out much more quickly. Delta Airlines, you’ll be hearing from me! (In their defense, the lost luggage was delivered to the apartment eight hours later).

- The shuttles connecting the terminals at Logan are great...if you can find one. It took me thirty-five minutes to get from Terminal C to Terminal A. Apparently if you have a map of Central Parking, it is possible to walk, but I don’t keep one handy. Maybe after Friday, I will.

- $35 to upgrade my $59 one-way fare on AirTran was totally worth it.

- Few things are more annoying than sitting on the tarmac waiting for your gate to open up...

- ...especially when you’re sitting behind a jerk who spends the full forty-five minutes on his Nextel cell phone (you know, where you can hear the person on the other side?) complaining to his mother, then his girlfriend, then his mother, then his girlfriend. Drunken Bleached Hair Dude Wearing Sunglasses and Cowboy Boots, you are lucky to be alive.

- Always bring playing cards; you never know when you’ll need them.

It was a great trip, and I’m glad I tagged along. Come back soon for postings on Niagara Falls, the George Eastman House, and the Museum of Play (!). They’ll be a lot more cheerful, I promise! Here's a fun picture of us on Sesame Street.