Monthly Archives: September 2011

Ballpark

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On the walk to the ferry tonight. When I have time, I like to walk by AT&T Park on the waterfront side. It’s always cool to see the stadium, something of a waterfront jewel, landfill be damned. One of the features along the water frontage is an arcade where you can see into the ballpark from field level–you’re essentially standing just behind the right fielder. During the season, fans are welcome to take in the game for free from that vantage point; your turn lasts three innings if it’s crowded, and it’s nearly always crowded.

I’ve always found something sweetly pleasing about a ballpark as it empties out after a game, and among the favorite games I ever attended were afternoon dates at Wrigley Field when you could drift down from the cheap seats after the last out and just sit and watch while the last players cleared the dugout and the grounds crew started its postgame rituals. There’s a way in which the field is still alive for me though the play has stopped. You can still see what happened out there, the traces of arcs, parabolas, curves, lines, vectors all nearly still visible. The physical qualities of that space–the color of the grass, its texture, the shadows on the field, the immense and unconquerable but somehow finite and intimate distance to the outfield walls–have a power of their own that speaks as you linger, a power independent of the action you’ve just taken in. (I don’t think the modern major leagues allow much loitering in their amusement complexes now, and the field never seems as close as it used to. On the occasions I have tried to just hang out, there’s no going down to the expensive seats after the game, and the general experience is one of being hustled out as if your $20 or $30 or $50 or $100 entitles you to just so much and whatever that is it’s been used up. Go on home now.)

A ballpark after the season ends is a different story. Melancholy, a place deserted by everyone and everything that gave it purpose. The spaces, those unfathomable distances, are voids. No arcs or parabolas there. Until that changes, which they say happens next year, if we wait.

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The Week in Birthdays

I’ve got a brother, a niece, a former sister-in-law, and twin uncles who all have/had birthdays this week. If you go back nine months to look at a likely conception date, you find … Merry Christmas!

The first in that line of family birthdays is today, my brother John’s. We haven’t lived on the same side of the Mississippi for decades. I wound up out on the West Coast (“moved to” is too straightforward a phrase for the process) in 1977; not long afterward, John went to New York to stay. We’ve both stuck.

I’d like to be closer, both geographically and in the sense of being better in touch, but for the most part I’d say all of us in the family have done what we can to check in with each other amid family-raising, jobs, and everything else we think of as our lives.

Anyway, John–happy birthday. I’ve been told I didn’t extend the warmest greeting when Mom and Dad brought you home–home being a flat in Hyde Park on the South Side–after your arrival. I had had the run of the joint for all of 17, nearly 18 months, and I apparently didn’t cotton to your sometimes tearful newborn carrying on. I reportedly summarized my objections thus: “Bad wah-wah!”

I certainly haven’t become any pithier since then. But for once I”ll try. Happy birthday, John. Hope to see you soon.

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Boreal Chauvinist Welcomes Fall

The autumnal equinox–I’m letting my boreal chauvinism show–is just an hour or so away (2:05 a.m. PDT, 0905 Coordinated Universal Time. Special treat if you’re up in these wee hours: a crescent moon rising (nearly) alongside Mars).

In other equinox news, an explanation of the equinox by way of a 2007 NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day.

And not strictly equinox-related, but too beautiful to pass by: NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day for today, which features the aurora borealis as viewed in northwestern Canada. If you like that image, there a lot more here.

Update: Well, the sun is up and it’s sure enough fall. I was looking for an apt seasonal quote, and this morning Kate pointed one out; something from John Muir, cited as an introductory quote in a book of Diane Ackerman essays, “Dawn Light”:

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”

(The quote apparently comes from Muir’s journals, published as “John of the Mountains” in 1938.)

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Cemetery Wildlife, Avian Edition

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While I was in Chicago earlier this month, we went on tour across the South Side–Jackson Park to take in the general vicinity of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Oak Woods Cemetery (future resting place of former Illinois Sen. Roland Burriss), the site of the home of one set of great-grandparents (on Yale Avenue in the Englewood District).

In the cemetery, a great blue heron got our attention by swooping in and alighting in the branches of a tree next to a pond. While we were staring at it, we noticed that a hawk (not sure what kind) was perched in a tree another 50 yards or so away.

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Jack London Train

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Prelude to the Friday Night Ferry. Southbound Capitol Corridor train pulls into Jack London Square on 1st Street (Embarcadero West). Photo by Kate, before she caught the boat over to the city (by which I mean the other city–San Francisco).

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Texting Antietam

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‘A Lone Grave, on Battle-Field of Antietam.’ (Photographer: Alexander Gardner. National Park Service: Historic Photos of Antietam battlefield. Click for larger image.)

Texts with my brother John this morning:

John: Anniversary of Antietam … just FYI.

Me: John, you’re just about the only person I know who’d be thinking about that.

John: Yeah…I looked at the date on my faithful iPhone and it jumped right out at me…It is a cool pleasant day here in the east and I reflected that some of those soldiers that day may have taken note of similar weather, never getting a chance to enjoy it…a melancholy thought. In any event, I am currently working on some glass (engraving) and am enjoying the weather as well..and remembering all those young men…149 years ago…

Me: It’s beautiful out here as well. And yes, a lot of life, and lives, were swept away that day.

If you’re not familiar with Antietam: Fought September 17, 1862, at Sharpsburg, Maryland, about 50 miles northwest of Washington. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, attempting its first invasion of the North, vs. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, crippled by indecisive generalship and intelligence by way of the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency that Lee’s army was far larger than it was. The most common description of the battle: The bloodiest single day of the Civil War. Here’s a brief summary of the aftermath from James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom:”

“Night fell on a scene of horror beyond imagining. Nearly 6,000 men lay dead or dying, and another 17,000 wounded groaned in agony or endured in silence. The casualties at Antietam numbered four times the total suffered by American soldiers at the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944. More than twice as many Americans lost their lives in one day at Sharpsburg as fell in combat in the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Spanish-American war combined.”

Today’s also Constitution Day. One of the foremost interpreters of the Constitution, long after the battle, was on the field at Antietam. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was a captain in a Massachusetts regiment largely recruited at Harvard. He was shot through the neck early in the battle. Here’s an account of Holmes’s battle, from “Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: Law and the Inner Self,” by G. Edward White:

“On the morning of September 17 the Twentieth Regiment, designated as a reserve unit, was ordered up so far toward the front of Union lines that, as Holmes put it many years later, ‘we could have touched … the front line … with our bayonets.’ When the fighting began, ‘the enemy broke through on our left,’ and the Regiment, instead of being able to repel them, was ‘surrounded with the front,’ and an order to retreat was quickly given. Holmes remembered ‘chuckling to myself as I was leaving the field,’ since at Ball’s Bluff Harper’s Weekly had made much of the fact that he had been shot ‘in the breast, not in the back.’ This time he was ‘bolting as fast as I can … not so good for the newspapers.’ As he was retreating he was hit in the back of the neck, the ball ‘passing straight through the central seam of coat & waistcoat collar coming out toward the front on the left hand side.’ “

An officer managed to secure basic care for Holmes in a private home a few miles from the battlefield, then sent a telegram to Holmes’s family in Massachusetts. His father, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., was a doctor and one of the North’s leading literary names, and wrote an account of what happened next, “My Hunt After ‘The Captain’ ” for The Atlantic:

In the dead of the night which closed upon the bloody field of Antietam, my household was startled from its slumbers by the loud summons of a telegraphic messenger. The air had been heavy all day with rumors of battle, and thousands and tens of thousands had walked the streets with throbbing hearts, in dread anticipation of the tidings any hour might bring.

We rose hastily, and presently the messenger was admitted. I took the envelope from his hand, opened it, and read:

HAGERSTOWN 17th
To__________ H ______
Capt H______ wounded shot through the neck thought not mortal at
 Keedysville


WILLIAM G. LEDUC

Through the neck,–no bullet left in wound. Windpipe, food-pipe, carotid, jugular, half a dozen smaller, but still formidable vessels, a great braid of nerves, each as big as a lamp-wick, spinal cord,–ought to kill at once, if at all. Thought not mortal, or not thought mortal,–which was it? The first; that is better than the second would be.–“Keedysville, a post-office, Washington Co., Maryland.” Leduc? Leduc? Don’t remember that name. The boy is waiting for his money. A dollar and thirteen cents. Has nobody got thirteen cents?

The elder Holmes decided to go find his wounded son and got on a train the next day. Holmes Jr. had already been sent on by the time his father got to the town named in the telegram; his father continued the search, but not before visiting the scene of the battle:

“We stopped the wagon, and, getting out, began to look around us. … A long ridge of fresh gravel rose before us. A board stuck up in front of it bore this inscription, the first part of which was, I believe, not correct: ‘The Rebel General Anderson and 80 Rebels are buried in this hole.’ Other smaller ridges were marked with the number of dead lying under them. The whole ground was strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat. I saw two soldiers’ caps that looked as though their owners had been shot through the head. In several places I noticed dark red patches where a pool of blood had curdled and caked, as some poor fellow poured his life out on the sod. I then wandered about in the cornfield. It surprised me to notice, that, though there was every mark of hard fighting having taken place here, the Indian corn was not generally trodden down. … At the edge of this cornfield lay a gray horse, said to have belonged to a Rebel colonel, who was killed near the same place. Not far off were two dead artillery horses in their harness. Another had been attended to by a burying-party, who had thrown some earth over him but his last bed-clothes were too short, and his legs stuck out stark and stiff from beneath the gravel coverlet. … There was a shallow trench before we came to the cornfield, too narrow for a road, as I should think, too elevated for a water-course, and which seemed to have been used as a rifle-pit. At any rate, there had been hard fighting in and about it. … The opposing tides of battle must have blended their waves at this point, for portions of gray uniform were mingled with the ‘garments rolled in blood‘ torn from our own dead and wounded soldiers.”

The National Park Service site for the Antietam National Battlefield includes an album of 30 images taken by photographer Alexander Gardner immediately after the fighting and now in the collection of the Library of Congress (the NPS site is the source of the images here). Beyond their blunt depiction of the slaughter’s aftermath, they carry a unique historical weight that Drew Gilpin Faust summarizes in “This Republic of Suffering:”

“For the first time civilians directly confronted the reality of battlefield death rendered by the new art of photography. They found themselves transfixed by the paradoxically lifelike renderings of the slain of Antietam that Mathew Brady exhibited in his studio on Broadway.”

Faust goes on to quote an October 20, 1862, article in The New York Times that discussed the impact of the photographs. Its acid tone is remarkable. “The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam,” the unsigned piece begins, “but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement.” Eventually the writer takes us inside Brady’s studio:

“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, ‘The Dead of Antietam.’ Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action. … [T]here is a terrible fascination … that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes. It seems somewhat singular that the same sun that looked down on the faces of the slain, blistering them, blotting out from the bodies all semblance to humanity, and hastening corruption, should have thus caught their features upon canvas, and given them perpetuity for ever. But so it is.”

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‘View of Ditch on right wing, which had been used as a rifle-pit by the Confederates, at the Battle of Antietam.’ (Photographer: Alexander Gardner. National Park Service: Historic Photos of Antietam battlefield. Click for larger image.)

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Emergency Response

Often the late evening finds me pursuing essential researches in my office near the back of our house. The isolation is splendid, but the downside is that I can't hear very clearly what's happening in the front of the house, which I hasten to add is somewhat smaller than Windsor Castle, or outside it.

The night before last, about 11 o'clock or so, The Dog heard something out on the street. What Kate told me afterward is that he went into his alert pose, ears cocked, head turning to try to zero in on a sound. After a few moments, Kate heard someone yelling for help outside.

So she came to the back of the house to tell me. I jumped up and headed to the front door. She called 911 while I grabbed my softball bat and went outside in my stocking feet (I may want to rethink some particulars of my response).

Sure enough, a woman was screaming; at first I thought it was coming from across the street, where our neighbors' houses all appeared to be dark. Then I realized the screams were coming from up the street, from a house on the corner. Some new folks bought the place a couple months ago–I haven't met them–and have been having lots of work done on it. While out for a walk earlier, I had noticed that all the lights on the house were on and the windows open.

The woman was shouting her address and saying she was by herself. She sounded extremely distressed, and frankly I was worried that something very bad had happened. As I headed up the street, I saw a neighbor, Doug, headed over there ahead of me. By the time I got to the house, Doug and Eamon, another neighbor, were both inside and helping the woman, who was in a bedroom.

She had been working on the place and a window apparently came down on her hand, perhaps breaking one of her fingers, and she wasn't able to extricate herself. I saw that Doug and Eamon could handle things without me, and I went back outside. Doug's wife Kay was crossing the street with phone in hand, and Kate also came around the corner (without The Dog). Three other neighbors appeared in the next minute or two, and then the Berkeley police–four or five officers in all.

Quite a turnout for what looks like a minor episode. But of course it was only minor in retrospect. Anyone listening might have reasonably assumed that what was happening was a matter of life and death, and I'm impressed that so many of my neighbors responded so unhesitatingly.

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Illinois Wind Turbines

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One big change in the Midwest landscape I’ve seen on my occasional visits over the last decade: Lots of wind turbines are being installed (hundreds and hundreds of them in Illinois so far, with many more coming). I shot this pair–just off Interstate 80 on the southern outskirts of Geneseo–as we blasted past (my brother Chris was driving) on Labor Day on our way from Iowa City back to the Chicago area.

Chris asked “how much power do those things put out?” My researches have uncovered the following: These two turbines are Vensys 77‘s, each rated with a generation capacity of 1.5 megawatts. How much is that? The math isn’t straightforward: how much power is actually generated depends on weather conditions; the turbines need wind, of course, but they’re apparently also sensitive to high temperatures. In practice, the generators at this site might produced enough power for about 1,000 homes. The city of Geneseo, population roughly 6,500, said before the turbines began operation in October 2009 that it expected the turbines to provide between 12 percent and 15 percent of the electricity the town needs.

And: How big are those things? Big. The rotor diameter, which I take to be the diameter of the circle swept by the turbine blades, is 77 meters. About 240 feet. The top of the tower is about 300 feet.

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Paper

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We all carry some part of September 11th with us.

There’s raw memory, of course: what we recall about where we were, our experiences that day, the devastation as we saw what unfolded.

And there’s something I’ll call “considered memory”: how we see that experience through the prism of all we’ve lived through, both privately as individuals and as a nation, since that date.

For me, honestly, I’m still puzzling over it. I’ve had an absorbing interest in our history for almost as long as I can remember, since a kids’ Civil War book was put into my hands and I pronounced Potomac as “POT-oh-mack.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that one attraction of history, especially the history of war, of conflict, of tragedy, is the recounting of the battle and the exploit in much the same way the epic-singers of old traveled from court to court to relate “The Iliad.” The battle and the exploit, the courage or failure of courage, themselves become the moral of the tale.

Often the recounting goes no further. The Light Brigade is forever charging the guns, always fulfilling a heroic destiny. But what then? What happens after Pickett’s Charge is broken, after Appamattox, after the arms are stacked and the banners furled? What happens when we move beyond the sepia-tinted memories, the strains of elegiac strings, into the life that follows the battle?

The “what then?” is what I’ve started to think more about lately. To the extent I’m thinking about September 11th today, that’s what’s on my mind.

***

My brother John and his family lived in Brooklyn, 2.4 miles southeast of the World Trade Center, on September 11th. The attacks and their aftermath, things heard and seen, were intimate and immediate. They were downwind from the towers, and the blizzard of dust and paper unleashed when the buildings collapsed littered their neighborhood. John told me later he would go around and pick up bagsful of litter from the towers. At one point, he sent me a small bag with items he’d found. I haven’t The items from that bag are pictured above and below.

Again, I puzzle over these fragments. They’re mundane: Part of a financial firm’s rules for handling trades. A blank visitor log for a government office. Design drawings for airport terminal signage. A page from a desk calendar (the date happends to be my birthday).

There’s not a human mark on those scraps of paper. But they were handled by someone, somewhere, in a place we all saw destroyed. Touching those scraps is like touching that place, touching that destruction.

***

I went up in the World Trade Center twice. Once during a visit in 1985, once in August 2001, about four weeks before the attacks. I was with my son Thom and John and his son Sean. We were on the top of the South Tower. It was a high place with a view and some history: We talked about the guy who had climbed the tower, and the guy who had walked a high-wire between the towers. Watching an airliner fly north over the Hudson, John recalled the story of an airline pilot who had, on a clear day, gotten off his flight path and flown his plane far too close to the towers and apparently lost his job over it. In fact, that conversation was the first thing that came to mind September 11th when I saw the first pictures of the North Tower after it had been hit.

One other memory. I was on a plane at Kennedy, taxiing out to take off. The sun was just rising. I looked out my window and, far to the west, the towers caught that first golden light. I still see them shining.  

  

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Road Blog: Iowa City Side Trip

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Eastbound on Interstate 80 in north central Illinois after sunset this evening. The trip: My brother Chris was taking his son Max back to the University of Iowa after the holiday weekend. His other son, Liam came along. Road trip came complete with a stop at Iowa 80 (“World’s Largest Truckstop”), where we stocked up on beef jerky for the long, grueling trip back to Chicagoland. The day’s drive, including or so back and forth to Chris’s house from my sister’s place on the North Side: over 500 miles. Chris drove the entire Tinley Park to Iowa City roundtrip.

P.S. We also stopped in West Branch, Iowa, to check out Herbert Hoover’s birthplace and boyhood environs.

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