Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Stay Tuned

I promised more on North Platte. It's coming. I am "Grandma" this week with my son and his family in California. My son has a blog, too. His new post tells about another great American city. After Newsweek declared Grand Rapids a dying city the Mayor and 5000 citizens struck back with a video. You can see it on my son's blog. You will be packing your bags for a visit.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How Far Did we Walk Today?

My husband and I are moving.  I am packing boxes.  Yesterday I packed two full boxes of diaries, memoirs and biographies of women who walked west with the wagon trains in our country's great migration.  I have collected these, and poured over them.  I have tried to imagine the trip.  I learned that the man who would stop the train while his wife gave birth was called a "Yankee husband".  In all of these accounts, the women note carefully how many miles they travelled each day.  And for a long time I wondered how they knew.

It should not surprise that the Romans had an odometer.  It was a wheel somewhat like a surveyor's wheel that dropped a pebble into a container on each revolution.  Benjamin Franklin invented an odometer while serving his country as Postmaster General.  He wanted to do smart route planning - an activity that USPS is engaged in to this very day.  The first wave of Mormon emigrants designed and built an odometer that operated on the cogged wheel system.  Mounted on a wagon wheel with a known circumference it counted revolutions which could be converted to miles. 

Most of the wagons that swarmed over the prairie did not have an odometer.  They used a tried and true method: tie a red rag to the wagon wheel and count the revolutions.  Who pulled rag-count duty?  How long was each shift?  Incredibly most of those who started out arrived safely in Utah, Oregon, California.  They were tough and determined - walking in shoes with thin leather soles and sleeping on the ground.  On a good day they made 12 miles.  On average, 360 revolutions of the wheel of a Conestoga wagon made a mile.  That's 4320 revolutions.  Who kept score?

PS  The Mormons' first odometer was installed on a wagon  in North Platte, Nebraska.  There is a plaque at the North Platte Regional airport marking the location of the inventor's shop.  North Platte has featured often in American history, most notably as home of the North Platte Canteen in World War II.  More about that next time.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Lose Big, Get a Dog

It was raining this morning.  My dogs did not care.  We went for our walk as usual.  I was reminded of Dr. Robert Kushner.  Dr. Kushner is professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine where he focuses on obesity.  He has published over 140 medical articles as well as several books on obesity.  My favorite is "Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner's Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together".  Dr. Kushner is bullish on dogs: "Who would know that a dog leash, for many, is more motivating than an expensive gym membership?"  Kushner teamed up with Hills Pet Nutrition to develop a program to combat the combined obesity epidemics in people and dogs.  The program is simple.  Get a dog, get a leash, get going.

For more on this topic, and a bit of whimsy, try "Fit as Fido" by Dawn Marcus.  Her chapter headings give you a hint of her style: Eat like a dog (no table scraps or leftovers from other's plates); Play like a Dog (more time outdoors on your feet); Sleep Like a Dog (make sleep a regularly scheduled priority); Teach an Old Dog New Tricks (Adopt a life-long pattern of curiosity).

The worst walk is always better than no walk at all.  You will only regret the walks you don't take.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Jury of Peers

There is a murder trial underway in Seattle.  The defendant complains that the jury is not of his peers.  He cites his personal characteristics, interests and affiliations to establish the criteria for his peers. He says its his right to have a jury of his peers implying that only his peers will do.

I had a look at the Constitution and the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights.   There are two guaranteed rights relevant to a jury trial.  The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to "a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed."  The Fourteenth Amendment which describes "Citizenship Rights" says that a State may not deny "..any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."   The use of the phrase "jury of my peers" came much later in interpretation of the guaranteed rights.

The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.  I wondered what the word "peer" meant to American citizens at the close of the 18th century.  I consulted Noah Webster's remarkable work, An American Dictionary of the English Language which was published in 1828 in an edition of 2500 copies.  I chose Webster over Samuel Johnson whose British masterpiece was published in 1755.  Webster was a fierce patriot and resented the ignorance shown of American institutions in contemporary British dictionaries.  He labored over his own magnus opus until his seventieth year, and managed a second edition in 1841 before he died at age 85.  We have Webster to thank for the first documentation of true American vocabulary such as skunk, hickory and chowder.  We can also thank Webster for some spelling simplifications such as music for musick, and plow for plough.  Although Webster's dictionary was not yet in print, the drafters of the Bill of Rights used English as spoken in America, the same English that Webster was including in his 70,000 entry work.

Here is Webster's 1828 definition of peer, n.:

1. An equal; one of the same rank. A man may be familiar with his peers.
2. An equal in excellence or endowments.
In song he never had his peer.
3. A companion; a fellow; an associate.
He all his peers in beauty did surpass.
4. A nobleman; as a peer of the realm; the house of peers, so called because noblemen and barons were originally considered as the companions of the king. In England, persons belonging to the five degrees of nobility are all peers.

Do you think the rights guaranteed by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments would be stronger or more clear if peer were added?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The Baltimore Symphony ended their subscription season with a performance of Verdi's Requiem. Their audience was in for a treat.  This Requiem  has no musical peer.  Maestro Marin Alsop spoke with a reporter on NPR before the first performance.  She used all the accolades usually associated with descriptions of Verdi's masterpiece: "epic" , "transcendental", "magic".  And she offerd the view shared by many that Verdi's piece is an agnostic tribute to his friend, the great Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. and not a musical mass. Pope Pius X banned it from use in a church service along with other music that, in the view of Rome, distracted the listener from the message of the text.  The Gregorian chant was considered the perfect, non-distracting genre.

The ecclesiastical concerns that motivated Pius, and that have lead critics to conclude that Verdi was agnostic, are based on a conventional filter for "religious".   Form your own opinion.   Listen to the Requiem yourself.  Not as background.  Put on your earphones and go for a ride.  Your heart will pound.  Your palms will sweat.  Adrenalin will flow.  When the full power of the piece comes to its conclusion, "Libera me", (Free me), you, too will become the supplicant.  Verdi intended to bring you to your knees.  He intended to have you question what was beyond the edge of your vision.  To me, this is the essence of spirituality.

I recommend George Martin's biography of Verdi, "Verdi, His Music, Life and Times".  Let me quote from his analysis of the Requiem.  "(Verdi) succeeded, not only by the excellence of his music but also by stirring in the audience the ancient feelings and fears of primitive man peering nervously into the night, trying to find his God and establish some sort of relationship with him .... Verdi knocks the world apart with the violence of his music...By the end of his Requiem Verdi has his singers and audience praying for peace and light, not for the dead, but for themselves, the living."  Martin's book is available in print and for Kindle.  Martin helps you see that Verdi interpreted the text magnificently - just differently than the view from the Vatican.

Verdi's masterpiece may not have appealed to Pius, but it does to audiences all over the world.  Enjoy.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Stepping Into the Void

Are you taking a vacation this summer? Look for a zip line. They are strung over canyons and raging rivers and through tree tops. Afraid of heights? So am I.

My fear of heights is not mental. It's physical. My skin crawls and I feel sick to my stomach. But I rode a zip line and I'm glad I did. The zip line that I rode is a tree top monster. The rider straps into her harness and clips into the trolley 200 feet above the forest floor. The trolley is clipped onto the cable which sags just enough to propell the rider out over the abyss. At the beginning and end of each cable is a platform. To start the ride you have to step into the void.

Isn't that what we need to do sometimes? Step into the void. On the zip line the harness and trolley protect you from falling. In life we have a virtual harness and trolley. The harness frees the mind to engage the world. My virtual harness is my imagination, ambition and determination. The trolley guides the glide. My virtual trolley is my knowledge, skills and abilities honed with training and practice. The zip line ride was thrilling. It also helped me see the merit in taking a calculated risk. The next life-void won't seem so scary.