I hardly ever post regarding the death of a celebrity; I reason that sufficient other people will take care of the public fawning over the dear departed’s legacy. (And that, in any event, it bothers me that we seem to care more about the lives of famous people who we have no actual connection with than our actual neighbors.)
Today, I’ll make an exception.
Russell Baker, humor columnist, passed away on Monday at the age of 93. You can read the Washington Post’s write-up here.
Mr. Baker managed the nearly impossible task of being wryly funny in print, every week, for years and years. That’s not easy. I loved his dry sense of humor and his self-deprecation. I didn’t grow up reading his columns because our local newspaper, the Roanoke Times, carried Art Buchwald’s columns instead, but I discovered Baker once I ventured out into the world. His columns are worth looking up and reading.
But that’s not the main reason I’m posting here on the occasion of his death. I’m posting to honor the author of an essay so funny that it’s literally been hanging in my kitchen for decades: “Francs and Beans“. You may disagree, but I think it’s one of the funniest things ever written. And so I choose to honor its author by saying “Mr. Baker, thanks for the laughs. You made the world a better place by being in it.”
So there was a big snowstorm overnight, with 18″ or more of snow falling here in Richmond, VT.
Okay, it wasn’t really a “snowpocalypse” in the sense of power going out and roads being impassable … mainly because it just never got windy. A quick check of the Green Mountain Power outage map just now showed everything A-ok.
To get real frustration, you need wind blowing drifts right back over roads that just got plowed, and wind bringing snow-laden branches down on power lines. What makes this latest storm stand out is that it’s below zero Fahrenheit, and anyone who lives in a snowy part of the continent knows that you don’t typically get big snow when it’s that cold. I suppose it must have been warmer higher up in the atmosphere.
It was cold enough out that we skipped the Women’s March in Montpelier on Saturday morning even though a friend of Carole’s was one of the scheduled speakers and we’d wanted to go hear and support her. Neither of us felt brave enough to go stand for a couple of hours in zero degree Fahrenheit weather and have to rely on porta-potties if and when the urge arose. I have visions of being frozen into one of those things, and I want nothing to do with that.
The approach of this storm scared people enough that businesses were posting “we’re closed until Monday” notices on Facebook on Friday night. Ditto for churches — we knew as of Friday afternoon that there wouldn’t be services today. That’s actually kind of rare. Mostly Vermonters just keep on going until the power goes out. But five degrees below zero AND snow falling at a rate of an inch or two an hour for twelve straight hours is enough to deserve at least a bit of notice.
We went around last night and double-checked all the windows and pulled down all the blinds. It was damn cold out and we wanted the warm to stay on the inside.
I went out yesterday afternoon before the snow really got going and raked the accumulated ten inches or so of existing snow off the roof of our new gazebo, then did a second pass today. Truth is, I have no idea how strong our new gazebo’s roof is, but I don’t want to find out the hard way that two feet of accumulated snow is beyond its design load.
Looks like it’s time to break down and go buy a proper snow rake with a long extensible handle.
As of 3 pm or so, the snow’s basically stopped and the main roads are all plowed and passable. The supermarket in Waterbury was open, though most small businesses were closed. We drove up to the Bolton Valley ski area, a couple of miles from our house, and the lifts were open and the parking lots were full. Good snow means good business! Unfortunately, they’d also had a water line breakage and at least one of their restaurants was closed. I’m sure they’ll cope.
Long story short, our house is now in full Santa’s-Workshop mode. Cue the yetis, it’s time for a party.
I travel a lot for work. I have a smartphone. It has a camera. I’m often pretty bored.
The end result of all that is that I take and upload a lot of photos from my travels to the Google Maps photo repository. Google then uses them in location listings.
No one has to upload their vacation snaps and other photos to Google Maps. But once you choose to, Google tends to assume you want to keep on doing so and will send your phone suggestions to upload your most recent shots. As I said, I’m often pretty bored, so I’ve uploaded a lot of photos. I’m a Google Maps “Local Guide” Level 10 user, as a result.
And because I’ve uploaded so many photos and because I’m a Level 10 user, my photos often wind up being the cover photo of many locations on Google Maps (if the business or location owner hasn’t uploaded their own, that is). And that means that occasionally a shot I took in a moment of frivolity winds up being the public face of a theoretically reputable business or tourist attraction or whatever.
The most egregious example of this is the entry for the Friendly’s restaurant in Williston, VT. Take a look. That photo at the top of some ranch dressing with rainbow sprinkles on top? That’s one of mine. I don’t know why, out of the dozens of photos I’ve taken at that Friendly’s that one wound up being the profile photo. But it did. And it’s been viewed (as of just now) 210,434 times.
And that’s not even my most popular photo. My top two are:
My all-time champion, with 508,723 views: A photo of a half pepperoni-and-black-olive/half sauerkraut-and-ham pizza Carole and I shared one night at the Marion’s Piazza in Oakwood, Ohio. Zillions of pizza photos have been uploaded to their Google Maps entry… but which one wound up as the profile photo? Mine. (In my defense, the ham-and-sauerkraut pizza was amazingly tasty.)
There are people in this country who do not own a large stuffed Wienermobile.
I am not one of those people.
(For what it’s worth, I’ve had this thing for years and years. Bought it off eBay. It came with strings attached to hang it from the ceiling of a store or business, but mostly I’ve just left it on the top bunk of the bunk bed we pointlessly use as a spare sofa down in the living room. I saw a post on Fark.com today about the wonderful life Wienermobile drivers experience and decided to post a photo of my own little Wienermobile in the comments.)
There are few experiences in life that provide the same je ne sais quoi as hearing one of your cats slowly and methodically working up to a full-bore upchuck on the carpet twenty feet behind you while you’re taking part in a work-related conference call.
You know how it goes. At first there’s a soft gulping sound or two, the sort of thing that you could easily attribute to any number of ordinary causes. But then the sounds get louder and more urgent… whulp whulp whulp whulp. And then the climax: a nice loud gagging noise followed by small wet lumps of something hitting the carpet from four to six inches above floor level.
And the whole time you’re sitting there on the conference call, cheerfully interacting with your co-workers and customers, thinking “oh, jeez, this sounds like it’s going to be a big one” and trying to remember where you left the roll of paper towels and the scrub brush and the spray bottle.
The denoument, of course, is the cat in question showing up a few minutes later, all perky and full of lively enthusiasm, wearing a look that says “Hi there! What’s for lunch?”
When I was a kid, Mom was a dedicated subscriber to the New Yorker. As far as I know, she subscribed right up until the day she died, and for that matter, quite some time after. Dad never got around to cancelling subscriptions to Mom’s magazines; when I visited him over a year after her death, new issues were piled up in stacks in the living room. Probably hurt him too much to think of doing anything about it.
I don’t know when she started her subscription; when I was a little kid, the New Yorker was already there. I can’t visualize our house in Blacksburg without there being a few issues in the dining room, living room, den, bathrooms … awaiting the eventual cull when Mom decided she’d read everything worth reading.
As a kid, of course, I was primarily interested in the cartoons. I didn’t understand a lot of ’em at first, naturally. Richard Nixon and Watergate were a thing, and newspaper editorial cartoons were always going over my head with references to bugs and plumbers. The New Yorker cartoons, aimed as they were at the self-identified intellectuals among us, were even more cryptic to little me. (Except for the cartoons of the legendary George Booth. Man was a goddamned genius.)
And then came the December 30, 1974 issue. That’s its cover, above.
I would have been, oh, seven years and three months old when that issue showed up in our house, and for some reason, it really left a mark on me. I stared and stared at the cover, trying to decipher its meaning — other than the obvious, that is, that the ‘4’ in ‘1974’ had been replaced in the circus act by a shiny new star, a ‘5’. I guess I wasn’t very up to date on surrealism or whatever genre of art it would fall under.
(Coincidentally, it was just three weeks later that the greatest New Yorker cartoon of all time, “Ip Gissa Gul“, was published. And yes, that was a Booth effort.)
Even though that one issue was just one of hundreds and hundreds of New Yorkers that passed through our house, that’s the one that stands out in my memory. And every year, when the old year dies and the new year takes the stage, it always comes unbidden to my mind’s eye.
The 14th and final day of our Baltic Sea vacation was Tuesday, August 28. We had breakfast at the Axel Guldsmeden hotel, packed up, and took a taxi back to the Copenhagen airport. I was still not feeling super-awesome, but better than I had the prior day… but even so, I didn’t want to have to drag all our stuff back to the train station and then take a train.
We were amused at the airport by the GIANT shopping-mall-sized duty-free store that you HAD to go through to get from security to one’s gate. We hung out at the very nice, and expansive, SAS lounge and had snacks and so on. Then we boarded our SAS to IAD flight around noon, flew across the Atlantic, and landed at IAD around 3 pm local time. Thanks to the Customs app I’d downloaded, we made it through US customs and transferred our bags back to United in two shakes of a lambs’ tail and caught our final flight, IAD to BTV without any issue. We were back on the ground in Vermont by 5:30 pm local time… all our bags made it there as well, and we Lyfted home.
Maggie was very pleased to see us. (We presume our other two cats were pleased as well, but they maintained a diplomatic reserve.)
Yeah, that’s the “Little Mermaid”. Pretty freaking exciting, isn’t it?
We returned to Copenhagen, Denmark at the end of our nine-day Baltic Sea cruise on Monday, August 26. Debarkation from the ship was quick and painless. We’d paid for transfer from the port back to the central rail station in downtown Copenhagen and that was painless as well.
The train station was two blocks from the Axel Guldsmeden Hotel, the place we’d stayed before the cruise and where we were going to stay one more night before heading home. We were even lucky enough upon arriving at the hotel around 10:30 that morning to find that they were willing to let us go ahead and check in — which was good, because I felt @#$%&! awful. We got the room and I crashed for a bit, but poor Carole got bored quickly watching me loll around. She announced that she wanted to go out for a Copenhagen harbor boat trip, and I didn’t want to be a spoilsport so I got up and dragged along behind her.
We were able to find a river/harbor cruise in an open-canopy boat that had transparent shutters that could be pulled down in case of rain, and guess what? It rained like crazy. We got crap-all photos as a result… but we did get to see the Little Mermaid, which was every bit as pointless and insignificant as we’d expected.
We stopped by the Lego store (which we’d expected to be much larger) and gawked at all the cool toys and made note to order some of them when we got back to the States. It might have been interesting to window-shop some more, but it continued to rain and I wasn’t feeling all that good. So we just headed back toward the hotel.
We had dinner at a Japanese restaurant (Wagamama, a multi-country chain we hadn’t come across or heard of before) that we randomly happened upon on our way, right next door to Tivoli, then went back to the hotel to crash some more. We ended the day with dessert at the little cafe (“Cafe du Nord“) on the first floor of the Axel Guldsmeden, and then went to bed for good.
Sunday, August 26 — Day 12 of our Baltic vacation and Day 8 of our nine-day Baltic cruise — saw us back at sea, heading generally southwest toward Denmark and Copenhagen.
And I think by this point of the cruise, we were about worn out. I know I was. Toward the end of the day on Saturday I’d begun feeling really tuckered out, like I was coming down with something, and on Sunday it was obvious that I had. Somewhere along the way I’d caught someone’s cold and was, it appeared, in for a few days of feeling cruddy. I wasn’t hacking and coughing and sneezing, but I definitely had the whole weak-and-achy thing going on.
The ship spent the day passing south and west along the Swedish coastline and by the island of Gotland. Wind turbines were everywhere, sited out in the water by the hundreds.
I spent a decent chunk of the day napping, other than a trip out to a one-day special Indian Food buffet in one of the ship’s restaurants. There were lots of South Asians on board, so the buffet was thronged… and the food was pretty good.
In the evening, we went to a Cirque du Soleil-style show called “Cirque Dreams”. Dinner was included. Lots of fun, exotic costumes, amazing acrobats, etcetera. I’d have enjoyed it more if I weren’t feeling puny.
But then it was off to bed. In the morning we’d be docking in Copenhagen and our cruise would be over. We’d have one more day before flying home — I knew not to risk fate by trying to fly home the same day the cruise was scheduled to end — but already we were beginning to think in an “after the cruise, what’ve we got to get done” mindset.
Saturday, August 25 was our last port stop on our 9-day Baltic Sea cruise, not counting our final stop at the end back in Copenhagen. We docked in Nynäshamn, a port some 40 miles outside Stockholm, for the simple reason that Stockholm doesn’t have the capacity to dock every cruise ship that wants to pay a port call. There’s absolutely nothing in Nynäshamn other than trees and rocks, but we weren’t there to see the port, anyway. Our real destination, obviously, was Stockholm proper.
We took a bus from Nynäshamn to Stockholm and I must have been pretty tired, because I fell back asleep on the ride. All those days of running around crowded museums and cathedrals and such were catching up to me. When we got to the city, Stockholm turned out to be Paris, only set on a bunch of islands separated by stretches of water. Very cosmopolitan, modern city. Carole and I both thought it looked beautiful.
Only, there was a serpent in the garden. There was ongoing unrest from the extreme left. Or the extreme right. Or the extreme someone. And a big public protest/riot/assembly was planned for that Saturday… and the Swedes were taking no chances. Everywhere our bus tried to go, we ran into police barricades. Or police officers on foot. And at one point, police officers on horseback. Our poor tour guide was getting more and more apologetic with each attempt the driver made to get us to our first stop on the itinerary, the Stockholm city hall (where they give out the Nobel Prizes, among other things).
We finally got there after over an hour of backing up and trying side streets and going around and this and that and the other. And the Stadshuset, as it’s called locally, turned out to be worth the wait. The building was erected in the early 1900s but was constructed to look much, much older. The architect had something of a sense of whimsy and incorporated numerous off-the wall-design elements and art fixtures. Changes were made here and there along the way during the 12 years it took to build the place, resulting (for example) in a “Blue Hall” with nothing blue in it.
After that, we went to see the wreck of the Pride of the Swedish Navy, the Vasa — which had been so over-built and so over-weighted and so badly designed that it rolled a bit during its very first voyage, took on water through open gun-ports, and sank to the bottom of Stockholm harbor before it’d even traveled a mile. The ship sank in 1628 and was located again in the mid-1900s, when serious recovery efforts were begun.
They have the ship all pieced back together, with as many original fittings and materials as possible, in an enormous building. Various floors of the building give you vantage points to see the bottom of the ship, the deck of the ship, the rigging and superstructure of the ship, and so on. It’s a beautiful ship and an admirable restoration job, but still, one can’t entirely resist the urge to giggle at the whole sinking-on-its-first-voyage-before-even-leaving-the-harbor thing.
We had lunch on our own after seeing the Vasa. Our guide had the bus park in a busy downtown district right around the corner from a Swedish royal palace, and gave us what time he could to go find restaurants, forage, and come back. I’m sure we were originally allotted a lot more time, but the whole driving-around-Stockholm-running-into-police-barriers thing ate up a lot of the morning, and that left us in a hurry. We had to scoot by any number of nice little cafes with street-side tables and find a place we could get food to go. We wound up scarfing open-faced sandwiches and salad from Styrofoam containers while sitting on a curb around the corner from our bus.
We got to drive around a little bit more after that; we were taken to one harbor overlook where you could see just about the whole city, all the interconnected waterways, and an amusement park. Photos ensued. Then it was back to the highway and the drive back to the ship in Nynäshamn. I was groggy and tired and slept the whole way.
Once we got back to the ship, it was actually still early enough that we had time to visit the ship’s coffee shop/patisserie and then relax on the deck for a while before dinner, which was kind of nice. Dinner was a repeat at the “Le Bistro” restaurant. Carole likes that place, but for some reason I didn’t find anything appealing and ordered a cheeseburger and fries off the kids’ menu. Then it was the usual — wandering around the ship, doing not much of anything. The following day would be a day at sea as we headed back to Copenhagen, and then our cruise would be over the day after that.