Ramble With Me.

Looking In.

Octopus at the Dauphin Island Estuarium.

When I was four my family took a trip to Maine with an uncle, aunt, and cousins. We stayed in a cabin on Green Lake and fished and picked blueberries and did other various Maine things, including slipping briefly into Canada, but what I remember most vividly is an aquarium we visited one day. There was a touch tank where a woman talked about the various animals and I was the only one who’d hold a sea cucumber, and there was a tank full of live scallops. Another woman put a starfish in the tank to show us how scallops, when threatened, can actually swim away. We stopped at another roadside aquarium that was much smaller—I only remember the touch tank, which I think was in the main lobby, but it was still a neat place.

I’ve become kind of a connoisseur of aquaria over the years. If we go somewhere and there’s an aquarium I’ll visit it. Sometimes I’ll even wander into pet stores just to look at the fish, although I’ve learned the hard way that a home aquarium is a lot of work. It’s said that watching fish in an aquarium is very relaxing and you need it if you have to do all the maintenance, but that’s another story.

Here are some of the aquaria I’ve visited over the years:

-Really spectacular and one I highly recommend. My wife and I went several years ago on a trip to Atlanta and the main thing I remember is one of the first exhibits we came to was a tank where you could pet stingrays, which is always fun. It has multi-level tanks and also tunnels that take you completely under the water.

The Oklahoma Aquarium-If you look at a map and notice that Oklahoma is pretty far from any ocean shoreline you won’t be surprised that the Oklahoma Aquarium is small and, while it has a few nice exhibits, including some cool ones of jellyfish, it’s not that great. At one time they had an octopus. When I went it had died and they had it preserved under a glass dome which seemed like a terrible thing to do to such a noble creature. If you’re in Tulsa and looking for something to do go to the zoo.   

The Florida Aquarium-Another spectacular and highly recommended one. I went there with my parents a few years ago and one of the best parts was a large horseshoe crab exhibit, and we just happened to be there for horseshoe crab mating season. There was also a large Pacific octopus that, being nocturnal, seemed to be asleep and completely bunched up against the glass, but it was still a thrill to be so close to such a noble creature.

The Tennessee Aquarium-In spite of the fact that Tennessee is also deeply landlocked this aquarium in Chattanooga is absolutely magnificent and well worth the visit. There were amazing exhibits of seahorses and leafy sea dragons, and one tank with several cuttlefish. The cuttlefish appeared to be asleep but, hey, I have a thing for cephalopods, obviously, and it was really interesting to be so close to them.

The Aquarium Of The Pacific-Located in Long Beach, California, this one’s not one of the bigger aquaria I’ve visited, and, unlike others, was specifically focused only on animals of the Pacific, but I’ve been there twice and still feel like I didn’t see everything. It has some enormous multi-level tanks and great exhibits, including grass eels. There’s also an outdoor area with touch tanks that have anemones in them. I asked the woman there if the anemones really were safe to touch. She could have been sarcastic but instead just laughed nicely and said, “Go ahead and try!” They were lovely and soft, and it may have just been my imagination that I felt a bit of a tingling.

North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island-This one was surprisingly small for an aquarium located so close to the ocean, but still a nice way to spend a couple of hours. There was a small live octopus in one tank when we were there, and I could have watched it for at least a couple of hours. It was very active and looking for a way out.

Newport Aquarium-Located on the Kentucky/Ohio border this is another one that proves you can be completely landlocked and still have an amazing aquarium. The Newport Aquarium remains one of my favorites because it has the most brilliant pairing of exhibits ever. As you walk through you’ll come to the otter exhibit, a large room made of faux rock with an opaque glass ceiling and, of course, otters hopping and swimming in their pool which is set up high so you can look them in the eye. It’s bright and loud and everything echoes and the otters make everyone scream with delight so you can get overloaded. But then you walk into the jellyfish room which is lit only by the light from the tanks. The walls and floor are covered with burgundy fabric and there are soft seats where you can sit and just watch the jellyfish glide back and forth.

The Dauphin Island Estuarium-This is another little one set on the edge of the sea, but they have a stingray and shark petting tank—and I recommend sticking around for feeding time. It has a wonderful river exhibit with several kinds of turtles and a large tank with grouper and other sizable fish, and seahorses and, the last time I was there, a live octopus, and she was just magnificent. Sadly octopuses don’t live very long, even under the best conditions, and a woman who worked there told me they only have one if local fishermen bring one in. Most are so stressed from being caught they don’t survive, but this one was in fine shape and I watched her change color from cream to purple to pale orange. They also have a touch tank with horseshoe crabs and if you’re lucky you’ll be there during mating season.  

The Deadline Is My Watermark.

Source: www.fromoldbooks.org

One of the advantages professional writers have is the deadline. I think that’s true, anyway. I’ve never been a professional writer, at least in the sense that I’ve never gotten a steady paycheck for writing. I have written a few pieces for magazines that needed me to turn in my work by a specific time, but they didn’t pay me, but most of my writing has been done without a specific publication or even necessarily a specific market in mind, which explains why, among my collection of rejection letters, is a really nice one that said, “Thank you for your astronomy-themed poems. We enjoyed them a lot and wish you the best of luck but we don’t feel they’d be right for our publication. Sincerely, the editors of Trout Fishing Monthly.”

I realize deadlines can cause a lot of anxiety, especially for anyone experiencing writer’s block, even if it’s self-imposed. But the advantage of a deadline is that facing the empty page can be really scary, even for those of us who want to write. The impulse to write stems from an inner voice that says, “I have something to say!” Which is fine as long as it’s drowning out that other inner voice that’s saying, “Who cares?” and “Why do you think you’re special?” and, occasionally, “What is reality?” In fact I believe it’s the desire to turn up the volume on the former and try and drown out the latter that motivates all writers, or at least all who want to write for an audience other than themselves—even those who pursue careers as ghostwriters or doing low level journalism like obituaries, although in their case the voice they’re trying to amplify seems to be saying, “I have something to say! I just have no idea what it is and I don’t care if I get credit for it!” but that’s another story.

And the other advantage of a deadline, one that’s externally imposed by an editor or publisher, is you have someone outside of you saying, “Okay, you have something to say, so let’s hear it!” And occasionally adding, “By Monday at the latest or we’re going to ask you to pay back that advance we sent you and that you’ve already blown on coffee, rent, and a really expensive nose hair trimmer which you bought even though it didn’t seem like a good idea even at two a.m. when you were hopped up on allergy medication.”

So anyway the Manuscript Writing Café just opened in Tokyo, Japan, and I want to go there even though I already had plenty of reasons for wanting to visit Tokyo, because I’m fan of cafes, coffee shops, or other places that offer a space to write or work on other creative projects with the added benefit of having food and beverages that I don’t have to worry about preparing myself. If you recognized the reference to Henry Miller’s essay “The Angel Is My Watermark”, in which, overcome by a vague but insistent inspiration, he went out to a café determined to just sit and drink quietly and ended up writing all over the tablecloth, give yourself five bonus points. If you didn’t give yourself ten bonus points because, well, who would recognize that?

The Manuscript Writing Café offers writers and other artists an extra bonus: you have to book time there, you have to come in with a specific goal, and you can request “verbal pressure” from the staff—they even have different levels, and you can’t leave until you’ve finished your writing goal. Or until the place closes which does take some of the pressure off no matter how much you’ve asked the staff to come out and yell at you.

It’s a funny idea but I also like that it was very likely started by, I’d even say inspired by, someone who felt the pressure but was still struggling to write and who said, “There’s a need for a place like this!” and they were heard.

We Gotta Get Into This Place.

It’s been a while since I’ve been out on my own to do something fun. There were the holidays, of course, but those involved other people, and sometimes I just need to get away and be by myself, and for months I’ve either been at home or running errands, and those don’t count because even if I’m running errands by myself it’s, well, like work. So anyway I decided to go to Radnor Lake. Even in normal times Radnor is my go-to getaway—it’s nearby, it’s got beautiful scenery, and it’s nice to just get out and walk. And there’s always something slightly different about it each time. I’m sure I’ve been to Radnor in the winter before but I can’t remember ever being there when most of the leaves had fallen and the trees were so stark and bare. There are places where you can be less than a hundred feet from the lake and, most of the year, can’t see it, but as I walked around the lake I never lost sight of it it.  Somehow I’d also never realized before how much leaves muffle sound. I was on one side of the lake and could hear people laughing and dogs barking on the other side, and every footstep seemed exceptionally loud, probably because I was walking on so many leaves.

We’d also had some serious rain lately—in fact it was the rain that made me decide I need to get out. Last Thursday I sat at my desk working away when we had a sudden and highly localized hurricane that turned the entire backyard into, well, a small lake, and flooded our basement. When I went to Radnor I could see the aftereffects. Otter Creek, which feeds the lake, is normally a trickle. It was a rushing cataract and the sound was intensified.

I also saw new signs about the bald eagles which are now nesting around Radnor Lake. There have been bald eagles spotted there before, but this is the first time ever recorded that they’ve taken up residence.

So I made it there and made the walk around the lake, but the hard part was getting there in the first place, because everyone had the same idea I did. The parking lot for Radnor is long and narrow and it doesn’t take many people to fill it, and, well, I did feel bad for taking up an entire car by myself, but see the aforementioned need to get away. Luckily I only had to circle the parking lot for half an hour before I found a spot.

And it was crowded, but one of the nice things about a wooded park is even with a lot of people there we all tend to spread out.

Then, as I was walking back to my car, a woman who had apparently also been circling the parking lot for a while, pulled up next to me.

“Please tell me you’re leaving,” she said.

I smiled and told her I was, and I was happy to let her have my spot. I could tell she needed to get away too.

And of course the eagles brought to mind this old bit that I reminisced with a friend about when I got home.

Illumination.

It was on one of my family’s trips to Florida, or rather on the way back, that I asked my father how neon signs worked. There was an old restaurant somewhere along the way where we always stopped and had dinner before the final stretch. The place had a large neon sign and I remembered seeing a short film on Sesame Street of a man making a neon sign, although it was mostly silent and showed the process without actually explaining anything. My father told me the glass tubing was filled with one of the noble gases, usually neon, and electricity made the gas glow. Now that was really cool—simple but cool, and was pretty much my understanding for a long time until I read Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and got a slightly more detailed, but still simple, explanation of why an electric current makes the gas glow. Basically it’s this: because of the current the electrons surrounding each atom pick up extra energy and move farther away from the nucleus, but they can only hold onto it for so long. When they fall back they release the extra energy as light.

The same principle is used in fluorescent bulbs but while neon lights are cool and provide great design for places like the old Las Vegas strip or the old Picadilly Circus in London or the old Times Square in New York fluorescent bulbs just make your office even more miserable, but that’s another story.

Wikipedia goes into even more detail and the Photographic Periodic Table has cool visualizations of some of the noble gases lit up, but what I really think about is how much of an art neon signs are—a disappearing art. They’ve been mostly replaced by plastic and LED and, more recently, digital signs that are—no pun intended—flashier, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that more modern signage is used by big chain businesses while it’s small, local places that keep their own neon signs. And maybe at one time that was economic. The big places need signs that are easy to mass-produce and neon signs mostly need to be hand-crafted. The smaller places couldn’t afford to upgrade and neon signs are durable. And what became the retro appeal didn’t hurt either. Neon is still popular for some home design and there have been efforts to preserve neon signs, but they’re gradually going from neon to neoff, and, yes, that pun was intended. Their disappearance means the loss of a personal touch, as well as some of the local color. Neon does a lot more than just illuminate the night.

Fallout.

Source: Giphy

It’s hard to believe that scientists and engineers in the United States once considered using nuclear explosions to build new highways. Then again I look at the amount of blasting that must have been done to carve roads through rocky areas and it’s not that hard to believe that in the early days of the atomic era everyone was looking for a way to use the weapons that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki to build something beneficial, and the proposal was optimistically named Project Plowshare, from the Biblical book of Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares…neither shall they learn war any more,” although the idea was to create a national defense network that would bypass the popular but slow Route 66.

And again all this was first proposed in 1963, eighteen years after the atomic bombs that ended World War II were dropped, and scientists had a pretty good idea by that time that, unlike traditional explosives, nuclear weapons have long-lasting and pretty unpleasant side effects, and they’d be detonating bombs with a total yield about one-hundred and fifteen times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima just eleven miles north of Route 66. While I can’t say exactly how terrible the after-effects would have been I think most of us can agree that they wouldn’t have been good. The lingering contamination from an attempt to make a bypass could have made the whole area impassable. And I say most of us because this a serious plan that would only finally be abandoned in 1975, two years after I-40 would finally unite the California towns of Barstow and Needles. It seems to have only been dropped because of logistics and not because cooler heads prevailed over warheads.

Even though atomic bombs were never used there would be fallout. The town of Amboy, which thrived as a major stop along Route 66 , went into decline. Its major historic attraction, Roy’s Motel and Cafe, has been closed, in spite of attempts to revive it, since 2005.

Several years ago my wife and I passed through Needles as we took I-40 on a trip to California’s coast. A friend from northern California who’d been through there before called it “godawful Needles” but we were struck by the stark beauty of the desert. Something that comes to mind when I read about Project Plowshare is that deserts may look empty but all that barrenness hides complex ecosystems. It’s not just people who would have been affected by a series of nuclear explosions. Maybe we can’t really know just what the extent of the damage would have been and maybe we’re better off not knowing.

Pie In The Sky.

“Pizza Is a Healthier Breakfast Than Cereal, According to a Nutritionist”–Health.com

Welcome to another episode of Mouth Of America! This week we’ll be enjoying some of the different styles of cereal around the country. First we’ll head to New York, best known for its thin style of serving up Raisin Bran, usually on plates instead of bowls. Paper plates are great and can conveniently be folded in half for easy carrying when you’re strolling around the five boroughs, although they don’t hold milk too well.

Next we’re off to Chicago for their famous deep bowl cereal style, often served up with heavy cream and requiring an extra large spoon. Few things go better with a Bears game than a big bowl of shredded wheat topped with a hot, gooey layer of melted sugar.

As long as we’re in the Midwest let’s also stop to take in Detroit style cereal. The legacy of John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, still reigns here with his traditional cereal  served up in square or rectangular bowls, and for some reason they also put butter on it.

Right next door of course is Wisconsin, America’s dairyland, which explains why corn flakes are also popular here and also why instead of milk they use cottage cheese. That’s…interesting. Let’s move on.

Down South cereals lean more toward the dried fruit and whole nut end of the aisle with puffed rice also a popular choice. South Carolina style cereal is especially well known for its vinegar and mustard based toppings and seriously what is wrong with people?

Now we head back to the middle of the country for some of the famous St. Louis cereal and molasses I can understand but why for the love of all that is holy are they putting tomato sauce on it.

Just a little to the north is Iowa where the most popular cereal is corn. Just corn. Raw corn on the cob. In a bowl.

Let’s move on. You don’t have to jet across the Pacific to enjoy Hawaiian style cereal which has become popular across the country. Adding pineapple to your cereal doesn’t sound so bad. Oh, please tell me you didn’t just put ham in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. I think I’m going to be sick.

Finally it’s off to California for, oh, no, wait, we’re going to the Pacific Northwest for Seattle-style and, yep, I was afraid of that, they’re putting fish on it.

Well, that’s all for our tour of the cereal styles of America, and I’m only going to say because I’m contractually obligated to read the script that cereal is good food no matter how you slice it.

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