Saturday, May 29, 2010

On The Outside, Looking In

Salisbury, England.  Spring 2007.

It's just as windy here as it's been everyplace else in Salisbury.  There's a slight whistle as the air moves through the stones, blowing hard enough to pierce the fabrics of our jackets.  Sarah was the lone smarty of the group - she brought a hat.  I take my flimsy silk scarf and wrap it around my head and neck, wishing I had waited until after this trip to shave all my hair off.  Ah, well.  You live and you learn, I guess.

It doesn't look quite real.  I keep expecting the light to hit it at that special angle and it will start looking majestic, or inspire some awe.  Instead it looks like a movie set, like I could walk right up to it and knock it with my fingers and hear the dull thud of hollow fiberglass, of plaster over chicken wire.  Not that you're allowed to touch it - like so many other very old things there's absolutely no touching allowed, for it's own protection.  Nevermind that it's a great big block of rock.  Wouldn't want to get it smudgy.  (I know, I know.  Natural oils and vandalism remain the scourge of ancient history.)

(This picture always makes us laugh.  I can't not think of the "Stone Henge" scene in Spinal Tap every time I see it.)

On days when the sun shines I imagine the stones cast long shadows over the ground, maybe they'd even reach our feet standing so far away.  But it's overcast, as it has been so many other days in England, and the sun is high enough to throw short, stubby little shades close to the stone bases.  Not so impressive at mid-day, but I bet it's a remarkable sight when the sun rises and sets.

Apparently, there's a special pass you can buy for an evening tour that will let you walk in between the stones, but we're not on that ticket.  The bus is waiting for us, and we are so very grateful to get out of the wind.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Austria.  Summer 2004.

No lonely goatherds on this Austrian hillside farm slash village.  Just a couple of cows, a cat, and a nice young man named Fritz who charms us all with his good humor and makes the girls swoon with his sun-kissed cheeks.  There's a church at the bottom of the hill with skeletons in its basement, which had us all crowding around the tiny window to the catacombs the night before trying to spy on the bones, but that's forgotten now.  It's warm, but the fog rolled in early this morning, and shows no signs of rolling out back out, so we've all pulled on our long sleeve shirts.  It's a little stuffy, but it keeps the chill away.    

After lunch in front of the mill, Fritz puts us in a circle and teaches us to dance.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Hellbrunn, Austria.  Summer 2004.

The trick is finding the place to stand. 

Hellbrunn Palace is definitive proof that people have always had a wicked sense of humor, that laughing at the harmless misfortune of others was not invented by Ashton Kutcher, that it isn't jaded modern cynicism that perfected the prank.  

The water games at Hellbrunn Palace are not the oldest jokes in the book, but they might be my favorite.  

It's an uncharacteristically hot Austrian day.  There are few trees casting shadows over the gravel pathways winding around the palace, and we are sweating.  Profusely.  Some of us gather around a fountain, dipping our fingers into the water and dripping it across our foreheads and the backs of our necks.  It's too sun-warmed to do much in the way of cooling, but that doesn't stop us.

The guide sneaks up behind us, sunglasses on her head and smiling like she knows something.  "Welcome to Hellbrunn!" she says brightly.  We groan at her enthusiasm and fan ourselves with our fingers.   

Our first stop is a long stone table sat in front of a reflecting pool.  The guide invites the group to come sit at the carved stone stools surrounding the table, and there's a small rush to be the first to sit down (I hang back - it's too hot to run fast).  One girl squeals when her bare thighs hit the stone.  "It's so hot!" she says, tugging the fabric of her shorts as far down as it will decently go.  Our guide describes the former Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg Markus Stittkus von Hohenems, the man who built the palace and designed its water garden.  "Visitors are only ever meant to be here during the day," she says.  "So there are no bedrooms in the palace."  Not that it matters much, she goes on to say, because Mr. Markus liked to entertain his guests outside as much as possible.  "And who could blame them?" she asks.  "Look at the beautiful view."  

And as our heads turn to look at the reflection of the palace in the in the pool, the guide drops her hand behind the column she's been resting on.  The guests at the table shriek when the water rockets up their backs, shooting up from the holes in their seats.  The rest of us throw our arms over our heads to shield ourselves from the jets of water arcing over our heads.  "Let the Water Games begin!" our guide cackles.  I bet this never gets old.   

(Allegedly, there's one spot at all of these water features that never gets wet.  Mr. Markus himself would stand in that spot, celebrating his dryness while his guests got soaked.  The tour guides stand there now - I suppose it's only fair.)

I was quick - I managed to escape the water mostly unscathed, and I've already dried in the sun. The girl from before has a dark wet line up her back, and she squeezes water from the bottom of her t-shirt.

When the guide parks us in front of the tall tower, those at the front of the pack move to stand as far away from it as possible.  I'm at the back of the herd, which leaves me among those closest to the tower.  I can't avoid getting wet this time.   The guide presses a button, and we all flinch instinctively.  To our surprise, there's no water.  Music plays as the little men and women positioned in and around the tower twist and turn.  It would be beautiful, charming even, if it weren't for the fact that one of those cute little figures is ten seconds away from squirting me in the eye.

When the tiny figure at the top of the tower begins to spin, we grit our teeth and grasp hands, bracing ourselves.  It's coming, and we know it's coming, and our eyes are fixed on that tiny statue, just waiting for it to squirt water out of it's mouth.  

There's a shriek from the back of the group, and a quiet panicked stampede to get away from the water coming up from the ground behind them.  There's a lot of Wet Butt at the back of the group, which serves them right for being such smarty-pants at the beginning.  I'm a little damp around the ankles, but I'm much better off than the rest.  I've won out this time, but now I have no idea where to stand as we follow the guide to the next attraction, shoes squelching all the way.  

Those aren't all the tricks Mr. Markus and Hellbrunn have up their sleeves, but I'm not going to tell you about them.  You're going to visit the palace some day, and I doing want to ruin the punch line.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Do You Know the Muffler Man?

Muncie, Indiana.  Spring 2010.

I'm excited when I tell Sarah she's got a piece of pure vintage Americana practically in her backyard.  "You've got a Muffler Man!" She's not quite as enthused as I am, but she gamely asks where it is.  "Oh, is that what that is?" she asks when I tell her he stands in the parking lot of a bar named Timbers.  "We just call him the giant lumberjack."

And a giant lumberjack he is.  But he's so much more than that.

In the 1960's we built giants.  Fiberglass giants.  The first Muffler Man was built in 1962 by a company called Prewitt Fiberglass.  It was a Paul Bunyan statue, and it stood outside the PB Cafe, along Route 66.  Prewitt Fiberglass was absorbed into International Fiberglass shortly after, and they continued to install the odd man in front of out of the way cafes.  And suddenly these places started reporting a dramatic upswing in earnings, and word got out that a fiberglass man was good for business.  And in the decade that followed, everyone wanted a giant for their front lawn.

Not just any giant man is an official Muffler Man.  There are signs, indicators that the men all came out of the same mold.  The lantern jaw.  The broad shoulders.  Arms bent at the elbow, one hand facing up and the other facing down, the better to hold his ax, or muffler, or any number of accessories crafted specially for the giant's grasp.  There are variations, of course.  Add a stetson to your classic Man and now he's a cowboy.  A wooly beard, knit cap, and a plaid painted shirt gets you an official Paul Bunyan.  The Native American model, so charmingly called The Brave, is a bit of a sticking point for Muffler Man enthusiasts (don't laugh!  They do exist!).   He doesn't bear the traditional markings of the Muffler Man - his features are narrower, his chest is bare, and he has one arm raised in the "How" greeting.  But the more liberal devotees of roadside Americana recognize the long, long history of putting an indian in front of your store to bring in business, and honor him just the same.    

They used to be everywhere, or so I'm told.  I'm a generation or two too late to really appreciate the heyday of the Muffler Man.  There are plenty still around, but they're harder to find.  Few, if any, are still with their original owners, and many have been so heavily modified that they barely resemble their original state.  Some are hidden away, as if the owners are ashamed that, as a population, we were ever so taken with something so frivolous.  I miss the time when things were allowed to be frivolous.

The Muncie Lumberjack is not, technically, an official Muffler Man, but an untrademarked hybrid that upholds the legacy as much as any official Man, Uniroyal Gal, or Texaco Big Friend can, standing tall and proud outside Timbers Bar.  Next to the adult video store. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rome, Italy.  Summer 2004.

Little pomp and almost no circumstance.  It just appears there, along side the road.  Not that it needs a formal introduction - it's the colosseum.  It's one of the most recognizable structures in the world, and on our first day in Rome, we're going to step inside it.  

As our group waits at the gate for our guide, Ashley sits on a large boulder near the entrance.  Only it's not a boulder.  It's too smooth on one side, and too intricately carved on the other.

"Ashley, do you realize what you're doing?"  


"You're sitting on history.  The colosseum is under your butt."  She rockets up onto her feet, and we both burst into giggles, because it's just a piece of stone.  It's old and broken and just lying there beside the walkway.  It's not on a pedestal in a museum behind a line of velvet rope.  It's not like we were doing anything naughty.  But the weight of its history makes is something sort of sacred; this is one of the icons of the most powerful empire ever to exist.  Surely we can do more than sit on it.

Ashley surreptitiously presses her palm against an upright column.  "Quick," she whispers.  "Take a picture!"  I do, and we quickly step away from the wall, trying to look nonchalant and failing as we laugh at our own stupid joke.   

The building isn't quite a shadow of what it once was.  It's still standing, it's still mostly intact, but there's something intimidating about the way the light moves through its open spaces.  The flowers growing in the cracks and crevasses of the stone do nothing to soften its look.  It makes me think of that Bodies exhibit that everyone's been talking about but that I've never had the guts to seek out for myself.  Innards carefully reconstructed and posed and displayed, nothing that isn't human, but deeply unsettling without the skin.  That's how the colosseum looks.  Flayed.  

Or maybe it feels like stepping onto a stage when the lights are off and the set's been taken down.  Maybe this is empty theatre. 

The guide rattles off dimensions and dates and names - the building is so ubiquitous though, that there's little she's saying that we haven't already heard before.  Yes, we know the entertainment held here was as much theatre and art as it was brutality.  Yes, we know they could and would flood the arena floor and sail ships here.  Yes, we know the Ridley Scott movie is largely based on fiction.  Our guide is funny and personable, but she must be tired of climbing into this behemoth every day to tell stories to half-interested American school-children.

Our guide points to the hypoeum down below, and doesn't even blink when she describes the sophisticated mechanisms that would release wild beasts into the arena with trained gladiators or defenseless Christians.  The devices used to flood the colosseum are long gone, but we squint at the maze below our feet and try to imagine full sized ships battling for the amusement of the masses. 

Our guide points to the tall cross throwing shadows across the ground.  In 1749, Pope Benedict XIV decreed the colosseum a sacred site, in honor of the innocent Christian blood spilt here.  The Christian church has had a hand in the preservation and legacy of the building since the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V planned to turn it into a wool factory, hoping to provide honorable work for the city's prostitutes.  (This plan never made it past the planning stage, as Sixtus died before he could put in into effect.  But what a thing it would have been.)  

Perhaps most ironically, this place where so many were put to their deaths has become the symbol for the international campaign against capital punishment.  Now, our guide tells us, when a death-row inmate earns a stay of execution, or a government abolishes the death penalty, the lights used to illuminate the building at night shine gold instead of the usual white.

The sun shines above us, but the stone is cold under my hands.  It's full of early morning tourists, but still feels cavernous and empty.  For a handful of bills you can get your picture taken out front with a man in a plastic centurion costume.  It feels both wildly inappropriate and totally appropriate at the same time.  This is theatre, after all.   

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Close Up

Because the best way to photograph a plant is from thiiiiiiis close.

From John Bryan State Park:

From Jinja:

From Hawai'i:

Friday, May 21, 2010

View from the Top (of St. Paul's)

London, England.  Spring 2007.

530 steps to the Golden Gallery at the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, the highest accessible point of the building sat on the highest hill in London.  530 stone steps, wooden stairs, flat rises and winding staircases, all leading to this one place. 

At the bottom of the stairs is a sign with a warning.  "Five hundred and thirty steps," it says.  "Possibly dangerous," it says.  "Be aware," it says.  I don't see how we could possibly resist.

Mom follows us up to the Whispering Gallery, which is considerably less than 530 steps, but that's as far as her knees will take her.  We stand at the railing and strain our ears, trying to pick up the hushed conversations of the other sightseers.  We hear plenty of breathy murmurs, but I can't make out any words.

Mom waves us off with a promise to meet us at the bottom, and my sister Sarah and I follow the handful of tourists brave enough to climb to the top.  We duck under low-hanging wooden beams, squeeze through narrow stone corridors, blink when the air rushing through open windows stings our eyes, and squint through the gloomy near-hidden pathways.  There's a small door at the end of one last steep staircase.  Light streams in around the edges.

The wind blows fiercely this high up.  Sarah's hair whips around her face, and she tucks as much of it as she can under her hat to keep it out of her eyes.  I shaved my head a few weeks before, so I just pull the lapels of my coat close against my neck, fighting to keep out the chill.

There's a high wall to keep us all from plunging to our deaths, so we press our faces against the cut out openings, looking down on the street below.  Little blips of humanity stroll the sidewalks, making way for the technicolor stream of oncoming traffic.

530 is more tiring than I anticipated.  I lean against the wall, and feel the heat of the sun-warmed stone through my jacket.

And like all things, because it exists, it's covered in graffiti.  I have no pen.  If I had, Sarah and I might has snuck our initials onto a small corner, for posterity's sake.  In twenty years time we could come back with our own children, discretely point at the little smudge on the side and say, "Look what your mothers did."  If we've raised them right, they'll be publicly embarrassed, but secretly impressed.   

530 is a smaller number going down than it was coming up.  It feels a bit subversive, walking through the not-exactly-underbelly of the iconic church, that hidden place between the outer skin and the inner sanctum.  You could win every game of hide and seek in here, if it weren't for the parade of tourists.

Mom's waiting for us with a smile after 1060 steps.  "How are your knees?" she asks.  Sarah and I chuckle lightly and make half-jokes about being old ladies.  Mom just shakes her head, making small noises about kids these days.