High-Wheeling Snow Shoveling

We ordered a Wovel — a snow shovel with a 35 inch wheel for leverage — just before the predicted east coast Snowmaggedon of yesterday.  It came in a huge box from Amazon, but the package inside wasn’t nearly as intimidating:

See how easy it is to use?  The wench on the box is wearing a white jacket!  No way is she expecting to interact with slush!  Or even exert herself!

The Wovel is supposed to be much easier on backs than standard shovels, and also proof against coronaries in the inert who find themselves over-extended once winter hits.  Allium has two damaged disks in his back, so this seemed worth a try.  We’re not so worried about coronaries, but that may come.

I knew from relentless Internet research that the wheel would come in two pieces, which is why the box was so (relatively) small:

When I lifted the first parts out, the heaviest metal bits flew out of the box  onto the hardwood floor.  The protective plastic packaging saved the floor, but that reminded me of the first rule of assembly:  Flatten the packing box and cover the work area with it.

Why was I assembling this in the house?  I”m glad you asked.  The tire, which must be attached to the wheel by the purchaser, needs to be warm and pliable for installation.  As it turned out, the main rooms in our house, at 65 degrees, were too cold,  so I had to take the wheel and tire upstairs and leave them in our much warmer office (68 degrees) before I could finish with it.  (Wovel says 72 degrees and up, but 68 proved sufficient.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Here’s everything that came in the box:

A few people on the innernets whined a lot about assembly, but this didn’t seem to be an extraordinary number of parts to me, and, although the instructions are IKEA-style, they were extremely clear.   And,unlike IKEA’s, included some helpful text, too.

All the bolts are squared at the head, so they are stationery when the nuts are tightened, which made putting this together really simple for one person.  Tools used:

The socket extension is highly advised for the bolts around the hub.  Assembly involves putting the two halves of the wheel together, wrapping the tire around the wheel, assembling the handle, and then placing the wheel onto a hub, secured by a cotter pin.

It’s all very straightforward.  The wheel assembly comes closest to being problematic, but even it was easy.  Attaching the tire requires a bit of stretching (it’s why you want the rubber to be warm) and the rubber must be simultaneously pushed along the wheel and snapped into place.  The tire must be locked firmly into channels on the wheel.  This required some experimentation and some coordination, but I was still able to do it solo.

The Wovel is biiiig.  Here it is in our kitchen:

Our model is W0208, which has a folding frame.  This was an accident; it’s what Amazon had available.  A few years ago — maybe even last year — getting an Wovel involved ordering it from Canada, which looked like something of a nightmare. Which is why we waited until now to get it.  Given the size of this baby, though, going for the folding model would probably be smart if you want to maximize your storage options.  Folding the handle just requires pulling a cotter pin.

For off-season storage, though, it might just make more sense to pull the cotter pin in the axle.  Then you’d have a long, flat handle and the (likewise flat) wheel, both of which would hang easily, and well out of the way, on a garage wall.

Allium tested it an hour ago, and gives it a rave report  (“It’s great!”).  He says there’s no stress on the back at all, and made for the fastest driveway clearing ever.  It’s a hit!  I can’t help noting, too, that it’s a marvel of economical design, and that over-sized wheel?  Too cool!

There’s an accessory edge for the blade to provide more durability; we bought that, too.  It’s easily tapped into place.  I couldn’t get to my rubber mallet, so I used a small hammer padded with multiple layers of terry cloth.  Worked perfectly.

Wovel has a set of videos online illustrating assembly and use; I was glad I’d watched them last night.  As a result, there were no surprises today. A CD comes with the kit; Allium watched it today while I did the assembly.

Using the Wovel is different from using a standard shovel:  Basically you jerk the snow off the blade, keeping the Wovel upright and tossing the snow off and ahead of the Wovel.  You pivot rather than leaning in order to put the snow where you want.  So you jerk, but don’t tilt, and you pivot, but don’t lean.

We practiced in the kitchen.  A few passes, and it felt very natural.

Disclaimer:  No one has paid, or provided any consideration, for this post.


CSI in a Nutshell

In‭ ‬1878,‭ ‬Frances Glessner Lee was born into a wealthy family whose patriarch,‭ ‬like so many other Papas of the day,‭ ‬felt it unwise to fully educate his intelligent daughter.‭ ‬Following an unsatisfactory marriage,‭ ‬Lee remained financially dependent on her father until his death,‭ ‬at which point she was free,‭ ‬economically and emotionally,‭ ‬ to use her mind as she pleased.

‎ ‏At‭ ‬36,‭ ‬prior to her father’s death,‭ ‬she had made a scale model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra,‭ ‬meticulously researching the details of the instruments and characteristics of the ninety musicians.‭ ‬Lee used the standard dollhouse scale of one inch to one foot:‭ ‬her recreated orchestra sat in stands that measured four by eight feet.

As it turned out,‭ ‬Lee’s imagination was not the sort to be‭ ‬satisfied by the genteel art of dollhouse collection and decoration.‭ ‬Nor,‭ ‬as it turned out,‭ ‬was building a scale model of an orchestra sufficient to the task.‭ ‬Unleashed from parental opprobrium and finally left to her own devices,‭ ‬Lee began to create miniature crime scenes,‭ ‬also in dollhouse scale,‭ ‬for the training and edification of police engaged in the new art of criminal detection.‭ ‬A previously fledgling interest in‭ “‬legal medicine‭” ‬blossomed once her father’s disapproving eye was laid to rest.

Eighteen of these criminal creations are featured in the book‭ ‬The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death‭‬,‭ ‬photographed‭ (‬for the most part‭) ‬by Corinne May Botz,‭ ‬who also provides text and commentary,‭ ‬along with descriptions of the lengths Lee went to in her attempts to make her crime scenes as realistic as possible.

The conceit was simple:‭ ‬Provide the physical manifestation of a crime scene drawn from composites of actual crimes, along with statements from witnesses, to use in training student detectives to question and evaluate forensic evidence.‭ ‬For modern readers,‭ ‬Botz annotates the rooms,‭ ‬indicating areas where something‭ ‬–‭ ‬carefully placed slippers,‭ ‬tractor marks,‭ ‬a guard rail misaligned‭ ‬–‭ ‬gives mute testimony to events not witnessed.

The rooms,‭ ‬down to the unfortunate victims,‭ ‬are utterly marvelous.‭ ‬Lee had both the financial wherewithal and the imagination to buy every‭ ‬kind of artifact required for the verisimilitude she demanded.‭ ‬Lee knit stockings and hairnets herself,‭ ‬using pins to get the tiny gauges required.‭ ‬Tins of food and common household artifacts abound.‭ ‬Blood splatters are lovingly arranged‭; ‬fake water flows in a crystal stream onto the face of one hapless victim,‭ ‬whose feet are clad in‭ (‬literally‭) ‬hand-made,‭ ‬charming,‭ ‬pink slippers.‭ ‬These rooms are from a dollhouse of the damned,‭ ‬but‭ ‬a strangely compelling one,‭ ‬obviously created with no care, trouble,‭ ‬or expense spared.

Botz revels in this discordance.‭ ‬She writes,‭ ‬contrasting Lee’s model-making with traditional doll craft:

‭ ‬Lee‭’s models are more potentially subversive.‭ ‬They introduce threat and danger into the roles young girls emulate while at play and present the architecture of the home as a deadly terrain where prosaic objects have a secret life as murder weapons.‭ ‬The monstrous acts seem all the more horrible when they are contained in the dollhouse,‭ ‬a domain associated with childhood and innocence.

Botz‭’s ‬take on Lee’s life and work is unapologetically feminist and cheerfully candid in its treatment of Lee.‭ ‬The Nutshell Studies is an eclectic treasure for readers with a legion of interests:‭ ‬crime buffs‭; ‬criminal historians‭; ‬armchair detectives‭; ‬feminists who cherish the unsung tales of‭ ‬accomplished feminine forebears‭; ‬obsessive crafters‭; ‬dollhouse aficionados who have wondered,‭ ‬however slightly,‭ ‬if the traditional representations might be a bit lacking‭; ‬everyone who is curious about what may lie behind a neighbor’s anonymous door‭; ‬and those whose imagination is stimulated by‭ ‬a dark view of domesticity.

In‭ ‬1931-32,‭ ‬Lee created a professorial chair for the study of legal medicine at Harvard University and later funded the Magrath library of Legal Medicine at the school.‭ ‬Shortly thereafter,‭ ‬Lee gave‭ ‬a quarter million dollar endowment for the study of Legal Medicine at Harvard.‭ ‬The department trained medical examiners,‭ ‬held conferences and seminars,‭ ‬and used Lee’s Nutshell Studies as training tools.‭ ‬In‭ ‬1967,‭ ‬after Harvard closed the Department of Legal Medicine,‭ ‬the Nutshell models were permanently loaned to the Medical Examiner’s office in Baltimore,‭ ‬Maryland.‭ ‬They can be viewed by appointment‭, or you can ‭ ‬buy the book or both, as you wish.

If your particular perversion runs to‭ ‬a cross between CSI,‭ ‬Fifth Avenue,‭ ‬and fashion dolls,‭ ‬see the December‭ ‬2008‭ ‬issue of Haute Doll ‬(who knew‭?),‭ ‬which features‭ “‬Crimes of Fashion From the Police Files of the Sybarites‭”‬.‭ ‬Is is fashion‭? ‬Is it humor‭? ‬Is it sick‭? ‬You be the judge‭ ‬–‭ ‬but it is a curious,‭ ‬po-mo‭ (‬and,‭ ‬undoubtedly,‭ ‬completely unaware‭) ‬take on the sincere,‭ ‬obsessively loving work of Frances Glessner Lee.‭



gc.gifSome days last fall and winter, I pulled on my boots, my wool socks and a sturdy hat and walked with a group of fellow fitness-seekers. We are travelers who have in common only our desire to walk; our venerable walking club has been around forever, and there are a multitude of hikes to choose from during any given week.

One result of the variety of options offered is that each walk is likely to be quite different from the previous one. So are the participants, who vary according to personal preference, ability, geography, and schedule.

An interested newcomer, then, might find, as I have, that each hike offers something the others do not. In the end, though, I found that these hikes offered nothing of the experience I hoped for.

wife-bat.jpgEarlier this fall, on what turned out to be my penultimate hike with the group, we marched out through an almost-quaint village, through a housing tract and into a wooded retreat, where the path turned and bent here and there, with slight elevations and declensions. A stream trickled under the trees; it was cold and clear, and, yes, beautiful in the way that a day can be when fallen leaves are still littering the ground, trees are newly barren, and winter is just beginning.

Scenery was not the only thing on the minds of my fellow pilgrims, though. A small drama was unfolding with a nearly literary precision as we walked. I turned, discreetly, to see the widow

Her kerchiefs were of finest weave and ground;
I dare swear that they weighed a full ten pound
Which, of a Sunday, she wore on her head.
Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red

summ.gifHer “kerchiefs” were, of course, modern outdoor gear, but of the more fashionable sort — the modern equivalent of that “full ten pound” — and the ensemble as cunning as that scarlet hose. Speaking with a certain reserve (though leaving nothing untold), our contemporary widow coyly fenced with her partner, setting forth her credentials in (literal) dollars and cents. ($200,000, if you must know; but that was just the condo.) He

. . . had a fiery-red, cherubic face,
For eczema he had; his eyes were narrow
As hot he was, and lecherous, as a sparrow;
With black and scabby brows and scanty beard;
He had a face that little children feared.
There was no mercury, sulphur, or litharge,
No borax, ceruse, tartar, could discharge,
Nor ointment that could cleanse enough, or bite,
To free him of his boils and pimples white,
Nor of the bosses resting on his cheeks.

He mistook her intentions, or, more likely, just didn’t understand.

Well loved he garlic, onions, aye and leeks,
And drinking of strong wine as red as blood.
Then would he talk and shout as madman would.
And when a deal of wine he’d poured within,
Then would. he utter no word save Latin.
Some phrases had he learned, say two or three,
Which he had garnered out of some decree;
No wonder, for he’d heard it all the day;
And all you know right well that even a jay
Can call out Wat as well as can the pope.

His voice was no more useful than a jay’s to meet the silence she offered him once he confessed that he still worked, long past retirement age.

Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue.
She’d been respectable throughout her life,
With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife,
Not counting other company in youth

She dropped back a bit, but then came forward; there was no one else to bestow her charms upon. The rest of us, it seemed, were all unfit. Known, or unknown, or the wrong gender, or an even poorer match in age, or perhaps already mated.

icon2.jpgWe marched, the widow, her erstwhile, hapless suitor, and all the rest of us until we reached a clearing. Afar, in an alcove hewn from the earth, stood a statue of The Virgin Mary, adorned with garlands of garish beads. At her feet stood a small army of tall glasses with wax columns flickering within.

lights.jpgThe sight shook me, briefly, from my literary amusements. For a few seconds, cognitive dissonance took a back seat to raw panic, and another sort of drama. I am a Californian: who sets dozens of unattended flames out in the woods? Christians do, it seems. Or, in this case, Anglo Christians, as the flaming vessels lacked the devotional images present on similar devices lit by Hispanic worshipers.

beads.jpgAs horror subsided (after all, the leaves were wet, and this is practically another country), I surveyed the grotto. To the right and left the path twisted; the land was pocked with smaller and greater altars, each fitted with one statue, a multitude of flames, and beaded ropes. Was there really a glimmer of Christmas tinsel among the trees as well, or is the memory just a figment of my over-clocked mind?

“How could anyone help but feel the reverence of this place?” someone proclaimed, but archly, like a well-meaning schoolteacher. She stood under the evergreens, between demure Mary and a smaller icon several hundred yards away. The candles flickered like poorly designed electric lights; the cement of the statues stood leaden and solid, unrelieved by the brightness of the day.

The widow and her consort were not so affected. Behind me, she described aloud the difference between her yard service and the lawnmower employed by her eager, impecunious, friend. Her elucidation, though, was done too subtly for him to catch the point — or not, as the point, ultimately, seemed to be to avoid discouraging his attentive mien.

As a whole, we were not a reverent bunch. This sort of exchange proved to be common on these walks. Discordance between the putative motivation for these hikes (‘getting close to nature’) and the actual experience was the operant leitmotif.

cross.jpgFond as I am of the natural works ascribed to the Christian deity, on this particular hike, I was unable to appreciate the improvements made in this place by man. Likewise, no beauties, natural or enhanced, caught the imagination of either the widow or her companion. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, one and all, we had other things on our minds.

Nonetheless, in common with that band from long ago, we were all searching for something. Not necessarily to fulfill a religious vow, but perhaps for some sense of a larger world, for companionship, admiration, affection, something — anything? — we could not find at home, at work, in our everyday lives. We all hike because everything else is not quite enough, and we suspect that on these pathways, in these trees, in the bright clear air of fall, we will discover something else, something just a little more than we feel in our everyday lives.

It’s unity, of a sort. We are all, in the end, pilgrims on the same journey. But this not the right one for me. I don’t know what to make of these conversations; of this artificial grotto in the woods; of verbal flirtations amongst ill-matched and alarmingly wary suitors. I am discomfited by the resonance between Chaucer’s cast and my companions. Under the circumstances, “le plus ça change” is not a reassuring thought. This is not what I am looking for, out on the trails amongst the greenery.

Quotation source

Chaucer image from Clipart ETC. Literary Characters

Wife illustration from Jane Zatta’s Chaucer

Summoner from Clipart ETC. Literary Characters

Upper statue from Flickr

Candles from Church Candles Online

Lower statue from Flickr

Cross on the wayside from Flickr


Trash Talk

litter.jpgAllyson Hill writes a fun little blog when she isn’t creating nifty things for her shop at Etsy. Allyson makes zip pouches/wristlet bags, tissue cozies, a purse she calls a “drop sac”, and a car (that’s as in ‘auto’, not ‘feline’) litter bag. It’s the litter bag that I especially love. That’s one on the left, in a charming and wacky owl and leaf print.

litterrest1.jpgAllyson’s litter bag is incredibly clever. She’s made the strap adjustable to fit just about anywhere you’d want to use it in your car, designed the bag so that it stays open for easy use, and made a smart interior that lets you use liners for quick cleaning. Even better, she makes each bag out of vintage-y fabrics in a huge variety of colors and patterns. Who knew trash could be so much fun?

litterp.jpgI think Allyson’s designs are awesome, but I’m just not adventuresome enough to make deco part of my car’s interior. Allyson’s pink and turquoise “Gum Dots” bag, for example, is for expansive personalities. Me, I’m a tweedy kind of person, so I did a riff on Allyson’s litter bag. (Well, yeah, what I really did is make it boring. Sigh.)

tweedy-bag.jpgHere’s mine, in a tasteful black/grey tweed to match the (equally boring) interior of the car I drive most. My bag’s a little different — I used ripstop for the lining, instead of Alyson’s nicer duck (it’s what I had around the house) and I’m sure that my method for holding the bag open is much kludgier than Allyson’s, but it works well, and I’m very happy with the result.

tweedy-bag-mickey-box.jpgMine is attached to the interior of my upper glove box. It just happens that my glove box hinges work perfectly for this; I can even get into the lower box without removing the litter bag. Allyson also shows hers hanging from headrests (second image, above right) and on a gearshift; she’ll even customize the length for you if you want.

tweedy-bag-interior.jpgNo, I’m not going to explain how I made mine; if you get inspired, as I did, and want to do all the work yourself, have at it. But if you’d rather have a bright, glorious (and useful!) accent in your vehicle, check out Allyson’s offerings. For not much more than you’d spend for an inadequate trash container at Target, you can smile every time you throw out your used latte cup, and own a litter bag everyone else will admire, too.


‘Bent, Not Bento

We’ve been thinking about the issues of fitness, health and transportation around here, and are looking at recumbent bikes — or, in my case, recumbent trikes. Our nearest ‘bent dealer is three hours away, so I took the day off to test drive the entry-level model we’ve been considering.

Serious recumbents are expensive — three or four thousand dollars and up, depending. Even entry-level ‘bents aren’t cheap, and entry-level trikes cost more than two-wheelers. We’re considering a ‘bent as a car replacement, though, which changes the picture a bit. An entry-level ‘bent, at one-tenth the price of a good used car, doesn’t seem quite as extravagant as it otherwise might.

I knew that I wanted a recumbent for comfort (as well as for the sake of my spine), and I wanted a trike for stability. Underseat steering was a must, as my arms aren’t happy when held out or up for hours at a time. All three of the trikes I rode today met these criteria, but the three could not have been more different.

sun.jpgOnline, it looked as if the Sun EZ3 USX ($950 USD) would be the perfect choice. It was sitting, appropriately, in the autumnal sun, in all its silvery glory, when I arrived at Recumbent Bike Riders. (If it’s a six-hour round trip, call ahead.) Rob, the store’s owner, quickly adjusted it to my size and I tooled around the shop’s large (and mercifully, empty) parking lot.

I loved it. The Sun’s wheelbase felt long and elegant. The cycle flowed across the lot, and I felt utterly relaxed. The Sun is a delta trike, meaning that the double wheels are behind the rider’s seat, and the single front wheel provides directional turning. Reality intruded only when I needed to steer or shift: because my legs are short, the seat was too close to the steering bar (a situation that might be partially remedied with a more complex adjustment). I was forced to hold my elbows too close to my torso, cramping my arms and hands. Not so good.

z.jpgInside, I spied a Sidewinder (about $1600 USD). The Sidewinder is a tadpole trike; the dual wheels are in front. The Sidewinder’s single rear wheel steers — a feature I found very counter-intuitive. I found myself thinking hard about directional matters, which, oddly, helped not at all.

Counter-intuitive or not, the Sidewinder was a blast to ride. It’s positively nimble compared to the Sun, and has a tight, and hugely entertaining, turning radius. The geek in me loved the kooky differential (what’s up with that?), and I liked the looks of the frame, with its curved side bars, very much. The model I rode was an oh-so-suitable ruby red — a bit of dash that only added to its appeal.

However, something about the Sidewinder’s seat/pedal axis just didn’t seem right to me. (In fairness, Rob had pointed out that he thought I’d need different seat bars to get the right angle. Yes, I’m short!) Although this trike was the most fun to ride, it wasn’t particularly comfortable. I was beginning to feel a little bit like Goldilocks — in love with an idea, but not finding anything that was just right.

cruiser.jpgThen Rob suggested the notably plain-framed, stripped-to-the-basics TerraTrike (about $1300 USD). It wasn’t glamorous, like the long and lanky Sun, nor sexy like the Sidewinder, but something clicked. The TerraTrike is another tadpole, but with front wheel steering that felt very natural. The steering felt almost primitive, in a lovely, historic way — reminiscent of a very early motor car. Rob thought that the pedals were just as high as on the Sidewinder, but the angle on the TerraTrike felt much better. My arms fell perfectly into place and the trike felt “just right”. No glam, no tricks, but well-suited to me. Good enough for a long day’s cruising.

turnpike.jpgSome, though not all, recumbents can be ordered directly from dealers, but we had already decided not to go that route. I’m mechanically inclined, but no longer interested in fiddling with everyday things, so we want to be within driving distance of a shop if/when troubles arise. A long drive on a day like today when the air is crisp and clear, the hills are beautiful, and the turnpike empty, is almost as relaxing as touring on a cycle. And, in any case, it’s important to support the guys who do keep ‘bents in stock so that they can be tried before purchase.

It was all I could do to resist the temptation to bring the thing home on the roof of the very tiny car I’d driven. In the end I did the responsible thing — we’ve got a few issues to clear up here, as Allium’s huge international employer is cleaning house after some spectacular failures, and we’ve got to figure out how to manage the garage so that the trike can live there, too. Rob threw a bit of a wrench into the works, too, when he pointed out that he’s expecting to see some more, good-quality, entry-level ‘bents this coming spring. Can I really wait until then? This was one sweet afternoon . . .

Turnpike photo from Flickr

Update (11/7/07): After a series of unpleasant emails from Sun representative Joe Z., I will not recommend Sun products to anyone, and definitely won’t be buying one myself. If you’re interested in a lower-priced recumbent, I’d urge you to wait until spring, when Sun is expected to have a great deal more competition as newer, less-expensive models from other companies join the field.



Not too long ago, thanks to a really dreadful SEPTA train schedule, I found myself in Philadelphia with time to kill before meeting Allium after work.

Image of a Train Tunnel Through the Train Window

After an hour trapped on a jerky and poorly air-conditioned train I wanted to move — a lot. I was already sweaty and grimy; there was no point in even imagining that I would be able to reclaim the newly-showered and dewy freshness that had been mine when I first set out. Perambulation seemed to be the answer. I headed out from Suburban Station to see what I could see.

On Walnut Street, I realized that I have simply not been paying enough attention to good old Burberry, they of the dull, ubiquitous — and oft-forged — plaid. Someone at Burberry has developed an imagination — and, maybe, a sense of humor, too. This lovely garment isn’t the creation I saw in Burberry’s window; I can’t find a picture of the actual thing anywhere. But this is a good starting point; in fact, it’s almost the same dress.

Image of a Gray Wool Sleeveless Dress

My dress builds on this one, a gray wool flannel from the Prorsum collection. Imagine, instead, a higher neckline, almost to a shirt collar line. Keep that waist seam which hovers just above the actual waist. See those nifty pleats in front? Imagine three on each side, just like gents’ trews from the 40s. Then cuff that hem. Got it? I loved it — gray flannel trousers reincarnated for girls who’d rather wear tights. How femme! How humorous!

Yes, I wanted this wisp of modern traditionalism. I’d look smashing in it. The $650 [USD] was not exactly what deterred me though. Really, Burberry, sleeveless flannel? Don’t tell me, dears, that you mean that we should wear a turtleneck under this garment in order to keep winter’s chill from our bare arms. How very unchic. And yet, you surely don’t intend that this should be worn in the 85 degree weather so currently prevalent? Can this be wool for spring? Wool — and bare arms — for the unpredictable fall? No, I don’t think so. It’s really kind of wool for never — but so much fun.

The version I saw was belted with an exceptionally hideous, quilted faux-patent belt, much like the one above except exceptionally hideous, quilted, etc., etc.. But I quite like the simpler belt on the image above.

Image of a Burberry-Styled Maclaren Triumph Stroller

I passed on the $700 [USD] Burberry Maclaren stroller, too. A $500 [USD] premium for a Burberry cosy toes (and a black chassis) just seems stupid. Still, something interesting is going on here; it’s not your daddy’s Burberry any more. The Wall Street Journal’s got the scoop here, if you, too, are curious.

Image of a Modernistic Shopping Center

After an uneventful tour around Rittenhouse Square, I headed back past Liberty Place and gawked at the workers clotted around the entrances, ciggies in hand, casting noxious clouds across the entryways. London has joined the list of cities, like Philadelphia, that have banned indoor smoking; you can read a rather good post about that on Conrad’s Varieties.

I was pleased to see so much of the populace engaged in something other than Philadephia’s most famous outdoor sport — shooting one another. There were 406 murders in Philadelphia in 2006; on July 24 of this year, CBS News reported Philadelphia’s 236th murder of 2007. Second-hand smoke somehow seems so much safer.

Image of an Informal Campground on a City Parkway With Shopping Cart

Other denizens of the city are simply living outside. I strolled past this encampment on Philadelphia’s proud Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the boulevard that’s “oozing with culture” according to the UPenn art museum tour map. It’s also known as ‘Skid Museum Row’.

Philadelphia, that city of contrasts, is not completely devoid of cultural entertainments. There are a slew of quite good museums, and there is also (quoting the tour map)

Philadelphia’s remarkable collection of outdoor art, which also includes the LOVE statue and Oldenburg’s giant clothespin just west of city hall. Philadelphia has more public art than any city in the country with the greatest number of outdoor sculptures and murals in the U.S.

Image of Sculpture of Big Red Griders

Which inventory includes ‘Iroquois’, nestled a scant block from the aforementioned encampment. The explanatory signage says this “40 foot high painted steel [sculpture] honors Native Americans, and its central knot shape and brilliant red color also suggest a Chinese influence”.

Wow — two wildly divergent ethnicities in one. A diversity bargain if ever there were one. Frankly, I think this construction owes more to the influences of US steel and Aker American Shipping but it’s not like I’m an expert or anything.

As ever, quantity does not imply quality.

A few blocks later I’d reached my destination. I’d heard no fewer than four ambulances screaming through the streets in the scant hour I’d been walking, but seen no actual blood shed. It was a good afternoon.

Image of Clouds over the River

I met Allium and we took up our dinners and settled down by the side of the Schuylkill to dine. A rather good blues band played below us, on terrace of the Waterworks Restaurant, and the view was divine.

Train tunnel from Flickr; Burberry Stroller from Burberry; Liberty Place from Flickr; other photos mine


Amarna at the Penn Museum

Image of an Egyptian (Non-Funerary) MaskPhiladelphia is in the throes of Egyptomania at the moment, with a heavily promoted King Tutankhamun exhibit at the Franklin Institute and a companion exhibit featuring artifacts from Amarna at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

The Franklin exhibit has been disappointing for many, with negative comments all over the Internet. This review, from summarizes many of the objections:

As long as you understand that you are seeing 130 beautiful treasures from the tomb of King Tut, other Valley of the Kings tombs and additional ancient sites, but not Tutankhamum’s death mask or inner coffins, you should not be disappointed in Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

In addition, the admission price of $32.50 (weekends) and $27.50 weekdays is very steep when compared to the prior and larger Titanic and Body Worlds exhibitions which were also held at the Franklin Institute.

Missing from the Franklin are most of the artifacts that were featured in the dramatic and extensive King Tut exhibit that famously toured the US in 1977; they were deemed too fragile to travel out of Egypt. The incredible funerary mask that featured in the seventies exhibition is among the pieces that have not returned; distressingly, the promoters of the current exhibit have chosen to prominently feature an image of Tut (above, left) that most people will assume is the mask — though it is actually a photo of a miniature organ coffin.

(Londoners take note: This is the Tutankhmamun exhibit that opens in your city in November, 2007.)

Image of a Side View of an Egyptian StatueForewarned regarding these matters and cognizant of reports of huge crowds, Allium and I decided to sit this one out, and headed over to the Amarna exhibit instead. The good news is that Amarna is well worth seeing. It’s a small, quiet, completely non-glitzy experience; perfect for those who prefer their museum experiences contemplative rather than entertaining.

The bad news is that the curation is minimal — as seems to be the trend these days — and incredibly sloppy. Although English is normally read from left to right, and enumeration written likewise, several displays have numbers slapped on willy-nilly, in an apparently random fashion. No attempt has been made to ensure that the descriptive cards lie in the same order (or even in numerical order) beneath the artifacts.

Under these circumstances, trying to match an identifying numeral or artifact with its corresponding card is counter-intuitive and distracts quite a bit from the viewing experience. In some cases, identifying text appeared to be missing, and at least once, available text seemed to identify an completely different artifact. Why, one wonders?

Curatorial carelessness aside, the artifacts themselves are interesting, and sparse attendance (at least on the weekday when we were there) meant that viewing was unhampered.

In addition to the current Amarna exhibit, the Penn Museum maintains two Egyptian galleries, including a royal palace. There’s a completely pointless video at the entrance to the galleries, but the galleries themselves are worth visiting; curation here is much better than that for Amarna.

One entrance fee covers the entire museum, including Amarna.

I have a few more posts lined up that feature Amarna to greater or lessor degrees; I’ll be putting them up as time allows.


Waterworks Redux

The Waterworks Giveth and The Waterworks Taketh Away

Allium and I returned to Philadelphia last Friday, and were astonished and pleased to see that the Waterworks Restaurant, on the banks of the Schuylkill, had unexpectedly enhanced the view of the building and grounds by installing boxed evergreens where formerly all we could see were trash and pallets. Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!

However, as noted above, the improved view has not come without cost. Some bright bulb at the restaurant has seen fit to add a rolling bar to the newly beautified scene. It’s hideous — bright white and electric blue. It’s exactly what was needed to completely destroy the otherwise tasteful serenity of the riverside. Nice work, guys — what’s next? An inflatable pink elephant over the bar?

Image of a Riverside Building with a Hideous Rolling Bar Alongside

Say it ain’t so.



Allium and I went into the city the other night, as we do a lot lately, with bento boxes packed for dinner and folding chairs stowed in the trunk of the car. Behind the museum there’s a small rise topped with a pavilion; we carried our gear up the hill and set up camp in the shade. It was a warm evening — 85 degrees or so — but a strong breeze came up over the river as the sun began to set, and we were quite comfortable.

Image of a Restaurant by a River

Beneath us was the old Waterworks, refurbished and now converted into a restaurant. The main building resembles an enormous and unimaginative wedding cake, plopped down on a table, for safety’s sake, away from the celebration. It’s meant to look elegant, and almost succeeds, except for its dull proportions, and the fact that we can see the garbage bins and stacks of delivery skids tossed off to the side.

Across the way we can see traffic backing up in both directions, in and out of the city, but it’s of no concern to us (at least at this moment). An ancient overpass is directly across from us; it’s one of several in this area that features beautiful brick arches. Trains go by across the top; we’ve been on those trains, and there’s nothing romantic about them, but you couldn’t prove it from where we sit tonight. Even though I know better, a fond wanderlust steals over me as I watch the trains move slowly across the bridge.

Below us flows the fetid Schuylkill River, beautiful in the waning sunlight. We can’t smell it from our perch, though. Once we finish our meal, Allium brews ginger tea in the thermos he secretly brought and ginger scents the air around us. The tea and our relative solitude remind Allium of Taiga — whose work we are about to see again — and Allium feels at one with the greenery that surrounds us and the river. In previous visits, we’ve seen several paintings of small dwellings set on mountains whose rice paper walls have been pushed aside; with the shoji screens out of view, the definition between structure and landscape is lost. As night falls and we relax, our open domed pedestal seems similarly organic.

Image of Paths by a Riverside

I feel this, as Allium does, but my mind is elsewhere, too. I’m watching the pathways that zigzag down the hill, and I’m thinking of Orson Welles in The Third Man. It’s the scene when he’s up in a defunct carousel car with Joseph Cotton. He opens the cab door dangerously, and they regard the pedestrians below.

Tell me [he says]. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?

But that’s for another post.

Image of a River

I turn away from the infrequent joggers and the dolled up diners — the dots — far below and gaze lovingly on my favorite feature of this stretch of the river. In keeping with the classical theme of the museum (or vice versa), someone has constructed what looks an open-air storage facility, based on the facade of the Pantheon. It’s on the near bank, just to the right of us, and it brings to my mind Marcus Didius Falco and his misadventures by the banks of the river Tiber. I can imagine the barques unloading, the urns of oil and grain stacked up.

Image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Taken From the River Side

The faux temple should feel out of place next to the grimy river, the automobile congestion, and the dirty trains, but it suits nevertheless, probably only because of its proximity to the museum. The museum is the only beautiful thing you see as you come into Philadelphia from the east — the only beautiful thing you see coming into Philadelphia from any direction.

Final photo from vergo1220 at flickr; all others mine

Update 7/29/07: Waterworks Redux


To Market, To Market

Image of a Box Meant to Hold  Garlic SlicerOne of the pleasures of liking things that aren’t readily obtainable in your own neck of the woods is having to go hunting for them. Allium and I live in a pizza and chicken wings kind of place, but generally prefer to consume fare that is, shall we say, a bit more interesting. In our world, re-stocking the kitchen requires a bit of travel. When the pantry began to look like Mother Hubbard’s recently, we struck out for a nearby state and a favorite Asian market — in this case, a Korean Market, stocked with goods from Japan and China as well.

We quickly picked up the 50 lb. sack of rice and the gallon of shoyu, and then the fun began. We always shop with a specific list, but these infrequent trips are also an opportunity to discover new things. We meander up and down the aisles while gathering the necessities, keeping a sharp eye out for new flavors or items we haven’t seen elsewhere. The shops we favor tend to be small, and sometimes the stock doesn’t vary a lot, but we usually come home with at least one interesting new find. This time we were a bit luckier and came home with two new kitchen implements, and two new comestibles.

Image of a Garlic SlicerBuried in a bin filled with tissue soap packets I found the rather battered empty box you see at the top (left) of this post. A few minute’s scrabbling produced the gloriously decorative thing you see to the right. Inserted into one side is a series of thin stainless steel blades, which produce beautifully sliced garlic from whole cloves. This is not your ubiquitous garlic press — this device makes garlic wafers. Garlic you can see! Garlic you can bite! And yet . . . garlic thin enough to brown all around each perfect piece. Why haven’t I seen this anywhere before? I’d have snatched it up in a minute. As I did, this go-round, without any hesitation.

Image of a Plastic Mold Used to Make Rice RollsIs it easy to figure out what these three plastic pieces are (to the left)? I found them packaged up and hanging on a peg. The two pieces with the half-cicle cutouts were packed inside the rectangle, so the whole thing looked rather like a child’s building block. There weren’t many clues on the label (OK, there may have been, but I don’t read Chinese ideographs), however, I’d been reading about miniature rice rolls on bento blogs, and this looked as if it might be useful for making them. Into the cart it went.

Once we got home, I discovered that there were instructions for the language-impaired after all — minuscule illustrations demonstrating how to place one of the half-circle pieces into the frame with the indentations facing up, how to fill the rectangular frame with rice, and then press the other half-circle into the rectangle. Once the last piece is aligned with the top of the frame, you push the whole thing out and then pop the rice out of the mold. It’s incredibly easy, and the rolls are absolutely uniform and ready to play with. I’ll be doing that when making future bentos.

Image of a Furikake BottleWe’re always on the lookout for new furikake. Nothing enlivens a bowl of plain steamed rice better than a tasty blend of dried seaweed and seasonings. When we can find them, though, the variations we see are almost always made with sugar, which we’ve discovered neither of us likes much. Of the dozen or so types we found on this excursion, all but this one had the despised sweetener. Allium made out the kanji hiragana on the front of the bottle — nori, wasabi, egg and sesame — but I was happy to confirm his translation by reading the tiny nutrition label — your FDA at work. This one turned out to be every bit as good as our favorite shirasu furikake.

We filled our cart to overflowing and navigated past the cartons and merchandise surrounding the counter at the front of the store. Checking out in a small store owned by someone who is proud of it is such a different experience to the miserable one at the local chain grocery. The register at this particular store is not much more than a glorified adding machine; the owner does most of the calculating his head and he picks each item up as he does the tally. You can tell what he’s thinking; he’s figuring the price for multiple items even as he’s planning how he’ll pack the bags — a process with which we’d never dream of interfering. Unlike at the local grocery, each one of these bags ends up packed to the very top and nothing at all comes home even slightly squashed.

I know enough to hand the funds over a bit ceremoniously, and that I will be handed the receipt in the same way. There’s a slight formality to our departure which is pleasing to everyone. With many smiles, almost bowing to each other, we make our way out the door.

Image of a Bottle of Aloe Vera JuiceThis time, though, before we’ve crossed the sidewalk, the proprietor comes through the door after us. He’s got two green bottles in his hands which he hands to Allium, smiling and nodding his head. Here’s a truly unexpected discovery — it’s aloe vera juice, something we’ve never heard of. We’re tempted to open one in the car, but decide that we might want to refrigerate it first. We’re touched by the gift, but Asian beverages, other than tea and sake, have mostly been a little frightening in the past. We think trying it cold may help.

Later, after the leisurely drive home, after we’ve unpacked everything, after the aloe vera juice is icy, Allium pours each of us an ounce or so to try. We smell first, but there’s almost no odor — the fluid just smells clean, maybe a bit like cucumber. We take a closer look; there appear to be bits of ice — no, it’s gel — floating in the glasses. We’re dubious, but we drink. It’s different, light, delicious. The bits of gel — aloe vera, we assume — taste curiously clean. We’re glad the drink’s not too sweet — we’ve noticed that the label says “no sugar added”, but the ingredients list makes it clear that this doesn’t mean that they left the corn syrup out!

The next day, I am curious and do some research. There are two types of aloe vera juice, it seems — one of which is used to treat constipation. With caution — ingesting very little can apparently cause cramps and much gastrointestinal distress. I’m relieved that neither one of us has noticed any discomfort. The other version, aloe vera juice without aloin — juice squeezed from the inner parts of the aloe vera leaf, not from the external skin — appears to cure just about everything without any digestive side effects. We’ll be drinking it one refreshing ounce at a time, just in case — and toasting the health of our generous grocer each time we raise our glasses.