Old Times

In my last post, I suggested that my string of stays in hotels (for work) had prompted me to thoughtfulness, or at least reflectiveness. Hereʼs one such reflection (just about literally that) from May 15, written, while dining alone, during that long lull between ordering and receiving your meal… Even a glass of wine doesnʼt relieve that self-conscious, solitary tension.

hotel-key-courtyard_328_detailI am so old that I still feel I should turn in my room key(s) at the front desk before departing. Nowadays, with time-stamped digital pass cards, that step for checkout is unnecessary, even silly. But I remember well temporary possession of a real solid (often too large) physical key, the return of which (capable of opening the room in perpetua, or at least until the locks were changed) was of paramount importance, and so checking myself out without returning my means of ingress seems… incomplete, perhaps even unsatisfying.

I can recall vividly my first pass card — which we received in Hawaii, on Oahu, in downtown Honolulu (at some beachfront high-rising tower of a hotel that I am sure that Janet, were that she were with me, would yet remember by name — they had a Tiki restaurant in those distant days before Tiki bars again became kitschy cool; we ate there one night and brunch on the rooftop Sunday). I think our Hawaiian trip was in 1988.*

Upon arrival, somehow the only available room was in the antiquated, low-rise (low-rent, undesirable ghetto) side-portion of the hotel. However, if we accepted that musty accomodation for our first night, we could enjoy a beach-view, balconied, expansive chamber for the remainder of our stay. Exhausted, at late afternoon (I believe), it was an irresistible offer, particularly considering the minuscule rate my (lovely) travel-agent traveling companion had wangled (for rooming on the city-view side — of no comparison to our [eventual] Waikiki-viewing suite of [until then, at least for me] unparalleled elegance). The first night we acquired a familiar blocky brass key, but our subsequent 21st-storey aerie required a keycard. Which I had no idea how to use.

Previously, even in paradise (Fiji, that prior time**, where we blissfully enjoyed the islandsʼ [then] utter lack of television — but another story there altogether***) I got into my room with a practical, physical (analog?) key. What was this credit card theyʼd given us?

Fortunately, my bride, so worldly and so much better traveled than I, had the idea of this lodging novelty item pat (which makes strange her more recent behavior with keycards — never inserted quite the right way). She gained us admittance to our boudoir in the sky in skillfully masterful fashion. With practice (and patience) I got it right, too.

In those days (with my first pair of prescription sunglasses just for that trip) that electronic pass card seemed like the (sci-fi) future astonishingly realized in my mundane present reality: I had stepped straight into a John Brunner novel and expected the crime-solving immortal Karmesin to be in the lobby (a refraction of my actual experience colored, if not shaped, by my digital rereading of his excellent, classic The Squares of the City, which was originally a brain-boggling, mind-expanding barely pubescent reading experience from my sisterʼs mature [non-Hardy] library****). I felt expansively expensive and privileged for our whole stay.

Now, of course, the keycard is just another shoddy annoyance — the electronic validation always going bad about twenty hours before checkout time arrives.

So it goes. So it goes.

hotel key* Although The Lovely One and I tried to make a list of our trips year-by-year a few years back (five or ten) that I have extended and updated, I couldnʼt find the document just now — fat lot of good Spotlightʼs endless usurping of my computer does me.

** 1985, perhaps?

*** for that ever-promised, seldom (if ever) delivered future post… perhaps

**** and yet another possible topic for another possible blog… yet to come… perhaps…

©2013 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

For the Fam

Having just recently sent letters off to my aunt and my distant, Minnesota-immured brother, I realized that those two, however intermittent my correspondence may be, are far more up to date on the lives of The Lovely One and me than any of my siblings or the rest of my kith and kin (the undoubtedly most frequent visitors to the blog). so for their benefit, I thought I might post a brief review of recent months for us here in Our Town…

First, I evidently do have a job ahead this summer, the Republicansʼ wicked refuge of sequestration (permitting them as ever to continue doing what they do worst — nothing) notwithstanding. Things will change this summer, and my employment will only be part-time (it was already merely seasonal). The very fact that a year ago I was already at work (within a day or four) evinces the difference. I feel excited — not the least because My Beloved is already growing intoxicated at vacation possibilities (that I need a job to fund).

A hint on the destination?

Zgubiłem się. Czy pan mówi po angielsku?

(But more on that in future. Right now, thereʼs nothing booked and just a Lonely Planet Encounter travel book in hand.)

Last week, exactly to the day as I write (but may not have sufficient afternoon ahead to post), our mailbox got “vandalized” — accidentally damaged, we think, in reality, based on the evidence we could observe:

  1. tire tracks veering into the gutter and apparently onto the curb,
  2. the door on the box getting bent and the latch twisted in the direction of the bending,
  3. the iron pole on which the box was mounted bent nearly forty degrees,
  4. no damage to the neighborʼs box right beside ours and first in line for damage.
Ours was rusty ad had long ago lost its little red flag

Ours was rusty ad had long ago lost its little red flag

We (neighbor Levi and I) concluded that a semi or big truck must have caught the latch and the door with the trailer or box of the vehicle, wrenching the whole mailbox askew (and almost apart) before releasing its unintended hold as the large vehicle made its turn to the nursing home across the street. We bet the driver didn’t even know what he had done, sheltered high up in his cab on the far side of his truck.

Anyway, we have now spent sixty-some bucks on a new, modern box, and I still have to buy a 4×4 post on which to place the new thing (not to mention, with Leviʼs assistance, dig out the old pole — on its concrete base, if itʼs at all like their old box was — install the new wooden post and get the mailbox upright upon its stand).

In other damage news, I broke my glasses about six weeks back, removing my balaclava as I arrived a the hospital to work out, the woolen facemask pulling my glasses away from my head to crash and break on the concrete floor. I got new frames (the style, however, being now defunct, I was “lucky” to get a stockpiled pair from across the Atlantic) and spent over a hundred dollars.

And in other optical news… Just over a week ago, Janet had a day off from work for her annual eye exam (now to change to semi-annual — Iʼll explain) which she has endured/enjoyed ever since her detached-retina surgery back in 2008 or ʼ09. This yearʼs was supposed to be in May (the ophthalmologist was trying to let her avoid snowy/icy roads that hadnʼt yet interfered for her formerly February appointment), but we got a call earlier in the moth letting her know that the doctor would be unavailable at the scheduled time in May, so she reset for March 27.

This was her first afternoon appointment so far (the next will be back to morning, we already know), and everything ran smoothly — particularly so since we got to sleep in relatively late (at least for us). However, there was big news: as had been predicted right after her surgery, she is beginning to develop a post-surgical cataract and will eventually need to have the lens in her eye replaced. This is not altogether bad news (or even bad news at all, she insists). The surgery so changed the shape of her eyeball that she is hugely nearsighted in that eye now (way, way worse than she was normally/previously), and that problem, which leaves her with great difficulty reading, could be resolved with a surgically implanted corrective lens replacement. However, her insurance pretends that simply replacing her lens is “elective cosmetic surgery” and will not pay for it (as though being able to see is in any way “cosmetic” whatsoever), but they do pay for cataract surgery. She has been kind of waiting for her predicted post-surgical cataract to develop so she can get her lens replaced and help her vision. We are to return in September (a six-month gap, scheduled to avoid overlapping my then-potential work schedule, to which I guess we now must get accustomed as the ophthalmologist keeps tabs on her developing situation).

Hmmm… what else?

We took a few days away from home to visit Schaumburg (that means Ikea) and St. Charles (to again find a favorite restaurant had closed — this one shuttered with a police notice on the door, scarily) for The Lovely Oneʼs birthday. Stephen and Aunt Alaire got the tedious details on both (and I could upload the same for a future post, too — there was some amusement involved periodically, along with the shopping and dining).

And more or less (neglecting that both of us are currently and mysteriously suffering back pain, mine inventively resembling what I imagine passing a kidney stone might be like — thus limiting our exercise regimens a little just now) thatʼs our news.

Posts of more general interest to come?

©2013 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

$263

Apparently, my youth, it turns out, is worth exactly $263.

Perhaps I should say my “sonic youth” (of sorts).

Our lovely new “media storage cabinet” that required the disposal of my youthful recorded-musical heritage

Recently, within less than the last year, My Beloved got us to purchase a new rotating “media cabinet” on which to store our CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes (and, yes, we do have VHS tapes and perhaps more remarkably the devices on which to play them — still functional). Although the item sat in its rather large, six-foot-tall (and better-than-three-feet-wide) box, leaned against one of my (numerous) overstuffed bookshelves in our basement, for an embarrassingly large number of months, we put it together sometime before Christmas and installed as many of the “media” as we could. Sadly, that left a lot of CDs still roaming our house in boxes (and some more or less neatly stored beneath the oversized boom box that serves as one of our stereo systems these days). All well and good and for the most part neat and tidy.

Unfortunately the media storage unit dwells in a spot formerly occupied by a knocked-together shelf unit rescued once upon a time from the disposal pile after some play or another.* And on those shelves were the remnants of our (mostly my) sonic youth — all of our vinyl record albums, roughly 400 of them.

Glorified boom-box stereo in “the office” and associated CDs in what Janet considers appropriate storage containers

In order to construct and place the media storage unit, we had to remove all of the records and locate the not-a-bookshelf elsewhere (itʼs still more or less empty and its destiny still in limbo). The records, lovingly acquired from my sophomore year in high school through college and early career and our marriage until the late Eighties (or whenever vinyl thirty-three-and-a-third RPM records went out of use), along with a few cases of the cassette tapes that took those recordsʼ place in our audio lives in the Eighties and Nineties,** filled seven boxes (each long-ago holding four six-packs of Guinness Extra Stout, long since consumed). We stowed the record-filled boxes in a small chamber off the basement we call “my room” (or in Janetʼs case, “your little room,” always said with a faint or strong tone of repulsion and disgust, as itʼs there in those overcrowded confines that everything I wonʼt throw away even when she finds it no longer desirable, in any manner, in our regular lives, goes to dwell in darkness — including most of my school clothes, even during the days when I was yet teaching).

When I recently discovered that the boxes, stacked in two once-moderately-neat piles, had begun to rip at the corners (from the burdensome weight), it was decided*** that I must soon take them to Half-Price Books to sell. Now the nearest Half-Price Books is Cedar Rapids, roughly an hour away, but that destination for our (mostly my) once-beloved recordings seemed the most profitable possible (as I had no interest whatsoever in listing each record for sale on eBay).

Box Sets of CD music kept near at hand in the office, along with, of course, books

On Sunday I lugged the (amazingly heavy) boxes, one at a time (I said they were astoundingly weighty), to the bed of my truck and called the number for our nearest Half-Price Books store to be sure they did indeed have interest in purchasing a load of 400 vinyl records (I counted 56 cardboard sleeves in one box, one of which was George Harrisonʼs three-album set, All Things Must Pass, ignoring the plastic container of audio cassettes that really served just to keep everything stable but which were going to be gone as well). They did (uh, have an interest in buying my record library — in case we lost the track of that thought).

So this morning, having sent The Lovely One on her way to work, I clambered into the cab of the truck and drove off into the glorious day (highs in the seventies all week and into next — globally warmed, shortsighted bliss for mid-March, indeed) for the trip to the big city. Upon arrival I carried the seven boxes, once again (staggeringly ponderous) singly to the purchase counter, where an attractive young lady observed, as she got my name and my government-issued photo ID, that I had a lot of pop/rock,**** which is what sold well, and that was good. Then she sent me to wander the stacks while they assessed my auditory existence in seven Guinness boxes…

assorted CDs unable to fit in suitable storage elsewhere — including some in, unsurprisingly, a Guinness box

I had left about 8:30, and in just three hours I was back at home (an hour each way for the drive and an hour in the store as the lovely young ladies***** behind the purchase counter appraised my hoard). I got my seven Guinness boxes back, and I found seven books to buy myself (a complete OʼNeill in three Library of America volumes; Richard Wright in two LOA books; a DK guide to eastern American birds — at Janetʼs request, as we have observed some unidentified little eaters at our birdfeeders this early spring, not house sparrows or cardinals, red-wing blackbirds or crows; and volume one of the Mark Twain Autobiography).

And I got paid $263****** for all my vinyl Beatles, Clash, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Rolling Stones, Sex Pistols, Bob Seger, The Who, Yes, Warren Zevon and all the other bands and individuals whose music we (but mostly I) had acquired, enjoyed, endured, and sometimes forgotten during our teens, twenties and thirties.

Farewell, youth.

* (we have totally forgotten when or how that long-suffering servant of our storage needs was originally acquired)

** (but decisively not the compact disks that took the place of those former recorded-music formats)

*** Please note that evasive and nonaccusatory use of the passive voice…

**** We had decided that we would retain the relatively slim collection of classical and jazz we had on vinyl for future ditigization to iTunes (our turntable is still connected to the computer, along with the cord for another boom box for cassettes) and possible later discard to H-P Books.

***** None of whom, I observed instantly, had sufficient years to even recognize Savoy Brown, Brewer & Shipley, John Sebastian, King Crimson, Mason Proffit, Gypsy, Starcastle or Uriah Heep (just to pick a few not utterly obscure albums). Moby Grape…

****** (roughly a lousy half-dollar per album, gratuitous cassettes included — such is the price of [this oneʼs] juvenescence, in actual fact)

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

More Budapest, Day 5 — Museum and Heroes Square

Museum of Fine Arts, showing a tiny bit of the breadth of plaza, which I keep talking about, that is Heroes Square

Continuing from yesterday, I ramble on about our rambles around the Museum of Fine Arts some more (and I edited the previous post to include some links that hadnʼt been there before) and our return into rain to look at Vőrös tere

In the end we spent almost four hours at the museum. I completely lost track of time (yes, I wore my watch, but I seldom think to look at that sucker), progressing forward in art history time from the lengthy medieval stuff I wrote about vaguely already through some Renaissance artists (Italian, German, British, Spanish [I remember an El Greco] — things started to get sorted by nationality, so the time sequence got a bit confused for me except by styles and subjects), Baroque, Nineteenth Century, and very little modern.

The Dutch galleries, listed by all guides as a highlight, was exactly that — more focused on big canvases of landscapes and still lives than the tiny interiors familiar from Vermeer or characterful faces of Rembrandt.

The Museum of Fine Arts has some very fine works, but what really drew My Belovedʼs attention was, obviously, the Impressionists — and there were quite  few interesting canvases to study  toward the end of our second- and third-floor wanderings. I even got to play my game of finding out how far away the painting leaped into real-life clarity and focus (amazingly far away, even in different rooms for several). I also enjoyed the earlier French artists — Delacroix, Corot and Courbet (all of whom found spacious discussion previously here on the blog). On this visit, although a few of the guards (mostly stout, middle-aged and older women) watched me getting my intrusive nose perhaps too close to some canvases, I didnʼt come near to actually touching anything.

the (admittedly uninteresting-to-foreigners) historical nobility (southern) half of the Heroes Square monument

Legendary and historical kings on Heroes Square

The mounted Magyars on the central spire, Heroes Square

Eventually, art-weariness began to make things seem less and less intriguing for this day (a false, subjective impression bred from too-muchness at any museum), and we found our way back to the steps we had come up several hours earlier. However, in the lobby (where we had paid our admission, now filled with various groups of people, plentiful schoolchildren) I noticed that a pair of large doors led off to the Greek and Roman antiquities, and we went in there (me a bit trepidatious that perhaps this wing required an extra fee — it didnʼt).

Now The Lovely One has had more than enough of Greek vases — red-figure, black-figure and polychrome — from our visits to the British Museum, where she may also have gotten more than she wanted of examining the Lindow Man, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but she does like the sculpture and enjoys mosaics (after our visit to Volubilis in Morocco back in 1984). And we ended up spending another hour-plus amidst (yes) vases (all three kinds, but a limited number) of many varieties (of use), among which I pointed out amphorae to her, and lots of Roman statues or assorted fragments thereof (also true of the vases).

Pleasantly, almost no other visitors bothered to take in these genuine antiquities, and the gentle quiet made these final rooms a real highlight of our visit… for both of us (even with vases examined, sometimes minutely, by one of us).

The heroic couple atop the central spire, Heroes Square

Unlike yesterday, my own shot of Mucsarnok, the Music Hall

But then we descended again to retrieve our belongings and depart, in order to check out the monument(s) of Heroes Square, erected like so much else in Budapest for the millennial celebrations of 1896 (which is also why so many things in the city are 896 feet and/or meters high). We toured around the two sets of historical “heroes,” the first, older group on our side (toward the Museum of Fine Arts) being legendary and historical kings and the other group comprising lesser-known Hungarian nobles. I was reading from Rick Steves and either Frommer or DK, trying to be more informed and informative than had been our experience on Saturday over on Castle Hill. It was, however, actually raining, and our studies began to feel uncomfortably wet, even after we drew out the umbrellas (difficult to hold one and read from a guidebook), so after perhaps only a half hour or so, we headed off the large plaza to find again the Vőrös tere Metro stop and descend into the bowels beneath the streets.

We were headed back under Andrassy út toward the river…

Again, more to come… someday…

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Ha. Further Budapest. Day 5 — “At the Museum, part one”

Although I had planned to provide information on how we celebrated My Belovedʼs birthday in the post immediately next after her birthday, I discovered in uploading and editing my smartpenned stuff today that I really had a full post on about half of our fifth day in Budapest already done. It may leave us all in a less-than-suspenseful drone of tedium (and I donʼt really have much for pictures on this visit, me preferring not to expose antique art to excruciating flashes of unnecessary light) with more museum stuff to reveal (hopefully with decent quickness), but it keeps me going on this series I hope to complete. Eventually.

It is October 25, 2011…

Our little kitchenette in the room, ready for our breakfast — amazingly, on the day in question

Mucsarnok, the Music Hall on the far side of Heroes Square from the Museum of Fine Arts

So Tuesday was our museum day. We got up in good time (well, good time for us on vacation — 8:00 AM) to breakfast lightly (weʼd run out of the grapefruit we had purchased in the Great Market Hall on Friday afternoon, but we had replenished supplies with some bread and yogurt; we intended to see about more croissants later today, maybe more fruit, too). We were on our way just after 9:00, walking across Deák to take the Metro out to Hősök tere, on the closest side of Városliget (City Park). We wanted to visit Heroesʼ Square but the Museum of Fine Arts (Szepmüveszeti Múzeum) was right there, too.

This was another gloomy day. The wet continued, having trouble deciding between mist, drizzle and rain. So far, mist and drizzle apparently prevailed. At Deák, we descended beneath, passing by the ticket vendor to go further below (brief shades of Underground stops in London) for the red line out Andrassy út. Not much for crowds, the business day having begun, we waited (very) briefly for an outbound train, stepped aboard and shuddered away. Eight stops I had counted, the sixth being Oktagon. And eight stops it was. My usual problem upon resurfacing is a loss of orientation (which would almost become a little problem later that day).

However, Heroes Square was a huge expanse of paved plaza, larger by maybe a magnitude than I had imagined, and a map showed us which side was the museum and which the music hall (the redbrick Mucsarnok being cuter, embellished with attractive illustrated architectural lozenges of muses and, I seem to recall, at least one lyre). We crossed streets to the square to figure out our destination and across a wide boulevard to the museum, mounting the steps to the door as one of the very first visitors of the day (the museum opens at 10:00).

Szepmüveszeti Múzeum — The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest — the skies were thoroughly and wetly not blue on October 25, 2011

Another of my travel shortcomings is a less than complete preparation for each dayʼs sights and activities. I buy the travel guides — sometimes, as with Prague, too many of them — but never seem to study them closely or attentively enough to really be prepared (and I used to reprimand students for their ill-finished homework or retention of material). Just now, writing, I checked the Frommer guide to verify the opening time, but I donʼt remember doing that back in October in the heat of the moment, and I recall some trepidation, hoping the museum truly was open as we arrived. Foolish mortal, me.

The Dutch room (which we will get to later), but typical in appearance to most of the rooms

We negotiated entrance purchases all right (although English seemed less fluent here than in more touristy venues) and passed from the lobby to basement level to stow our bags and my vest (security concerns). Then we wandered up and up a big, wide flight of marble steps on the outside of a vast interior courtyard.

Museum maps in hand, partially understood, we took a stab on the first entrance to our left on the long corridor onto which the stairs debouched and found ourselves in medieval art — lots of altar pieces and agonized but fairly bloodless crucifixions (they got less spiritually exalted and more bloodily realistic as we passed further forward in historical time). Religious art holds only limited appeal for The Lovely One, while my own tastes pedantically run a wider gambit… Or else I lack the imagination to realize that an overplus of less interesting art, however garish with gilt, may weary my powers of observation for more fascinating (and complex) works later in the museum visit (and in this case, later in art history). Whatever the distinctions, she drifted on ahead of me, eventually by more than one room, as I tried to appreciate (uninformed except by observation) techniques, media and (comparatively and by contrast) subjects.

So for an hour or so we ground minutely forward in historical time, and my attention and appreciation somewhat evaporated… altarpiece by altarpiece, spreadeagled Christ after Christ, agonized saint after martyred saint, gilt after gilt after paint. Italy, Germany, Holland and other Euro-locations.

tbc… ASAP

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest Day 3 — National Holiday (part 1)

Today, finally, I have the start of my continuation of the Budapest trip (late October 2011). The most recent piece, on our Saturday, the second day in town, was here.

Crowds gathering for the National Holiday, October 23 — a gray and drizzly day — the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube in the distance

Sunday had been our day of dread (to be over-the-top in my expression) since I had discovered during my hurried, brief stint of rushed research that October 23 was a major national Hungarian holiday — commemorating the 1956 uprising (savagely suppressed) against communist rule (eternally enshrined, at least for Janet and me, in the Chess anthem “1956 — Budapest is rising”). Our previous experience with European holidays indicated everything could be closed for the day. And it was a Sunday, too. Furthermore, when we had raised the holiday issue with the charming desk staff at the hotel, all three girls reacted strangely and mentioned “demonstrations — not to worry” (demonstrations, evidently, about which we knew nothing) before assuring us that restaurants would be open and that the staff world advise us of available attractions to seek on the holiday. 

Saturday night, when we returned from dinner and the concert, the girl at the desk stopped us to offer a sheet of paper with about a dozen things to do — all of which took us tourists out of downtown, where the demonstrations would occur. I think three of those destinations were baths, so perfectly Hungarian, as my reading back in Iowa had quickly taught me, but my beloved and I had pretty well decided, packing, that we wouldnʼt include bathing gear. Sure, a mistake — Rick Steves would be nasily disappointed. We were depriving ourselves of an experience. Even so, me particularly not imagining myself getting mostly naked, I thought we might at least see the Gellért or Széchenyi baths from the outside. After all, as long as the offices were open during the holiday, we were intending to buy transit passes first thing on Sunday and get much further out and about than we had so far. 

Sunday came rain. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear rain falling outdoors.* Looking out from the living area, even my unbespectacled eyes could see the streets and masonry glistening and catch hints of the precipitation in the globular halo of streetlights. By morning (well, very late morning; apparently jet lag caught us up overnight, and we both slept from sometime after midnight until 11:30 AM), the rain had diminished to drizzle and less, but it was a gloomy, dark and chilly day — sadly so after the cloudless brilliance of the day before. Tourists, committing themselves to be outdoors, more or less, throughout the day, never really like to see it rain. But this present morning (okay, nearly noontime) damp seemed very much diminished from my blind experience in the night, and besides I had planned us to be bus borne or trolley-carried or civic-spelunking on the metro (maybe, I dreamed, on the suburban train half an hour northward to the Roman ruins of Aquincum — a dream because we never got there, not this trip). 

After morning ablutions and a bit of breakfast bread and fruit with instant coffee**, we descended the steps to the lobby so I could verify at the desk that public transit would be running and the ticket vendors present. The girlʼs reaction to my inquiry came close to “Duh. What else?” but quite polite — she assured me the transit workers and the police would be on the job today. 

GoogleMaps™ rendition of our Pest neighborhood; the hotel is marked in red, Deák tér in blue

So we set off outdoors, finding only mist in the air, through wet streets to Deák Tér. Although we had been that way once before, I wasnʼt sure just what park was Deák tér (this one mostly an open, paved square) nor just where the metro entrance was (I assumed, correctly, the tickets were inside the subway station). Our problem was that although I could, using one of our tour guide maps, steer us toward Deák Tér, passing along the edge of Erzsébet tér (where it seemed protesters or celebrators were setting up for some kind of apparently major event, supervised by police — lots of police and yellow cop tape everywhere, even along streets), I couldnʼt exactly find Deak tér. I had come to believe, more or less correctly, that a tér (“square”) was a park, like Erzébet or Roosevelt tér along the river in front of the Gresham Palace. I was forgetting, however, that the equivalent namešti (in Czech) in Prague were large open, paved areas with three to six streets converging more or less at the corners. Deák tér seems like an excessively large intersection with some bits of park and a big church (the Great Synagogue) at various edges of the street, and a tram line running through the middle of the major big, wide, multilane boulevard. Fortunately, in one green area a cheese festival had been set up for the weekend, temporary booths and Sunday crowds drawing Janetʼs attention. 

Festival meant park, and some serious damp study eventually revealed to my worried scrutiny that the stairwells leading down were more than just a pedestrian underpass for crossing the big, wide, busy avenue. We discovered, in fact, when we descended a whole expansive mall-like area with shops and food stands. But at first no metro. However, the general flow of people and a lucky guess led me to the transit ticket booth. I had tried to prepare a full Hungarian sentence, requesting our seven-day passes, which in the stress of the real encounter degenerated into, “weekly pass, two,” for which I belatedly remembered to switch my gesture for the number to the European thumb and forefinger. The woman behind the glass answered in passable, minimal English and showed me the amount to pay on a calculator. In less than a minute we had our passes for bus, tram, metro and local suburban train.

* (We nightly opened a window for the fresh air, exactly as we had with the small portals in our garret in Prague, but here in Pest we had no pigeons to worry about. They had flapped at the opening in Prague threatening to but not actually entering, forcing us to keep the windows almost but not quite closed there. In Pest, we kept the opening small mostly from a sense of security.)

** (great stuff they stocked for our kitchenette each day: I enjoyed a cocoa-coffee blend and even brought a couple baglets home to enjoy one of these wintry days)

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.


500 Words

An interesting year closes tomorrow night. 

A year ago I was completely involved in my quest to post something daily here on the blog. I did so, and not so surprisingly (at least to me) I havenʼt even posted 150 times this year (considerably less than half the possible days). Things change?

A year ago I had no connection to the USDA nor any awareness of the emerald ash borer. Boy, did that situation change. And I am looking forward to renewing that relationship (both with the bug-hunt and the governmental agency), Congressional asininity permitting.

Last year I was trying to dictate as many words to the computer as I could. Just now I am excited about uploading handwriting into editable text.

A year ago, we had nearly (or more than) a foot of snow on the ground. This year everything is gray and brown — bare and possibly more depressing than a white winter (of course, before the last three years, we went through a phase of winters that often had no snow until January, or very close thereto).

A year ago, thanks to a Christmas gift, I was listening nearly nonstop to the Allman Brothers (again, after an almost forty-year gap). I donʼt think Eat a Peach or Live at the Fillmore has played since April. Lately, not having been able to afford the complete (huge) Europe ʼ72 live Grateful Dead box, I have been listening a lot to the two of those concerts I did purchase. And some new/old Rolling Stones — The Brussels Affair, pretty good music. And (potential blog topic here) Joe Grushecky. Yes, Mozart, Miles Davis and Bob Marley, too. Clapton (in various guises). Bach. A 2011 Christmas gift means Jefferson Airplane, as well.

A year ago I imagined I would have completed my NaNoWriMo 2010 novel, and I just realized I havenʼt added a word in the last twelve months (and my performance for November this year was so crapulous I know I will be discarding just about all those words). Sad.

A year ago I was hopeful that the relatively new phone-line filter Qwest technicians had installed would make my internet experience smooth. As I recently reported — no such luck. (Thanks for nothing, CenturyLink. And by the way, my bill still says I am paying for “high-speed internet with MSN.”  Didnʼt MSN die?*)

I felt pretty self-satisfied, a year ago, and optimistic about myself and my writing. Then I wasted what time I could have given to writing until I was working ten hours a day, on the road. And then I made only feeble efforts to get the gusto back. 

I had no big new yearʼs resolutions in mind a year ago. But I feel as though I had better make some seriously significant changes now (at least I have been getting my large and lazy arse out of bed for some time hitting the streets these past mornings — but weʼll just have to see if that reluctant effort persists).

A year ago things to me looked pleasingly bright. Right now, the view seems pretty bleak.

So why am I smiling?

* MSN did die. I got an e-mail announcement of the demise/change. The software no longer works on Janetʼs Windoze laptop; she has to get her e-mail using Hotmail (on Firefox). The web siteʼs free. To anyone, whether they pay money unnecessarily to CenturyLink or not — disbelievers should just click the link above. (I really do have a long phone call to endure, complaining, soon.)

Okay. With the footnotes, this is definitely more than just 500 words.

And the much-delayed explanation behind this recent flurry of posts is coming tomorrow (really; it would have been today, as previously promised, but I couldnʼt count).

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Pretty Nice Christmas

Margaret nearly buried amidst the wrapping paper

The Lovely One and I traveled to the middle of Our Fair State to celebrate Christmas with my side of the family, departing on Saturday, Christmas Eve, and returning on Monday/yesterday. The drive both directions was lovely — brilliant days with scarcely a cloud in the sky (Christmas itself was utterly clear with a sky of a deep wedgewood-blue. And warm, well over 40°F).

We gathered at my brother Paul (and wife Nancy)ʼs place because, as a minister “Pastor Paul” had work to over those days — even with his co-pastor undertaking her regular duties, he was presiding at a total of four services, two on Saturday (Janet and I attended the rural churchʼs candlelight service that began at 4:00 PM) and two more on Sunday, including the afternoon Spanish service. Meals, times together, Christmas Day stockings and gifts were scattered between trips to church — plentifully. I had a good time and some excellent visits. Janet found this year especially pleasant, too.

David, Jess and Tim

Besides my generation (sister Margaret, the pastor himself and brother David), both of Paulʼs offspring (Rachel and Tim, with Timʼs relatively new wife Jessica enjoying her first Burrow Christmas) were present — nine of us altogether. Our hosts were actually able to get us all around their dining room table at one time, several times (an achievement of which Janet was particularly envious). Maybe we were a bit crowded in the living room for gift opening, but that just made the time more cozily enjoyable. And we even got to each speak with the absent brother Stephen about 6:00 PM on Christmas.

Paul, Janet, Rachel and Nancy

As the photos reveal, sharing British-style (China-produced) Christmas crackers has become a favorite part of the Burrow Christmas stocking stuffing. Although the crackers usually donʼt pop when pulled, we love putting all our crowns (contained within the cracker) on our heads (mine atop my Guinness cap) as we read the lamely punning riddles and check out the little “presents” that also spill out when the ends of the cracker get pulled apart. I have a little, plastic three-inch ruler that might actually come in handy.

Christmas Day was a wildly enjoyable time. Trite, but, tritely, true, too.

Isnʼt that an ash? — The cerulean Christmas sky beyond a tree in the parsonage yard.

And it didnʼt hurt that, even though My Beloved and I had agreed on “no presents” between the two of us this year, I made out like a bandit, including ironically two live Jefferson Airplane albums (that I hadnʼt even specifically asked for, from Rachel, which I am listening to as I type — just not on the computer, natch) and an iTunes gift card. Harold Lamb Cossack adventures, Guinness, The Moonstone on DVD and a Joseph Smith biography completed my personal portion of the hoard. The Lovely One may have done even better, and weʼll be eating on on several restaurant gift certs. I believe my spouse feels as lushly rewarded this Christmas as I do.

I hope everyone else felt as over-satisfied with their hauls.

Then, once this pair of Burrows had cruised back across half our state home, Janet and I opened the presents from her side of the family. The plethora and over-plus of generous abundance persisted bountifully. Among other treats, I am contemplating for suppers this week several recipes from the Sheryl Crow cookbook Janet received, and my hands are warm in my new fingerless wool gloves, typing this, as I ponder how to spend a new B&N gift card. Wow. (And thereʼs more, but Iʼll restrain my greedy gloating.)

Anyway, the best part was seeing so many relatives (both sides — counting our visit to Janetʼs folks the previous weekend).

My best seasonal wishes to everyone out there (a little belated, perhaps).

Now the lengthening days bring us toward the yearʼs end…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

The 2011 Christmas Letter

Yes, like so many other Americans, The Lovely One and I indulge in an annual Christmas letter reprising the presumed highlights of the year gone by. My parents began the tradition fifty years ago (more?), and at least some of the time all of their offspring have continued to perpetrate the subliterary ritual. Since I promised, unwittingly mextatextualizing, to post the letter here so the recipients could see the included pictures in a larger format, here is the missive we mailed out with our cards a week or ten days back…

Happy Holidays, One and All!

For the first time in several years, the world is not white with snow, and although today is pretty chilly, weʼre looking forward to highs in the forties about mid-week. Furthermore, itʼs bright and sunny today, the grass is green, and itʼs time to get this thing written once again for your pleasure or instant dismissal to the paper-recycling basket.

Janet and Miss Jones

Janet’s job at Cottingham & Butler continues as demanding as ever, still serving two masters, both the Chairman-and-CEO and the President. Once again, it was her original boss, the CEO, John, who provided the most interesting event to relate. This year he and his wife Alice both turned eighty, and John wanted to celebrate in lavish style, renting the Dubuque country club and inviting live talent to perform. Of course, much of the preparations fell not to him or Alice, rather to his trusty executive assistant, and Janet had her hands more than full for the first months of 2011, planning, arranging, supervising, coordinating and presenting the Big Bash.

First, she had to find possible entertainers and fairly rapidly produced a short list of available artists for her boss to winnow down to one — Broadway legend and former Partridge Family matriarch Shirley Jones. Then came negotiations with Miss Jonesʼs agent (and stars, even septuagenarians, do have their requirements that the host site must oblige, including temporary housing and technical specifications like stage size and lighting — for all of which of course Janet had to arrange the provisions, which meant next she was lining up technicians for sound, stage and lights, not simple on relatively short notice). Then there were guest invitations and responses (and in some cases re-invitations and/or personal phone calls when this or that close friend of the Butlers neglected to respond) and further arrangements or re-arrangements as the Big Bash drew closer and closer. Finally, Janet discovered she herself (and spouse) were also on the invitation list — mostly so she (and as it happened I) could handle last-second details or issues, as we did, including the seating chart that John and Alice only provided in rough form the morning of the party, April 30, and the arrangement of the tables themselves. We even served as house light operators for a key moment during Miss Jonesʼs performance, and Janet, as she had known for many weeks, acted as the starʼs dresser.

Although the day of the Big Bash was a busy one for both of us, it was an exciting and delicious (for me — Janet didnʼt get to eat her meal, having to depart the party room to prepare the talent to perform) fête, and Shirley Jones was not only talented and effervescent but delightful and personable, as were her accompanist and stage manager/technical director. We got to sleep in a (for us, free) hotel room that night, late, while the Butlersʼ driver Cal chauffeured the accompanist to OʼHare and then returned to deliver Shirley and her manager to the Dubuque airport. It was an exciting, unique experience.

Janet had also arranged another major production for 2011, this one for us. Serving on the board of directors for The Grand Opera House in Dubuque, she had begun to feel a little pressure from her board peers to perhaps do something artistic for the theater, like in particular… direct a play. So she put us down to direct One Flew over the Cuckooʼs Nest this year, commencing in August with performances ending September and beginning October — perhaps hoping to build from my experience in the Maquoketa Peace Pipe Players production from 2010 (please consult your meticulously maintained files of previous Christmas missives for details on that, naturally). We were delighted by the large turnout for auditions and the astonishing level of talent from which we could choose. The group we wound up with (after some days of negotiating and dismissing difficult or timid former choices) was just about as perfect as we could wish.  We also enjoyed a talented, organized stage manager in operatic Megan Gloss, who kept the cast and us on track and productive. Departing Grand technical director Keith Ahlvin made me a lifelong admirer (and even friend) by his ingenuity and creative scenic design and construction (on which I worked daily throughout September). Weʼre excited we may get to see Keith on his new job at the Adler Theater in Davenport when we go to experience Mannheim Steamroller on December 21. Rehearsals went swimmingly, even with the night we were exiled to the alley outside the theater for another group inside, and the show was a moderately attended, scintillating success.

August had also marked what we had hoped was the end of many weeks work on our upstairs bathroom (it wasnʼt, and as I type this, I really should be finishing the paint job in that room). In July Janet consulted with a local business to install a new countertop and sink and put new flooring in our bathroom (we got so excited about the wood laminate products that we also re-did our kitchen/dining room floor). She arranged as well to have the cabinets refinished before it became my obligation to paint the chambre du toilet (that convenience was likewise replaced with a modern extended-bowl, low-water model). A period of forgetful laziness (and play practice) preceded our sanding, caulking and preparation of walls and joints for the paint job I hope to complete by the time you read this. My retirement years continue to feature major and pleasant improvements to our home.

outside Parliament

Our biggest pleasure of the year was an almost spur-of the-moment weekʼs vacation in mid-October. We had toyed with what to do and where to go once our Dubuque play had wrapped, focusing mostly on western New York and perhaps Niagara Falls, but serious investigation revealed that prices for that potential driving trip were going to be sky-high — exorbitant enough that when Janet ironically searched costs for a week in Paris or, really having a lark, Budapest, she found that we could in fact spend a lovely week in the Hungarian capital for considerably less than the Finger Lakes region. She learned this two weeks before her vacation time was to begin, the day before she took off to Wisconsin for her annual Festivus getaway with her sister Diane. Fortunately or un-, when she told me about Budapest, I said we should just go for it, completely unprepared and almost utterly unplanned. And we did, booking the trip (air and hotel) that very evening.

looking across the Chain Bridge and Danube from Buda at Pest

Ten days of frantic research and packing brought us to OʼHare and a joyless flight overseas on United (now near the dregs, the bottom of our list of friendly skies) improved by our dawn-hour Lufthansa hop from Frankfurt to Budapest. We spent seven nights in the cities united across the Danube, enjoying both the reconstructed historic Buda side on the hills and the busy, modern Pest side where we roomed. Food was wonderful (gotta love that paprikash! And those “meat pancakes,” too!), sights were scenic (even when overcast or rain-drenched), the people we met were friendly and enthusiastic, and we had a glorious time — visiting the castle and the former nobles region in Buda, buying foodstuffs and presents in the Great Market Hall, wandering streets and byways, visiting the Jewish Quarter and the Great Synagogue as well as St. Istvánʼs Basilica and Mattyas Church, plus classic coffeehouses (fin de siecle, neo-Baroque gilded gloriosity and bookish paneled elegance preserved and restored). And did I mention the food? Flying home on Lufthansa restored our preference for European airlines (free and tasty meals, free booze, legroom) after the SwissAir disappointment from Prague two years ago. I am trying to complete a travelogue on my blog with more complete details and plenty of pictures, which you may check out or ignore. We had a fantastic time.

trapper John

And why wait until October for vacation, as appears to have become our habit since I left education? First, I spent nearly six weeks substitute teaching this year. Almost the entire month of March I effectively had my old Andrew job back when the current teacher had to take time off as her father died, and that particular segment of the school year meant that I got to renew my experience with both large group and individual speech contest and directing the spring play (the school generously paid this poor sub somewhat more for all those many, many extra hours). Fortunately for me, the kids were also generous and forgiving of this old man, so the time went quite well. But my earnings for the year went further. Around Valentineʼs Day, a friend suggested me for a job with the USDA; when I followed his lead, I got a quick interview and a definite offer as a “seasonal bug trapper.” I was the front line to contain the spread of the emerald ash borer (about which thereʼs plenty of information online if you just google that bug by name or even “EAB”). I spent half of April and all of May, June, July and August in my government-owned vehicle on the roads and sometimes highways of Clinton, Jackson and eastern Dubuque counties, four ten-hour days a week — creating and hanging large, sticky cardboard traps and then returning to check for bugs and replenish the lure inside to attract more insects, finally visiting each site one last time in August to check again and remove the traps. I learned much about the differences between many kinds of trees (ashes being the only variety in which I was supposed to be interested) and between many, many kinds of bugs — none of which on my traps were actually emerald ash borers. It was a definite adventure, and I now know more about the back byways of eastern Iowa than I ever thought I would. I also had five days working on the currently more serious gypsy moth campaign. Again, if interested, you can find much more on the blog. I am excited that if federal funding exists, I get to do not quite the same again next summer.

And looking ahead seems an auspicious note on which to leave this yearʼs Christmas letter. We aspire for more pleasant adventures for us and for all of you in Maya-calendar-ending 2012.

For the present, we hope this festive season finds you and yours all happy and healthy. We wish you all well and would like to see you any time.

on the cruise boat, our last day in Budapest

Janet wishes these letters were even shorter than they are (this one ran two pages, with pictures, of ten-point Palatino), but I didnʼt name other deserving participants in the play, or mention seeing family (Margaretʼs visit for One Flew over the Cuckooʼs Nest, for instance, and nephew Timʼs wedding to his bride Jessica), provide quick updates on siblingsʼ lives, or mention other news from other relatives.

Thatʼs 2011, folks.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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Reviewing Bliss Hungarian Style

Pest from the Castle in Buda, featuring Széchenyi lánchid across the river toward our hotel (hiding behind the elegant Four Seasons Gresham Palace)

We returned from Hungary successfully. And our flight home was infinitely less aggravating than our return from Prague two years ago (which does have a downside — I came away from OʼHare two years ago with a story idea, almost completed, for the Tourist; no one annoyed me enough to devise a means to fictitiously kill him or her this time, unlike the pompous slick who mercilessly reclined his seat into my face the entire flight, thus earning an excremental demise by drowning, outside baggage claim, in my short story*).

The recent trip was a lovely experience. I now know what all those items in the image I used from Wikipedia are — namely: an aerial view of Buda Hills across Parliament and the Danube from Pest, the Chain Bridge—south side with one of the lions, Heroes Square at the end of Andrássy út, Parliament viewed from a boat on the Danube, Fishermanʼs Bastion north of the castle in Buda, St. István Bazilika in Pest (quite near our hotel), and finally a view up the river toward Margaret Island from Gellért Hill in Buda. Since I really didnʼt know any of those things before the trip, the awareness now is pleasant.

Anticipating our time this October might be too reminiscent of Prague, we harvested instead an entirely new set of treasured memories along the Danube. Budapest was extraordinary and interesting, lively, and although not as antique as Prague (having suffered destruction repeatedly over its history, particularly in the closing months of World War Two) still romantic and exotic to dulled Midwestern eyes (even if reconstructed recently).

tram tracks and trees along the Danube, Eótvos tér, heading “homeward” toward the hotel

Travel books had warned us that Hungarians might seem stand-offish and remote, even officious (as Czechs had also felt), but we experienced none of that, meeting pleasant people who did their jobs well and folks who spoke with us and helped us out if necessary. Although I did study my Hungarian handbook and memorized important sentences to say in nearly a dozen situations, none of it was necessary. Everyone with whom we spoke or had dealings possessed some level of English sufficient to their and our needs. My feeble pronunciation and probably grammarless constructions earned faint smiles and quick English responses every time, except with our cab driver to the airport on the final morning. The hotel had called to schedule the cab for us the previous morning, and because it is a German chain (Starlight Suiten), the cab company dispatched a driver with German but no English. Even so, we communicated, and he enthusiastically accepted my payment and “Köszönöm”** with an unexpectedly warm handshake.

The city was beautiful, interestingly mixing restoration of past glories (like the Rick-Steves-criticized Royal Palace aloft in hilly Buda or the sturdy Chain Bridge/Széchenyi lánchid over the Duna*** and just across Roosevelt tér [park] near our hotel) with contemporary energy and industry. We loved the food (all except one Rick Steves recommendation that was our worst meal of the trip, ranking below even airline eating — not to ridicule the renowned Rick whose book, along with DK and Fodor, did steer us well usually). The people were wonderful. The sights and experiences were invigorating and vividly memorable. We had a marvelous time.****

(And I have absolutely nothing appropriate to say for this day, Halloween.)

* I guess that the opportunity to review what lies where and in which order in the passport clearance—>baggage claim—>customs experience arriving in Chicago helped with the old tale, however.

** “Thank you,” which I hope I pronounced keu-seu-neum (with those eus like French neuf, accent, as with every Hungarian word, on the first syllable).

*** Danube

**** Yes, we wish we were there… And I will have much more to say about the trip (perhaps in too much detail, again) in days to come.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.