Monday, June 01, 2020

River Cruise Diary – Basel, Switzerland

Day 1 of a 16-day getaway is totally devoted to just getting away. After the overnight flight to Frankfort, we needed a second flight to Basel. Bad News – Lufthansa flights within Germany are grounded due to a labor dispute. Welcome to Europe. Good News – Lufthansa flights Germany are still good to go. Once in Basel later that morning, we were there until the following afternoon when the sail downstream began. There was a walking tour and enough free time to explore on our own.

Basel Street Scene (7 November 2019) 

Located at the point where France, Germany and Switzerland come together, Basel is a thriving center of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Though there were earlier settlements in the area, serious occupation began with the Romans. After a number of barbarian conquests, the area settled into the Holy Roman Empire in 1032.

Basel Carnival (7 November 2019) 

We happened to be in Basel at the same time as a serious street festival. Many public spaces were occupied with amusement rides and carnival attractions. I appreciated that the giant Ferris wheel was dedicated to my wife Becky.

Basel Cathedral (7 November 2019) 

It seems every ancient European city of any size has a grand church that was the center of religious and civic life for centuries. Basel is no exception. Having seen a few by now, I can say that in terms of size and grandeur, the cathedral here is not all that extraordinary. However, the church is quite old, having been consecrated in 1019 and is notable as the burial place of Erasmus, the philosopher and Renaissance humanist.

St. Gallen Portal, Basel Cathedral (8 November 2019) 

Given the early origins of the building, significant Romanesque features are evident. The most notable would be the entry on the west side of the building. The St. Gallen portal dates from around 1180. The tympanum shows Christ sitting in judgement…because everyone is either in or out when it comes to the afterlife. Below the judgement is a depiction of the New Testament parable of the ten virgins. The five wise ones on the left brought enough oil for their lamps and are blessed by Christ while the five foolish ones who did not are cast out. It was a popular theme in the Middle Ages that drove home the need to always do the right thing because you never know when Judgement Day will come.

The Misguided Virgin, 
Basel Cathedral (7 November 2019) 

I Got Your Saints Right Here! 
Basel (7 November 2019) 

I had more fun just outside the cathedral. In addition to the wise and foolish virgins above the side door, the virginity theme continues at the main entrance. Here the misguided virgin has fallen under the spell of a seducer (not pictured). She is shown having removed her glove thus revealing too much of that virgin flesh. The shame of it all. Right in front of the church was a bumper car ride with some very secular artwork on it. I couldn’t help but notice the irony.

The Basilisk on the Wettsteinbridge (7 November 2019) 

Representations of this mythical creature are all over the city. A reptilian hatched from a rooster’s egg (I know…roosters don’t lay eggs but this is a myth, after all), the basilisk was bad news. It could kill you by breathing on you or by looking at you. Though not named for Basel, it became the town’s heraldic symbol and is curiously found on many water fountains and troughs.

Rhine River Ferry, Basel, Switzerland (8 November 2019) 

Fabulous low-tech demonstration here. No power required. Called ‘reaction ferries,’ Basel has four of them located between the bridges that cross the Rhine. The boat is tethered to a cable that spans the river. Just turn the rudder on the boat and get dragged to the other side. Just as good and easy today as it was a thousand years ago. 

Basel would be our only stop in Switzerland. We began the cruise by sailing downstream and will wake up the next morning in Strasbourg, France. Stay tuned for images from this memorable Alsatian city.

Friday, May 22, 2020

In Praise of River Cruising

Alright. Enough belly-aching over pandemics, politics and isolation. I need to get away and show places we can no longer visit…for now.

Last November, we completed our fourth European river cruise. Since the May cruise through the Baltic capitals provided ample photo-sharing and story-telling opportunities, I will give this trip the same treatment, but first, the topic needs a general introduction.

I was unaware of this travel option until my in-laws invited us to join them on a trip up France’s Rhone River in 2006. This excursion was on the smallest boat of the four trips…only 43 passengers. The one dining room held all of us together as the staff served French cuisine and wines based on the regions we passed through.

The ‘Chardonnay’ in Avignon, France (22 April 2006)

I was sold from the get-go. European rivers have for centuries been the main arteries of travel, settlement and commerce. There is so much history and architecture to appreciate. Every one of the four trips highlighted Roman activities and remains. Of course, all is not pristine and unspoiled, but if you’re cruising past a cement plant on the port side, you can take a few steps over to the starboard side and appreciate what’s there…because in a few minutes, it will be behind you anyway.

The Iron Gates Gorge on the Danube River (10 April 2017)

Unlike flying or doing 70 on the interstate or a big cruise ship on the open ocean or even a train ride through the countryside, a riverboat is like a scenic walk. One can lounge on the sun deck as the landscape slowly scrolls by and you have time to enjoy what you see. The photographer is able to frame a picture and shoot it a few times if need be.

Parliament of Hungary, Budapest (5 April 2017)

Another neat thing about river cruising…These ancient towns were first-settled on the rivers. Therefore, you are often docked in the oldest, historic quarters. The sights you came to see are frequently within walking distance of the boat.

The vessels that run on European rivers are designed for their waterways, specifically the locks and dams that make the rivers navigable. Many dams are required to create the necessary water depths that allow commercial traffic to operate. Cruise boats are a small fraction of the vessels that use the rivers. These waters are the main routes to deliver products to and from the coastal seaports and central Europe.

In a Lock on the Moselle River (13 November 2019)

Apart from being flat-bottomed with shallow drafts (our last boat was 360 feet long but sat less than six feet below the waterline), the boats are practically inches narrower than the smallest lock they must fit through. Being floating rectangles, it also makes it easier to tie to one another when dock space is limited.

Friendly Neighbors, Cologne, Germany (28 July 2007)

River cruising is about where you are going. It’s particularly nice to be able to unpack your suitcase once and still be in a different destination every day.

This kind of vacationing is not for young families. The boats do not have kid spaces, night clubs, casinos or shopping malls. The ONE bar/lounge is the place for all the briefings, lectures and entertainment. Passengers are older, mostly retired folks so the crew is very attentive. From airport arrival to last departure, they take care of you.

Wertheim, Germany (1 August 2007)

Another enjoyable aspect of river cruising is that each stop (at least on the line we use – Grand Circle) includes a walking tour after which you are free to wander on your own. You can return to sights you were shown or venture further into the new town. Here in Wertheim, I elected to go to the castle fortress ruins on the high ground for a better view of the town, the Main River and our boat.

Coming next will be a series of posts from a trip down the Rhine River that began in Basel, Switzerland and ended in Antwerp, Belgium.

Friday, May 15, 2020

State Capitols – Austin, Texas – Inside

Let’s take a break from plague-related stories and finish what was introduced on February 28, when the Texas capitol and grounds were presented.

The Texas State House is another fine example of the design, materials and craftsmanship that flourished in the post-Civil War period. I was fortunate to have been bitten by the capitol bug at a time shortly after many states put significant resources into restoring their capitols to their former grandeur.

Rotunda, Texas Capitol, Austin (19 June 2008) 

By now, you know I try to take a balanced, symmetrical shot straight up from under the rotunda. The lighting in this cavernous space did not work for my hand-held camera. Here’s a good image of the inner dome on the Wiki page. The Lone Star at the center measures eight feet from point to point and was added in 1958.

Ground Floor Under the Rotunda, 
Texas Capitol, Austin (19 June 2008) 

The terrazzo floor beneath the rotunda features the seals of the nations that have governed Texas since European colonization began in 1519. We East Coast types have a much shorter list…British colonization followed by the United States. Period. Texas was under the flags of Spain, France, Mexico, the Confederacy, and finally, the United States. As the photo confirms, the biggest deal in the hearts and minds of Texans was the nine-year period when it was an independent republic, 1836-45.

Under the Texas Dome, 

Austin (19 June 2008) 

Above the terrazzo, Six Nations floor, the rotunda rises up to the Lone Star, 218 feet overhead.

Along the walkways on three levels above are hung the portraits of the forty-eight governors of Texas, the most recent on the first level. The fourth floor portraits include the presidents of the Republic of Texas with Sam Houston being the first.

Statue of Steven F. Austin by Elisabet Ney (1903) 
Texas Capitol, Austin (19 June 2008) 

Accomplished artist Elisabet Ney moved to Texas from Germany and was commissioned to create statues of Texas founders Sam Houston and Steven F. Austin for the capitol. Houston led the revolution of independence from Mexico and was the republic’s first president. Austin is considered the “Father of Texas” because he was instrumental in the early settlement of the area. Marble copies of the same works are the two Texas contributions to the National Statuary Hall collection in Washington, D.C.

A Mass of Lines and Shapes 
Texas Capitol, Austin (19 June 2008) 

Another image I thought improved as a monochrome.

By the time the 1983 fire damaged the capitol, it held three times as many workers as it was designed for. From that point on, a number of major renovations over the next dozen years restored the 1888-1915 appearance, modernized its infrastructure and added a significant extension of work space…all underground so as not to spoil the views of the capitol.

Texas House of Representatives, Austin (19 June 2008) 

The largest room in the building is the House chamber. The 150 representatives sit at original oak desks with a gallery above them on all sides. On this day a group of lucky school kids were sitting at representatives’ desks getting the kind of civics lesson I wish I had at their age.

Texas Senate (19 June 2008) 

The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate and its 31 members. As with the House chamber, the Senate has been restored to its turn-of-the-century appearance. The walnut desks are original and the room has a grand wrap-around gallery. The chamber is also known as the place for art, as the walls hold some of the oldest and most grandiose paintings in the building.

Detail of ‘Dawn at the Alamo’ by Henry Arthur McArdle (1905) 
Texas Capitol, Austin (19 June 2008) 

Born the year Texas gained independence, the artist in the last few years of his life re-painted this monumental work (8x13 feet) that hangs on the back wall of the Senate chamber. The fire that destroyed the old capitol in 1881 also torched his earlier work. It is a vast panorama of the last day of resistance by the Alamo’s valiant defenders, with various heroes included in the depiction. This portion of the painting is where Davy Crockett is left to swing his empty rifle before he meets his maker. I couldn’t help but notice the Mexican soldiers are shown with villainous looks and are way darker-complected than most Mexicans I know.

Door Hinges, Texas Capitol, Austin (19 June 2008) 

Have to hand it to Texas. When they build a capitol, they go all the way. I didn’t know custom fixtures included these beautiful door hinges. Since most doors are closed, I might never have. Now I wish I had removed that annoying thread that was caught in the works.

The Texas State Preservation Board has a terrific web site with many photographs of the capitol’s interior. If you wish to see many of the grand spaces displayed as 360° controllable, panoramic images, go to this page.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Notes from the Plague – Pictures from Home

Front Patio (1 May 2020)

Being the lazy lout that I am especially after fifteen years of retirement, it seems I have mastered the social-distancing skills mandated during the current pandemic.

It is springtime and the plants have come alive. Fresh green shoots are sprouting. Blooming things are blossoming. I can’t get out to the local public gardens to take woohoo pictures of springtime. But that shouldn’t deter the avid shooter to practice finding images (I’m more of a semi-avid shooter). I can at least step out into the yard and find some scenes to capture. This is a photography blog after all…sort of.

Baby Hostas (28 April 2020)

One way to create some keepers from the yard (or anywhere) is to get in close. There are many reasons to do this. The appeal of minimalism and simplicity is the main one. Also, with wider views, you have to consider backgrounds and unwanted objects in your shot. If you want to go wide, all elements in the composition need to work. Getting in close can eliminate background issues altogether. The image is more about basic shapes and designs. You can find terrific photography books based solely on the fundamental shapes found in Nature.

Our house is on a pie slice-shaped, one-third acre lot on a cul-du-sac. One of its attractions from my perspective was the absence of any lawn…front or back. I have long-standing feelings regarding lawns, as has been documented on these pages in 2015.

Moon Over Ivy (29 April 2020)

One does not require lawns to have a beautiful yard. There are shade-loving ground covers and bushes that do well under a forest canopy. We have some of that here, but we’re never going to be the subject of a ‘House and Garden’ spread. Another reason to get close when looking for images. 

Fresh Fern from Above (29 April 2020)

Another tip, in addition to getting closer to your subject, is shooting straight down. It also eliminates unwanted background objects and that perspective can highlight the shapes and geometries that Nature showcases so beautifully. 

Azalea Blossoms (29 April 2020)

The house came with azalea bushes in the front yard. I have not been the most attentive and nurturing of bush managers in the thirty years we have lived here. I do trim and prune regularly and Beck feeds them…occasionally. The bushes try their best every year anyway, regardless.

This was a good day to take flower pictures. It was bright but overcast so there were no harsh shadows to darken parts of the composition. 

Temple Bell and Japanese Maple (29 April 2020)

I had to crop away the hose that was visible through the fresh Japanese maple leaves. Some years ago, I walked by the bell and moved the clapper to ring it which prompted the huge hornet inhabitant inside to nail me good. Hornets are not to be trifled with.

 Flowering Weeds and the Right Backdrop (2 May 2020)

After taking the pictures on 29 April, I had a light bulb moment that went something like this.

“You idiot. You walk around snapping shots like your usual drive-by, undisciplined self when you KNOW that your tripod and a little time will produce better images.”

Right. This one is probably the best example of how depth of field and sharpness can improve the end result. I had stacked sections of a hickory tree that was taken down last year and a pretty weed sprang up in front of it. The first picture I took was hand-held. I set the ISO (“film speed”) at 1000 and the lens opening at f-14 so there would be enough depth of field to get this relatively flat scene at 1/50th of a second shutter speed.

When I returned with the tripod, I was able to improve the ISO to 200 and the depth of field with an aperture of f-20. The tripod allowed the picture to be made in 1/10th of a second. The difference, while not striking, was quite noticeable. More cracks on the wood were apparent where the earlier shot simply blended the dark lines into the flat wood color.

Moral of the story – You get out of it what you put into it. Quality requires some effort.
Don’t be a lazy-ass.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Notes from the Plague – Chalmette National Cemetery

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, Louisiana (1976)

In 1976, I had lived in New Orleans less than a year. It was also a time when I started to shoot and develop black and white film. As you can see, my interest in cemeteries goes back a long way. On this day, I went to the preserved grounds where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in 1815. The property includes the Chalmette National Cemetery. Created at the end of the Civil War, it is the last resting place for 12,000 Union soldiers.

In the years since, veterans from the Spanish-American War through Viet Nam were interred there. At the time of my visit, I did not know what the “U.S.C.T.” inscription on the grave markers stood for. Seems like the victorious Union wanted to drive home a point by burying their African-American dead here on hallowed Southern ground. ‘U.S.C.T.’ stands for ‘United States Colored Troops.’

Grave of Sarah Fowler
Chalmette National Cemetery, Louisiana (1976)

DIED OCT. 8, 1878

I recall this cemetery because you will see graves that cite the epidemics of that time. Fast forward to now and we are again reminded that we are not immune… epidemics happen…the microbes will always be there. The microbes roll out new models better than Toyota. As long as we’re around, microbes will evolve so they can continue to exploit us. This age of globalization and international travel just makes it easier.

The New York Times reported on April 5, 2020 that 430,000 people flew to the United States on direct flights just from China since the Coronavirus outbreak was first reported at the beginning of the year. Just from China.
When I taught parasitology in graduate school three years before these pictures were taken, I reminded students that the world was shrinking. I emphasized (especially to those self-important pre-med undergraduates) that they had better be able to recognize mysterious, tropical parasites because they were quite likely to see them in the future. I understand that we are dealing with a virus now, not a parasite, but in this age of easy, constant global travel, exposure to exotic diseases is a given.

Grave of Alexander Renshaw
Chalmette National Cemetery, Louisiana (1976)

2nd. Asst. Engineer U.S
Revenue Steamer Wilderness
Died of Yellow Fever
Sept. 1. 1867
In the 20 years
of his age.

Up to the 20th century, yellow fever was a common malady in the South. There would be outbreaks that killed thousands at a time. We were ignorant of the biology then and it took a long time before we knew that it was caused by a microbe transmitted by mosquitos.

Chalmette National Cemetery,
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, Louisiana (1976)

Ignorance appears to be a persistent theme in the history of public health, but it’s not a fault and is true for all of science…all of knowledge. We don’t know what we don’t know until we know it.

Ignoring what we DO know can be a problem. Forgetting what we know can be a problem. Arrogantly deciding that we know better regardless of the facts is more than a problem.

I would hope you agree that in times of pandemic and a collapsed economy, we need public support systems with competent leadership. We should expect the central authorities to have the resources, procedures and personnel to manage a disaster. When the disaster is a storm, we expect to be rescued and sheltered until the crisis is over. When the disaster is a plague, I would hope we could minimize death and keep necessary services running. At the time of this writing, I see little indication that our central government is up to the task.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Notes from the Plague – Lessons Learned?

Playground Off Limits, Columbia, MD (7 April 2020)

Self-isolation and social distancing continue. There is little news in the paper or on TV other than about Coronavirus. I have not heard Rudy Giuliani’s name in weeks. The Interweb is awash in toilet paper jokes. This too shall pass…I hope.

When the weather permits, I take a bike ride through the neighborhood. The town has tried to restrict access to facilities that bring people too close together. Even playgrounds and tot lots are off limits.

We’ve had it so good for so long here in modern, Exceptional America. My grandpa told me about things that happened long ago and not since. It’s easy to believe some nasty things would never happen again.

Now, I’m the grandpa…not actually, but I am older than the average bear. I can tell you about the polio scares in the 50’s and how society was tense and social behaviors changed. But polio is an example that actually didn’t happen again here because resources were committed to finding a vaccine. The crippling disease is actually a thing of the past.

But wait.

While polio has been eradicated in the U.S. since 1979, it can still be found in undeveloped parts of the world. In 2003, some religious leaders in Nigeria declared that the polio vaccine was really a way for outside powers to make their children sterile. Extremists even murdered health care workers to prevent vaccinations. That’s how ignorance can kill as easily as the disease.

Oh to be in the Yellow Tape Business, Columbia, MD (7 April 2020)

As I write this, we still have not hit the peak of the curve. When the story of the national response is written, especially with regard to the performance of the president, the conclusions will not be glowing. The president has been slow, inept and willfully ignorant of the science that should support a proper course of action. This is what happens when a ratings-hungry narcissist is in charge and the main qualification for his staff is loyalty rather than expertise.

That means that their priority is NOT telling the president what he needs to hear, but instead keeping anything from him that will upset him. Word is the Toddler in Chief throws tantrums whenever he hears something he doesn’t like. Poor baby.

No Kids Allowed, Columbia, MD (7 April 2020)

When I was a student, way back in the last century, an eminent ecologist, Robert MacArthur, referred to what he called the ‘Titanic Effect,’ our tendency NOT to respond to pressing needs until a disaster happens first.

Better ships were built AFTER the ‘Unsinkable’ ocean liner went down.
Fire protection laws were modernized AFTER the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
My ‘Molotov Cocktail’ Ford Pinto was improved AFTER too many people were incinerated following rear-end collisions (and Ford was sued).

Maybe, when we recover from this pandemic, some common sense will prevail and REAL ‘lessons learned’ will be codified into our national governance. Agencies will be led by experts.  Budgets and resources will be allocated with established policies that reflect their importance to our nation’s health and welfare.

Is that asking too much?

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Notes from the Plague - Remembering Tom Dempsey

As I stay inside, with the Coronavirus pandemic dominating the news…missing games to play and live sports to watch, along comes a story at the intersection of all that. Today’s note takes us back to New Orleans. I lived there from 1975 to 1989.

Tom Dempsey achieved pro football immortality in 1970. It was sad to learn that Tom, six months younger than me, had been in a senior living facility because of Alzheimer’s and dementia that surfaced in 2012. It was Covid-19 that took him out.

He was the place kicker on the sad, woeful, expansion New Orleans Saints. Before they moved into the new Superdome, the Saints played in old Tulane Stadium, on the college campus in uptown New Orleans. His passing reminded me I took some grainy black and white shots of that extinct coliseum.

Tulane Stadium (1975)

In 1970, the team was only three years old and awful…but on this day, Dempsey kicked the longest field goal in NFL history (63 yards) in the last seconds to win one of only TWO games they would take that season. The old field goal record (56 yds) had stood for 17 years and his record held for 43 more before some Denver soccer kicker beat it…by just a yard…in that thin mountain air. Nertz. 

Dempsey Connects from 63 (8 November 1970)
Photo from Bettmann/Bettmann Archives via Google

What made Dempsey special was the fact that he was born with half a foot. He had no toes on his kicking foot and, with a custom-made shoe, employed the old, straight-ahead kicking style…which was the only way footballs were kicked until the soccer players transformed the practice. The man was a brute. Six-two and over 250 pounds and half a foot and no right hand didn’t prevent him from kicking my booty like a routine point-after touchdown.

I happened to play racquetball against Dempsey in 1976…in the middle of his career. He was no longer with the Saints but lived in New Orleans in the off-season. He might have looked like a load on the field but he was an athlete. I was a decent player at the time but not in his class. The one indelible memory from that match is the moment I got in the way of one of his forehand smashes. Getting hit with the ball is common in the game. You try to force your opponent to the back of the court so you can control the front area and make the kill shot that ends the rally. That means you often stand between your opponent and the front wall. Let’s just say that when Tom’s shot hit my back, I saw the front of my shirt pooch outward a bit. I needed a moment to put my internal organs back where they belonged. 

Tulane Stadium (1975)

Before the Superdome, billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, opened in 1975, Tulane Stadium was football Mecca in New Orleans. It was the site of the annual Sugar Bowl on New Year’s and held three of the first nine NFL Super Bowls.

Opened in 1926 and closed in 1975, it held over 80,000 spectators. Demolition began soon after these pictures were taken and was completed in 1980.

Tulane Stadium (1975)

After seeing these old shots again, I thought about being outside for hours in New Orleans weather, sitting on wood benches. I remember during many of the games and concerts I saw in the Dome, thinking ‘Am I glad we’re inside instead of outdoors with the heat / humidity / torrential rain / wet cold / all of the above out there tonight.’ 

Rest in peace, Tom.