Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bicoastals before they Knew They Were

Tarnoff's new book is now available in paperback
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers who Reinvented American Literature.  By Ben Tarnoff.  The Penguin Press, $17 for the paperback edition.

The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary defines “bicoastal” as “occurring or existing on both coasts, esp. on both the E and W coasts of the U.S.”  This dictionary and other lexicographers consider the word to have arrived in the 1970’s. 

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians chronicles the lives of Americans who were bicoastal before the term was invented.

Tarnoff describes the intersecting careers of four California writers who became prominent in the 1860’s: Mark Twain, Bret Harte, poet Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard, a poet and essayist.  Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard were California natives.  Mark Twain started in Nevada as a newspaper reporter but became a Californian.

In The Bohemians, Tarnoff shows how Twain, Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard created a new American writing that shifted the nation’s literary center of gravity from Emerson and the New England writers to the West.  Tarnoff offers several reasons to explain how these writers - - and California itself - - exercised such an outsized influence on contemporary American letters.

Life in the West offered new literary material not found in the East.  As Tarnoff observes, “The land itself inspired a new way of seeing . . . the country beyond the Rocky Mountains was truly another world.”  Twain and Stoddard made their way to Hawaii and the South Seas, finding more exotic experiences not found on the East Coast.  

California achieved a high rate of literacy early in its statehood, which created a vast market of insatiable readers.

Tarnoff is a vivid, well-organized and witty writer.  He shows how the writings of the four authors arose from their individual talent and the times they lived in, telling the reader just enough about each writer’s literary career and placing it on the stage of what was happening in the contemporary society and economy.

Compared to Emerson, Thoreau and other Easterners, Twain, Harte, Coolbrith and Stoddard had hardly any formal education.  They became compelling writers through luck, determination and an immersion in their surroundings.  Of Harte’s view from the window of the Golden Era, a San Francisco literary magazine, Tarnoff observes, “Sometimes all Harte had to do was look out his window.  A ‘small portion of the large world’ passed below.”

Mark Twain, an outsized character, has a tendency to take over any story he gets near.  Tarnoff avoids this peril, usually showing his writers as a quartet.  

When he first started writing in Nevada, Twain often wrote hoax stories; some violated that journalistic rule to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Tarnoff’s account of Twain’s bad behavior early in his career rightfully resets Twain’s reputation with this less well-known information.

Coolbrith became a librarian in Oakland to support her family.  She loved the children she met; her book recommendations to 10-year old Jack London helped shape his writing.  Stoddard, who was likely gay, shuttled between San Francisco and the South Seas and stopped writing.  As they became famous, Harte and Crane became bicoastal, leaving the West Coast for the East. 

Twain and Harte came east by train, an improvement over travel by sailing ship or Conestoga wagon.  If you are jetting between the coasts - - or can’t travel but want the feel of the other coast - - take Tarnoff along.   He chronicles these writers and their work in a fast-paced, delightful and well-organized way!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

New Crowds at Albany Airport

Albany Airport: The parking garage, which has some of the short and long-term parking is on the left; the terminal is on the right.  Photo courtesy of Albany Airport

A few weeks ago, we were at Albany Airport to drop off a traveler.  The lines at Southwest and the security checkpoint were noticeable but our traveler got through them and was at the gate with time to spare.

Then a week later, on Sunday morning, we went to the Airport for a trip to Washington, DC.  The Southwest flight was like a dawn patrol.  It left at 6 AM and we were there an hour before the take off. 

When we arrived at 5 AM, the line at Southwest was nearly out the door.  Dorothy, in a moment of quick thinking, offered to check in the baggage and sent me to wait on the security line.  This line was just as long as the one at Southwest.

By the time Dorothy got to the check in station, she heard a Southwest staffer say the airline was closing baggage acceptance for our flight.  Because I had short sightedly packed items I needed for a conference that day, she did not want to arrive with no luggage and the staffer gave her the bags to go through security.  With a TSA pre-board she got through security fairly quickly.  I got through security, too, but was so close to the flight boarding time that I ran to the gate with belt and shoes in my hands. 

Because of this near miss with the plane, I contacted Doug Myers at the Albany Airport, to ask him about what might be causing the longer line. 

“Albany Airport,” Myers explained, “is an origination and destination airport, rather than a hub.”   “As a result, lines ebb and flow during the day.”  “Further,” he explained, “the Airport is generally seeing more traffic with the economic recovery, a 5.5 percent increase in enplanements since 2008, and the arrival of Jet Blue is attracting more passengers.”

Myers has observed the lines become especially crushing on Monday and Tuesday mornings and Sunday evenings, with the crowds driven by business travelers and returning vacationers.  The long lines we were in seemed to be mostly vacationers headed for Florida’s warmth - - although temperatures in that state have not been that much hotter than the Capital Region until recently - - and people headed for Vegas.

The trend towards longer lines is not likely to end soon.  Myers observed that when Jet Blue began service in Albany, “the load factors were above national averages.”  Jet Blue may spur more air travel on other airlines.  When a low-cost carrier enters a market, it introduces competition and motivates existing airlines to offer lower fares, which will persuade some non-fliers to take off.

Myers advises travelers to give themselves an hour and a half instead of an hour.  “If equipment at the security checkpoint breaks, the lines can back up and lines can stack up for check ins, he observed.” With the greater travel volume and the arrival of Jet Blue, Capital Region air travel can no longer be mocked as “Smalbany.” 

The arrival of Jet Blue at Albany Airport has also added to crowds at the Airport.
Photograph courtesy of Albany Airport

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Real Story about Ground Hog Day!

A sleeping bear, courtesy of LaggedOnUser

Over the last week, I have been reading Alf Evers’ magisterial history, The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock.  His well-written book is filled with surprises, reading it is like coming around a corner on a hike and finding something surprising. 

A surprise that a hiker or angler does not wish to have is to come around a corner meet a bear.  Evers, who died in 2004, has a chapter on bears near the halfway point in his book.  Some of the stories concern unexpected people/bear encounters in the woods; did you know that poorly sung hymns can be useful when meeting a bear?

But the most amazing thing in this chapter is the real story of Ground Hog Day.

In popular culture, February Second is celebrated as Ground Hog Day.  Depending on whether the ground hog sees a shadow, winter will drag on or end mercifully soon.

According to Evers, however, the ground hog is a late arrival to this tradition.

In the Catskills, Evers writes, February second was celebrated “until well into the twentiethĵ century . . . as “Bear’s Day.”  He goes on to quote an account of this holiday from the Reverend Charles Rockwell’s 1867 book, The Catskill Mountains.

On February second, Rockwell wrote, “bears wake from winter sleep, come forth from their dens, take a knowing observation of the weather for a few minutes and then retire to their nests . . . “  “It is further claimed,” he wrote, “that if the sky is clear . . . and the weather is cold . . . they sleep quietly on until the first of April, thinking the cold weather will continue thus long. . . if the weather is mild and cloudy, they look for an early spring.”

When I mentioned Bear’s Day to several friends, they all had a similar reaction. “If it’s Bear’s Day,” one wag said, “you can’t reach into the den and pull the bear out can you?  Ha Ha Ha.” 

Reverend Rockwell had an answer to this one.  It was possible to learn what the bear saw from seeing tracks entering and leaving the bears den.  It was also based on observing tame bears that Colonel Lawrence kept at his tavern in Kiskatom. 

Why do we celebrate February second with an allegedly cute and rolly poly rodent?  Evers suggests bears became scarce in the nineteenth century as Catskill wilderness was rolled back by farms and loggers and hunters killed them. 

Ground hogs typically must live in sunny meadows and fields.  The farmer and hunter set up the conditions for the bear to fade away and for the ground hog to capture the holiday. 

If we went back to Bear’s Day, ground hogs - - and people - - might be happier.  A bear’s large size commands respect and emphatically tells people to keep a distance. 

By contrast, ground hogs can be unpredictable; in New York City, the Staten Island Zoo celebrates the day with a ground hog named Staten Island Chuck.  In 2009, Chuck bit former Mayor Bloomberg.  In 2014, Mayor De Blasio dropped Chuck’s stand-in, Staten Island Charlotte.  In 2015, Jimmy the ground hog bit Mayor Jonathan Freund on the ear at the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin celebration. 

After these stories, remind me again.  Why I think people will be less inept around bears than ground hogs?