All posts by housesandbooks

Ex-journalist who enjoys writing and travel. I spin, knit and weave, and bake a tremendous apple pie. My politics are based on ethics and compassion for the poor. My only religion is kindness to others.

Bloomington’s bad development decisions

Maple Grove apartments dwarf the surrounding houses, as you see to the left.

For at least forty years, the neighborhoods bordering the university have been home to dozens of iterations of ugly boxlike student housing. These buildings appear to have been built with little or no design oversight and were inserted into what had been residential neighborhoods. Any newcomer to the city today would agree that they are a visual blot on the surrounding residential zones.

Ugly from the front, ugly from the side, ugly from the back.
Ugly from the front, ugly from the side, ugly from the back.

You can actually date them by their ugliness, after a fashion: the first-generation rectangular plain boxes with balconies were built earlier in the 1960s, while the faux mansards came somewhat later. But all of them appear to have been built by the early 1970s, at which point the neighborhoods of Elm Heights, Cottage Grove, and East Second, Dunn and Grant (just south of Third) had all been marred beyond recognition.

What were our planners thinking? Was there even city planning back in the 1960s and ’70s? Did anyone protest at the time as their neighborhoods were being uglified? It’s not as though high-rise apartments benefit the overall tone of a residential district, and parking has always been an issue. It’s pointless to argue with the fact that they exist, but when my daydreams turn to what I would do if I were a billionaire, I know at once what I would do. I would buy up every box apartment in order to demolish them and construct new-tech but retro-look foursquares, bungalows and cottages that would restore those neighborhoods to their original look.

A contender for the ugliest apartment building in Bloomington.
One of the bleakest exteriors in Bloomington.

Apparently our community has learned nothing from the repeated mistakes of the past, because our city planners have repeatedly approved poorly conceived high-rises throughout our downtown core.

I mean, WTF? Who thought this was acceptable in terms of looks????
I mean, WTF? Who thought this was acceptable in terms of looks????

Although Bloomington does have design guidelines, the city planners have granted so many exceptions in the past decade that it basically amounts to spot-zoning….which was what the design guidelines were originally put in place to avoid.

Rated 1.5 stars by Yelp.
Rated 1.5 stars by Yelp.

Don’t get me wrong; I think compact urban form is a good thing in general if it follows New Urbanism principles and involves visually attractive units that have diverse and sustainable populations living inside them. But why did the city fathers in their wisdom believe that any multi-story monolithic structure automatically qualified as New Urbanism? Why did they think it would be constructive and healthy to create a monoculture of young, randy, drunken people concentrated in the city’s core? Good oversight and good planning would have required developers to set aside a proper percentage of each building for families, professionals and/or retirees. Each development also ought to have contained a number of affordable units for the poor.

The lower high-rises generally look better than the really tall ones, although there is too much surface contrast.
Many of the new downtown units contain high-contrast materials on their facades, which is not necessarily a good thing.

These towering apartments in the city’s core have created many ripple effects, one of which is the ongoing parking problem. Certain city council members cherished the misguided hope that if apartments were constructed without adequate attached parking, it would encourage students to use bicycles instead. But since the majority of the 2000-plus renters already owned vehicles, and because all of their visiting friends and lovers also drive cars, this was a myopic approach to reality. The shortage of parking led the city to bring back parking meters, which in turn severely impacted downtown businesses. Has anyone else out there heard the rumors of the official parking survey whose findings were so anti-meter that the city suppressed the news?

A somewhat more successful attempt at modernity; but will we view it kindly in 30 years?
A more successful attempt at contemporary style; it helps that it’s only four stories high. But will I still view it kindly in 30 years?

It’s not just parking that has impacted the business environment downtown. Boutiques and shops that appealed to non-student clienteles went out of business. In their place many new bars have opened up, which is why puddles of barf on the sidewalks are a daily sight. The downtown core’s entire feel is completely different than it was a decade ago.

A planning choice is more than a drawing and a presentation. A decision must not be limited to the single block where the development will be built, but should take into consideration every possible long-term repercussion to the community at large. It should affirmatively answer the question “is this building going to be good for our community for years to come?”

Because the vast majority of the apartment buildings downtown are ugly and detrimental to the quality of life, it’s clear that the current batch of city planners have not done a good job . Now that we will have a new mayor this fall, think carefully about how your vote will determine Bloomington’s future. Will your candidate continue on the current path, or will he replace the planners and make an attempt to correct the damage? Time will tell.

My vote for ugliest apartment building in downtown Bloomington. Yechhhh.
My vote for ugliest apartment building in downtown Bloomington. Yechhhh.


Is wheat the culprit?

Leavened loaves of bread. "FD 1" by Original uploader was Klaus Höpfner at de.wikipedia(Original text : Helge Höpfner) - Transfered from de.wikipedia(Original text : Fotoarchiv Höpfner). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
Leavened loaves of bread. “FD 1” by Original uploader was Klaus Höpfner at de.wikipedia(Original text : Helge Höpfner) – Transfered from de.wikipedia(Original text : Fotoarchiv Höpfner). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


Wheat has a bad reputation right now, and it’s getting worse. Websites like “Wheat Belly” claim that modern wheat is intrinsically a problematic food. Gluten-free products have been embraced by movie stars and are now widely available in markets and restaurants. Having grappled many years with wheat problems, I have a few thoughts on the supposed evils of gluten.

Note: I do not have classic celiac disease, nor does my son. Instead, following our illness ten years ago with human parvovirus B19, we recovered to find the parvo had left us with a wheat sensitivity that caused our muscles and joints to ache painfully within hours of eating wheat. Since both of us have identical symptoms, this probably indicates a shared mystery-gene being activated by the parvo.

1. Claim: ancient heirloom wheats such as einkorn and emmer are supposedly safer than modern hybrid mutant varieties. Not so, in my experience. I sent off for a bag of einkorn flour and made a loaf of bread from it. Terrible body aches followed.  Interestingly, when I interviewed a man who grows his own wheat and bakes his own bread, he sent me home with half a loaf that was freshly milled and baked from the modern grain he grew in his garden. I ate the whole thing without even a twinge.

2. Claim: wheat is intrinsically bad for us. If so, then mankind has been poisoning itself for ten thousand years. Wheat is undoubtedly more wholesome than the majority of GF foods in terms of nutrition. Corn- and tapioca- based GF pastas and breads are almost devoid of nutritional value and are by no means “health food.” Those who seek better health by eating GF products should be aware that many such foods are virtually all starch and contain minimal amounts of vitamins.

3. Claim: wheat sensitivities and celiac are skyrocketing in the population. This is not necessarily the case. I have personally seen an 1835 American cookery book that includes recipes for rice bread intended for infants and “those unable to eat wheat.” Obviously, problems with wheat were already recognized at that early time.

4. Claim: the problem is not the wheat, but the speed at which the yeast rises. Supposedly, old-style slow-rise sourdoughs are better for us than commercially-forced fast yeasts because they lack high amounts of gliaden and vital wheat gluten. That said, for years I baked my own sourdough, and it inflamed my joints anyway.

I’m not a scientist but judging solely from my own experience I offer two hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1: because I was able to eat the freshly-milled loaf that I was given by the man I interviewed, problems with wheat are perhaps caused by not using freshly milled flour at the time of baking. Perhaps flour in the bag oxidizes and/or develops toxic micro-fungi or bacteria as it sits on the shelf waiting to be used. That would explain why my own homemade sourdough bread caused joint pain: I used commercial flour.  Who knows how long that flour had been sitting in its bag? The fact is, the freshly-milled bread did not cause any problem.

Hypothesis 2: The growing number of people who have wheat problems might be not be due to an inherent problem with wheat itself. Instead it might be due to autoimmune problems triggered by an infection, like my own experience with parvovirus. Autoimmune illness forces the body to attack its own tissues, including the digestive tract, and such disorders are increasing in number. Instead of wheat being the causal agent in illness, it could be that autoimmune illness causes the problem with the wheat.

More research is obviously needed for the wellbeing of millions of people. Do any readers have feedback about my two hypotheses (freshness of flour, and/or autoimmune disease)?

Turn out and vote!


Bloomington, Indiana, is a blue dot in a red state, as its citizens like to point out. As a university town, we’re enthusiastic about world cultures and cuisines, not to mention art, music, theater and sports. Many of us are well-educated and generally liberal in our world views. But why don’t more of us vote?

Our election last fall had a voter turnout of 26%, which was the third-lowest in the state. Many potential voters are planning to sit out the coming primary. Those who don’t vote in primaries generally say, with a chuckle, “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to vote in November against the other party. You can count on me.”

But the primary is just as important as the “big” election in the fall. This is your golden opportunity to select the best of the candidates, the ones who will oversee the future of our city for years to come.

It’s not as if it’s difficult to find out what the candidates stand for. For example, the three mayoral candidates all have Facebook pages and/or web pages where they detail their stands on different issues. At this point, if you have no clue what the three candidates stand for, you haven’t been paying attention.

Some non-voters say: “Well, we don’t like the way this country is headed, and we don’t feel that our votes count in a meaningful way. The system is broken and we refuse to play ball when the game is rigged.”

Well, that could be true, after a fashion, in regard to the national scene in Washington, but it’s definitely not the case here in Monroe County. Bear in mind that a single vote always makes the biggest difference close to home. Unlike in Washington, the political system in Bloomington and Monroe County is fully functional and extremely responsive. A single vote can actually swing  an election here.

The mayoral race is particularly important since the mayor chooses the members of the plan commission, which determines the future of development. Look at Bloomington right now. Our mayor and plan commission have supported big development in the downtown area for many years. As a result we now have high-rises towering above the city core whose tenants are all students. Having thousands of young people living downtown has dramatically increased the number of bars and restaurants and pushed out other businesses. Parking is a fraught issue. The number of homeless people whose needs are not being met is also linked to official policies. These aren’t just things that happen at random; they are the direct results of our local government’s choices.

Do these things concern you? If so, you need to vote, and you particularly need to do it in the upcoming primary. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain,” as the old saying has it.

The silver lining


Everyone fears cancer. It’s the bugaboo lurking in the dark corner of the room; it’s what killed Aunt Lucy, and neighbor Kim, and the bald man who used to work in your office, and the kid in your child’s class. It’s the Big C. But as a person living with cancer, I suggest that it also has a silver lining that’s too often overlooked.

A cancer diagnosis makes you reassess the important things in life. It gives you permission to step out of the rat race and redirect your energy. It shows you the love that exists on all sides. It lets you revel in the loveliness of sunbeams, or newly-fallen snow, like a hippie blissing on LSD.

My silver lining is filled with love and beauty. Cancer can make each moment very similar to a mindfulness meditation. It enhances the importance of life itself. I relish each day that passes in a way I could not imagine back in the days when I assumed that life would go on and on indefinitely. Life is good, life is sweet; and all the more so after you realize that it is finite.

I’ve spoken with several people with cancer who agree that they have also found a silver lining in their lives. So why does our culture at large not publicize the fact that there can be an up-side to a cancer diagnosis?

Our culture has forced our idea of the disease into a one-size-fits-all mold of dread and fear. But not every cancer is alike, and not every diagnosis is a death sentence. More and more people are being successfully treated, or are managing to live for a while with the disease. Cancer is no longer something to speak of with hushed tones in the next room, out of hearing of the patient (or a dread fact to conceal altogether from the patient, as they used to do in the old days).

A cancer diagnosis is a serious matter, of course, not to be laughed at. My own form of cancer generally proves fatal within one to three years, even after chemotherapy. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t enjoy myself in the here and now. I believe that all cancer patients should be told that there is an up-side to be found. It’s baffling that emotional-health counseling is not yet automatically part of every cancer care package. Counseling is not considered to be an important and intrinsic part of the treatment, but is an extra that must be sought out, and paid for, by the patient.  Counselors should emphasize the fact that there CAN be a bright side to a diagnosis. This will make a huge difference to patients’ well-being.

It will be a huge step forward when each new cancer patient is shown how to uncover that silver lining and use it to best effect in his or her daily life. Good health begins with healthy attitudes!


Beauty in quiet stone

I have always loved cemeteries, which to me are places of beauty and rest. Many people do not realize that impressive works of the stonecarver’s craft can be found during the course of a relaxing stroll.

This monument was shaped like a bank in honor of the family surname.
This monument was shaped in honor of the family surname.

Stone grave markers are an art form capable of generating a visual, even spiritual, impact, like the one below, which symbolizes the collapse of all our earthly constructs. (The back of this same marker shows the gates of heaven opening to admit the deceased.)

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Bloomington’s three large cemeteries are Rose Hill, White Oak and Valhalla, but there are many other smaller ones that include Covenanter, Dunn (on the Indiana University campus) and Ketcham, to name just a few.

This stone tree has a stone dove perched on a limb.
This stone tree has a stone dove perched on a limb.

Different styles of stone markers were popular at different times throughout history. The earliest and simplest gravestones are simple slabs, but those who could afford it had many choices. The stone tree motif was very popular during the second half of the 1800s. Often adorned with stone ivy and stone ferns, the lopped-off branches of the tree are often commonly believed to represent the number of family members who had already died, but the broken branches probably indicate a simple general theme of decline and death.

An outstanding tree with ferns and ivy carved upon it.
An outstanding tree with ferns and ivy carved upon it.

Rose Hill cemetery contains a monument to the only Bloomington citizen lost on the Titanic: a wealthy young man who was returning from a trip to Europe. The tomb, of course, is empty.

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People might be surprised to learn that in the earliest days of settlement, gravestones were almost unknown. There was no quarrying machinery on the frontier in settlement times (1780-1820) and stone had to be laboriously cut and shaped with hammer and chisel. Most graves in the early years were simply marked by a plank with the name of the deceased painted on it.

One of the oldest stones in Rose Hill, from 1833. A small number of early stones were cut from Hindostan whetstone, and traveled 50 miles from their source to reach Bloomington.

The marker above is NOT limestone but whetstone from Hindostan, Indiana, a hard, crisp stone which has beautifully maintained its cut and shape. Limestone became the usual default grave marker material simply because it’s so ubiquitous in Monroe County, but many old markers were also carved of white marble. These date to after 1853 (the first year the railroad reached Monroe County). Before that date it would have been extremely difficult to haul heavy blank marble gravestones by wagon all the way from the Ohio River to Bloomington.

Paris Dunning, former governor of Indiana, had the means to import fancy white marble for his wife. Note the hand pointing heavenward.
Paris Dunning, former governor of Indiana, had the means to import fancy white marble for his wife. Note the hand pointing heavenward.

Marble has the unfortunate tendency to erode under our increasingly acidic rains; limestone does not usually erode but tends to breed lichens and moss. Granite, however, is far harder, lichen-free and long-lasting. Currently, colored and etched surfaces are an eye-catching option for purchasers.

"Somewhere, over the rainbow..."
“Somewhere, over the rainbow…” A lovely stone.

Bloomington’s Rose Hill cemetery has many distinguished residents, including Hoagy Carmichael, composer of many popular American hits such as “Heart and Soul,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stardust” and “Skylark.”

Hoagy's marker is usually covered with coins placed by fans, usually inserted into the incised lettering.

Hoagy’s marker is usually covered with coins, usually inserted into the incised lettering.

Another pair of famous residents are the renowned sex researchers, Alfred and Clara Kinsey.

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The greatest production of the stonecarvers’ art is the monument to the Riddle brothers, who both died during World War I. Their family commissioned a stone soldier carved with painstaking detail and erected it in the cemetery just north of Lake Lemon.

The doughboy is approximately four feet tall.
The doughboy stands less than five feet tall but is perfectly detailed.

Unfortunately, this priceless piece of carving has been vandalized, like so many other grave markers.

Two chunks of the soldier's hat brim have been lopped off by blows.
Two chunks of the soldier’s hat brim have been lopped off by blows.

It’s hard to fathom what kind of person gets a thrill from smashing beautiful markers in quiet cemeteries, but there it is: a pure act of contempt for other people’s loved ones, and contempt for these masterly works in stone that have been left undefended.

The next time you’re near a cemetery, go in and wander around. You’ll enjoy a relaxing and serene stroll across smooth grass to the sound of birdcalls.  Each one is a special place worthy of our admiration.

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Photo copyright
Photo copyright

When the newspaper wrote about my rare cancer, many people took me aside to tell me how inspiring I was. I felt vaguely fraudulent each time this happened. “Shucks,” I felt like saying, “there are plenty of people who are more inspiring than I am.” Consider the case of Stephen Hawking, recently the subject of an excellent film, “The Theory of Everything,” who was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease in his early 20s. His doctor told him he’d be dead in two years. Today he’s 73 and still hanging in there (see his excellent home page here). My situation with carcinosarcoma is like having a head-cold when compared against the pain, inconvenience and emotional wear-and-tear that Hawking has experienced over the past half-century.

But what do we really look for when we look for inspiration? It’s surely not related to how much another person has suffered during the illness. I learned today that there is a homeless woman here in Bloomington who has ovarian cancer. My heart goes out to her because she cannot hope to receive adequate medical care since she has no address, no money and no advocates. She will suffer, and she will eventually die, but how many people will hail her example and call her experience of cancer “inspiring?” Yet she spends each night on a cot in a shelter, and undoubtedly does what she can to get through each day despite being cold, hungry, bedraggled and frightened. Her experience is certainly worthy of respect and compassion, in my book.

It’s obviously not so inspiring to see someone wallowing in the depths of despair and depression while ill. So is optimism a chief component of what we characterize as “inspirational”? Optimism is good, but it can easily lead to a Pollyanna-like tendency to try to negate a very dark reality by being falsely bright and cheery all the time. One doesn’t want to be The Queen of Denial, after all, because it really doesn’t help the situation. A sense of optimism, and the degree of suffering experienced, are both factors that can contribute towards being “inspiring,” but they’re obviously not the entire formula.

So what do we mean when we label someone as “inspiring”?

I have a disease that will eventually prove fatal. I wrote about how I’m dealing with that fact on my other blog, “War as a Metaphor for Cancer.” My way of dealing with cancer is to calmly accept the cards I was dealt and go forward with as much courage and with as little stress and struggle as possible. But that’s just me. I’m definitely not seeking praise from others, nor am I trying to set some kind of example.  I would never presume to tell other cancer patients how they ought to run their lives, or how they should react to their diagnosis. We are all different, and we all must come up with our own ways of dealing with life-altering stressors. I have chosen the way that works for me.

And that’s the heart of the matter, to me. The sheer ingenuity and creativity of the myriads of other human beings who share this planet with us, the way they come up with endless inventive solutions for the problems that beset them, solutions that are as different as they are—now, that’s what I call inspiring.


Keeping a journal

The early spiral notebooks are now yellowing, which is why I have switched to acid-free bound books.
The early spiral notebooks are now yellowing, which is why I have switched to acid-free bound books.

I’ve kept a journal for 32 years, starting at the age of fourteen. Over the decades it has become an intrinsic part of daily life. I don’t leave for vacation without packing it; and when important events happen I set aside time in order to record things properly. My pens need to be dark and the paper smooth and frictionless.

By this point, scores of notebooks and bound books fill two heavy plastic storage bins in my basement. My entire life is in those bins. There I am as a teenager, giggling with my girlfriend, learning to drive, getting drunk for the first time, and going off to college. Then come the trials of early adulthood: lovers, adventures, hopes and fears. Then comes marriage and parenthood; then middle age with its calm confidence and new abilities. The journal has recorded my life better than any photo album.

When I began keeping the journal in the ninth grade, I had no clear idea what I was getting into. I never considered whether I’d still be keeping the journal as an adult, or whether the journal might evolve over time. During the ninth grade my only goal was simply to record the things that happened each day in school: sneaking out of class without permission, annoying the French teacher, doing gross things with food in the cafeteria:

In science class, Mrs. Detwiler was unpacking 20 gallons of frogs and several more gallons of starfish, clams and baby pigs. We gotta dissect them later, ecch! Clark Watts came into our room to “help,” as he put it. He snitched a starfish and went around tossing it onto girls’ desks to make them cry out. Detwiler chased him out. I got out of English to go downtown to see the matinee opera, which was Le Bohème. It was pretty good, considering it was just an opera.

I soon became more interested in the world around me and began to describe non-school life:

The little rabbit was still there this morning, all stiff and covered with dew. I brought him in and Mommy and I cared for him all day, giving him a mixture of milk and baby cereal with a little sugar, like someone told us to do. We marveled at his beauty. His lovely fur was brown on top, shading off to white on his stomach. His two ears were flat upon his neck, and his eyes had not yet opened. He was one of the most beautiful creatures I have ever seen. Towards evening he lay listless, refusing the eyedropper with food, and he grew colder to the touch. At last, near midnight when Mommy went to check him, he was dead.

At sixteen I discovered Boswell, a king among journal-keepers. Boswell’s journals, begun at the age of 22, describe him making the rounds of 1760s London society, imposing upon others, collecting famous men as others collect stamps, picking up strumpets in alleys, and reproducing the conversations of people who had no idea he was listening. Boswell appealed to me because he was only a few years older than me when he wrote these entertaining accounts. I liked that he could be sensible and sensitive one day, but a complete idiot the next. Despite the fact that he obviously thought very highly of himself, his flaws were very visible. This provided an important insight for me. Although a journal-keeper might try to depict himself in the best possible light, the reader has the advantage of objective distance and will generally see through any attempt at deception. So I adopted a more honest narrative voice in my own journal, which allowed me to admit my own frequent failings.

When I got home from work I discovered to my horror that the back zipper to my skirt had never been zipped up, and my bottom under my tights had been clearly evident all afternoon at work, and down Kirkwood on foot. The zipper, of course, was of the gaping variety. I was horribly perturbed.

When friends read excerpts from my journal they’re surprised to find themselves actors in my drama instead of the other way around. Nevertheless, they are fascinated by the difference between my journal accounts and their own memories.

After work I was weary. I decided to go to the Trojan Horse for dinner. Halfway along Kirkwood I was hailed by Bill D, who had been driving his motorcycle and stopped when he saw me. Since I saw him last week he had managed to wreck a car belonging to his employer, and fracture three vertebrae into the bargain. He was in a body cast when I saw him, bitching bitterly about the inconvenience, swearing he’d by-god better find a doctor who would agree to put him in a back brace in no more than two weeks, or he’d take a jacksaw and cut himself out, regardless of losing his 100% medical insurance coverage. He was out riding around on his motorcycle looking for friends to complain to.

I reproduced conversation whenever possible:

Emily related various adventures. “We found Tristan Tzara’s grave,” she said. “It’s not in Pére LaChaise, it’s somewhere in Montparnasse. We came upon it by chance. We danced on his grave!” General laughter. “Yeah, well, we looked all around, to see if anyone would see us, and we got up on the flat square marker and danced away” —she executed a swift flamenco—“and giggled like crazy.” “You danced?!” I said; and she grinned, “Yeah, and we spat and cursed too!” —I suppose it was the Dada thing to do.

On days when little happened, I looked for an observation that could be pursued on paper for a couple of lines:

I worked in the garden until nightfall, laying stones for my pathway until well into the dusk. Heat lightning lit up the haze in front of the slender new moon. The aroma of the valerian blossoms hung with heavy sweetness in the air and seemed almost evil, like the scent I imagine Nimue to have worn while seducing Merlin. Something gleamed pale yellow in the soil in front of me, then another a few inches off. They were not fireflies, although the color of the glow was similar; they were larvae or grubs, I assume of the firefly. I have never seen a glowworm in my life before. Almost 40, but never until tonight a glowworm! I haven’t lived, in many ways.

One unintended consequence of journal-keeping is that as a young adult I often intentionally plunged myself into chaotic or picturesque situations that made good reportage.

I have never sat through so much loud music as last night. Band succeeded band, each one louder than the one before. The noise resounded and reverberated off the walls, turning the room into a hissing hell of din. The big drum on the kit onstage vibrated inside my guts each time it was struck, in a most unpleasant fashion. P. sat next to us smoking cigarette after cigarette. B. drank beers and shouted at the various performers, “Make me come!” I very swiftly grew hoarse from shouting and inhaling smoke. The smoke was worse than any I’d ever experienced before, making my eyes sting at intervals as if I had been chopping onions. Each spotlight over the stage had a pale beam hanging below it, the smoke showing up as an almost-solid outline beneath each bulb. But it was fun. Why? How could such physical distress be so amusing? Good company, a succession of beers, a good audience to inspire us, and one band following another at 15- or 20-minute intervals. One band was an all-woman group called Cruella DeVille, a spin-off of the sort of ghoulish punk that the Cramps used to do. They had an automated mannequin at the front of the stage, with a skull for a head and a wig for hair, which repeatedly stabbed itself in the chest with a long knife through a rip in a red-stained shirt. This was called the “Stab-a-tron,” and it kept plunging its knife into its heart for the duration of the set.

In the following entry from young adulthood, I inadvertently captured a moment when one chapter of my life was ending and a new one just beginning:

I was pensive all day. In the evening I walked up to Seventh Street to check out an apartment advertisement I had seen. The apartment turned out to be the house right behind the Bluebird on the alley. A band was playing and I could hear the noise as easily as if I stood inside at the bar. It was a hot night and the alley smelled of stone-dust. The house had no yard and looked dismal. I went away in disappointment and returned home by way of the Old Library. I heard fiddle music, and looked into the basement windows. Folk-dancers were whirling to Irish jig music, men and women holding each other close, children running around their parents’ legs. A feeling of desolation overtook me. I watched from outside the window while joy and peace reigned within. I was shut out from this happiness. I went home slowly, head down, musing.

The journal has captured countless little moments of human existence that would otherwise be lost forever:

I caught a shuttle bus back to Bloomington, and a taxi from the Union to my house. The driver got out of the cab to get my baggage out of the trunk. The night air was amazingly clear, with hundreds of stars shining overhead. “Look, there’s the Big Dipper,” he said, pointing to the east instead of the north. “That’s not the Big Dipper,” I said politely, “that’s Orion, the hunter. See his belt and the sword hanging down from it? And if you look down low in the sky, right over that rooftop, you can see the Dog Star, Sirius, following his master on the hunt.” I paid the fellow and left him scratching his head, still staring up at the sky and muttering to himself, “Orion!?”

I’m not just a smart-aleck telling off a poor schmuck; I have also been the taxi driver. For every time in my life when I’ve corrected someone else, there’s been another point when I’ve stood flushed with chagrin while someone else set me straight. It’s all there, in the journal: the good, the bad, the ugly. Often the things described were foolish, but sometimes they were noble. I look at the two bins filled with notebooks now and understand that it’s not simply a daily record. It’s much more than the private conceit of a narcissist. Instead, it has cultural and historic merit. These thirty-two years of journals are probably more interesting and relevant than anything else I’ve ever written, including my eleven years of reportage for the newspaper and my book for IU Press. I look forward to posting additional excerpts from it on this blog.

One foot in front of the other

I love to walk. I enjoy seeing the grass, the flowers, people’s yards and gardens, and inhaling the air. It’s the journey that appeals, not the destination.

I’m no athlete and have never been particularly strong or fast. I don’t run or jog, but I have always walked. It has been an enjoyment since childhood, and I credit the start of this lifelong practice—geeky as it might sound—with having read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” as a child.

For a fourth-grader who wasn’t much bigger than a hobbit, the idea of being a small person who walked vast distances was enormously appealing, even empowering. Think of Bilbo telling Frodo in the quiet days at Bag End: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door….You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?” This appealed to me highly: the idea of danger, adventure, and unfamiliar scenery. After all, the hobbits in Tolkien’s stories walked not only to the Lonely Mountain, but to Mordor as well, while barefoot.

So each time I stepped outside my door to circle the neighborhood of my childhood home, or to explore Cherokee Park nearby, I imagined I was Bilbo. Simultaneously, I was also Frodo, and I was Sam, setting off for parts unknown, a short and invisible sword by my side. It was very thrilling.

And because I never failed to imagine this scenario when setting off on a walk, I inadvertently conditioned myself to feel a jolt of excitement each time I went out the door. Even today, in my middle age, it’s still a treat to set off on a long walk. Each walk is an adventure. And eventually I’ll find the dragon!


Travel as an object of desire

rome 2012 005

My brother and I both have strong cases of wanderlust. Some might say that it’s the result of growing up in a family that rarely traveled, since kids often do the opposite of their upbringing. But others might say that wanderlust is simply a random gene that happened to pop up. (And there probably is a genetic basis for wanderlust, for without such a driving force, early hominids never would have walked out of Africa to discover the rest of the world.)

When I was in my early 20s I went to a party hosted by two grad students from the English department at Indiana University. Half the conversations around me were “what I did last summer while hitchhiking around Europe” and “what my junior year abroad in France was like.” The jealous bitterness of a young and inexperienced person sprang up within me. I felt that if I couldn’t travel to far places as casually and easily as these people around me had done, my life would be impoverished. I had no money at the time and had no idea how I could possibly accomplish this goal of travel abroad.

Flash forward thirty-some years. I’ve now been to the Yucatan, Quebec City, and Paris. I’ve seen three of the Hawaiian islands, driven through the Mississippi Delta, crossed the Mackinac Bridge, visited New Orleans, and seen Malibu Beach. I’ve enjoyed a thousand-mile driving tour of England and have hiked Cornwall’s Coast Path. I’ve been to beautiful Switzerland and ascended the mighty Jungfraujoch via cog railway. I’ve sailed on Lake Huron. I’ve been to Rome three times, and have visited Florence, Sorrento, Siena and the Amalfi Coast.

I am not wealthy by any means. I save my spare change and tithe a percentage of each paycheck in order to take trips. I travel inexpensively, staying at small hotels and B&Bs during the off season when prices drop. I have never been on a cruise line or a tour bus or a guided tour. A seven-night trip abroad done this way can run from $1800 to $2100 depending on how Spartan your accommodations are and how expensively (and frequently) you like to eat. And this cost covers everything: flight, lodging, food and the price of admissions.

Travel is exhausting as well as exhilarating. Travel leaves you trembling with fatigue, belly rumbling from strange foods. Some claim that “Wherever you go, there you are,” but I disagree. Travel pulls you outside of yourself, and allows you to discover strengths or qualities you did not know were hidden inside. Travel builds your resourcefulness and courage. Travel is an addictive drug that leaves you wanting more.



An Introduction


Well, how shall I start?

I’m a recently retired journalist who for eleven years was the weekly homes-and-gardens reporter for the Bloomington, IN, Herald-Times. Writing a regular column for that long was a wonderful experience. I met many creative and lovely people during the course of my job, and to be very honest I very much miss my constant interactions with them. I was sidelined not by retirement age but by cancer, which is currently dormant but which will undoubtedly yawn and wake up at the least convenient moment. In the meantime, I miss my weekly writing.

Although I already have two blogs, and, neither of them suit my present state of mind. An all-new blog seems to be the way to go, so here I am.

One of the readers who commented on housesandbooks remarked “I can’t decide whether the things you write about are oddly strange, or strangely odd.” I like that summary very much, because it’s quite true. I enjoy a wide range of eclectic and unrelated subjects and am always interested in new ideas.

I want to use this new blog to write about things that didn’t seem the right fit for my other blogs: my travels; various musings on architecture; occasional thoughts on politics or social movements, and in particular, my huge trove of entertaining daily journals which I’ve been writing since the ninth grade.

I hope to post weekly, if not more often, and I hope you will join me on this strange (and odd) trip.