When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.
Sometimes I make fun of Maryland, because it's Maryland. But there are actually about six fun things to do in the state that don't involve contracting an infectious disease. I've done five of them.
Kinetic Race 2010 (Baltimore)
May 1, 2010
Way back in September I swore I'd be attending the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Baltimore. Usually, if I say I'm going to do something you can take it to the bank. And then deposit it in some kind of interest-bearing savings account. And then forget about it. And then withdraw it 30 to 40 years later, even though it probably should have been in something with a higher rate of return, like stocks.
But this time it actually worked out! On Saturday the Chris White All-Stars accompanied me to Baltimore for the big day. Here's how it works: people enter man-powered sculptures into a daylong race. First they go up a big hill. Then they have to go into the harbor. Then they have to go through mud and sand pits. Then they drink. There aren't really "winners" in the traditional sense, but there are many fine prizes for things like "next to last," "most mediocre" and "the golden flipper" for the best capsizing. You can see all the winners right here.
While art and whimsy are wonderful, I was mostly interested in the capsizing part, so we packed a cooler and headed to Canton Waterfont Park early in the morning and staked out a great spot. The sculptures entered the water at a boat launch on one side of a short pier; then they simply had to get around the pier and come back on the other side. Simple! Unless you're driving a giant platypus, that is. The hard part is leaving the water and getting back onto land under your own power -- there are some strange friction and traction things happening when your propulsion is half water-based, half land-based. Here are some of my favorite entries:
That first one is a platypus. They hit the water at very high speed and whipped around the pier with ease. Trying to get out, though, their rudder got stuck on the boat launch. A very frustrating ending, but the platypus is a frustrating animal. Second is some kind of angler fish. Very pretty, but ironically not that good in the drink. Finally, there's the giant poodle Fifi, which is an annual entry of the Visionary Arts Museum (the fine establishment which sponsors the race).
You'll notice that most vehicles opt for pedal propulsion, and that you probably need to know welding if you're going to have any chance of competing in this race. A few people when for oars, and in doing so they got a little creative -- a giant sushi boat used paddles in the shape of soy packets, and a gingerbread house was pushed along by giant lollipop paddles. Fun stuff.
What you aren't getting in those photos is the crowd. I really enjoyed the people in festive costumes and having picnics. I really did not enjoy the people who show up late, then feel entitled to walk down in front of everbody and block everyone's view as they take pictures with zoom lenses that would be effective from the surface of the moon. There is something unfortunate about cheap, excellent digital cameras, whereby everyone in the world now considers themselves an artist. Kodak cameras were a "democratization" of memories back in the early 20th century; now memories have become cheap thanks to the digital age. Taking pictures is fine. Taking arty pictures is fine. Blocking the view of 300 people standing behind you as you watch an event alone, even though you aren't a professional photographer -- well, that's just you being a jerk.
But enough whining. It's a great event, and you should check it out if you are in Baltimore next May 7. And why wouldn't you be? As to the flipping -- we had high hopes of major disaster. There were some technical difficulties, as two craft basically broke into component pieces as they tried to exit the water. But at the very end of the day, when it looked like the whole event would be disaster-free, the FINAL racer went into the drink. It was a giant frog. He went face-first into the water on entry and was righted. Then, halfway through his aquatic journey, he flipped over again and had to be towed out of the water. If you've never seen a gigantic sculpture that is also a vehicle capsize, then you really owe it to yourself to start planning for next year.
Decoy Museum (Havre de Grace)
March 14, 2011
One case in the Decoy Museum is dedicated to giant honking shotguns. They're about 10 feet long, they fire one-pound shot and they were mostly snapped up by the government in 1900. The few that survived were hidden in chimneys to keep them from the feds. The guns would be mounted in low-slung skiffs -- boats specifically designed for quiet paddling, so that a shooter wouldn't alert sleeping ducks. The record for a single shot (if I'm remembering right) was 79 ducks.
It's the intersection of artistry and industrialized murder! Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the surrounding marshes were the killing fields for many friends of Daffy. Ducks are apparently pretty cagey, but people are a little cagier -- the techniques got so disturbingly effective that bird populations were obliterated sometime around World War I. Everyone thought supplies were inexhaustible, because in the early 20th century people were hilarious.
Fake wooden birds (decoy is actually a Dutch approximation for "duck cage") are just part of it. My favorite is the "sink box": a gray raft with a recessed tub in the middle, weighted down with a bunch of fake metal half-ducks so that the shooter is actually laying down under the water line. The raft is surrounded with another 50-100 floating decoys, so that you have a whole singles bar of fake birds sitting on the marsh. Lonely ducks looking for a good time swoop on down and get a face full of lead for their trouble. It was banned, because like most duck hunting tricks, it was too damn good at killing a ****load of ducks.
And oddly enough, that made things a little more artistic. Once they banned every truly effective culling technique, decoy making became more about folk art and collectors and people at flea markets trying to find that special Christmas gift for grandma. At the museum there's a hall filled with the work of Havre de Grace's master craftsmen, including one guy who made 100,000 ducks in his life (and presumably died alone). It's not dazzling, because there wasn't an Impressionist period or a school of avant garde dadaist carvers making decoys in the shapes of urinals. Everything is basically shaped and colored like a duck.
But it's a still cool. They have a boat and decoy collection used by Home Run Baker! They have a fake duck once used by Grover Cleveland! They have ... uh, lots of ... other ... wooden ducks! Live ducks and geese pad around the outside of the building, giving you dirty looks.
Most important, visiting lets you say you finally saw the Decoy Museum. The sign on I-95 taunted me for more than a decade. For years, the joke was that the "Decoy Museum" would be a facade with no building; now I can say that I've been there, and I have the commemorative pint glass, and Christmas ornament of a duck wearing a Santa hat, to prove it.
We passed on the ornament of the puppy in a Santa hat with a dead duck in its teeth. Oh, and there's no mention of Nintendo "Duck Hunt" anywhere in the building, thanks for asking.
National Museum of Health and Medicine (Silver Spring)
May 27, 2012
I sometimes miss the elegance of the 19th century: rail travel, Victorian manners, and the social acceptability of putting splintered and diseased body parts in a public museum.
A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of stopping by Philadelphia's Mutter Museum, which is a freak show behind glass. That museum has a slightly more tasteful cousin in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington. It was at the Walter Reed miltiary hospital, until some jerk reporters "investigated" to find out that "wounded soldiers were being horribly treated" and they had to close the whole place down. Jerk reporters. A few years later, they finally unpacked what had to be the creepiest storage locker in the world, and the museum has been reborn in Silver Spring, Maryland. I enjoy creepy things, so me, the wife and some friends went to check it out on Memorial Day weekend. Huzzah.
It could use more disturbing and haunting deformities, but it's not bad. The real spine of the collection (which includes quite a few spines) is shattered body parts from the Civil War. A guy took a cannon ball to the face, Army doctors couldn't do too much to help him, no one cared about sending his remains back to his dirty rebel family, and presto, you've got yourself a nice centerpiece for the "people shot in the face with cannons" wing. There are cases of broken legs, arms, skulls and ribs, and you get the impression that they've got an Indiana Jones warehouse in the back with a few hundred more crates.
But bones along are boring, so they expanded the collection over the years. That's how it works -- word gets out to family that you have a smashed bone collection, then some on vacation in Thailand sees an elephantitis scrotum in a shop window and thinks of you. You can't turn that down, so now you also collect elephantitis scrotums. Might as well put them in the musuem. There's actually a great case of diseased and damaged organs, and the descriptions are off to the side. So you can play a rousing five-minute game of Guess That Disgusting Ailment. There are no winners. Especially not the guy with the elephantitis scrotum.
They also threw in some cool doctor relics, like Civil War medicine bags and saw kits. There's a tiny box with extending electrodes and a hand crank -- it was like an 1870s electroshock machine. They have the precursor of the artificial kidney, which is about the size of very large BBQ grill.
But the highlight for me will always be presidents. A few of the crown jewels of the old Walter Reed Museum definitely made the trip.
First is the bullet that killed Lincoln. If you want to be accurate, it's the bullet that made Lincoln a vegetable -- doctors shoving their fingers in his brain probably killed him. But it's there, and it's shiny and not at all menacing. I don't know how much that bullet changed the course of the world, since a lot of Lincoln's heavy lifting was already done. But it definitely helped sustain the fake beard industry for more than 150 years, and that's something. The bullet is right next to a few chips of Abe's skull, a doctor's cuff soaked with his blood and some of his hair. If COBRA ever wants Lincoln DNA for the next Serpentor, I know where they're headed.
Far grosser, and cooler for that matter, is James Garfield's vertebrae. Garfield was definitely killed by doctors; they thought the bullet in his body was on the other side from its actual location, and the quack in charge of his medical care didn't really believe in antiseptic medicine (it was a hot new fad at the time). He kept shoving dirty things in Garfield's body until the poor guy was basically held together by puss and infections. When they did the autopsy, the doctor for some reason yanked out a couple of Garfield's vertebrae that had been nicked by a bullet, then put them somewhere for safe keeping. Why? Beats me. But now they're in a museum. Next to the Lincoln bullet. Any political opponent who called James Garfield spineless was only partially right, and then only after his death.
I'm willing to bet that they have most of John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau in the storage room (a few pieces of their bones and brains have been on display). New presidents are probably invited over at the start of their term to kick those corpses square in what's left of their junk. It's all strictly confidential, of course, but I'm about 95 percent sure that this happens. Or at least it should.
The museum is small, but it is free, and for that reason I heartily endorse it. You cannot make a museum like this anymore, without people accusing you of kidnapping Chinese peasants and killing them for your anatomy exhibit. The 19th century was so much cooler, except for the slavery and disease.
Hagerstown Suns and Antietam Battlefield
June 5, 2011
According to some very reputable sports publications that I read, Bryce Harper will one day make Babe Ruth look like Steve Jeltz. He was already a decent hitter back when he was legally blind, and apparently the Washington Nationals have now spliced hawk DNA to his retinas.
My friend Eric decided back in April to scout out this young phenom. First, we waited a reasonable amount of time to see if he was all hype. In 56 games with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns, Harper was hitting .843 with 73 home runs and 413 RBI. That seemed mildly respectable for an 18-year-old, so we decided to cancel our usual Sunday plans (bare-knuckle boxing) and catch game 57. We made the 80-minute drive to Hagerstown on a Sunday for the sole purpose of seeing Bryce Harper play for the Single-A Hagerstown Suns. And for baseball fans everywhere, here's the scouting report.
Walking to the Plate: B-
We were in the first-base bleachers, so as you can see from this photo, Harper was facing the right direction as he approached the plate from the home dugout. That's good fundamental baseball, but we expect a little more from phenoms. He could have done the Hulk Hogan ear-cupping, while playing the bat like a guitar and turning in a circle to face all the fans. Hopefully he'll get those kinks worked out in Double-A.
Standing at the Plate: B+
Harper is a lefty, and he went straight to the batter's box for lefties. He was well within the confines of the batter's box, and you can see in the photo that his legs weren't crossed. That's how he generates a lot of his power -- by havng a stable horizontal base, with both of his shoes tied. Nothing flashy, but nothing to complain about.
Avoiding Breaking Balls: D-
The first pitch from Jheyson Manzueta of the Greensboro Grasshoppers (a horrible team name, by the way) hit Bryce Harper in the foot. A major leaguer might have gotten completely horizontal avoiding such a pitch, but the inexperienced Bryce Harper just threw his butt back a few inches and took it. If this were soccer, he'd get an A+. But this is baseball, and the only reason he isn't getting an F is because he didn't kick the ball into his own face.
Crumpling in Pain: A
This is where we saw true flashes of the greatness the Nationals franchise can expect in the not-too-distant future. Bryce Harper fell to the ground and cringed at a major-league level. When he made pained grimaces on attempting to stand-up and walk a few steps, they were the pained grimaces of a man twice his age. He can grimace like a 57-year-old man trying to move a couch with his 300-pound wife. His crumpling technique was flawless: when he fell to the ground, he distributed the impact evenly across both buttocks, minizing the chance of bruising. It's exciting to think that one day the children of Washington D.C. will see this amazing talent curl up into a helpless ball during the first inning of a crucial NL East showdown.
Shaking It Off: F
He left the game after getting hit. But it wasn't a total wash. We were able to scout another promising young player. The third baseman had a solid day at the plate, with a walk, a double and a triple before being lifted in the sixth inning. Keep an eye on this Ryan Zimmerman kid. If he sticks with it, he might make something of himself.
Since we were going to be in Hagerstown anyhow, Eric and I decided to also scout out nearby Antietam. The battlefield was the site of the bloodiest single-day battle in the Civil War, and it's easy to see why: there's nothing to hide behind. The whole thing is just open fields and a few fences. When 100,000 guys shoot at each other with very little cover for 12 hours, you end up with signs like this:
Nothing says summer like blood corn! The early part of the battle (on 9/17/1862) featured the North and South trading posession of this cornfield. At the start, the corn was six feet high; by the end, it was all cut down by weapons fire. Oh, and a few thousand people were dead. It's not a total tragedy, since blood-soaking is an important part of the crop cycle, but it's still fairly somber.
All told, there were 23,000 casualties. The Union won, and in doing so drove the Confederate Army back into Virginia. Antietam doesn't have the same cachet as Gettysburg. It's less tactical and therefore slightly less compelling. But at the very least, it forces you to think about the hideous mental strength you would need to charge over a field of dead bodies for the sake of creating more dead bodies. It helps you appreciate the naked brutality of war.
And also, there are birds on cannons.
Thomas Stone National Historic Site
July 4, 2012
History isn't all handsome men in powdered wigs defying tyrants while ravishing their busty, corseted ladies in front of a burning town hall. Fifty-six guys signed the Declaration of Independence, but if you had the list in front of you (just get your pocket D.o.I. out of your wallet) you might recognize 10 as Revolutionary rock stars. Those other 40 or so guys participated in debates, surveyed the global situation and ultimately committed treason against the most powerful nation on the planet; their families and livelihoods were put in tremendous danger to secure the rights we all enjoy. They deserve our respect.
Asking our attention is apparently a bit much. The National Park Service puts out visitation stats for the 380 sites in its system. Cut out the ridiculous Alaska sites that require a sea plane and a meth-addicted bush pilot to visit, leave out sites that are basically vast stretches of water that no one really cares to visit, and then go up one or two from the bottom. You'll find the Thomas Stone National Historic Site, which despite being 30 miles away from Washington is one of emptiest parks in all the land.
That's because no one knows who the hell Thomas Stone was. Thank god you have me: Thomas Stone was a lawyer, and also a landowner with some farming interests in the mid-Atlantic region. He acquired some more land through marriage and didn't have tremendous love for the colonial government. In this sense, he was the prototypcial Southern revolutionary: a snooty rich guy who didn't want to pay taxes. This is our noble national heritage.
I'd love to tell you more, but there's nothing to tell. Stone was apparently a decent lawyer, and that was enough to get him selected for the colonial government. He didn't speak much in Congress and was hoping we could kiss and make up England before a war broke out, but he still went along with signing the Declaration. (He's three under Hancock.) He didn't do much after that, and then in 1787 he keeled over dead at the age of 44. If you want to sass the story up with a little romance, say he died of a broken heart -- his wife had died a few months before. Apparently, as part of a smallpox treatment a decade before, doctors gave her mercury. It left her bed-ridden for the rest of her short life. Those nutty colonial doctors!
Stone had a house in Annapolis that's still standing, but his main digs were at Haberdeventure, a plantation about 30 miles southeast of what's now Washington. He had about 30-50 slaves and grew crap. The house stayed in the family all the way through 1936, somehow ended up in the hands of the federales and opened to the public in 1997.
I have insane tolerance for very boring crap, but the Thomas Stone NHS was a really hard sell for the people who usually humor me. I figured July 4 would be the perfect day to go, so I sent an e-mail and waited for the eager acceptances to roll in.
Long story short, only my sainted wife opted to join me. She made the right call, because we were informed by rangers that July 4 is the busiest day of the year for the site. The parking lot had about five cars when we got there. And apparently, half the people visiting were related to the Stone family in some way. One guy from Indiana claimed to be a descendant of Thomas' brother (who was actually governor of Maryland for a bit) and another young woman was pointing out pictures of her grandfather to her infant son. A few other people, the rangers ackowledged as locals who had volunteered at the site before. If you factor out people with blood ties, rangers and volunteers, Allyson and I will be the only two people to visit the Thomas Stone National Historic Site in 2012.
And we have no regrets. It's not bad for a drop-in. Haberdeventure is actually three buildings, connected by two enclosed passages ("hyphens"). The middle section (the main house) burned in the '70s, but they've done a nice reconstruction and dusted off a few Stone-owned artifacts donated by the family. It's a little quirky, as far as 18th-century mid-Atlantic plantation homes go. They have a lot of real estate left, too, so you can take some strolls through the fields along the edge of the woods. Stone is actually buried on the property, and they gave him the traditional red, white and blue balloon treatment for a Signer's grave on the Fourth. The best decoration in the house is an 1818 copy of the Declaration -- the first commercial reproduction -- that had been in the Stone family for hundreds of years. There's a copy from that same series in the Adams mansion in Massachusetts.
Per usual, the park rangers were awesome. There were probably two too many, but they knew their Thomas Stone info cold and were offering to do genealogical research for the Indiana guy if he wanted to come back to the ranger station. If you ever want to see your tax dollars actually work, go visit an NPS site. If you choose the Thomas Stone site for your little experiment, I guarantee you there will be parking.
Maryland Renaissance Festival
October 9, 2007
A few weeks back it was my great fortune to visit the Maryland Renaissance festival, because if there's two things I love, it's history and really fat people wearing clothes meant for really skinny people. In school they tell you the Renaissance was all about culture and art, right? Wrong. It was mostly eating things off of sticks and trying to show skin. The greatest engineering advances of the era all had to do with producing more cleavage. So sayeth the good people of Maryland. And they would know, because jousting is the state sport. No, really.
I don't have much in the way of photographs of large veiny bosoms, but I can at least prove the food part:
Yes, that's a sign for macaroni and cheese on a stick. The many times I've had macaroni and cheese, I've always had the nagging suspicion that something was fundamentally wrong. Now I know that it was missing a skewer. You'll also notice the sign (slightly out of focus) in the background for "Sir Lance-a-Wurst," which sells sausages. On a stick. Not pictured: Steak on a Stake. Also not pictured: Cheesecake on a stick. I do not know if Tropicoladas come on a stick, but I would bet that they do, for the right price. The RenFair industry is entirely banked by the skewer industry. Look it up.
This is me eating a fried pickle. I am generally enjoying the pickle in this photograph; if there is any dismay in my face, it is only because the fried pickle was not on a stick. As we all know, fried pickles were a staple of the Renaissance diet, as it was near impossible to sustain corset-bursting weights without frying everything. The taste wasn't all that great, though, so I had to wash the taste out of my mouth ...
... with a regular pickle. Sold by this guy. Two pickles in one day? I know it sounds crazy. But you have to appreciate the salesmanship. This guy really sold the hell out of that pickle, while wearing authentic Renaissance garb. I'm glad he wasn't selling suits of armor, or else I'd be a thousand dollars poorer right now. And I wouldn't have enjoyed that delicious pickle.
Similarly, these girls are really selling the pretzel pretty hard. I mainly include this photo because you can also see another pickle stand in the background. I cannot emphasize how important pickles were to the Renaissance. Western Civilization would have died without them.
This is Jared Stern enjoying a turkey leg. While we can forgive Jared for eating it, it should be noted that the primary use of the turkey leg during the Renaissance was to beat poor people to death. It's how the Medicis entertained themselves. In fact, killing people was the second most popular pastime of the age. A good night in the 1500s involved eating two or three things off a stick, then stabbing someone in the eye with the sticks. If you were still hungry, you could then cook and eat the eye off of the stick. We did our best to carry on the violent tradition:
That's me, along with good friends Allyson, Becca and Jared, preparing to throw axes. You have probably seen axe throwing on TV all the time, and you probably think it's easy. The throwing IS easy. What's hard is summoning up a fountain of rage with each toss. Here's how it's done:
Notice the perfect form, the beautiful rotation of the axe ... and that the motion was so violent that it took the hat off my head on every toss. How do I do it? I think about paying taxes to the girls who never went out with me in high school, all of whom are now married to rich guys with popped collars on their polo shirts. GGGGGGGGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! I also threw knives, and beer steins. All traditional period weapons. Thanks to superfriend Maegan for the excellent camera work.
You can also go shopping at the RenFest. These particular outfits would have been for someone weighing a minimum of 500 pounds. You can also buy swords, armor, jewelry, hammocks, board games, figurines ... I did not see any booths where you could buy elf or fairy costumes, complete with pointy ears. But I give my thanks to those who honored those species, which were wiped out in a series of pogroms during the 1650s, by suiting up. Also, thanks to everyone in a pirate costume for not going too far and trying to rape people.
All told, it was a fine day. We took in some shows, we ate things off sticks ... I can hardly wait for the Depression Fair.
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