Hiatus: Moving

Covered Wagon

I am moving from Washington DC to the Midwest over the next two weeks, and for those of you loyal to my blog and who follow my postings, I apologize for the hiatus. I managed to blog during the weekend of my first born’s arrival (having been holed up in a hospital room with little to do for four days), but it seems that the packing up of my possessions is taking every last minute these days.

Usually such a break spells doom not only for the habit of blogging, but the patronage of readers like you.  To keep me honest, here are some of the posts waiting in the queue, after my hiatus and relocation ends:

A Night on Nicolette–recollections of the night life of Minneapolis

The Arch–Eero Saarinen and St. Louis

This is the Place–My love-hate relationship with the Mormon Mecca–Salt Lake City

Cheyenne Frontier–A quick visit to Wyoming, the Egg and I, and recollections with former Governor Jim Geringer

Archie McPhee and Me–Ever been a “kid in a candy store?” Seattle’s landmark junk shop offers up bacon scented paper, larger than life cockroaches and every bit of junk “made in China” that you don’t need, but can’t live without.

Harbor Walk: San Diego–the ghost ships in the harbor, the USS Midway, and a not-so-bad fish and chips stand.

Voices of the Past: Orwell and Hitchens on Tea

Texan Thermopylae—The Alamo, San Antonio and the Riverwalk

Senate Bean Soup–By a resolution of Congress, white bean and ham hock soup has been served every day in the Capitol since the 19th century.

Rockefeller’s Cleveland–The richest man in history called Cleveland, Ohio home. Yes, Cleveland.

Taliesin West–To understand Frank Lloyd Wright, you really need to visit the places he called home. How a childhood gift of wooden triangles made for America’s most famous architect.

As the old timey disk-jockeys used to say, “Catch you on the flip side.” I should be back at this in two weeks. And as always, if you like what you have read, tell your friends!

The Erg Chebbi Dunes, Morocco

Caravan Photo credit: Robbie’s Photo Art / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Covered Wagon Photo credit: DaveWilsonPhotography / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


On September 11th Oratory

Americans and many around the globe took pause yesterday to reflect upon the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Over the years, this occasion has been marked in essentially the same manner in Lower Manhattan, with the names of the victims read, the politicians in session, and the video of that horrible morning played over and over on media outlets. The gaping wound in the earth is now a memorial. Similar tributes stand not only in Pennsylvania and in Arlington, but in many communities around the nation, as the old World Trade Center found its way into reliquaries in many town squares. A generation has been born not knowing of those harrowing days. And names are fading into history with the passage of time. Yet the implications of that day–the clash of civilizations–continues to play out in places most Americans will never go as civilians.

I’d like to take a slightly different observance this day, that of the abuse of good and meaningful oratory.

One of the more irritating tributes given on September 11th is the recitation of the Gettysburg Address by politicians. I find this irritating because Lincoln’s words were meant for the moment he delivered them–the dedication of a cemetery filled with citizens of the same country, who murdered each other in the name of civil war. Our modern politicos reach back to Lincoln and attempt to attach his wisdom to this occasion because they are quite possibly unable to come up with anything original to say.

It is hard to imagine our current slate of politicos managing that sort of eloquence on their own. Most presidential oratory comes through the pen of a gifted speechwriter. If you like Reagan, thank Peggy Noonan. Kennedy? Thank Sorenson. Nixon? Thank Pat Buchanan and Ben Stein. Obama? Thank Jon Favreau.


The only known photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg, the speech was so short, the poor cameraman never had a chance.

As civil war author Gary Willis has observed, Lincoln wrote his own words, but borrowed heavily from the ancient funeral oration of Pericles for structure. Here is Pericles’ oration–it is a bit longer than the Gettysburg Address. 


The Pericles funeral oration–given amid the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)–was also an occasion to remember the war dead.  The structure follows a basic outline:

1. A Proemeum–an acknowledgement of the custom to give a speech in memorial tribute to the dead.

2. Praise of those who have died.

3. The acknowledgement of the greatness of the country for which they died–in this case–Athens.

4. Exhortation to those living–for those that remain, a call to duty or loyalty or arms.

5. Epilogue–end with a bang.

People expected their presidents back then to have studied the classics (not community organizing, business administration or acting). Lincoln was home-schooled with the King James Bible and Shakespeare for his education. And so, Lincoln didn’t disappoint. In case your elementary school memorization fails you, here is the original sentiment. See if you can detect the outline in the speech:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

A few years ago, annoyed by the poor recitation of Pataki, Giuliani et. al., I gave Pericles a closer read, as well as Lincoln, and came up with this more original sentiment, with Pericles as my guide:

“When I was twenty-one years old—and this nation only two hundred and twenty-five—on a crisp September morning, our innocence was rattled and shaken.

For unto this continent, this nation and the peaceful world did feckless zealots— drunk on wickedness and prejudice—bring terror to the heart of this country and to her people. And to those innocent Americans—who as citizens of this country lived their freedoms and rights as they understood them that day–at work, at leisure, and in duty—their lives were taken from us too soon. They were the victims of hate and malice against those very freedoms for which we all stand.

And so it is fitting to gather—in the heart of lower Manhattan, in the golden harvest fields of Pennsylvania and at the marble footsteps of Washington, DC to remember those who lost their lives that September morning. We gather at their final resting places not in fear and in sorrow, but instead to pledge to them, their families and their fellow citizens that their lives will stand for those freedoms and rights, that in spite of their murders that they live on in the eternal memory of their nation, and that we dedicate ourselves anew to defend this bulwark of liberty now and forever.

Yet we know that these words and remembrances will fade with the passage of time. The victims who make these grounds hallow, the heroes who answered the call to respond, and the citizens who gave of themselves so freely to save innocent people that they never knew, speak more clearly to the future than any of us are able.

It is our task then to take up their call—that we resolve to preserve and protect the America that the victims of September 11, 2001 remember—a nation of peace, of prosperity, of freedom and of hope for the world—that we resolve that their lives had meaning and purpose-–that this indefatigable nation of life, and of liberty, and of the pursuit of happiness shall forever endure.”

I know that my version is derivative. (So was Lincoln’s! That is the point.) How hard is that though? Remind people of the reason for gathering, honor their deeds, ascribe a greater purpose and sense of unity, and testify that people may come and go, but values endure. Some may say that in our modern lives–filled with bullet points and tweets–that we have no use for such florid oratory. In truth, we may need it now more than before, given the predilection for misappropriating solemn words from ancient occasions.

On every September 11, I meditate on those things.

Photo Credits:

September. Painting by Gerhard Richter. 2005

Lincoln Photo credit: roberthuffstutter / Foter / CC BY-NC

Pericles Photo credit: ogaudemar / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Voice of the Past: Confucius on Success and Failure

Confucius in Tokyo

A friend of mine in Chicago has always reveled in the balance and interdependence between success and failure. A musician by vocation, he has taken honest jobs by day to perform his art on his own terms by night. His zen-like ability to knock down those conventions has always been inspiring to me.

In recent weeks, I have discovered a kindred spirit in another dialectical thinker, the ancient master Kong Fu Zi, know in the West as Confucius. Most Americans have heard of him, the guy who came up with the Golden Rule some 500 years before Christ. The official biography lists Confucius as a real polymath–a genius at government, music, literature, and philosophy among others.

Put another way, he was a smarty pants. He was the type of bureaucrat who had seen it all. He knew how to do it better than his boss and he had no problem saying so. And so, Confucius spent a lot of time on the outside of the governments of his communities looking in. While on the outside, he managed to mentor students seeking to understand how government works. And in those interactions, Confucius became famous as a teacher first and foremost.

When it comes to the balance between success and failure, Confucius observed a few things:

  •  “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
  • “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.”
  • “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”
  • “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.”
  • “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”
  • “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
  • “If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.”
  • “Things that are done, it is needless to speak about … things that are past, it is needless to blame.”
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf

“When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/page=2/#sthash.eJsz2gP1.dpuf

Time proved Confucius right. After his death, his Analects became de rigueur for Chinese bureaucrats, and his concepts about people, their roles in society and respect inform much of the Chinese ethos to the present day (despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress it). Balanced with the Taoist system of Lao Tsu, Chinese philosophy is comprehensive about life, its meaning, and its lack of meaning. In my own experience, I have often found the most genuine, the most sincere and the most commendable of people to be those who can admit mistakes, learn from them, and not be ashamed of their ignorance. All too often, the drive for and the displays of “success” without the acknowledgement of failure seem to me, hollow.

Or, as my Chicago philosopher-muse friend might say:

“Failing to succeed or succeeding to fail. This encompasses all my beliefs and values.”

Photo Credits:
Confucius: Tim_Arai / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Norman Rockwell. The Golden Rule. Mosaic located at Thanksgiving Square, Dallas. http://idtmi.blogspot.com/2011/07/little-thanksgiving.html

Best Independent Bookeries

Tome Reader

I am in the midst of a major move–the kind of migration from state to state that requires the movers to act as caravan for my life’s detritus. After nearly five years in my current abode, I have accumulated a legion of books, staring down at me from their posts along ordered bookshelves. At one point, I had a collection that would have awed the Venerable Bede (who had the largest library in England 1200 years ago at 600 tomes). Yet in this age of the “tablet” and its ability to hold 10,000 books or more on a piece of smooth glass, what purpose does the old folio have? Can this simple device, the bound, printed word, in use for millennium, serve no purpose in the modern world?

I say yes it can. Reading a book is a near complete sensory experience. The eyes can read a screen sure enough, but what of the smell of paper and ink and binding glue? Or the feel of paper–from pulp to linen stock? Books transport us into another place with their words surely, but I find that those tactile and olfactory sensations to be equal partners. While some books, printed for popular consumption, could easily be read from the tablet reader, a quality book printed on fine paper in a limited run from a small publishing concern is more than a book. It is an experience.

However, people’s feet do the talking in this regard. In the past two decades, Americans watched Big Bookstore firms come and go, devouring everything in their path only to be consumed themselves by the Amazon leviathan. Borders? Waldenbooks? Who is next? (We all can guess, that certain peddler of ersatz kindle readers called nooks) Yet, despite the coming and going of the megabookstores, independent bookeries have survived in nearly every college town and urban center. They each do so in their own way. Some have no problem offering used books alongside new. Others are so well curated that they offer rare and out-of-print treats. And others have become destinations–a debating forum and town hall for their corner of America.

In my travels, I often seek out those last independent booksellers, taking in their coffee (over the Big Coffee firms), seeing who is giving a reading, and checking out what local pamphleteers have left on the counter. My checked luggage is always a pound or two heavier from the experience, and gladly so.

Here is a fairly good list of my favorite bookstores in America. I am sure to have missed a few.

Zoobomb Pile + Powell\'s Books

Powell’s Books and 57th Street Books, Chicago.

Mere blocks from the University of Chicago, both Powell’s and 57th Street Books offer up professors’ screeds, dusty legends and anarchist books for the President’s Hyde Park set. Seminary Co-Op offers exhaustive stacks for those seeking all faiths and none. Sadly, the store moved from its basement location of 50 years on Woodlawn Drive to a nicer, but less quaint, locale. Nonetheless, if you are looking to stroll to the Midway Plaisaince to people watch, a book from these locations will help you pass your time in this picturesque corner of Chicago.

Politics and Prose, Washington, DC.

Washington, DC and its environs have been overrun with Barnes and Noble “bookstores”–a term I use loosely given their proclivities for children’s toys and notepads made from elephant dung. True denizens of the District turn to the town hall of Northwest Washington–Politics and Prose–for their book fix. Authors from regional newspapers, political beat reporters and local political celebrities hold court, giving readings of their latest. The two-story bookstore on Connecticut Ave has an admirable cafe in its basement, where this author has spent time pouring over his used and new book finds, with a bowl of latte at his fingertips on rainy days in the District.

Strand Books NYC

The Strand–NYC

It took me four trips to New York to finally discover Union Square. Just south of the famous park in lower Manhattan sits The Strand–notable for their “18 miles” of bookshelves–is an institution worthy of its place in the center of the universe. For me, no trip to NYC is finished without a stop in this cathedral to used, new, and rare books. The staff are direct, knowledgeable to a fault, and can find anything in those miles of shelves.

Denver - LoDo: Tattered Cover Bookstore

The Tattered Cover, Denver

I once heard Rachel Maddow count this bookseller among her favorite independent bookeries, and for some of my readers, that might be a very qualified recommendation. Politics aside, The Tattered Cover is an anchor establishment in the LoDo end of Denver. Blocks from the Wynkoop Brewery, this little corner of Denver has never failed to leave my literal and figurative appetites satiated–from microbrew to the most eclectic of bookshelves.

Elliot Bay Books, Left Bank Books, Twice Sold Tales, Seattle

Seattle is awash with excellent bookeries, but the king of them all is in the city’s Capitol Hill district. Elliot Bay Books is an essential hide out from the Pac-Northwest rainfall. While Elliot Bay is for this author a Seattle idyll, others may find joy at Pike Place Market’s Left Bank Books–the hub of socialist thinking in Seattle.

Lastly, Twice Sold Tales, in the neighborhood of Elliot Bay Books, offers up heaving shelves of once-loved tomes…and cats to keep you company whilst you peruse.


Weller Book Works–Salt Lake City

Sam Weller’s bookstore has been around Salt Lake City since 1871, a Methuselah in the American bookseller trade. Some of the rare books in their upper loft are much older than that even. The Weller Book Works moved in to their new haunts on Trolley Square in 2011, after this author’s visit to the venerable location downtown, where the shop held court for 50 years. That old building had plenty of nooks to explore. Of particular interest to this out-of-towner was the vast repository of Mormon-related ephemera in its basement.

College Town Bookeries


Caveat Emptor, Bloomington, Indiana

What is a college town without a used bookshop? In my mind, it is simply not a college town without one. Bloomington, Indiana–home of Indiana University–sustains at last count seven bookstores for its local population of about 120,000 people. Caveat Emptor on the town square is strictly business–there are no latte sippers here. But what you get is that splendid sensation of finding an out-of-print book among the moldering collection, with the local NPR station droning through the air. And owners Janis Starcs and Donald R. Wilds are living factotums. Nothing escapes their knowledge, and no question goes without answering with smart commentary.


Harvard Coop and Raven Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Harvard’s main bookstore sits across from Harvard Square, occupying several buildings along Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The store has expanded to other locations around Boston, and serves other schools (MIT) as well. Like most official college bookeries, the store is also a front for fanwear, bric-a-brac and sweatshirts for the tourists. In this case, the tourist turned Ivy-never-will-be can don the Crimson and pretend. And in the past, I have spied the all-too-familiar green and white section signs of Barnes and Noble around the COOP. B&N got into the college book business some years ago, feasting below the surface of the host organism while pretending to be a college bookstore.


If Official Harvard is a turn-off, a bit farther along Mass. Ave will land you in the basement-level Raven Used Books. Here, I found a used bookstore relatively free of Malcolm Gladwell’s chin-scratching and his legion of NYT bestsellers and instead found real wisdom–from Oxford Dons like Bertrand Russell, Issac Deutscher, Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper. The good stuff, and cheap.



Mindfair Oberlin, Ohio

Mindfair is my childhood bookery. I used to head into Oberlin to spend whatever I earned in my high school and college jobs on real knowledge–the books that teachers can’t assign you because of obstinate school boards, Victorian-era prudishness and the dunces in confederacy. Located in the shell of an old Ben Franklin 5-and-Dime on the college’s Tappan Sqaure, Mindfair has a modest collection of used books that once sat on the shelves of the professors and students. In a town of 6000 souls, Mindfair survives on the town and gown, proving to me that even the smallest hamlet can sustain a bookstore if the population is willing.

St Johns College sign

St. John’s College Annapolis

St. Johns is the other college in Annapolis, the one overshadowed by the Naval Academy to the south. The College is very much Athens to the Navy’s Sparta. The two student bodies rarely cross paths officially, save for an annual croquet match between the schools. The Midshipman will play the game in their dress whites, and as counterpoint, the Johnny’s will dress in a theme. Recent years have seen the Middies square off against Where’s Waldo.

St. John's vs. Navy croquet

Students at St. John’s major in the “Great Books” tradition–a reader’s college devoted to primary source reading of the classics of philosophy, literature, math and science. Students share a common major, a true A.B. Some may believe that such a liberal arts education makes these poor kids unemployable. To the contrary, many of these students go on to Ph.D’s, law school and medical school. They are a bright bunch because of the Great Books curriculum that they consume.

And their bookstore carries those classics in an austere basement setting that is all about the knowledge. You will not find much by way of school sweatshirts and boozy bumper sticker slogans here. A simple basket of orange and black repp ties sits near the counter with some other modest “impulse buy” memorabilia–the only college spirit available. The bookstore is refreshing to me. It is either the last best hope for Western Civilization or the last twilight before the era of iPads swipes the book into oblivion.

Where is your favorite book nook? Will it survive another generation? Will you help them, and our culture, survive the digital death of books, keeping the bookstore culture alive?

Photo Credits:

Politics and Prose: http://claireindc.wordpress.com/

The Strand: http://www.travellingshopaholic.com/shop-of-the-month-strand-books-nyc/

Tattered Cover Photo Credit: wallyg / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Weller Books Works Photo credit: steve_w / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Caveat Emptor Photo credit: lalawren / Foter / CC BY

Elliot Bay Photo credit: brewbooks / Foter / CC BY-SA

Twice Sold Book Cat: http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2012/02/twenty-five-years-of-twice-sold-tales-on-capitol-hill/

Harvard COOP Photo Credit: http://loveatfirstbook.com/2013/02/parkthecar/

Raven Used Books Photo Credit: http://emilycassel.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/flickr-assignment-an-afternoon-at-raven-used-books/

St. John’s College Sign Photo Credit: http://olivercromwellcase.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/st-johns-college/st-johns-college-sign/

Middies Johnnies Croquet: http://www.capitalgazette.com/news/annapolis/navy-topples-st-john-s-in-croquet-match/article_51ea28c5-595c-5e2e-ac54-1ea95481413f.html?mode=image&photo=1