Remembering the Armistice

lest we forget

There are those of us old enough to remember our great-grandfathers, who when pressed with a child’s questions about The Great War would talk in quiet and protected ways. They saved their stories for their fellow soldiers down at the American Legion or VFW, where they could drink hard liquor and tell each other about the horrors they witnessed in far away lands, at the hands of the first mechanized warfare. They were told it was the “War to End All Wars” but they must have known better. My great-grandfather, George Henry Krider, served in the First American Expeditionary Force that went to Europe in WWI. While I do not know his regiment or tour of duty, I do know that he was mustard gassed and barely survived. He had breathing problems all 85 years of his life.

He and his buddies would ask us kids to sell the poppy boutonnieres that we rarely see nowadays. Those doughboys are now all long gone and the memory of their service wanes. In America, we tend to treat Veterans’ Day more as a celebration of Sparta and less as a day of extreme loss and sorrow. For our allies in the Great War, November 11–the Armistice Day–represents an end to the most violent war in their cultural memory. In England, where the poppy is worn to this day, whole towns saw no sons return from the battle. The scions of family names were cast to oblivion.

The British wear the poppy in honor of their forebearers. They also mourn the loss of all their sons in the maw of war. In particular are those artists–musicians and poets–whose pens were silenced in the battle. And it is from one particular pen that the poppy became a symbol of remembrance:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

Written by John McCrae in honor of a fallen comrade, the poem was highly popular. McCrae was a Canadian field physician, who died at the end of the war from pneumonia contracted in the field. The words were first used for to recruit soldiers for the cause, but have since returned to their more honest origin–of sorrow.

While the British and her Commonwealth Nations still honor their war dead in this way, to this day in Washington, DC, there is no memorial to hold a remembrance for our great-grandfathers and their fellow soldiers. Official America has forgotten this conflict. While Congress and others play politics in advance of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice (in 2018), each Veterans’ Day in my mind falls a bit hollow. This is a day to mourn, to remember, and to ask those veterans who survived the maelstrom to share, reflect and think not of the glory of battle but of the colossal tragedy. And since no one is alive from those days in 1918, it is left to those of us who succeed them to learn from the lessons of history, instead of allowing the vainglorious in places of power to repeat that history.


Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!

Guy fawkes henry perronet briggs

Many schoolchildren and townspeople alike in the British Commonweal are observing “Guy Fawkes Day” today. Americans might recognize Fawkes, both from the film “V for Vendetta” as well as the use of his visage by those lefties engaged in “Occupy” movements around the time of the stock market crash of 2008.


The story of Fawkes is the story of success and failure. Whereas the US founding fathers were successful in their endeavor to end oppressive rule over them, poor Guy Fawkes was not so lucky. History remembers him as a terrorist. Ben Franklin knew as much when he quipped “We’ll all hang together, or all hang separately.”

Guy Fawkes was a disgruntled Catholic, who lived during the times of the English Reformation. His Catholic church persecuted by the newly-formed Church of England, Fawkes and a few conspirators decided to take matters into their own hands by plotting to blow up the House of Lords. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes put his plan into action, sneaking around the basement of the Houses of Parliament, but was foiled by the king’s yeoman before he struck the match.

Fawkes was summarily hanged, drawn and quartered. Parliament passed the “Observance of the 5th of November Act” in 1605 as a feast day giving thanks for King James’s survival. Over the years, the tradition took on anti-Catholic sentiment, and was celebrated as “Pope Day” in the US until the American Revolution (source: Wikipedia). My wife, educated in British and Australian schools, learned this rhyme well, and often joined her schoolmates in hanging an effigy of the poor freedom fighter or terrorist (depending on your stripes):

    Remember, remember!
    The fifth of November,
    The Gunpowder treason and plot;
    I know of no reason
    Why the Gunpowder treason
    Should ever be forgot!

    Guy Fawkes and his companions
    Did the scheme contrive,
    To blow the King and Parliament
    All up alive.

    Threescore barrels, laid below,
    To prove old England’s overthrow.
    But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
    With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

    A stick and a stake
    For King James’s sake!
    If you won’t give me one,
    I’ll take two,
    The better for me,
    And the worse for you.

    A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
    A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
    A pint of beer to wash it down,
    And a jolly good fire to burn him.

    Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
    Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
    Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

Guy Fawkes

Variations of this poem have existed since the time of Fawkes and King James, with many a poet adding or deleting a verse. In parts of the UK and abroad this evening, the tradition of burning an effigy of Fawkes persists. However, many festival goers simply know of tonight’s events as “Bonfire Night”–the modern “holiday” devoid of the violence and lynching, akin to the rather sanitized “Trick or Treat” in the US.

Fortunately, the burning an effigy of the Pope has fallen off a bit. Intriguingly, other public demons have served as stand-in’s for Guy–including Lance Armstrong. The “holiday” seems to have morphed into less of a holiday celebrating the spoiling of a terrorist (or freedom fighter’s) plot, and more of an excuse to burn an effigy at night, in the fall, with beer in hand.

Getting ready for 5th November

Painting Photo credit: Henry Peronett Briggs / / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Guy Fawkes Mask Photo credit: gato-gato-gato / / CC BY-NC-ND

Guy Fawkes Night Effigy Photo credit: wwarby / / CC BY

Schoolkids on November 5 Photo credit: theirhistory / / CC BY-NC-SA

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

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:

The Strand:

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:

Harvard COOP Photo Credit:

Raven Used Books Photo Credit:

St. John’s College Sign Photo Credit:

Middies Johnnies Croquet:


The Secret Language of Striped Ties

Tie 01

Regimental Tie of the Royal Household Guards

The striped tie is the ubiquitous workhorse of business dress. From boardrooms to intern cubicles, the striped tie can signal both the elan and fortitude of its bearer. And yet, this seemingly essential piece of menswear was not always so. Once the dresswear of British Army regiments and preparatory schools, the striped tie has clearly evolved from its roots.

I eschewed this style of tie for many years–thinking it the stuffy and safe choice of the uncreative. Such is the opinion of the greasy teen, in whose father’s dress shirt would wear an abstraction from Jerry Garcia or Rush Limbaugh. But for the initiated, the striped tie signals an appreciation for tradition and timeless style. The stripes are also practical, as they can match up with nearly every conceivable shirt and jacket.

My Necktie -- 23/6/2005

Argyle Sutherland Regimental Tie

While Americans regard the verisimilitude of striped neckwear as just a combination of colors, to the British eye, these ties signify a lot more. Those bars and colors signal the fealty of the bearer to alma mater or king and country. For of the traditional ties pictures in this blog, these are the traditional colors of preparatory schools and military regiments, and were intended to be worn only by those alumni or current members of the Army or school. Brits can read these ties and know where you might have gone to boarding school.

The British model is easily recognizable, the stripes are diagonal, from the upper left to the lower right. Two to three colors mark the tie, sometimes with a thin gold line outlining those colors. Green usually signals an Irish regiment. Three colors tend to be the hallmark of a prep school, as in the red, white and blue of the Charterhouse school.

File:Charles, Prince of Wales.jpg

Charterhouse Prep School Tie

According to M.S. McClellan, a clothier in Knoxville, Tennessee, the move of the striped tie from exclusive use to the everyman can be attributed to the Prince of Wales–Edward, not Charles. After World War I, the sartorial Prince Edward (later Edward VIII) wore the Royal Household Grenadiers Red and Navy in solidarity with those troops with which he served. He brought his regimental tie to the US, and that panache set off the trend. (Prince Edward had a habit of being a bit of a clothes horse. He “invented” the Windsor knot, the bulky noose preferred by Republicans, introduced Argyle to casual attire and had his own pattern of suit fabric (the “Prince of Wales”), all commonly seen today.)

Brooks Brothers and J. Press–two American haberdashers that cater to the preppie aesthetic–capitalized on the trend for American audiences. However, the British were aghast that Joe College would bear the stripes of the Black Watch, Westminster, and Charterhouse. Thus, the American Repp Tie has the stripes in reverse, from lower left moving toward the upper right of the tie. This little change seemed to satisfy those fey Brits and their calls for proper decorum.

Repp, by the way, refers not to the stripes of the tie, but the weave of the silk. A true repp regimental tie will have a diagonal silk weave, in contrast to the the colored bars on the tie.

Tierug - stripes

Americans have taken a prism to the striped tie–as there is no limit to the variation of colors available. Americans have taken to the striped tie as we have with so many ideas from Old Europe. We take the vocabulary and innovate something new of our own. From Opera, we invent musical theatre. From classical music we get Jazz. From the Greek Orders we give you Frank Lloyd Wright. Americans use the scaffold of the stripes to show off splashes of new colors against tweed, navy and gray. The American Repp stands as a bulwark against the meaningless geometry of contemporary ties.

Yet the ties in the US have lost all meaning compared to the British varieties–a lost language in the New World. Any American who is fond of those stripes should be forewarned against wearing them in the UK. Such a display by an American in London might earn you a tongue-lashing from an aged veteran of Her Majesty’s Hussars, or the ridicule of an Etonian who finds you out for wearing his school’s colors. This warning of course matters not if you happen to be a prince, who happens to be the head of every armed force and a patron of most universities and prep schools in the UK.

Repp Photo credit: Paul Worthington / Foter / CC BY-NC

Tweed and Repp Photo credit: bjohnson / Foter / CC BY-SA

Prince Charles Photo Credit: This image is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Tie wheel Photo credit: eileenaway / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Edward VIII

About the Penny-farthing

canstockphoto7401825Author’s Note–Henry’s Eclectic has reached 36 followers! That is 35 more than I ever thought I’d have. Thank you for your patronage. No endeavor starts off without hiccups, and every small victory is cherished. Thank you for your time and readership.

On occasion, I will offer a modest supplement to my usual Tuesday travel recollections. I had great ambitions for the scope of this blog, a sort of internet attic full of odds-and-ends in a steamer trunk. I thought of channeling J.Peterman and Lewis Lapham in design, perhaps even a little Charles Kuralt and Garrison Keillor for nostalgia and Anthony Bourdain when it comes to food. I also channeled the British factotum Ben Schott and the Idler’s Tom Hodgkinson. I would take my reader on a brief essay ride to revel in the little things, especially the obsolete things—like card catalogs, rotary phones and the Game Boy. I will get to those things certainly.

And today, I start with the Penny-farthing—the big-wheeled bicycle that I have made the logo of the Eclectic—a true contraption that may get you where you need to go, conspicuously, and with whimsy. This particular iteration comes from Harper’s Weekly—the old newspaper and magazine dating back to the Civil War.

What is a penny-farthing? Well, it was a precursor to the modern bicycle. It takes it name from two British coins of unequal size—a penny and a farthing. The odd shape of the thing did have practicality—the very large wheel allowed the rider to pick up speed more quickly. The down side was that if you do a face plant off a penny-farthing, you’d have a long distance to go before gravity would force feed you a salad of dirt and grass. Some Victorians actually died from “taking a header” off the top of a penny-farthing.

While odd looking to the 21st century cycling enthusiast, all bicycles had mismatched wheels until the invention of the “safety bicycle” with its two, equal wheels in the 1890’s. By then, the penny-farthing had its day.


My choice of the penny-farthing as a logo has little to do with the bicycle. (What an obsolete wonder though! Someday I will try a penny-farthing, and will post photos for you. ) When I was in my undergraduate years, I had a good friend who was in journalism school. Back in the “web 2.0” days of myspace and email, she made a passing reference to wanting a penny-farthing on her own blog, perhaps as she might have though it the only conveyance that would accommodate her long legs.

Being a bit of a suburban Pollyanna at this time in my life (as that last sentence clearly extolls, given my interest in the bike over the legs!), I had no idea what she was talking about (ever, really. Not for some fault of her own. She was brilliant.) And so in a wikirage, I did find out what this penny-farthing thing was. She went on to become an editor of online magazines of record, and I went on to keep a modest blog as an avocation. In some ways, the blog is already the penny-farthing of social communication, as most attention spans have been whittled to the length of a tweet, or you tube clip. A shame, as the essay remains the most useful tool for conveying a cogent thought with exposition and persuasion that no infographic can topple.

Who would have thought such a passing reference to a clunky, Victorian albatross of a bicycle would linger in the attic space of this author’s mind? It did though and thus a logo and a modest tribute were born.

Penny Farthings Forbidden

Pennyfarthing Logo under license from All Rights Reserved (c) 2013

Taking a Header Photo credit: Foxtongue / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

No Pennyfarthings Allowed Photo credit: The Puzzler / Foter / CC BY



When I was a kid, and would go to Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium,–a hulking cavern of old steel, wooden slat seats and lake effect snow–I would marvel at the capacity crowd of nearly 80,000 humans. Imagine 80,000 of something. To put that in perspective, a human’s average life expectancy in days is about 30,000.

That stadium could hold six times the population of my small Ohio town. Years later, attending a presidential inaugural, I got my head wrapped around what a million of something looks like–a million people filling the National Mall from Grant’s plinth in front of the Capitol to Washington’s marble obelisk.

Now imagine a billion things. Or a trillion things. The number is impossible for the mind’s eye to grasp, or at least it was until this week. Every so often, a sleeping brood of cicacas–a bug akin to the locust–emerge from their 17 year dormancy, climb to the surface of the earth, and take flight. In the mid-Atlantic region, the cicada Brood II (they are numbered by cicada experts to keep tabs on their habits) returned, like a comet (except less stratospheric, more abundant and frequently irritating) on schedule.

17 Year Cicadas

Living in more mountainous then coastal areas, we didn’t see much of the great cicada swarms that seem to find their way across the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, destroying countless picnics and cookouts and making life a little miserable for about two to five weeks. But when I moved to Southern Indiana in the 2000’s, I had my first encounter with the Biblical force of nature known as a cicada brood.

The cicada, for the undoctrinated, is a peculiar bug. There are over 2400 known varieties around they world. They spent most of their lives dormant, underground, for over a decade at a time. After a lengthy nap of Rip Van Winkle proportions, they wait for the ground to warm to 64 degrees, after the winter thaw, and emerge. The bugs will reemerge as a ground dwelling brown nymph–a sort of giant armored beetle–before shedding their shell and emerging as a vibrantly colored adult, ready to eat, mate and die over a two to six week week period. Once airborne, they will sing dawn to dusk in the trees at levels nearing 100 decibels. They will clumsily fly past you, with their wings beating baritone. And they will die en masse, leaving a genocide’s worth of corpses piled in the roads, sidewalks and gutters.

Cicada molting animated-2

In 2004, Brood X emerged in the Midwest after a 17-year hiatus. Brood X is particularly huge and ugly. Red eyes, black bodies, orange wings. Individually, the bugs are spooky but harmless, easy to knock off a doorway or window screen. Collectively they are awesome. The swarms are so dense that a yellowish brown haze always sits in the air. Great oaks and elms heave with a collective crescendo of “singing” from the males. There is no respite from the song–the noise makes it indoors. And the grasses and trees, the parks and the wild are teaming with the bugs, ruining the tranquility of an outdoor stroll.

Two Brood X cycles before, in 1970, the bugs upstaged Bob Dylan on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree from Princeton in springtime. With the cicadas making their presence known, he penned this song:

Cicadas have drawn the ire of many a human. They have been seen as a sign of God’s wrath–a pestilence. And yet, the Cicadas are harmless. They do not destroy the crops like locusts. Birds benefit from engorging on them. I have even seen the plain and goodly sparrow snag a clumsy cicada from the sky and peck it to pieces.

Is this thing on?

Perhaps the haters see something in themselves in the cicada. They hate the years of dormancy followed by ceaseless prattling before they die. The same could be said of a cubicle dwelling Dilbert, who emerges from his office tomb in retirement only to natter his children incessantly before croaking I suppose. For me, I have come to see the cicadas as an avatar not of woe, but of youth. They are rock and roll. They’d be tragic front-men. Consider: They sleep all the time. They are flamboyantly colored. They wake up to eat and fornicate for two weeks straight, singing at a piercing 100 decibels all day and all night, then die.

By the end of the two to five weeks, people become slap happy from the cicadas’ Bacchanalia. While bugs have always been reliable protein for human consumption in Asia, Americans take to the chocolate covered cicada–the females prized for their toothsome mouthfeel. The United Nations is in on the act too, releasing a report on bugs as the new food. I have seen people make found art and handicrafts from their fragile wings–even earrings. Children find novel ways to exact revenge. I recall a troop of latch-key kids from a local elementary school mercilessly beating the leaves of a tree–and the cicadas attached–to submission.

Backyard Bug Party

Rather than live in fear of the cicada, I will try to enjoy their return, like an annoying college buddy crashing on your couch for a month. I wonder, that if the cicada boom was a mere three days, that humans would not mind their company and visits.

Cicada Photo credit: Roger Smith / / CC BY-NC-ND

Molting video credit: T. Nathan Mundhenk / / CC BY-SA

Cicadas on Tree Photo credit: istorija / / CC BY-NC

Cicada bug party Photo credit: Matt Niemi / / CC BY-NC-ND

Cicada Microphone Photo credit: Articulate Matter / / CC BY-NC-ND

Freddie Mercury Photo credit: / / CC BY-SA