Holding Hands Old Couple

Bearing Witness

One afternoon, my friend and I were waiting for her car to be serviced, so we sat in the waiting room to discuss the things good friends discuss in waiting rooms when coffee is being given away.

An elderly woman, still wearing her winter coat indoors, was sitting alone across from us, barking inarticulate sounds to herself. Sometimes, when she would hear laughter, she would rock forward, and, with a smile on her face, direct some louder sounds in the direction of the others, as if she was participating in the joking and merriment. Then she would slump back and the stream of non-language would continue, sometimes in a sing-song, sometimes with a note of fear and anger. Was she alone here? Had she wandered in off the street? That was not possible, as the street was Route 9.
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Today in History: August 26

Vulnerable. Reporters are vulnerable. The camera lens and a notepad do not stop bullets. One year ago today a local television news reporter and a cameraman for WDBJ7, a CBS affiliate in Virginia, were shot and killed live on the air.

The reporter was named Alison Parker; she was 24 years old and had recently gotten engaged to be married to another young WDBJ reporter. The cameraman, Adam Ward, was 27. He was engaged to be married as well and today was to be his last day at WDBJ; his fiancee was in the production studio doing her job when she watched her boyfriend get shot.

The shooter ran away and then was shot and killed by authorities himself later the same day.
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Elvis Costello’s ‘The Last Year of My Youth’

Elvis Costello is 62 today. It might be obvious to anyone who visits these pages that I am something of an amateurish fan of his work. He is touring America (near me) this fall with a concert based on his 1982 album, Imperial Bedroom. This column first appeared in May:

* * * *
The phrase must have been much on Elvis Costello’s mind the summer of 2014: he was going to perform a set of solo shows at Carnegie Hall in June and he had even titled the shows “The Last Year of My Youth.” But he did not have a song with that title.

He did have a song that addressed aging, the folly and wonder of being middle-aged, a song called “45” that he debuted on The Tonight Show in the 1990s and then performed on his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel. He was around that age at that time and found for himself a wealth of metaphors to being 45, from the end of World War II in 1945 (“bells are chiming in victory”), to 45 RPM records and what rock singles meant when he was young: “Bass and treble heal every hurt.” One reviewer, also in his mid 40s, wrote that “45” hit him so hard at the time, “I was shaking at the end” of the song. When I hit 45, I understood this thought about the song and I also understood the song; I also found that I understood the song better than I had the day before, when I was still 44.

The summer of 2014, Costello was turning 60, because math happens, and that phrase—”the last year of my youth”—must have been much on his mind.
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Today in History: #NPS100

The National Park Service Organic Act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on this date 100 years ago.

It created the National Park Service and established its jurisdiction in the Department of the Interior. The NPS was mandated “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In the 1930s, historic sites such as the battlefield at Gettysburg and presidential homes were added to its mandate.
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Today in History: August 24

The International Astronomical Union published an article, “Definition of a Planet in the Solar System: Resolutions 5 and 6,” ten years ago today. (The link is to a PDF file.)

In popular culture, what the IAU did ten years ago today was demote Pluto (seen above) from one of the classic nine planets of the solar system, the nine whose names we all grew up memorizing and reciting, to one of several or many or thousands of “dwarf planets,” leaving us with eight planets. Schoolchildren everywhere possibly find it odd that this elicited as much controversy as it did.

The article employed in an official way a term that had been around since the early 1990s: dwarf planet. A dwarf planet is an object that is massive enough to be a ball (in scientific terms, it is a spheroid that is in hydrostatic equilibrium) and orbits the Sun, but it is not massive enough to have cleared its lane through space.
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Today in History: August 23

The execution of the Scottish independence fighter Sir William Wallace (above) was considered so important that even though it took place more than seven centuries ago, we know that it took place on precisely this date in 1305.

Wallace’s main argument in his own defense was that he needed no defense against the charge of treason because he had not committed treason—”I could not be a traitor to [King] Edward, for I was never his subject”—which was considered treasonous in itself. The manner of his execution was brutal and has not been performed in almost two centuries in Great Britain (which means that it was performed for almost five more centuries). Post-execution, Wallace’s body parts were displayed for decades after.
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traffic jam

Hindsight is 50/50

One of my favorite expressions, one that I used to employ frequently but no longer do, is, “This is X number of minutes I am never getting back.” I would say this after experiencing something incredibly boring and frustrating, like waiting on line only to discover that I was waiting on the wrong line the entire time, or when I was in a traffic jam in which I learned that the hold-up was people gawking at an accident which by itself would not have created the traffic jam.

The worst, the most empty and useless, four-word sequence in the English language is, “You should have done … .” It is hindsight—something no one likes to be accused of using—masquerading as foresight, something everyone likes to be credited with possessing. “You should have driven this route instead of the one with the traffic accident-gawking crowd that no one knew was going to show up.” It is really a way of saying, “I knew better.” Those particular three words are more honest and would be welcomed if they were said more often, but more honest punches might be thrown more frequently as a result.
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PresidentRoosevelt car

Today in History: August 22

On this date in 1902, the presidential motorcade was born.

In 1899, President William McKinley became the first president to ride in a car, a Stanley Steamer, but it was President Theodore Roosevelt who was the first to do so publicly. On August 22, 1902, while in Hartford, Connecticut, he rode in a Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton. Because the car could reach thirteen miles per hour, the police could not keep up on foot, so they rode horses in front and bicycles alongside.

American automobile manufacturing was in its infancy in 1902, so designs were many and many designs were experimental/guesses at what might work or be popular: about half the cars on the market were electric and the other half gasoline-fueled. Roosevelt rode in a Hartford-built Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton, which seated the driver in an external box behind the passengers at the rear of the car; two 20-volt batteries that totaled approximately 800 pounds; rubber tires; and car offered the driver four speeds, with the maximum speed thirteen miles an hour. The driver controlled the vehicle with a tiller, seen in the photo at top.
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