Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Back to college!

I love the two universities I attended! I spent four years at the University of Charleston getting my bachelor’s degree in political science, and then I spent about four years in Morgantown at West Virginia University getting my master’s in public administration and my doctorate of jurisprudence. Both schools are near and dear to my heart.

The capital city of Charleston holds a big event called “FestivALL,” celebrating all sorts of arts and music. The riverbank in front of the University of Charleston, with its excellent view of the state capitol building, is the site for two main FestivALL musical events—“Blues, Brews, and BBQ” on Friday night, and “Wine and all that Jazz” on Saturday night. Anna and I decided to travel to Charleston for the weekend because UC offered alumni not only discount tickets to these two events, but also the unique opportunity to live in a student dorm room for the weekend.

Although I have taught part-time at WVU-Parkersburg over the years, I am grateful that I didn’t stay at home and attend this community college. Going away and living in a dorm was one of the best times of my life. I learned a great deal in the classrooms at UC (particularly Room 306 of Riggleman Hall, where all the political science classes were taught), but I learned even more about life by living in the dorms. I was exposed to living in close quarters with people from far away exotic places, such as Africa and the Middle East, as well as from Joizey and Lon Gisland (New Jersey and Long Island, each spelled with their particular vernacular). Being on your own, getting along with a myriad of other people, budgeting your limited funds, doing your own laundry, planning your schedules, eating new foods (for example, I had never eaten a bagel until college)—all these contributed greatly to the learning process at a residential liberal arts college.

So with great anticipation, Anna and I headed south on I-77 to Charleston, to move back into a dorm room at UC. Since it was just for a weekend, the Prius was not jam packed with stuff like the 1970 Volkswagen Beetle was for my first trip to college (actually, fellow Parkersburg High School crew team member Richard C. rode down to UC with me, so the VW was packed to the max with stuff for two freshman to move into the dorms). However, I did bring a few extras to decorate the room for this nostalgic trip back to my life in the late ‘70s.

We checked in at the UC Alumni Office, and received our keys from Alumni Director Bridgette Borst (a 2007 grad from UC). Our room was in one of the new dorms, Middle Hall, and it uses a “smart card” to open the outside doors (no need for someone to “work the desk” to control access like the girls dorm had back in the old days—on the other hand, the boys dorms back then were pretty much wide open all the time).

However, once you got through the front door by holding your smart card near the reader, the key to your actual room is still one of those bronze “Schalge” keys like we had in the ‘70s—minus the plastic key fob with your room number and a “postage guaranteed if found” message. The room itself was much bigger (probably twice as large, plus the ceilings are much higher) than what the old dorms offered. In addition, there was a private bathroom, opened only with your room key, directly across the hall! The community bathroom and showers are a thing of the past, just like the pay phone booths that used to be found in each section of the old dorms. All the furniture was modular, allowing for easy redesign of the basic layout (including moving the beds together). The study chairs were uniquely designed—they were not rocking chairs, but did offer two separate seating angles. A person could choose to sit upright or could lean the chair back—without putting all the weight on just two legs.

To recreate my dorm room, I brought with me an old UC crew poster to put up in my room, along with one of the wooden blades that Roger B’s dad had carved, to give it the crew team motif. Roger and I had rowed together at PHS, and then roomed together for my first two years at college. I also brought with me the old plaster cast from when I had broken my leg while ice skating at the Charleston Civic Center ice rink my freshman year. It contains dozens of autographs from my friends at college during that era. In addition, I brought an empty champagne bottle from the gala celebration held on September 7, 1997, for the fancy dedication of the new Clay Tower building on the UC campus. Although I had long since graduated, it seemed fitting to have this 9/7/97 bottle in the room to represent my long-time involvement as an alum. Although I thought about it, I didn’t bother to add a candle to create one of those wine bottle candlestick holders that were popular in the old days—I didn’t want to get kicked out of the dorm for having an open flame.

I couldn’t find any of my undergraduate textbooks, but I did bring along former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neely’s book entitled “How Courts Govern America.” I had taken Justice Neely’s economics classes at UC, and he was a very interesting adjunct professor. You had to get up early because he only taught 8:00 classes, but there are few teachers who can make the “dismal science” of economics interesting. Thus his book was placed on my bookshelf in the room to represent all the college textbooks I would have had back in my student days.

Although most of the UC students were gone for the summer, there was a group of students from George Mason University staying in our dorm. I got into some interesting conversations with these students at various times over the weekend, both inside and at the picnic tables just outside, which reminded me of the discussions we used to have in the dorms back in the '70s. Speaking of that era, these George Mason students (located in Fairfax, VA) were surprised to learn that their Lt. Governor Bill Bolling had graduated from UC with me. I also got to regale them with some West Virginia history, plus I impressed the African exchange student by describing precisely where his home country of Togo was located. Fun times!

After getting moved into the dorm room, we strolled around campus as I often do when time allows in Charleston. I love sitting in my old classroom, venturing through the student union, peering into the gym, walking around the boathouse, or hanging out on the riverbank. See my previous blog posting at http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2011/03/ucs-hallowed-ground.html for a discussion of how special the UC riverbank is for many of us.

For these big events, temporary fencing is installed around the riverbank to control admission. We were among the first to arrive on Friday and enjoyed a long evening of very good blues performers. We were able to eat some good barbecue as well. Surprisingly, our favorite food vendor was the UC cafeteria’s tent. Their barbecue sandwiches were delicious, and Anna loves their homemade potato chips, which we have previously enjoyed at other alumni events like Homecoming and the Governor’s Cup Regatta.

On Saturday morning, we headed out to spend the day visiting relatives, but made our way back to campus for that evening’s jazz performance. Apparently wine and jazz are more popular in Charleston than beer and blues music, because the crowd was definitely larger on Saturday (of course, Saturday is easier to do things since one is not generally dealing with workplace obligations that day). The entire riverbank seemed to be packed with people, clear back to the barbecue trailers set up near the boathouse.

As for me, if I had to pick I think I like blues better than jazz, but I can certainly appreciate both styles of music—Anna and I both have eclectic tastes and can enjoy all forms of music. As we entered the riverbank area, I was thrilled to hear the loudspeakers playing the entire Steely Dan “Aja” album as filler before the band started. I didn’t buy a lot of music during my college days, but this album was one of the few that I spent my precious dollars on, and I played it a lot. It was the perfect music for me to hear during this nostalgic weekend!

The jazz performers were just as talented as the blues performers the night before, and it was great sitting along the Kanawha River for hours as the sun went down behind us and the stars came out in the night sky. The weather was perfect for the entire weekend (a bit of rain had fallen Friday afternoon, but had moved out before the show was to start, which may have also contributed to the lower attendance the first night). Coal barges moved up and down the river as pleasure boats anchored off the riverbank to listen on the festivities both nights. The entire event was a visual and auditory delight.

After Friday’s show, Anna and I walked the gravel trail the length of the riverbank and then down to the crew team’s boat dock in the dark to hang out on the river for a while. After Saturday’s show, we did what students of my era often did—hang out on the steps of the student union. From those steps, you could see all the way down to Dickinson Hall (the girls dorm) on your left, and both Benedum and Cox Halls (the boys dorms) to your right. It was a great meeting place in the days before video games and hundred-channel cable TV packages started keeping today’s students more isolated unto themselves in their rooms.

We then headed into our dorm, but (not having brought our own TV for just the weekend) decided to watch Saturday Night Live in the lounge. During my first two years on campus, I didn’t have a TV in my room, so the concept of watching TV in the lounge was not new to me. Not only did we get to watch SNL, but they also had an old-fashioned foosball table in the lounge—and it didn’t require quarters to play it. We had a good time before calling it a night.

All in all, we had a great weekend pretending to be college students again and living in a dormitory. It’s not possible to turn the clocks back to the late ‘70s, but I always enjoy revisiting my past. I am grateful for the good start to my adult life that I got at UC, as well as the sound academic foundation that enabled me to graduate from law school. Although I didn’t see as many alums from my era as I had hoped, Anna and I had such a good time that we will likely do this again in the future. After a weekend of re-living my college days, I will now head back to adult life and Monday morning at work. If only to be 18 again!

The old University of Charleston crew poster I brought with me to decorate my weekend dorm room, leaning on the bookshelf.

Und Brodvay, again

As a college graduation present to my daughter and her boyfriend, Anna and I took them on Lisa Starcher Collins’ most recent Arts & Culture Tours New York City bus trip. Anna and I took Halley on one of these three-day, two-night journeys last year (see my prior blog posting “Und Brodvay” (http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2011/11/und-brodvay.html) which also explains the title above). Lisa does a great job coordinating these trips, and we stay at a Marriott right on Times Square. It is a great way to see the Big Apple.

After checking in upon arrival Friday afternoon, we immediately went to the TKTS half-price Broadway ticket booth. Based on what was available that evening, Anna and I decided to see the revival of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”—a political morality play set in a fictional election in 1960. We were drawn to this play not just for the story (both of us being interested in politics and old enough to have lived in the ‘60s), but also because it had so many stars. These included James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury (both of whom had begun their Broadway careers before I was born), as well as Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, and Eric McCormick (Will from TV’s “Will and Grace”). We enjoyed the show very much!

Prior to the show, we walked from Times Square down Broadway to the Empire State Building. Anna and I love walking in NYC, just soaking in the big city vibes. We decided to eat dinner at the Heartland Brewery in the base of the Empire State Building. I got the Ahi Tuna sandwich, with wasobi and ginger, and it was incredible! It turned out to be our favorite dish of the weekend. We then walked back north along Fifth Avenue, turning at Rockefeller Center and checking out the NBC store. We also ventured over to the Ed Sullivan Theater (home of the David Letterman show) and into a few more tourist stores, including the M&M’s store and Jamba Juice prior to heading for the show.

Halley’s boyfriend Robbie is a big baseball fan, especially a New York Yankee fan. His second favorite team is the Cincinnati Reds, and they happened to be playing the New York Mets this particular weekend (the Yankees were on the road). So the two of them spent Friday night watching the Reds beat the Mets at Citi Field (which included an after-game concert by the ‘70s rock group “.38 Special”). We had agreed to meet after our play and their game at Bubba Gump’s in Times Square for a late night appetizer and to talk about our evenings. Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company is a restaurant chain based on the Forrest Gump movie. The host and the waitstaff like to hit you up with trivia questions about the movie. It turns out that Robbie loves that movie and has watched it repeatedly, so both the host and our waitress were unable to stump us with their trivia questions.

On Saturday, I woke up early and got in the ticket line for an afternoon matinee. We were fortunate to get great half-price tickets to see “War Horse” at Lincoln Center at 2:00 PM. However, the TKTS office in Times Square doesn’t start selling evening show tickets until the afternoon—but a satellite office at the South Street Seaport starts selling them at 11:00 AM. So once I had the “War Horse” tickets (and by now, Anna was awake), we headed to the New York subway to ride to the southern end of Manhattan. The South Side Seaport is an interesting area, with historic old buildings and a few tall sailing ships moored at the dock. We had to stand in line for awhile, but we were able to purchase the tickets we wanted—Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall for that night.

We then ventured over to the Brooklyn Bridge, and made the walk across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. It was more crowded that I had expected, but it was still great to get that view of the spider web of old iron cables strung across the stone towers. It is featured in lots of movies and TV, but I especially associate it with the movie “Sophie’s Choice.” The nearly completed World Trade Center replacement building could be seen when looking back towards Manhattan, and made us wonder what the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway must have been like on September 11.

We had hoped to eat some Brooklyn pizza for lunch at a famous place called Grimaldi's, but we were beginning to worry about our time situation, so we just went ahead and walked over to the Clark Street subway station and headed under the river and north to Lincoln Center. Exiting at the 72nd Street station, we grabbed a slice of pizza from a typical small New York pizzeria as our lunch before the play. We then walked down a few blocks to the Lincoln Center Complex, which includes several theaters, the Julliard School, and a wonderful fountain, reflecting pool, and grassy hillside. As an added bonus, Lincoln Center was hosting an arts & crafts fair, which (needless to say) included lots of creative and high end products.

The play itself was phenomenal! War Horse tells the story of a British boy and his horse, and the horrors of the Great War (what World War I was called before World War II came along). It provides a good look back on the history of that era, and the story itself is marvelous, but what really makes this play memorable is the way they created “puppets” to represent horses. Generally it required three people to manipulate the horses, but they did such a fantastic job that your mind was able to suspend the fact that humans were involved and instead, look at these representations as if they were real horses. It was incredible how life-like they could be, mimicking the way a horse breathes, or the movement of their ears or tail. They even had mastered the sounds a horse makes. It was a magnificent performance, and we had great seats just six rows from the stage—the best seats we got ended up being for the best show of the weekend.

After the show, we walked south on 9th Street, heading for the restaurants in the Hell’s Kitchen area for dinner. We wanted to find an interesting one that also allowed us to sit on or near the sidewalk, so that we could take in more of the New York city culture. We walked until the cross streets were in the 30s before turning around and walking back. It was a hard decision, but we both like Asian food so we decided to try a little place called Ideal Thai Restaurant (which offered an early dinner special). It was one of those restaurants whose front wall opens up, so we were sitting at the first table inside, but were immediately adjacent to the street and sidewalk. The view was nice, and price was right, but the food didn’t impress us—not that it was bad, but just that we expected something more than what we got. The new Thai restaurant in Morgantown was just as good as this place. Oh well!

We then headed back to the hotel and changed before going to Radio City Music Hall. I had been to a show there back in the ‘90s, but Anna had never been inside. I knew that the venue itself was a sight to behold, and since we both had always wanted to see a Cirque du Soleil show (this one was entitled “Zarkana”), it worked out perfect. Unlike my previous visit when I was mired near the back of the hall, this time our tickets were only 13 rows back—not quite as good as what we had at Lincoln Center, but still great seats in such a humongous auditorium.

Cirque du Soleil is known for their ultra-creative combination of art, music, and acrobatics. This particular show featured trapeze artists, jugglers, tight rope walkers, sand artists, and more. It was one incredible performance after another, all presented in a most unique way on this grand stage. Although we were very impressed with the show (and the venue), it did not top “War Horse” for my Best Show of the Weekend award.

Halley and Robbie had ventured off on their own again this day, so that they could take the official tour of Yankees Stadium. They bought tickets that afternoon to see a Broadway play called “Nice Work If You Can Get It” starring Matthew Broderick, which they enjoyed very much. We again arranged an after show get together for appetizers and to discuss our respective activities of the day. This time we took them to Dave & Busters, a national chain that combines a restaurant with a large arcade full of computer games, skee ball, etc. Anna and I have been to D&Bs in both Columbus and DC, but Halley and Robbie were not familiar with this restaurant/arcade. We had a good time, especially watching the two youngsters playing games in D&B for the first time (I think they will be hitting D&B again someday).

On Sunday, we started the day with the four of us grabbing a bite at Junior’s bakery next door to the hotel. Then we caught the subway from 42nd Street to 86th Street. The four of us wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History, a huge complex just off Central Park. We spent most of the day exploring this famous repository of world knowledge. There was everything from dinosaur bones to moon rocks, from cultures around the world to the microscopic world, from the depths of the ocean to the vast reaches of outer space. It would take a week to thoroughly explore this vast collection.

Upon leaving the museum, we again went our own way as we each ventured back towards Times Square to catch the bus home. Anna and I walked to the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon in Central Park, and then down 8th Street, stopping eventually for an early dinner at an Irish restaurant. One of their daily specials included something called “Black & White Pudding.” The thought of getting a dessert included with my meal appealed to me, but fortunately I asked the waitress about the pudding. It turns out it is a form of sausage made from pigs blood, so I decided to choose something else. Normally I am willing to be adventurous with food, but with a long bus trip home ahead of me, I decided to not try something that exotic for the first time. The food we had was good, and the old building housing the restaurant was interesting, but the prize for best meal goes to Heartland Brewery in the Empire State Building.

We stopped at Jamba Juice (a chain specializing in healthy drinks, and which has been featured in Saturday Night Live skits) for a green tea smoothie (a favorite drink that we had discovered on previous trips to NYC) before boarding the bus. We had a lot of fun in our limited time in the Big Apple, but there is never enough time to do everything we would like to do. I don’t want to live in NYC, but I do like visiting it, and so we will continue with our occasional forays to the Big Apple because there is also something new for us to see there. It is quite a place!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

You otter try this!

On a beautiful summer day, Anna and I took our kayaks to Bruceton Mills, just off I-68 in Preston County, to try out Big Sandy Creek above the old stone mill dam. An early settler, John M. Hoffman, named Bruceton Mills after his stepfather, George Bruce, who claimed to be a direct descendent of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

As we paddled upstream from the put-in at the dam, past the few buildings in this small town, one of the last glimpses before the forest was an old white church on top of the hill behind the town. Soon all we saw was green forest crowding both the banks, along with a beautiful blue sky, with a few billowy white clouds, and golden sunlight glinting off the water.

Besides the big trees, there were heavy laurel thickets. I had always thought it would be easy to hike through a laurel thicket, because after all, they are just something akin rhododendron bushes. That was until I tried it years ago—it is surprising how strong and unrelenting mountain laurel can be!

As we paddled up, a sapphire-blue dragonfly hitched a ride on the bow of my kayak. Dragonflies are amazing creatures, and often have vivid colors. Within the water, we could see fish, both large and small. Sometimes it seemed that whole schools of minnows would jump out of the water at the same time (reminding me of the flying fish we have observed while on cruise ships). Anna was lucky enough to see a fish about a foot-long jump way out of the water, but all I got to see was the circular waves from where it landed back in with a splash.

We also watched a belted kingfisher fly from one bank to another, always staying in a tree ahead of us as we paddled north. Then, we saw him dive head first into the water, and come up with a fish in his mouth. He flew to an old dead tree limb and eventually worked the fish around to go down his throat.

Watching the kingfisher catch a fish was pretty interesting, and would ordinarily have made my day. However, this was no ordinary day! As we continued paddling upstream, I noticed a commotion in the water near the right bank. We stopped paddling and just coasted quietly, as we had stumbled upon what I assume to be four young river otters playing in the creek. They were so busy with their own mischievous horseplay that they didn’t notice us at first. I happened to be on the same side of the creek as they were, and I was able to glide quite close before they saw me. I got a good look at their flattish faces, their dark eyes, and the light colored hair around their mouth and whiskers. Best of all, the water was clear enough for me to see them as they swam underwater to get past me. I have always enjoyed watching otters at the French Creek Game Farm and other zoos, but getting to see the real thing in the wild was an experience I’ll never forget!

We pressed northward, passing the occasional rope swing showing signs of summer swimming holes. We crossed under an old iron bridge at a summer cabin and camping area. It turns out this was only about the halfway point for us. Even though the old mill dam back at the starting point is only about 10-15 feet tall, it creates a surprisingly long pool of water for flatwater kayaking.

Soon we were away from any signs of civilization again, with only the sound of birds in the forest. Except for once when we heard what sounded like a tree falling in the forest. Since we were there to hear it, it qualified as making noise (as in the old metaphysical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around…”).

Just as we had forced the kingfisher to flee upstream ahead of us (until he caught his fish), we also noticed a large, long-necked waterbird (a heron?) flying ahead of us whenever we would round a bend. It was more elusive than the kingfisher and it never let us get close to it. But we did get close to a deer that had come down to the creek for a drink of water before noticing us gliding along (she quickly retreated with a loud snort).

Eventually we reached some riffles in the water showing that the pool had ended. We could have got out and pulled the kayaks up into the next pool to see what came next, but we decided to save that for another day. Instead, we turned around and retraced our route back downstream to the old mill dam (but unfortunately the otters were apparently hiding this time).

We will definitely return in the future, because this was a great place for flatwater kayaking. It is easy to get to, being less than a mile from the interstate, yet still gives a sense of wilderness. Best of all, we can bring friends who don’t have kayaks here to join us, because there is a small business called “Padlz” (www.padlz.com) that rents kayaks and canoes here. It all made for a glorious day in wild, wonderful, West Virginia!