Sunday, July 31, 2011

Biggest. Bug. EVER.

My recent discussion of cicadas reminded me that I neglected to post the photo I took last month of the biggest bug I've ever seen in the wild.

And by "wild" I mean my own back yard.

The thing was rather confusedly banging itself against my patio screen door. Unless he wasn't really confused at all and that's just how big bugs enjoy themselves. (I imagine the experience is a bit like having CNN playing loudly on the TV all day - which some people do. To each his own.)

Anyway, I carefully captured him in a plastic container back on June 22 and took this photo before gently releasing back into the wild so he might know the pleasure of banging himself against other screen doors:

Do you recognize this beast?

I think he's a stag beetle - something I've only seen before on TV nature shows, at the Toledo Zoo's old natural history museum, and in certain high school cafeterias.

Cute, isn't he?

I suppose I should mention that I Photoshopped the quarter in. He really wasn't *quite* that much bigger than George Washington - but he seemed to be about the size of a Volkswagen at the time.

And as we all know, the way things seem is more important than the way they really are - right?

Postscript: He hasn't returned since I released him. But it makes me smile to think of him out there now still regaling all his friends with his story about the night he was abducted by a hideous alien creature that exposed him to hi-tech electronic gear before he managed to escape.

If he ever ends up banging himself against YOUR screen door, be sure to tell him I said hi.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Whiners vs. Shakers

So suddenly we're into High Summer.

High Summer here is characterized by a rapid decline in firefly populations, average temperatures reaching their annual peak, skies edging increasingly towards the milky, and weeds starting to crowd out the tired annuals and perennials favored by us humans.

Soon it'll become obvious that the days are getting shorter and that the year is once again slowly but inexorably sliding towards another cold, gray Winter Solstice.

The hinge that the year seems to be pivoting on squeaked loudly for me last evening as I sat on the patio and heard a cacophony of cicadas in the trees beyond my back yard.

I heard the first shy cicada start singing its solitary song on July 2. These so-called 90-day cicadas allegedly start their annual chorus 90 days before the first frost but I'll be very surprised if we have freezing temperature before the third week of October.

Regardless of their questionable predictive powers, cicadas have long fascinated me. The fact that something no bigger than my thumb can make so much noise, day after day after day, has filled me with the hope of sitting up in a tree and making an awesome noise of my own someday. (If that noise can be made by sucking an entire ice cream sundae into my mouth with a straw in 2.3 seconds, so much the better. Research continues!)

Oddly, the cicadas here in central Ohio sound different than the cicadas I grew up with in northwest Ohio. It's a difference I've never heard anyone else mention despite its obviousness. Am I the only one who has noticed it? Am I the only one who cares?

The essential difference is this: Toledo's cicadas whine while Columbus's cicadas shake. To be even more exact: Toledo's bugs produce a warbling up-and-down whine that goes something like RRRRRRRRR-weeeeeee-RRRRRRRRRR-weeeeee-RRRRRRRRR-weeeee followed by a r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r of a slowdown while Columbus's bugs sound more like a hyperactive kid who has just been given a new set of maracas for his or her birthday. Both have their charms but I think I prefer the whiners.

I can recall sitting on my back porch many times as a child listening to that whining sound and trying to decide if it was coming from a malfunctioning electrical transformer on a nearby utility pole or if it was being produced by alien spaceships. No matter how hard I looked, I could never gather enough information with my eyes to decide.

To be fair, the shakers down here in Columbus seem to be working harder, which is impressive in its own way, but... unless one can easily imagine aliens with enough of a sense of humor to disguise themselves as rapidly swinging hollow gourds stuffed with dried beans, they're not likely to induce the same sort of otherworldly mood.

My advice to you: If you're craving an otherworldly mood, hie thee to Toledo.

And while you're there, be sure to enjoy the squirrels, too.

Yes, Columbus has squirrels as well, but they're grey squirrels. Grey squirrels are quite entertaining in their own way (especially if you can get them to hold still long enough to slip little sombreros on their heads) but Toledo has beautiful fox squirrels. I don't think I saw a grey squirrel until after I moved out of Toledo when I was 18. Since then, I've seen almost nothing but grey squirrels. The fox squirrels that I assumed were the norm and took for granted as a kid now seem wonderfully exotic.

I don't know why there are such significant differences in cicadas and squirrels living just 120 miles apart. I don't think the differences between people living in the two cities are quite as significant, but then again I've heard very few of them singing, and almost none of them have seen fit to reveal to me the color of the fur on their backs and bellies. Suffice it to say that the differences between one Toledoan and another and one Columbus resident and another seem much greater than the differences between two residents of these cities chosen at random. Just the reverse seems true of cicadas and squirrels.

There's also a charmingly unique group of black squirrels living in Norwalk, Ohio that seem rather more interesting than many of the people I've met in Toledo, Columbus, or Norwalk, but since few of them seem to read this blog, I wonder if they'll ever realize just how special they are.

In stark contrast to all this, the Canada geese I've seen in every part of Ohio I've visited seem identical. It's like someone made one goose 50 years ago and all the others are perfect Xerox copies.

Ants have seemed pretty interchangeable as well but the little sweat bees of southeastern Ohio have repeatedly stung me for reasons I just can't fathom. Bees everywhere else have left me alone and the sweat bees of southeastern Ohio don't seem to have had it in for anyone else I've known.

Ummmm, did I mention that another sign of High Summer here is the sudden appearance of rambling entries that almost make me forget the heat?

Consider it mentioned.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Mystery Solved

As near as I can tell, I belong to one of the least artistically-inclined families in the history of the world.

None of my relatives write letters or blogs, let alone poetry or novels. None sing or play a musical instrument. None dance. None visit museums or go to concerts.

The only non-fiction book that my mother ever seems to have owned in her life was Gone With The Wind. I don't think she ever read it.

As a child I can remember amazing her and my other relatives with my ability to put two Lego pieces together.

If they happened to be pieces of two different colors, the amazement would last for days.

The one exception to this pattern was my father. He seems to have created an actual painting that hung on our living room wall for years.

For almost five decades I haven't been able to make a bit of sense out of this. Not only is it utterly at odds with everything else I know about my family, it remains utterly at odds with everything I know about my father - a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, uncommunicative railroader who seems to have had far more in common with the 19th century Welsh coal miners I've seen photographs of than with Rubens or Andy Warhol.

My mother divorced him after he beat her up shortly before I was born. Just about my only contact with him came in the spring when he paid us a brief visit to get my mother to sign a document allowing him rather than her to declare me a dependent on his tax return. It was during one of these visits in the mid 1960s that he looked at the painting above our couch and offered to buy it back from my mother for $10.

When he said that he wanted it because he had painted it my mother seemed as surprised as I was.

It was a fairly large painting, maybe 2' high by 3' wide. Its oddly muted colors depicted a strange little bridge over a stream and a Chinese pagoda. I can remember staring at it sometimes when I was bored and nothing in real life seemed even half as interesting. It was one of the most exotic things my young mind seems to have been exposed to. I don't know at what point I knew it was set in on the other side of the planet in China but once I did know that I often wished I could be there instead of in Ohio.

My father's offer to buy it for $10 was a real bolt from the blue. My mother's almost instant decision to accept his offer, on the other hand, was all too predictable. (She probably would have sold me for less.)

Within a matter of minutes the painting and my father were both gone.

I missed the painting more. After all, it had been around for much longer than my father ever had been. And it was much more interesting to look at.

What remained was the mystery: What in the hell had ever prompted this guy to pick up a paint brush? And how could so much artistic talent lay so deeply hidden within such a dull human being?

During one of my father's last visits (circa 1973) he mentioned in passing that he'd fought in the Korean War. Had he perhaps attempted to capture on canvas something he'd seen while in Asia? Had he perhaps even been held in a Chinese POW camp and this had been something he'd created to pass the time?

It seemed too incredible to be possible. Yet the basic facts seemed to resist a more commonplace explanation.

Well, much of the mystery evaporated recently when I came across that painting in a book I was reading.

Here's what it looks like:

The name of the book? Paint By Number: The How-To Craze That Swept The Nation.

Finally, everything snapped into place and it all made perfect sense.

My father really hadn't been that much more artistic than all my other relatives - he'd merely at some point had more of an interest in putting pre-mixed colors in designated spaces than everyone else.

This still leaves the mystery of why he chose an oriental scene rather than an American landscape or horses, but that's such a small mystery that I'm sure I'll soon forget it entirely. Maybe oriental scenes were on sale the day he visited Woolworth's. Or maybe it was something he received as a gag gift and decided to try his hand at one night after the Blatz and Schlitz had run out.

Of course some may think that another, even bigger mystery remains: How did I ever end up in such a family? But that's a mystery that I long ago explained away as the result of a terrible mix-up at the hospital maternity ward.

Accidents happen, you know. The book I mentioned above even details a big one involving a mix-up in the first Paint By Number sets that scrambled the colors and the numbers and left would-be Leonardos with a garish mess.

And - wouldn't you know? - it turns out that the first and biggest manufacturer of Paint By Number kits ended up headquartered in my hometown of Toledo not far from where I was living the day my father reclaimed his creation.

In fact, it seems to have been headquartered close to the area that was devastated by the tornado I wrote about on April 11th.

Who knows? Maybe Paint By Number sets would still be big sellers had they started specializing in scenes of mass destruction instead of generic pastorals that have little to do with life as it's actually lived....

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Still More Things In My Yard

As the entries I posted on April 8 and April 13 proved, I don't have to go a faraway Lake Erie beach to find odd artifacts of human civilization mysteriously appearing at my feet. All I have to do is go out into my yard.

Here, for example, is a little something I discovered when I stepped out my door on or about July 15th:



(Actual Size: 1.5" wide by 1.75" long)

I've never been to that particular theater myself but I have it on good authority that it's well over 5 miles away from where I live.

Maybe the ticket walked to my yard in the week between the day it was sold and the day I discovered it?

However it got here, it taught me that a movie ticket actually grants a license.

A license that can be revoked!

Who knew?

Here's another item - one that I discovered just yesterday:

(Actual Size: 7.5" wide by 4" high)

This one really has me flummoxed. I've never seen peanuts for sale in 25 pound bags. I don't know of anyone who might want that many peanuts at a time. And I've never heard of Alpharetta, Georgia.

If I had to guess, I'd say that someone made this up on their computer, printed it out, and then carefully placed it in my yard just to toy with me.

Fancy peanuts indeed. I've seen a good number of peanuts in my life and I can tell you that the word "fancy" never once entered my mind as I gazed upon them.

The jig is up, Sir. Please relocate your childish mind-playing games to someone else's yard or I shall have no choice but to alert the proper authorities.

(NOTE: Is this actually YOUR peanut bag label? Did you accidentally lose it? Have you been frantically looking for it ever since? Are you willing to pay a substantial reward for its safe return? Please contact me at your earliest convenience!)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Not Quite An Addiction

It was about three weeks ago that I discovered the Cedar Point webcams.

I've felt compelled to check on them at least a couple of times a day ever since.

I'm not sure why but here are a few of my favorite hypotheses:

----- The technology fascinates me. I grew up at a time when it took a camera almost the size of a refrigerator to get a grainy black-and-white image to my poor old rabbit ear-equipped Admiral TV. The fact that much smaller cameras are now beaming several different clear color images all day long to a flat screen on top of my desk is amazing. It is perhaps the closest thing we have to the 21st century I imagined as a kid.

----- I've always felt more like an observer of life than a participant. Webcams are my natural environment. Until medical science succeeds in physically turning me into the fly on the wall I've always wanted to be, webcams are probably just about as good as it's going to get for me.

----- What I'm seeing on the Cedar Point webcams seems to me to strike just about the perfect balance between variety and repetition. What I see is always the same, yet it's always different, too. Although I can more or less predict in general what I'm going to be seeing next, precise prediction always eludes me. And unlike when I flip around my cable channels, I'm not likely to see anything shocking or repulsive or painfully false - or anything calculated to separate me from my money. (It's SO nice to be able to look at a video screen and not have to worry about a gun or a car chase or a pitch for a new miracle drug suddenly forcing its way into my eyes.)

----- I feel as if there's a lot to be learned from what I'm seeing - if only I can train my mind to look in the right way.

That last point might be the one that's most responsible for my returning to those images, again and again and again. Watching masses of people unself-consciously pass by as they go about their lives without knowing that they're being watched provides amateur sociologists like me with huge of amounts of data to analyze and possibly learn from. I've long ago given up on learning a damn thing from the speeches of our politicians; maybe - just maybe - counting up the most popular color tops people are wearing this season will prove to be far more educational.

And of course on the other end of the spectrum, far away from the wisdom one might possibly glean from minutia lies the wisdom one might be able to glean from the broad patterns and deeper rhythms that govern our lives (often without our even knowing it). There is, for example, the way about the same number of people seem to go to the park every day even though we can safely assume each person (or small group) is acting as a more or less independent agent. I bet the managers can predict park attendance with an uncanny accuracy even though they have virtually no communication with any of the people who are coming. How exactly does that work?

Once you start looking for such patterns, they seem to be everywhere. The rush of people up the midway just after the 10 a.m. opening of the rides is one almost too obvious to mention, but it seems to me to get more mysterious - not less - upon reflection. Why more or less the same number of people in the rush every day followed by a highly predictable lull? How come there's never a deadly stampede or an opening lull? How does it happen that of all the people who decide to go to Cedar Point on any given day, a certain more or less fixed (and rather small) percentage decide to be part of that opening rush? Or is it less a choice than a matter of luck - of traffic flow and random mood and partner coordination and a whole host of other things we have little power to control?

How is it that different people on different days nonetheless conform to the same patterns of personal space and walking speed and interactions (so different between people who know each other and those who don't)? How does it happen that of all the possible behaviors people *could* engage in as they amble by, only a very, very few behaviors are, in fact, engaged in? (NOTE: Few of them seem to be what one sees in movies set in amusement parks.)

And then, of course, there's the symbolic level above all that; the level that draws comparisons between the waves of people passing by and the waves of water I saw during my recent trip to Lake Erie or the raindrops falling from the sky during yesterday's storm; the level that sees that there's a virtually complete turnover in the people in the frame every 30 seconds and recalls that there's a virtual complete turnover in the people on earth every 100 years....

I personally haven't been to Cedar Point in almost 40 years. Certain changes are apparent to me as I look at the webcam images (though I suspect that they've occurred too slowly for anyone to have noticed them as they unfolded year by year).

Here are two photo I found from what I estimate to be the early 1970s:

It's obvious that these photos weren't taken today. What makes it so?

When you're done answering that question for yourself, read on to see one thing that makes it obvious to me.



Cedar Point no longer has a funhouse. It long ago bet its fortune on becoming the roller coaster capital of the world. Every year or two, it adds another one that is said to go faster or higher or in more odd directions than anything that has come before. These coasters (now 17 in all) have steadily replaced older, more sedate attractions such as the funhouse (demolished in 1981), the San Francisco Earthquake Ride (retired in 1984), the Sky Slide (gone as of 1991), Jungle Larry's African Safari (ended in 1994), the Pirate Ride (retired in 1996), and the Sealand (Oceana) Aquarium (razed in 2001). Tastes change. A faster world apparently requires faster distractions.

And to make things go even faster, they apparently did away with the park benches that once upon a time would have been obvious in any shot of the midway....

Other changes are apparent when one examines even older photos:



Today's crowds are much different.

For one thing, few people seem to have any desire to step foot in Lake Erie when there's a clean Soak City available.

But even though these crowds may be radically different than those of previous generations, they seem to conform to a set of unwritten rules in much the same manner that humans in every age and society apparently have (though the precise rules of course differ).

Did YOU get the memo that said women must wear shorts shorter than those worn by men? That jean shorts are the ones that are most strongly encouraged for women while baggy cargo shorts are strongly encouraged for men? That polo shirts and sport shirts are out and t-shirts are in? That hats and sunglasses are for those too weak to deal with the sun on its own terms? That white and blue are the best colors to wear?

Did YOU get the memo saying "Barrel-chested men and men with pot bellies are especially encouraged to come"? Or the memo saying that a certain number of strollers MUST be filled with a certain number of kids far too young to appreciate an amusement park or the park WILL NOT open? Did your memo explicitly state a solid majority of those strollers WILL be pushed by women even when accompanied by an able-bodied man?

And what about the memo saying that a certain percentage of women WILL be required to wear headscarves? Or the memo saying that 1 in every 125 visitors WILL be in a motorized wheelchair? Or the memo saying that interracial couples are welcome - but ONLY if the man happens to be black and the woman white?

No, of course you didn't. These memos don't exist. (At least I don't think they do!) Nonetheless the crowds that have been attending Cedar Point this month day after day and week after week clearly display the attributes they would if such memos had in fact been sent out and conscientiously acted upon. How is this possible in a society that allegedly values free expression and individuality?

That's a rhetorical question, of course. But it's representative of the sorts of questions that keep coming to mind as I watch the webcam images being conveyed to my screen.

And maybe it's the nagging need to come up with some plausible answers to these questions that keeps me coming back for more raw data....

On the other hand, bright shiny objects fascinate me, too.

And wind chimes.

And dust motes.

In fact, just about everything but sports and Sarah Palin.

Maybe I should consult a physician about this, eh?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Would YOU Pay $47.99 To Get Rained On?

I suppose if you happen to live in Florida or Texas or one of the other drought-stricken states, you'd be willing to pay much more than that.

Here in Ohio, however, where we've had more than 28" of rain so far this year (about 6.5" more than normal), people are much more likely to be willing to pay for some good, old-fashioned sunshine. Paying to be rained on here constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in my book. Or maybe masochism.

My opinions aside, it seems an inescapable fact that a good number of Ohioans paid $47.99 to get rained on today.

That's how much the typical, undiscounted ticket costs to get into Ohio's Cedar Point amusement park these days.

Here's what the skies above Cedar Point look like on a good day (in this case, Wednesday):

And here's what the midway looks like on a good day (in this case, yesterday):

Now here's what the skies looked like this afternoon just after 2:

Do you think the people down below had any idea what was coming?

And make no mistake, it WAS coming:

Certainly it was becoming somewhat obvious to everyone by this point:

Perhaps it was most obvious of all to those who were waiting in line to ride The Windseeker:

I'm not sure at what point they shut down The Windseeker because of wind but I bet it was no later than 5 minutes after this shot.

Which was taken about 5 minutes before this shot:

Soon the skies had opened up and people went scurrying as people are wont to do at such times....

I've always wondered why more people don't just lie down and enjoy it.

Of course things were worse 300 feet up in the air:

I can certainly understand why the camera didn't catch anybody just lying down and enjoying it up there.

Fifteen minutes later it was clear that the worst had passed:

And just 5 minutes after that, it was even clearer:

Soon people were going about the hard work of finding themselves some fatty foods and over-priced soft drinks once again:

An hour later things were pretty much back to normal:

By 5 pm the only thing left to do was to track down and arrest the evil young boy who had brought the wrath of God down upon everyone by jumping a turnstile:

I'm telling ya, if they had had webcams in 1492 Columbus never would have had to leave Spain to explore America and I'd now be living in a city with a *very* different name.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Unexpected Lunch Guest

I think this might be one of the youngsters I posted pictures of back on June 12.

Whether it is or not, I really wish he would have called first before stopping by. That would have given me the chance to order more napkins.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vacationing With The Dead

While driving around in Vermilion last month we regularly passed by an old cemetery.

On the last day of our visit we decided to stop and explore it.

It turned out to be Cuddeback Cemetery.

At first we thought it was Cuddleback Cemetery, which seemed like just about the oddest name that I'd ever heard of for such a place. If I ever start a cemetery, maybe I'll call it that.

There was an Ohio historical marker near the front corner of the corner lot that the cemetery occupied. Would we have stopped had there not been a marker? Maybe. But curiosity about what historical event might possibly have occurred there no doubt greatly increased the odds.

I'm not sure what we expected to find but I know it wasn't this:

Were there other surprises lurking in the shadows? We decided to look around and see....

The place was an odd combination of decay and immaculate upkeep. Maybe it had been neglected for many years before someone finally decided to mow the grass and repair the broken markers.

On the spur of the moment, I decided to photograph each of the markers individually before the passage of time consumed them entirely.

Many had already been mostly consumed.

Here's a typical example:

There ended up being about 70 markers in all - more than I would have guessed after a quick scan from the car but far less than the lot could have held.

Given the vast empty spaces in the heart of the cemetery, I now suspect that many markers have simply disappeared over the decades....

The most recent burial seems to have occurred in 1890.

Somewhat amazingly, Mr. Johnson seems to have passed away just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.

I wonder if he insisted on being buried in the old cemetery while all his younger relatives rolled their eyes and recommitted themselves to being buried in the hot new cemetery on the other side of town....

This particular cemetery may not have held the mortal remains of THE Pelton but it did contain the remains of several others.

Here's the 159-year-old marker for one of them:

(Or is that some unrelated person named Pelten?)

It was surprisingly satisfying to discover at least one person named Cuddeback buried there in Cuddeback Cemetery:

Looking at that marker from a few steps back, however, proved to be more than a little disturbing:

I think I remember seeing this tight little family group in every monster movie Universal made in the 1930s and 1940s:

That group stood in stark contrast to this marker that was off by itself in the far corner:

Somewhat ironically, that apparent exile had resulted in greater protection from the elements and thus longer longevity for the inscription.

How much longer can *this* inscription last?

How much longer can this one?

I think it would be pretty difficult to dig a grave so close to a tree. Guess they didn't know any better back then....

This one seems set to endure even as the rest of the world goes slip sliding away....

And I don't think I'd bet against this one despite its slight tilt:

I have more photos but I think what I've posted here already is more than enough to convey the flavor of the place.

As if anyone besides me is interested in the flavor of a cemetery.

As if the flavor of one cemetery is much different than the flavor of all the others....

I guess after looking at the constantly churning waters of Lake Erie for a week, I was ready to spend a few minutes looking at granite and marble markers that have more or less been in the same place for over 100 years.

Of course now that I'm home, the magic of photography allows me to look at a single unchanging moment of those churning waters for as long as I like. Woo-hoo!

Now if only I had access to a 200-year-long film of these markers, I could play it very, very fast and see even granite and marble churning and changing over time....

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beach Treasures

During our week at the cottage on Lake Erie I of course knew that we were picking up a few choice finds on the beach every day but it wasn't until we got home and spread everything out on the dining room table that I realized just how big our collection had grown.

Here are the 26 lucky stones that we found:

My favorite thing to collect ended up being beach glass. I had no idea that Lake Erie was belching out these bits of water-tumbled, water-smoothed remnants of human civilization before I discovered them for myself last month. I still can't quite fathom the vast quantities involved. We collected some 700 pieces in all.

The most common color was white/frosted:

Our collection of white glass ended up weighing nearly 2 pounds. Given that Lake Erie's coastline is about 850 miles and our beach was no more than 1/100th of a mile in breadth, I estimate that some 170,000 pounds of white beach glass a week may be washing up (850 x 100 x 2). That's a lot of glass!

Of course we found other colors, too. Brown and green were fairly common.

And then there were the pieces of porcelain:

The few pieces of blue beach glass that I found were my favorites.

Here are some of the other pieces that I liked:

And then there were the oddities. (Correctly identify them all and win a penny!)

If the inflatable kiddie pool I had 50 years ago had been spiced with items half as interesting as these I might have played in it a lot more often....