Friday, January 30, 2015

The Library with a Big Mouth

First, due homage to the guys at the source of this post: One of my favorite websites is put together by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras who produce something called Atlas Obscura. Always fascinating, their latest offering includes a page on the secret libraries of Rome. Among those “secrets” The Bibliotheca Hertziana instantly grabbed my attention.

Palazzo Zuccari is a 16th-century building in Rome located near the Spanish Steps at the crossroads of via Sistina and via Gregoriana. The house once belonged baroque painters, Taddeo and Frederico Zuccari who started work on the house in 1590. Two years into construction of the palazzo they decided that both door and windows would be designed as huge gaping mouths, and the ground floor of the house painted in frescoes.

In the early years of the twentieth century a German woman with a love of art arrived in Rome with the idea of establishing a library to encourage research and study of the city’s ancient and modern treasures. Her name was Henrietta Hertz and she came with the support of a wealthy German industrialist who helped to acquire the Palazzo Zuccari situated in the heart of Rome. Hertz began putting together a collection of books on Italian art as a private library. The Bibliotheca Hertziana welcomed its first art historians and research scholars in 1912.

Still owned by the German government, today the library’s collection includes 300,000 books and 800,000 photos on the history of Italian art and architecture. In addition, researchers have access to computers at eighty work stations with a view out over the rooftops of Rome.

The Bibliotheca Hertziana is probably the only library in the world with a front door shaped like a giant mouth, where inside the Bibliotheca Hertziana, visitors step into a modern glass-walled atrium with white marble floors displaying three floors of open-stack shelves. Upon entering the library, the sharp contrast with its entrance and the surrounding architecture is quite the surprise.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Onboard the HMS Beagle

Conrad Martens, self portrait, 1833

Conrad Martens sketchbooks from his voyage with Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle have recently been added to the Cambridge Digital Library. The drawings were done between 1833 and the summer months of 1834. It was on this voyage that the first seeds of Darwin’s book, Origin of Species, were planted.

Conrad Martens (1801–1878) was a London born painter, best known for his landscapes. He trained under prominent watercolorist and teacher, Copley Fielding. In 1832, at the age of 32 Martens joined the ship Hyacinth as a topographical artist. On that voyage while at a stop in Montevideo near the end of 1833 he met Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle and obtained the position of draughtsman, replacing the ship’s artist who was leaving the ship for reasons of illness. One member of the ship’s company was Charles Darwin. The young Darwin was serving as a naturalist and companion to the ship’s captain and during their time together aboard ship he and Martens became lifelong friends. Some critics suggest that it was aboard the Beagle that Martens developed his particular style of artistically imagined but geographically accurate landscape painting. But his time on the Beagle was not long and he left the ship at Valparaiso in the summer months of 1834. His eye has been drawn farther west and he booked passage on a ship sailing to Sydney via Tahiti.

His ship arrived in Sydney in 1835 and the artist remained there for the rest of his life. Captivated by the sea and landscape of Sydney Harbour, he began sketching even as his ship approached the wide harbor. He was fortunate to gain an introduction to members of the gentry in New South Wales and quickly built up a clientele of the social elite. He painted watercolors and oils of their estates as well as landscape views. One of his more famous works is the 1866 watercolor below.

 North Head from above Balmoral, Sydney Harbour; watercolor 1866

A Patagonian Indian, 1834 sketch

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Nature of Emergency

An article in The Japan Times the other day had me laughing again over nutty 911 emergency calls. Funny 911 stories are about as common as lawyer jokes but it’s a good guess that most of us haven’t heard the ones coming out of Japan. Until reading the article in Japan’s English language daily, I naively imagined that most of those oddball “Help” calls came from people in the US. Apparently the same thing goes on in Japan where police have complained that “unsuitable” emergency calls increased between January and November of 2014, raising the number to over two million. According to the National Police Agency non-emergency calls to 110 accounted for 24.3 percent of the total number of calls. Here are a few examples…

One woman called police about there being no toilet paper in a public bathroom. Another caller wanted assistance with a forgotten smartphone password. With Japan being the world capital of roadside vending machines it isn’t too unexpected that at some point a person would call complaining that a vending machine did not return the correct change; in fact, many have. Then there was the caller who must have been on the edge of insanity when he called begging police to PLEASE come and remove an insect from his ear. Never having heard of plumbers, a housewife tried getting police help in unclogging her home toilet, while another caller asked for a police cruiser to be dispatched to clear congested roads allowing her to drive a sick child to the local hospital faster.

Best though that we not point fingers too laughingly at Japan’s weird calls and perceived emergencies. Conceding that I live in a land where alligators and armadillos roam the nights and vehicles with the largest tires have the right of way, luckily, I’ve never had to call 911. But out here you never know what tomorrow holds. Some months back the county Sheriff’s Office contacted me with news that my address had been changed for the sake of 911 calls. Pinpointing my location was the problem. Maybe they’ll be able to find me now should I call asking for help subduing a wild pig.

 Judging from a list I collected, Florida residents seem to dial up 911 for a variety of quirky reasons…    

One man called 911 because he had been splashed by a car driving through a puddle. Another complained of too many onions in his takeout. An outraged woman called because her new rabbit did not have the floppy ears promised in a newspaper advertisement.

In Jacksonville, a man was so peeved when a sandwich shop left the special sauce off his hero that he called 911 twice. The first time to ask if officers could make sure his sandwich was made properly, the second to complain that the police weren’t responding fast enough to his first call. 

Hysterical voice: “My car will not start! I’m locked inside my car and nothing works and it’s getting very hot in here! Plus, I’m not feeling well." The dispatcher suggested pulling up the lock. The woman tried, undoubtedly surprised when the door opened.

Angered that her local McDonald’s was out of Chicken McNuggets, a Florida woman called 911 three times to report the fast food emergency. She called police to complain that a cashier would not give her a refund. When they arrived at the restaurant, the woman told them, “This is an emergency. If I had known they didn’t have McNuggets, I wouldn’t have given them my money, and now she wants to give me a McDouble, but I don’t want one.” She was arrested for misusing 911.

A Sarasota man being followed by police tried to sidetrack the officers by making a fake 911 call. The police car suddenly got a call from dispatch alerting them to an armed robbery happening several blocks away. The plan seemed to work at first when the police car sped off to answer the armed robbery call. Unfortunately for the man, another police car followed him into a parking lot and spotted the gun in his car. After his arrest, officers discovered the bogus 911 call had come from his cell phone.

A couple of funny 911 call transcripts:

Dispatcher: 9-1-1 What is your emergency?
Caller: I heard what sounded like gunshots coming from the brown house on the corner.
Dispatcher: Do you have an address?
Caller: No, I’m wearing a blouse and slacks, why?

Dispatcher: 9-1-1 What is the nature of your emergency?
Caller: I’m trying to reach nine eleven but my phone doesn’t have an eleven on it.
Dispatcher: This is nine eleven.
Caller: I thought you just said it was nine-one-one
Dispatcher: Yes, ma’am, nine-one-one and nine-eleven are the same thing.

Caller: Honey, I may be old, but I’m not stupid.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lesbian Shoes

One of my friends tells me that my favorite shoes are a style favored by lesbians. He says that all I need to complete the picture is a tall tumbler of vodka and grapefruit juice with salt around the rim. According to memory, 1995 was the year he attended the ladies Nabisco Dinah Shore golf tournament in Rancho Mirage, California where the fairways during that four day event were crowded with lesbians wearing my shoes and toasting each other with big salty dog vodka cocktails. I had a big laugh hearing that and told everyone I saw for the next few weeks that my Palm Street Fisherman sandals were all the rage among golfing lesbians.

Rockport has been making shoes since 1972 and a few years later came up with a sandal they called the Palm Street Fisherman sandal. The first Rockport shoe I bought was the Palm Street Fisherman, enough to convince me that I had found a totally comfortable and durable shoe. Most of my shoes since have been Rockport. Hard to remember when exactly it was I bought the Palm Street sandals, but I’m certain it was no later than 1990 and possibly even earlier. Twenty-five years and those sandals are still pounding the roads, still babying my feet. The style I bought way-back-when is slightly different from the one available now. Originally, they were designed with buckles but the buckle has since been replaced by a more convenient Velcro strap.

Last week the right sandal suddenly began feeling loose, though not to the extent it was falling off my foot. The buckle strap had broken free of the leather side-piece it was stitched to. Right off I could see it was the kind of break easily repaired—that is, if you could find one of those rare people who were at one time called a cobbler. Being a Net savvy kind of guy, I googled ’shoe repair’ and came up with a fair number of hits for my area. Only problem was, none of them turned out to be shoe repair specialists. One of the stores I called suggested trying a motorcycle-leather goods store a few miles down the road. My response was, “Huh? That store is all Hell’s Angels and Harley Davidson!” The lady encouraged me to give them a try.

This sign is a bit deceiving. Maybe once it was a saddle shop. 
These days it’s a motorcycle shop.

So I took my broken Rockport sandal there and met a cool, laid back motorcycle mama who looked at the sandal and said, “Sure. Give me a few minutes. You can wait or come back in a while if you’d rather.” I took the dawg for a walk and returned about thirty minutes later. Perfect fix, perfect price: $4.00. At first she said five, but when it turned out I had only four singles apart from a twenty, she said, “Let’s make it easy. $4.00 is fine.”

Sometimes you get the feeling that everybody is trying to take advantage of you and then suddenly up pops one who surprises you.

I came home from the repair shop and mixed myself a big salty dog vodka cocktail.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Up around 7:30 the morning after Christmas, I was outside ten minutes later yelling at Farina to shut up her non-stop barking. She ignored me, barking and snarling at nothing I could see. Everything looked normal, no squirrels, birds, armadillos or passing cars to spark her excitement, she mostly paced back and forth barking her fool head off at the high wooden fence that separates us from the neighbor’s house next door. 

One of Farina’s calmer moments

Sometime around 10 o’clock, thereabouts, Farina long over her noisy barking, neighbor Randy came over wondering if I’d seen or heard anything out of the ordinary around 7:30. Said he had gotten up and left in his truck to go fishing about 6:30 leaving his wife and brother-in-law asleep in the house. Once out in his boat, he remembered the Friday trash pick up and called home to tell Jeannie to put the trash and recycle bins out on the road. She told him to forget the trash and skedaddle home, the police were on their way, her car stolen out of the driveway and Jimmy’s truck tossed for valuables. The thief walked through the wide open gate in broad daylight, rummaged around in Jimmy's truck, then found Jeannie's car also unlocked but with the keys on the driver's side floor. He jumped in and made a getaway with Jeannie looking out the window just in time to see Santa Claus speeding out through the gate in her car. And there the source of Farina’s barking is revealed. Unfamiliar smell in the yard next door and she stood at the fence sounding an alert the whole time. In most cases out here, if a stranger walks silently through an unlocked gate and up to the house—even one in a Santa suit—he can expect someone from inside to step out the front door either shooting or waving a gun.

Gate & garage open and nobody home 

I have wondered half a dozen times about Randy’s & Jeannie’s habit of always leaving their gate unlocked and wide open, garage door yawning wide and nobody at home.


You might remember my neighbor down the road. He’s the good guy always willing to help out, always full of backwoods tales, the one with the gap in his front teeth who said he has a “dentist” that works out of the trunk of his Pontiac Le Grand and uses laughing gas as an anesthesia. That’s Manny. We were chatting at the gate the other day, him telling me, “Hell, I'll shoot the *!!%#^!&*^%#. I ain’t got long to live anyways.” He was talking about the rednecks over the way with their giant killer dogs, muscle cars, all night Loretta Lynn parties, and Sunday afternoon Iraqi war re-enactments. In fact, for the past couple of months the dogs are rarely seen, the parties diminished and the big gun shoot-outs even rarer. Seems most of what they do over there these days is run heavy duty equipment like road graders and other Caterpillar giants. Hard to tell what it is they’re doing with all the big yellow machinery, but what used to be invisible behind the trees is now a house revealed by the gouging out of trees and brush. Kind of like they are preparing the command post in a jungle hot zone, 500 feet on four sides of the house denuded of all but flat grassless dirt between them and an encroaching enemy. One thing easy to see without the wall of enclosing trees is the enlarged alligator pond and the rough and tumble 4-wheeler track running around the property.

View of ploughed up ground once blocked by trees

Couple of days after our conversation, the whole area a chilly mess of mud and mist, I was hoping there would be no need to go out. Manny called needing a ride to the store for some smokes. I appreciate his no car, no driver’s license situation and try hard not to turn down his infrequent requests for a ride. So, we drove south two miles to the Kangaroo Store where gas is down to $2.20 and three packs of Manny smokes cost $15. He told me that word from Randy was there's been no news from the police about Jeannie’s stolen car. Doesn’t surprise me. If they haven't found it by now, it's probably long gone, a diminishing blip on the radar headed for the North Pole.

Far down the road Manny’s small trailer sits snug under the trees. 
Yep, that’a toilet just to the left of center.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America