Hole in the Clouds

February 2016

Groundhogs to the North of Us

Feb 2, 2016

Because of the singular role played today by a groundhog, you might think we could have just one official Hollywood star of a groundhog. And here in America, that would have to be Pennsylvania's own Punxsutawney Phil.

In Canada, however, there's Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam, whose residence in the Atlantic time zone gives him an hour's head start today on Phil. And of course we mustn't overlook Ontario's Wiarton Willie and Manitoba's Brandon Bob; up where they live, winter weather prognostications are serious stuff.

But this past weekend, only days before the one day each year when anybody thinks any positive thoughts about groundhogs/woodchucks, we lost one of our groundhog greats, Winnipeg Willow. She succumbed on Friday to old age; groundhogs generally live four to six years, and Willow was six. We're told she had a good life.

It did not start out auspiciously. As a babe, she was brought to Winnipeg's Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre aftern her mother was killed by a dog. Plans were to release Willow to the wild as soon as she was old enough, but she managed to break one of her legs running around in the Centre's prairie play yard. The extra attention required to treat her injury left her so accustomed to human contact that she was deemed unlikely to survive in the wild. So she spent the rest of her life in captivity.

Willow's job was to demonstrate groundhog-ness to schoolchildren, on her home turf and in the children's classrooms. Mostly, she demonstrated what groundhogs like to eat; according to her minders, she loved kale, green leafy lettuce, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, snap peas, and of course peanuts. 

She was pleasant with people, we're told, at least by the standards of groundhogs, except in midwinter, when she got a little grumpy and didn't like to be awakened. Midwinter in Winnipeg surely includes . . . February 2? This year, at least, nobody's going to be bothering Willow for a weather forecast on Groundhog Day. She can rest in peace.

In Event of Enemy Attack

Feb 3, 2016

In August 1951, this sign was posted along Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia, near the main gate to the state hospital at Byberry.

The only time the highway was actually closed because of enemy attack was on 15 June 1955, when as part of a nationwide Civil Defense drill, Reading Terminal in Center City was designated a surprise target for a large atomic bomb. The mock bombing was said to turn most of Center City into a radioactive wasteland, as well as hypothetically killing one-third of the city's population; presumably, the other two-thirds were not allowed to drive on Roosevelt Boulevard for the duration.

Nationwide, the drill left 8.5 million Americans counted as dead and another 10 million deemed displaced. With results like those, it was hard to feel that the exercise was a resounding success, and nothing like it was attempted again.

Over the next fifty years, however, even without an atom blast in Center City, Philadelphia did lose almost as many people as were tallied in the civil defense drill. The city population in 1950 was greater than 2 million; the 2000 population was just a shade over 1.5 million. Suburbanization, of course, was behind the depopulation; no enemy attacks were necessary, but Roosevelt Boulevard itself was among the policy and infrastructure developments that were critical to the process.

Since the year 2000, Philadelphia has again started to grow. By 2014, the population had recovered to the level it first reached in 1910. 

The sign was removed many years ago without fanfare.

Going Nowhere the Wrong Way

Feb 4, 2016

Ten or so days ago, when Philly got whacked by a pretty good thump of snow, this guy was the only one out driving around in the neighborhood, until he wasn't.

He was going the wrong way up 24th Street–and really, why not? There were no other cars on the road. But he slipped and slid, and then he was digging and digging. . . .

One of the neighbors brought him some cardboard, which was eventually helpful, but nobody offered to help him shovel, which might have made a more immediate contribution. (In our own defense, it is noted here that ever since last August, when we moved into an apartment, we no longer own a snow shovel.)

It's warmed up now and rained, and the snow is disappearing. Maybe this next month will bring us more winter, but maybe not.

cars   winter   snow   neighborhood   Philly   24th Street   (Image credit: Fuji T)  


Feb 6, 2016

All across this great land, my friend, from Iowa to New Hampshire and all sorts of places betwixt and between, politicians are by no means the only Americans who are taking it to the mat.

To start with, from Lacey, Washington, to Riviera Beach, Florida, now is the season when Stein men are coaching high school wrestling. In Lacey, Hank's working with the Timberline Blazers, and in Riviera Beach, Allen's got the Suncoast Chargers. As the regular season winds down,  the coaches are seriously busy, trying to prepare their wrestlers for sectionals and regionals and states.

Pictured here is one of Hank's Blazers bringing it on, in a tournament last January at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

(Image credit:  

Gun Control

Feb 7, 2016

Last spring, when we were packing up my mother's place for her cross-country move, we came across this relic of a much earlier stage of life.

My mother remembered it well, in considerable detail: it's a cap pistol that belonged to my little brother Charlie, and she confiscated it, oh, fifty-some years ago, when he and his friends were making too much noise with it in the house. She told him to take it outside, but he kept on shooting it in the house.

She doesn't remember exactly where she put the gun after taking it up, but it was obviously a really good hiding place. We found it in the back of a closet, and this was a different closet, in a different house, from the place we'd lived during the era of confiscatory gun control.

And that's not all. We also found another weapon, not pictured here, traceable to the same perp: a huge water gun of the Super Soaker ilk. That one, too, had been confiscated and squirreled away, presumably for exactly the same violation.

My mom is tough. Sure, teach a lesson, take the things away for a day or a week. But fifty years?

Whatever, it worked. Chuck didn't grow up to be a cowboy; he's a nuclear physicist now, who never shot anybody. 

The guns went to Goodwill, if I remember correctly. Somebody else's little cowboy can get in trouble with them now.

moving   guns   cap pistol   weapons   water gun   (Image credit: Fuji T)  

Stepping Out

Feb 8, 2016

Cousin Michele was rocking her shoes Saturday at her retirement party.

The party playlist featured an Alice Cooper number that kinda set the tone, as Michele celebrated completion of approximately forty-eleven years as a schoolteacher in Brooklyn and Queens. School's out now, at her house.

New York   Michele Manno   party   shoes   retirement  

Bullet Train in the Snow

Feb 9, 2016

The 170th birthday of Claude Monet in November 2011 was marked by, among other festivities, a Photoshop competition sponsored by FreakingNews.com. The challenge was to Photoshop a composite image introducing modern elements into a Monet painting.

The winning entry, shown above, was submitted by somebody who logged into the competition as azwoodbox. That's a train à grande vitesse, imitating Monet's 1875 train below.

winter   train   snow   photoshop   Impressionism   Claude Monet   bullet train   (Photoshopped image by azwoodbox; painting by Claude Monet.  

All Five

Feb 10, 2016

This is the earliest known photo of all five boys, taken at Forest Lake, Tuscaloosa, in November or December of 1992.

For what it's worth, all the trees in the background are gone now, shredded by the tornado in 2011. The boys, however, are still going strong: from left to right, there's Joe, now 34; Allen, 27; Ted, 36; John, who just turned 38; and bobble-headed newborn Hank, who's now 23. 

Tuscaloosa   Alabama   sunset   John   Joe   Ted   Allen   Hank   boys   Steins  

Horse Heaven

Feb 11, 2016

In 1860, when grand homes were being built along Walnut Street west of Rittenhouse Square, the need arose for grand stables nearby.

An entire block of a side street–then called Heberton, now Chancellor–was upgraded to house the carriages and steeds of the new Rittenhouse elite. The street was paved with granite blocks and widened to twice the usual side-street width, so that carriages could be driven directly in and out of stable doors, instead of being dragged by humans into the street and then turned before hitching the horses.

Five of the stables have survived; they are now condos and office suites, with garage parking in back. The block is a popular site for wedding photography.

In back of the stables is a much narrower street–Millowney then, St. James now–that housed the servants.

streetscape   Rittenhouse   1860   alley   stables   small street   Chancellor Street   (Image credit: Fuji T)  

Ripples in Spacetime

Feb 13, 2016

Gravitational waves–the warping of spacetime predicted by Einstein and confirmed the other day by a bunch of astrophysicists–may account for this awesome icicle hanging from a porch roof near Winthrop, Washington.

The way we understand it, which is undoubtedly not correct, the physicists measured data regarding a collision between two black holes and detected gravitational waves propagating outward from the event, kinda like sound waves rippling out from the ringing of the cosmic spacetime bell.

So. Obviously, this here icicle got caught up in some serious gravitational ripples. That, or the snow on the roof was seriously sliding and slumping and refreezing as the icicle was drippily trying to grow (see below). Hope the astrophysicists have ruled out that possible source of noise in their data.

winter   physics   snow   roof   icicles   heat   Winthrop, WA   (Image credits: h/t cliffmass.blogspot.com  


Feb 15, 2016

Last week, Hank visited Allen in Florida, and the two of them enjoyed a few days of tag-team wrestling coaching. Here at the Palm Beach County Wrestling Hall of Fame tournament, the brothers are both in the corner for a Suncoast Charger guy who really needs to get up and out. . . .

The Chargers did well. But the big question is: what's that on the floor between the coaches' chairs? A football?


Feb 17, 2016

They were newlyweds in 1905, honeymooning at the beach in St. Augustine, Florida, when they came across the photographer and his props in the sand. And they decided to get their picture made.

So the bride, in her bathing costume, straddled the donkey. And the groom, in his own bathing garb, settled himself onto the seat of the little wagon hitched up to the goat. The props were obviously intended for small children, but the newlyweds were game, even if they didn't look one bit happy about it all.

beach   1905   Florida   wagon   photography   donkeym goat   St. Augustine   (Image credit: Detroit Publishing Company via Shorpy)  

Sign of the Times

Feb 20, 2016

This sign is posted on a fence at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, Long Island, where Norman lived in the 1950s, when he was a little boy.

He swears there was no such sign back then, which is probably lucky for him. Of course, he was going to run away and join the circus–he did see the movie Toby Tyler. But even as a child he suspected that he wasn't the daring kind who would fly through the air with the greatest of ease–and worse, he suspected that some of his friends probably were that daring kind, and so there would be peer pressure, and he'd feel like he had to try flying through the air, with the greatest unease.

It just could be that life's gotten a bit tougher for some of the young people growing up these days in East Meadow.

winter   signage   fence   trapeze   Eisenhower Park   (Image credit: phone)  

Capitol Views #2, 3, 4, and 5

Feb 23, 2016

The inner surface of the dome of the U.S. Capitol building is a fresco titled The Apotheosis of Washington, which depicts George Washington in his army uniform, seated amongst the gods of the Roman heavens, surrounded by the entire military-industrial complex.

We'll leave the details of this cartoon to another morning. Today, we want to look just beyond the outer circle of the fresco, where it is barely possible to make out the railing of a narrow balcony running all the way around the dome. If you could get up to this balcony, you could look down 180 feet to the floor of the rotunda, or you could turn around to face the outside of the dome and look out across the city.

Here's the inside view, looking down:

And here's the outside view, looking west along the mall to the Washington Monument:

To get up to this balcony, you first have to become an important person, or at least a congressional page. Then you have to navigate steep, winding metal stairs amid the ironwork that supports the dome:

The whole dome is made of iron–8.9 million pounds of iron–painted to look like the sandstone in the rest of the building. It replaced an earlier, much smaller dome made of wood sheathed in copper. When Congress approved funding for the new dome in 1854 ($100,000), construction began by setting up a crane in the middle of the rotunda, with a steam-powered engine that was fueled by burning the wood from the old dome.

The new dome took nine years to build, and then two more years to paint. Work was finished in 1865. During the project's last few years, of course, we were seriously at war with ourselves, but for whatever reason, the dome kept on rising without interruption.

In recent years, it's gotten leaky, and in 2014 the exterior of the whole dome was covered with scaffolding for a two-year roof-patching job.

birdseye view   Washington, D.C.   U.S. Capitol   apotheosis   ironwork   fresco   (Image credits: Hank Stein)  

Dark Hedges

Feb 24, 2016

In 1775,  a Scotch-Irish gentleman named James Stuart planted about a hundred and fifty beech trees to dramatize the driveway leading up to Gracehill, his new estate in County Antrim, in the far north of Northern Ireland. 

Over the years, the trees have grown together over the road, creating the Dark Hedges, an often-photographed tree-tunnel landscape recently featured in the HBO series Game of Thrones. The eighteenth-century driveway is now a public street, Brogagh Road; what's left of the Gracehill estate is now an eighteen-hole golf course. The Stuarts mostly emigrated to Canada.

James Pion, a wedding photographer from Gainesville, Florida, caught this early-morning view.

Northern Ireland   trees   beech trees   Ballymoney   Bregagh Road   Game of Thrones   County Antrim   Stuart estate   (Image credit: James Pion)  

Riverfront Property

Feb 25, 2016

In the mid-eighteenth century, Ben Franklin's good friend John Bartram was a nurseryman, with a plant and seed business on a few acres across the Schuylkill River from Phladelphia. This is the view today from Bartram's estate, which is now owned by the city.

The oil tanks are part of the largest refinery complex in the northeast, recently acquired from Sunoco by an investment fund that operates it as Philadelphia Energy Solutions. This year's low oil prices don't seem to hurt the storage-and-refinery end of the oil business; PES says it has expanded its operation locally to employ more than 1,000 people and is trying to acquire a storage facility in North Dakota.

Bartram had an international reputation as a botanist, collecting seeds and plant specimens from all over the thirteen colonies and beyond, from Florida to Lake Ontario. Much of his traveling was by foot. He sent unique New World plants to London for the king's botanists there; they in turn sent him English plants that might or might not be suitable for American climes, including some trees and shrubs that survive today in Bartram's garden.

His son Bill continued the nursery business and also wrote a best-selling travelogue about plant-collecting adventures. Bill's niece Ann then took over the place and expanded it to include ten greenhouses and many acres of nursery gardens; in 1850, however, Ann and her husband Bob Carr ran out of money and had to sell the place.

landscape   oil   Schuylkill River   skyline   industry   Sunoco   Philadelphia Energy Solutions   John Bartram  

Your Morning Love Letter

Feb 26, 2016

Morning commuters on the el from West Philly to Center City speed past this mural every day; it's part of the rooftop love-letter series by graffiti artist Steve Powers.

If it looks a little odd and maybe incomplete–well, yes, it's missing its opening line; the camera lens wasn't wide enough to catch the entire block-long love letter in one snap.

The full verse is: "I want you like coffee, I need you like juice, I won't put you on the side like bacon, You can have me over easy."

Morning poetry. The coffee might help, but then again it might not.

West Philly   Love Letter murals   Steve Powers  

Early Oscar Announcement

Feb 28, 2016

This just in: Leonardo DiCaprio has won the first and only Northeastern Siberian Academy Award for best friend of Russia and especially Russia's far northern peoples. His film The Revenant, about survival and revenge in a snowy wilderness, struck a chord with audiences in Yakutia, the Sakha Republic, "the largest and most northern region in the Russian Federation," where admirers contributed their own family silver and gold to honor DiCaprio. They want him to come to Siberia and accept their Oscar statuette in person.

The Yakutian statuette, which is two centimeters shorter than the Hollywood version, is cast of silver and gold melted down from jewelry donated by Siberian DiCaprio fans. The face of the statue has pronounced Asiatic features, in acknowledgment of Siberia's indigeous peoples; when DiCaprio accepted his 2016 Golden Globe award, he dedicated it to First Nations peoples and indigenous communities–"that is, to us, the people of the Far North of Russia," says Tatiana Egarova, who organized the campaign.

According to Egarova, more than 100 Yakutian women donated their jewelry for the statuette; some of them, she said, broke off pieces from what they donated so they could hold onto keepsakes reminding them of DiCaprio. There is a bit of evidence that the warm feelings may extend both ways: in 2010, DiCaprio met with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg at a conference on the endangered Siberian tiger, and in 2012, he wrote an appreciation of his Russian grandmother, Yelena Smirnova, who came from the Urals city of Perm. "To me," he said, "she was the embodiment of inner strength and integrity."

The Siberian Oscar figurine is holding a gold choron, a Yakutian ritual cup signifying peace, harmony, spiritual unity, and good intentions.

Siberia   movie   Yakutia   Leonardo DiCaprio   actor   Oscars