Sunday, September 6, 2009

Postdoc No More

This is my last blog post.

I've agonized about this for some time, wondering if I could keep up the pace of once- or twice-a-week postings now that I'm fully employed - preparing for classes, teaching those classes, grading papers, commuting an hour each way, trying to work on my own research and writing, all while getting to know a new city, meet new people, eat new pie.

On the one hand, there's certainly a lot to tell you about. There's the food, of course, which is both delicious and ridiculous, thereby meeting my two main criteria for inclusion in this blog. There's the whole adjusting-to-southern-culture thing, which would undoubtedly provide countless humorous material for me (and, once it went viral, could even become the basis of a heartwarming but culturally sensitive movie starring, say, Amy Adams or Renee Zellweger). Or I could take the teaching-in-a-state-university angle, offering up humorous or poignant anecdotes about my students and the important life lessons we all eventually come to share, despite our very different backgrounds and capabilities (this film would also star Amy Adams or Renee Zellweger, and maybe Michael Cera). For that matter, I could probably devote an entire blog to our pain-in-the-ass landlord and the countless awkward-but-hilarious situations in which he places us. I could even start a (gasp!) professional-type blog in which I actually write about the things I'm working on (that'd be communal violence in the British Empire) and current events related to the things I'm working on (that'd be communal violence in places that were once part of the British Empire). Yes, there's certainly no shortage of material here.

On the other hand, well, I'm quite busy now, and it would be awfully nice not to spend my free time writing blog posts. "Big deal," you say, "Just post shorter, less-frequent entries. Don't spend so much time fretting about outdated, pre-internet concepts like sentence structure, argument, grammar, or coherence. And when you're stuck, just do what everybody else does and post funny YouTube videos." Oh, gentle reader, if only that were possible! If I were the sort of person who could gleefully spew out slop all day long I'd already have a publishing record to rival that of Doris Kearns Goodwin. No, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right. And since I don't have the time or intellectual energy to do it right, I won't do it.

That's part of the reason, anyway. The other part is that the title of this blog is no longer accurate, and I just can't think of a new one. I suppose I'll technically always be "post-doctoral," but the "postdoc" stage is now over - I'm now an assistant professor, and I'll probably be something along those lines for quite some time to come. I've tried to devise with a new blog name, but it's proving well nigh impossible to come up with something that's as witty as the one I'm leaving behind. And if I can't go big, I don't wanna go at all. I've toyed with various Nashville-based plays-on-words, but none of them are too satisfying, and most are already in use somewhere else. (You can blame the demise of this blog, in part, on the existence of a cafe here called Noshville, which name, had it been available, would have been ideal for the sort of food-based blog I might well have written.)

Besides all that, I feel like I'm starting a new stage in my life, and it's going to take some time to figure out how to broadcast it, if at all. My old life - a largely solitary, itinerant affair that was eminently bloggable - has given way to something that's a bit more stable and a lot less solitary. Last year in the Valley, when I started this blog, I was feeling detached from the world and the people I knew in it, and this seemed like a good way to connect. I'm still far removed from many people I love - further, indeed, than I ever was in the Valley - but I don't think we really need blogs to stay connected, not if we're really friends. As for me, I'm now part of the world once again, and I'm feeling less detached. I have a job again, a real job that requires real work from me, and it brings with it lots of students, colleagues, and obligations that'll make me an active and engaged citizen once more. And when I'm not doing that, I'm sharing my home and my life with a wonderful lady and her (usually) wonderful cat, and this is also alleviating the need I felt, all those months ago, to have someone to share my experiences with. You hear that, Kate? You're what I have now instead of a blog!

And so it's with a heavy heart that I write these last few lines. We've had some grand times, you and I. We've learned all about London and Calvin Coolidge and underwear. We have tusseled with ninjas, cavorted with Morris Dancers, stalked J Mascis, and cruised our way through historian parties and campus visits. We have seen sock-wearing ducks, atheist buses, inaugurations, flies, and submarines. We have eaten pies and pancakes and much, much french toast. We will always have these memories, you and I, and if we ever need to refresh them they'll always be just a few clicks away - and soon, no doubt, downloadable directly to our cerebellums.

As a last thought, I'd like to leave you with a song that I learned at a very young age, a song that has seen me through rougher times than this, a song that still, all these years later, fills me with hope. It's from a little television show called "Growing Pains." Perhaps you've heard of it. It starred Alan Thicke.

Sing along with me, won't you?

As long as we got each other
We got the world
Sitting right in our hands.
Baby rain or shine;
All the time.
We got each other
Sharing the laughter and love.

[One more time, with feeling:]

Sharing the laughter and looooove.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This Orientation Brought to You By Starbucks

Okay, sorry about the recent outburst. Last week was something of a low point, but I've turned the corner, seen the light, and come to Jesus. Kate got in on Sunday and, designated with the task of making everything better immediately, proceeded to do just that. Among other things (most of which, frankly, aren't any of your business), she found my coffee maker, which some fool had shoved in a drawer in my nightstand. Once I find out who packed all this junk, there's gonna be hell to pay.

I also now have home internet service, which is currently enabling this very blog post and will make the rest of my life much, much easier. Although it does mean no more trips to Panera, ever. Which is a bit of a drag, actually, as I was growing quite fond of their pumpkin muffies. More to the point, it turns out one of the Jonas Brothers was spotted Monday night at my Panera, the very one where I've been spending countless hours doing tedious textbook work and munching on muffies. Oh, to have been within spitball distance of such tousle-haired greatness would have sent me, quite literally, over the edge. And onto the floor. Into a pool of muffie crumbs.

(Actually, it's one of my persistent fears here in Nashville that I'll be eating dinner or drinking coffee right next to a bona-fide popular/country music celebrity and not have the slightest clue about it, so detached have I become from these things. The corollary of this is that I often assume that everyone I see is a popular/country music celebrity, a tendency that's facilitated by the large number of people around here who dress like they could be celebrities but are probably just starving singer-songwriters who spend all their disposable income on celebrityish clothes and accessories).

I have also been spending some time this week getting to know my new school. It's a much different place than I'm used to - a large, cash-strapped state school serving a regional studentship who are frequently the first in their families to attend college, and are doing so while working part-time, living at home, etc. There are good and bad things about this. The good mostly involves the greater impact I think I'll have by teaching students who are really working to be there, instead of affluent kids with a sense of entitlement for whom a college education was always a given (note that I'm generalizing grossly, in both directions). The bad mostly involves the lack of money. It sounds like things are pretty tight here even at the best of economic times, which these most certainly are not, and so many of the things I'm accustomed to having or would like to have - fully wired classrooms, attractive facilities, a living wage - are either entirely missing or in very short supply. Still, they make due pretty well with what they've got: the library looks great and has lots of online doohickeys for me to play with, I've got a small travel budget, and there are pretty good state-sponsored benefits, for instance.

At times, however, the school's desperate need for cash manifests itself in a sort of crass commercialism that is deeply obnoxious to my sophisticated, blue-state sensibilities. The fast food outlets in the dining hall are one thing - I encountered these at Tulane, too, a school which was by no means poverty-stricken - but the corporate-sponsored new-faculty orientation is quite another. I have to be careful here since, as I learned from my recent posting about Comcast, some corporations employ people to search through blogs looking for references to their companies - let's call them the brand police - and it would therefore be fairly easy for this particular corporation to track me down and kill me if I named them here. So I'll just say that, after three hours of power-point presentations about things like "the student culture" and "research and graduate students" - three hours in which countless administrators told us all about their giddy, almost unnatural love for the school, most of them working hard to outdo one another by bragging about how long they'd been there (one of them practically boasted that she'd been conceived right there on campus) - after three hours of this, we were marched over to the athletic stadium for lunch, where we were ambushed by representatives of a large regional bank

As we arranged ourselves around our tables we were told that we should leave one seat open for a banker - I repressed an involuntary quip that that's precisely what the entire country had been doing for some time now - and then we were all given personalized folders telling us what this wonderful regional bank could do for us. Then, as we tucked into something that looked like lasagna or maybe chicken parmesan, we listened as each of the bankers introduced themselves and urged us - pleaded with us, really - to come by their office and chat about anything at all, bank-related or not, anytime of the day or night. And then we had to listen while one or two administrators praised the bank, and the school's "relationship" with the bank, with an intensity that bordered on the unseemly. And then, after the speechifying was over, we all trotted over to collect our "goodie bags" full of candy, local maps, and a plastic device that looks like what would happen if a chip clip got into a menage-a-trois with a tablespoon and a fridge magnet.

At least I can say that the map, at any rate, is the largest item of its kind I've ever seen:

As another example of this sort of crassness - or, to be charitable, let's call it a collective tin ear for how such things appear to ubersophisticated newcomers like myself - I'll just point out that the one book every incoming freshman is being required to read is not, as it was at BC some years back, Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, about a doctor's humanitarian work in Haiti, nor is it any of the thousands of other books that can impart important life lessons in a thoughtful and provocative way. No, the one book all incoming freshman are required to read is How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill, who will be speaking at this year's Convocation. Now this is a book that I haven't read, so I might be way off the mark here, but from all the reviews I've read, the book - which tells the story of how a wealthy man, Gill, loses his fancy corporate job but finds redemption slumming with the lower orders while working at a local Starbucks - is essentially a love letter to the Starbucks corporation. Right there on Amazon's homepage there's a review from Booklist that says, "Other corporate giants can only envy the sheer goodwill that this memoir will inevitably generate for Starbucks," while Publishers Weekly says, "The book reads too much like an employee handbook, as Gill details his duties or explains how the company chooses its coffee. Gill's devotion to the superchain has obviously changed his life for the better, but that same devotion makes for a repetitive, unsatisfying read."

So this is the book they went with? Of all the millions of books that could have imparted essentially the same message - hard work, not wealth, creates happiness (never mind the dubiousness of that assertion) - they chose a poorly written paean to a multinational coffee company? Maybe he was the only Convocation speaker they could get. Or maybe they're getting a bit of consideration from the Starbucks corporation itself, which, incidentally, does have an outlet on campus.

In any case, I can see that I have my work cut out for me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Addendum to Previous Post

Guess I'm not quite done:

11) I have no electricity. After making my inaugural Trader Joe's run this evening, I returned home with a bucketful of frozen lasagnas and burritos to find the electricity in my neighborhood had gone missing. Initially I thought it was just me, but it turns out a power line pole down the road somehow snapped itself in half, and there are about 700 of us without lights, air conditioning, etc. The power went off about 4pm. It's now 11, and it's still not on, so I'm staying the night with friends. My frozen TJ's items, meanwhile, are sitting in my nonfunctioning freezer and have, by now, melted into lukewarm puddles of sauce and gluten. I don't even want to think about what's happened at the popsicle shop a few doors down.


I Hate Nashville and I Want to Come Home

The following things are currently wrong:

1) Our apartment, while 92% done, is not 100% done. Almost three weeks after we were initially assured it would be. Things still needed include

a. smoke detector(s)

b. bathroom fan

c. the removal of massive gobs of paint from the outside of the windows

d. blinds or shades or something to keep the light out

e. a new front door

f. two interior doors

g. a washer/dryer.

This last is our responsibility, and if something doesn't happen soon I'm gonna have to go buy new clothes.

2) The apartment is too small for all of our stuff, and, despite initial assurances that we'd have storage in the basement, we will not, in fact, have storage in the basement. This is because the landlord is turning the basement into another apartment. This is part of a larger problem wherein the landlord is kind of a pain in the ass. There is therefore no room for our bikes, for instance. I may have to build a shack out back.

3) My cellphone doesn't work in the apartment.

4) There's no internet in the apartment. This very serious, and has led me to get on the phone (in the park across the street, where I can get a signal) and call Comcast, AT&T, etc. An initial flirtation with Comcast proved fruitless when the Comcast guy failed to show up yesterday between 1pm and 4pm, as promised (while waiting alone in the apartment, of course, I had no internet to distract me). AT&T has been more helpful, but they're unable to get a guy out to install a jack before Aug. 31. In the meantime, I have a bazillion things to do that require internet access. The solution I've hit upon is to spend the greater part of every day in coffee shops. This is something I tend to do anyway, but not to this extent. It's starting to get quite expensive, and I always feel uncomfortable taking up space somewhere for hours on end. As a partial solution to this problem, I've headed to a Panera at the mall. Not only is there more seating here, but I also don't feel at all bad about mooching Panera's wireless as I do at more local establishments. This plan has two drawbacks, however:

a. I have to spend money at Panera.

b. I have to spend time at Panera.

5) I have a bazillion things to do. In addition to the normal teaching prep, which would be time-consuming enough, I also have an article to write for a conference in Paris that I was hoping to finish before school starts. That's not gonna happen, however, because I've recently been saddled with 80+ hours of freelance textbook work. I'd agreed to do these projects earlier in the summer, when I had time, but they didn't get them to me until last week. Under normal conditions I'd tell them to shove their projects in their pie holes, but it's paying outrageously well and will, in fact, finance my trip to Paris to present the article that I haven't written. And then some.

6) It's hot.

7) It's muggy.

8) People here talk funny and drive very large vehicles.

9) All my stuff is in boxes still and I can't find anything. I currently need to know the locations of the following:

a. Sponges

b. Assorted spray bottles

c. Dish towels

d. My favorite mug.

e. A certain Charlie Daniels bobblehead.

10) I'm all alone and I miss Kate.

There, I'm done griping. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Everything will be better shortly, I know - it's always this way when moving to a new place, as I know all too well. Combine that with the transition from not-busy to holy-shit-am-I-busy-and-oh-yeah-all-my-stuff-is-in-boxes, and a person would have to be made of stone not to feel at least a little disheartened.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to spend the next three hours working on a spreadsheet. If Panera's musak doesn't drive me away sooner.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

18 Things I've Learned Since Leaving the Valley

It's been over a week since I left the Valley, and I'm already starting to feel a bit bucolic-deficient: I haven't seen a tobacco barn or a creamery or a sugar shack in ages, haven't had a cider donut in eons, and haven't picked-my-own anythings in forever (excepting, perhaps, my nose). Still, I'm bearing up quite well under the circumstances, largely because I'm managing to keep my mind active. It remains to be seen just how active it will remain once I've settled into the languorous rhythms of the South - I've accepted the possibility that my brain muscles, pummelled by the politics and made turgid by the climate, might not retain their accustomed vigor for long - but for now my intellect is still in fighting form. As evidence of which, I hereby present eighteen things I've learned in the past week-and-a-half:

1) Mentor, OH, is the birthplace of James A. Garfield, and for this reason it can be a very difficult place to find a motel room at 11pm on a summer weekend.

2) Red Roof Inns are, despite their charming names, complete dumps. For evidence of this, I advise you to stay at the Red Roof Inn in Mentor, OH, where the rooms have more beds than towels.

3) People in the South drive very rapidly and don't like to use turn signals. I'm unsure why this is, but for now I'm blaming NASCAR.

4) Christ is the answer.

5) Jesus died for me.

6) I may call it abortion, but God calls it murder.

7) It is more expensive to move from Massachusetts to Tennessee via U-Haul than to do so by hiring movers.

8) Some landlords have very primitive understandings of how long it takes to renovate apartments. They also have somewhat underdeveloped notions of just how much communication is necessary or desirable between themselves and tenants expecting to move into said apartments.

9) Relatedly, Tuesday is not Saturday, and Saturday is not Thursday.

10) A tenant's annoyance with a delinquent landlord may be mitigated slightly upon being informed that the reason the landlord is always going "out of town" is that he is a member of a funk band whose members conceal their identities with costumes. Upon acquiring this information, a tenant may be inclined to view the landlord's apparent unscrupulousness as mere flakiness.

11) In the South, macaroni and cheese is a vegetable, and most everything else, including green beans and turnip greens and black-eyed-peas, is not suitable for vegetarians.

12) Ben Folds lives in our neighborhood.

13) The dude who runs two of the coffee shops in which I'll be spending much of my time is dating the chick who runs the popsicle stand at which I'll be spending much of my money.

14) In order to get a parking space for my 8am class, I'll need to arrive on campus by 7am. In order to do that, I'll need to leave home by 6am. And in order to do that, I'll need to be awake by 5:55am.

15) Children in Tennessee have to ride in car seats until they are eight years old.

16) Stacked, all-in-one-unit washer/dryer combos are more expensive than stackable, separate-unit, front-loading washers and dryers.

17) A significant Civil War event happened approximately every twenty feet in the South, and these events are stirringly described by signs more numerous than hairs on a monkey.

18) Custard pie is one of life's great pleasures.

Okay, that's all the larnin' you're gettin' for today. Now get back to work.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hotel Lives

Not so very long ago, it was a common thing for people to live in hotels. I've always found the idea romantic, probably because I watch too many black and white movies. There's the friendly bellboy who greets everyone by name, the well-stocked liquor cabinets and linen-draped room-service carts, the mailboxes for long-term guests, the elevator operator who knows everyone's floor, the dapper gentleman on some urgent mission who strolls up to the front desk and asks, "Any messages for me, Sam?" It all seems such a long way from our current world of interchangeable chain motels with names like Motel 6 and Super 8 and Blue 22 (I made that last one up), of "continental breakfasts" comprised of a box of cold, greasy donuts and orange juice in little plastic cups sealed with tinfoil, of televisions that can be used either for express checkout or downloading adult entertainment, in both cases making what was once a transaction between human beings into a solitary endeavor.

The people who used to live in hotels were usually bachelors, young couples, or old folks. I just read a Peter Taylor story about newlyweds who are forced to spend the first night of their honeymoon in the hotel in which the groom used to live, a circumstance that was most embarrassing for the young bride, since everyone was bound to know what they were up to. These days, of course, bachelors live with roommates or parents or rent their own apartments, and young brides don't get embarrassed about much of anything at all. The old folks who used to live in hotels now live in Assisted Living Communities, which is actually very much like living in a hotel, only with more bingo. As for the rest of us, living in a hotel simply isn't a viable option. Who has that kind of money? And where would we put all our stuff?

Nevertheless, the past decade has seen an explosion in the number of so-called extended-stay hotels that charge a reasonably affordable weekly rate for guests who commit to stay long-term. I've yet to figure out who stays at these places, but my hunch is that it's primarily business travelers - a company may rent a couple of rooms in a residence hotel and rotate people through, or individual businesspeople may live in a room for an extended period while they take care of business. This, essentially, is what my grandfather did back in the 1970s when he started traveling from Oklahoma City up to Bartlesville, OK, to work on a case for the oil company based there (he was a lawyer for the company), until it became clear that the case would take years and he and my grandmother might as well just move to Bartlesville.

The other people who stay in extended-stay hotels are probably people who can more easily pay a weekly rate than a monthly one - poor people, intermittently employed people, migrant workers, people forced out of their own homes due to flooding or tornadoes or whatever. These people are likely to live in different hotels than the business travelers. Often it'll be one of those run-down "motor inns" from the 1960s that you and I drive by and shake our heads wondering how such places stay in business. Or it may be one of Motel 6's new line of extended-stay motels (ingeniously named Studio 6) that go for about $140 a week. These people will often sleep several to a room, and they will often not get much in the way of free high-speed internet. It goes without saying, I suppose, that there's not much romance in these arrangements, either for the wealthy or the poor, although you're more likely to find romance in a Four Seasons than in a Studio 6.

For the last four days, I've been somewhere between those extremes, in a Hilton Suites in Brentwood, TN, just a few miles south of Nashville. The apartment Kate and I are moving into isn't quite done yet, a fact that is less surprising now than it would have been a month ago, before I knew our new landlord better. We've been assured it'll be inhabitable by Saturday, so in the meantime I've splurged on a nice hotel in a tony suburb for a few days. Well, okay, I didn't really splurge - I'm actually paying less than half the normal rate, thanks to some mad internetting skills - but it still feels like a bit of an indulgence. I've got a living room, a bedroom, a huge bathroom with a closet in it, a microwave, a little fridge, a nice couch, two sinks, and two televisions (one for express checkout, one for adult entertainment). There's a heated pool, a weight room, a coin-op laundry room, and every morning they bring me a free USA Today, which, since I don't have any birdcages to line or fish to wrap, is perfectly useless - but it's a nice gesture. My principal complaint is that the bed is essentially one giant, squishy pillow covered in hundreds of smaller squishy pillows, and this is making it a bit hard to get a good night's sleep. My principal joy is that the hotel is within walking distance of a barbecue restaurant where last night I managed to have a big meal of pulled pork, green beans, cornbread, and fried corn-on-the-cob*, plus a gigantic bowl of apple cobbler with ice cream, for under $10. It's also near a bakery called the Puffy Muffin, which, now that I think of it, is probably what I should nickname my bed. Pity this'll be my last night on it.

Tomorrow Kate comes in to do some interviews, and we'll be staying with a friend of her mother's for a couple of nights. I'm most grateful for the hospitality, but I'm actually a bit sad to see the end of this little interlude at the Hilton. I didn't get to know any bellboys, I haven't seen any elevator operators, and I haven't received any mail or messages at the front desk, but I think if I were to stay here just a little longer all of those things just - and more - would definitely happen.

* Fried corn-on-the-cob is, apparently, a thing here. A very delicious thing, as it happens, and something that I can't believe I'd never imagined before. I am going to get very fat in Nashville.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Operation Mop-Up, Part II

Oh, hello there! And how are you this fine summer afternoon?

Your timing is excellent - I'm just taking a break from stuffing all of my possessions into boxes (truck-loading commences tomorrow), so I've got a little time to tell you about the rest of my adventures around the Valley over the past week or so. You'll recall that I've been trying to get in a little more sightseeing before I point the wagons southward. Well, I'm happy to say that I've crossed most of the important things off the list, although a few items - the Hadley Farm Museum, the Amherst Historical Society - will have to wait until another day. I'll discuss the recent adventures in ascending order of humorousness.

Historic Northampton
I have walked, biked, or driven by this place about two hundred thousand times, but I never got around to visiting it until last week. No, that's not quite true. Back in early June, Kate, Meagan, and I tried to pop by after breakfast one morning, but they were opening late that day and we didn't manage to fit it into our schedule. And then a few weeks ago Kate and I tried again, but it was closed, for reasons that were - and remain - mysterious.

So I was quite excited when we finally caught the place during opening hours this past week. Something this hard to get into must be spectacular, I thought, like a really exclusive nightclub or a Mormon temple. I'm sorry to report, however, that my excitement was somewhat premature. It was a perfectly nice little museum - a room showing artifacts from Northampton's history, arranged chronologically and in narrative form, with lots and lots of text glued to the cases and walls, plus a small gift shop - but it was distinctly lacking in the interactive bells and whistles I've come to expect from modern museums. C'mon, Historic Northampton! Step into the twenty-first century! Give me an animatronic. pulpit-pounding, firebreathing Jonathan Edwards that I can scare the kids with. Give me a "What Would Sylvester Graham Do?" interactive computer game featuring a series of moral dilemmas and engaging (if slightly lewd) sound effects. Give me a life-size Snuffaluffagus that I can climb on - who cares if Snuffaluffagus wasn't from Northampton? But don't expect me to read. Sheesh. History can be so boring.

The Student Prince
I don't often make it down to Springfield, even though it boasts both the Basketball Hall of Fame and a Dr. Seuss sculpture garden. When I do find myself in this, the regional metropolis, it doesn't take me long to remember why I rarely go there - if you're ever feeling like there just aren't enough scary drug dealers in your life, spend half an hour in the Springfield bus station and tell me if that doesn't solve the problem. A once prosperous city that fell on hard times quite a while ago, Springfield has made some efforts at urban renewal - it's certainly a much more appealing place to spend an afternoon than nearby Holyoke (the birthplace, incidentally, of Volleyball) - but it's clearly got a long way to go before it becomes the next Pittsburgh or Providence.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I wandered into the Student Prince, an old fashioned German restaurant founded in 1935 that I learned about while reading Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers Homes in New England. Just down the street from the prison-like train station, around the corner from the Payday Cash Advance shops, the pawn shops, and the nail salons, the Student Prince can be found serving pot roast, bratwurst, and sauerkraut to the largest crowd of well-dressed old white people you've ever seen. By old, I don't mean spry-retiree, denture-cream-commercial old. I mean nursing-home old, one-foot-in-the-grave old, really-too-old-to-be-eating-bratwurst old. Really, really old. And when I say well-dressed, I mean suits and ties. On a Tuesday. At lunchtime. It was like stepping back in time, to a time when everybody was really old and white and knew everybody who walked through the door, a time when well-dressed old men with mustaches and slick black hair walked from table to table shaking hands with other patrons and asking after their grandkids, a time when everything was decorated in what can only be described as High German Hunting Lodge Kitsch (lamps made of antlers, one of the largest stein collections in the USA, etc.). Outside, it was all dusty urban despair; inside, it was a Bavarian spa town circa 1937.

The food, I must say, was excellent. I had homemade sausages with apple sauce, sauerkraut, and German potato salad. I am a sucker for hearty German fare, after all, to say nothing of hearty German kitsch. So it's probably a good thing that I only discovered how incredibly wonderful the Student Prince is at this late date - otherwise I'd probably have spent much more of my valuable time there, dining on sausage and cabbage at least often enough to get the old folks to start greeting me by name.

The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum
Now I really have no excuse for not having visited this one earlier, since it's literally right next door to my house. The Forbes Library began collecting Calvin Coolidge's papers in 1920, around the time he was making a name for himself in Massachusetts politics after serving as mayor of Northampton, where he was also a successful lawyer, from 1909-11. The museum isn't open as often as the rest of the library, but it's open often enough - I live right next door - that I really should have peeked in before now. As it happens, I almost missed it entirely. As with Historic Northampton, I had two recent false starts, finding the doors locked during times I expected them to be open, but I did finally manage to visit yesterday afternoon.

And what I learned was nothing short of astonishing. What I learned was this: Calvin Coolidge was the most boring man in American history. Yes, you read that right - not the most boring president, but the most boring man. Think of the dullest person you know. Form a good mental image: what they sound like, what they smell like, what they look like. Got it? Okay, Calvin Coolidge was three times more boring than that person.

It must be a very difficult thing to build a Presidential Library and Museum for the most boring person in American history, and I feel awfully sympathetic for the poor curators and librarians who have the task of looking after this man's legacy. Clearly, they know what they're up against. Here's what it says in one of the early display cases:

How's that for hedging your bets?

Calvin Coolidge was president from 1923 to 1929, taking over after Warren G. Harding's mysterious death in office and proceeding to do absolutely nothing at all while America enjoyed one of the most debauched periods of its history. Here's what I learned about Calvin Coolidge's time in office: he was the first president whose inaugural address was broadcast by radio (big whoop: anybody inaugurated in 1923 would have enjoyed the same honor - it wasn't him, it was the technology); he signed a few treaties, none of them of any lasting importance; his wife wore lots of dresses at White House events; his son John died after getting blood poisoning from an injury sustained on the White House tennis courts; he installed the first White House Christmas tree (yawn); he was, for reasons that are never explained, named chief of the Sioux (the photo below shows how Coolidge could make even an exciting event like this look utterly and completely boring - the Indian behind him to the left is saying, "Oh, god, when will this be over?"); and he presided at the opening of Mt Rushmore. This latter must have been especially humiliating, insofar as the looming faces of those far more important presidents inevitably brought his own boringness into even sharper relief.

Interspersed amongst the images of Coolidge and his wife not doing anything are some excerpts from his autobiography, boringly titled The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. Here's a representative quote:
When we first went to Washington Mrs. Coolidge and I quite enjoyed the social dinners. As we were always the ranking guests we had the privilege of arriving last and leaving first, so that we were usually home by ten o'clock. It will be seen that this was far from burdensome. We found it a most enjoyable opportunity for getting acquainted and could scarcely comprehend how anyone who had the privilege of sitting at a table surrounded by representatives of the Cabinet, the Congress, the Diplomatic Corps, and the Army and Navy would not find it interesting.
Wow, I almost fell asleep just typing that. And this was the stuff the curators thought was good enough to extract! One can only imagine what the rest of the Autobiography is like.

Despite all this, there is one thing about Coolidge that almost redeems him in my eyes, and that proves nobody can be 100% boring all the time. Sitting under a pair of elephant tusks given to Coolidge by Theodore Roosevelt (a president who lived at the opposite end of the boring meter from Coolidge) there sits a large, black electric horse that Coolidge kept in his White House dressing room. I have no idea why he had it or what he did with it, but I like to imagine him coming home after a long day of ribbon-cuttings before crowds of listless onlookers, kicking off his sensible loafers, donning his ceremonial Sioux headdress, and riding that electric horse with all his might, one hand waving free, whooping silently.

And now I'm going back to pack some more. When next we meet, I'll be in Nashville.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Search for the Perfect French Toast - The Coolidge Park Cafe

The search is over.

After an intense and, at times, harrowing survey of every single breakfast-serving establishment in the greater NoHo/Amherst area, after eating sixteen(!) different orders of french toast (plus a handful of repeats, in addition to some recreational french toast consumed in Okla. City and Madison, WI), I am prepared to award the title of The Perfect French Toast to...

Ah ah ah - not so fast. First I need to tell you about my visit to the Coolidge Park Cafe, a visit that damn near queered the pitch.

The Coolidge Park Cafe is part of the Hotel Northampton, a massive 1927 building that looms over NoHo like a slumbering beast. I had never been inside the place but had long admired the audacity of it, the way it crawls right up to the edge of King Street and dwarfs the people below, seeming to say, "You are in Northampton, people, and don't forget it!" It's an appropriately grand structure for a town that likes to see itself as much more than a simple New England village, with sturdy brick and a neo-colonial facade that hint at a sort of old-fashioned luxury within. It looks, in short, very expensive.

If you want to have breakfast at the Coolidge Park Cafe at the Hotel Northampton, you should get there early. The first time Kate and I tried to go, about 10:15 on a Friday morning, they had already stopped serving breakfast at 10:00. So we went back the next morning (time is short: I'm leaving town this Friday, so I really don't have time to monkey around) and tried again. The hotel lobby was traditional but tasteful - there was the black-framed portrait above the fireplace, here were the striped, upholstered chairs - and the cafe was largely empty. I had the impression that the cafe doesn't cater much to people who aren't staying at the hotel - more locals may go to the Wiggins Tavern, a reconstructed 18th-century tavern annexed to the back of the hotel, but it wasn't open during our visit - and I deduced that the current recession must have severely cut down on the number of tourists willing to shell out the however-much it costs to stay there, but I may be wrong about that.

In any event, the lack of people meant we got a good seat - facing a window facing down King Street, even if this also had us facing into the (pre-10am) sun - although it didn't ensure terribly prompt service. When we got the chance to order I asked for the "Texas Size French Toast," despite not having an entirely positive experience of similarly-designated french toasts elsewhere. Sure enough, when the toast arrived it was neither "Texas Size" nor made of "texas toast," the latter being an especially delicious, butter-and-garlic delicacy found in places in and around Texas that would, nevertheless, probably not be very good in french form. Instead, it looked like regular old triangle-cut bread with a sprinking of powdered sugar and a bit of fruit garnish.

But my god was it good. The bread was crisp on the outside and grainy and hearty on the inside. The maple syrup was real and delightful. And the whole thing was overpoweringly, almost scandalously, cinnamony. Reader, if you love cinnamon, I suggest you drop what you're doing right now and get thee to the Hotel Northampton immediately (just be sure to arrive between the hours of 7am and 10am, Eastern Time). If it wasn't nearly 8pm here, I think I'd go back right now.

This french toast was so good, in fact, that it put me in a bit of a pickle. See, I was hoping that it'd be terrible or at least bland or even merely good, so that I could declare a clear winner - that'd be the Lone Wolf - and get on with my life. But it'd been so long since I'd had the Lone Wolf's french toast that I found myself in a state of deep uncertainty. Was the Lone Wolf's french toast as tender and tasty as this one? Had I overestimated the Lone Wolf's french toast because it came after a string of substandard varieties? Was I looking back at the Lone Wolf through rose-colored glasses?

There was only one way to answer these questions: a Toast-Off.

Well, okay, so it wasn't exactly a Toast-Off. I simply decided that I needed to go back to the Lone Wolf and settle things once and for all. And so, early this morning, Kate and I made the long drive over to Amherst - a drive that's actually not that long but that seems endless when you haven't had breakfast yet (as was the case for Kate) or have only had one breakfast and really need a second one (as was the case with me).

When the toast arrived, it was just as I remembered it. Pretty triangles of thickly sliced challah bread artistically arranged in a circular pattern around the plate, dusted with powdered sugar and lightly browned. Actually, it was a bit more lightly browned than my last serving, but one has to allow for the occasional inconsistency when dealing with something as mercurial as french toast. Eating it was like visiting an old friend: all the old elements of enjoyment were still there, and this encouraged lingering and savoring. As before, I found the inside of the toast refreshingly free of mush (even the Coolidge Park's french toast had been a tad mushy, though not, it must be noted, eggy). As before, it held the syrup well and was even a bit chewy. And, as before, it was almost more than I could eat - this is the only french toast of the sixteen that has been almost more than I could eat - but I still managed to power through to the end.

And the verdict? I'm very pleased, after a hard-fought, last-minute battle, to award the title of The Perfect French Toast to the challah french toast at the Lone Wolf in Amherst, MA. Ding ding ding ding!

Coming in at a very close second place: The Coolidge Park Cafe

Third place goes to: Cafe Esselon.

Honorable mentions: The Green Street Cafe, Amanouz Cafe, and the Haymarket.

In the category of Best Diner French Toast: Look Restaurant.

And coming in dead last, in a category all by itself, a french toast that is almost sublime in its awfulness: Kathy's Diner.

Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. It's been fun for me and, I hope, educational for you. And in case you're wondering - yes, I never want to have french toast again.