Week 43: Ann Arbor

Locations: Somerville, MA; Northampton, MA; Buffalo, NY; Ann Arbor, MI


Dates: 6/8/97-6/14/97

As usual, it took me about two hours longer to get out of town than I'd planned. Got up early (for me) on Sunday for breakfast with Bhadrika & Steve, then spent the next few hours packing and putting stuff in the car.

Said goodbye to Michael and Diana, who had come over. Got moving, and discovered that the dragonfly pin I'd bought in Vermont had come off my shirt. Went back to Bhadrika & Steve's; found the pin, but not the backing piece that holds it in place. Finally decided I was running far too late to spend any further time looking for it; I suspect I can get a replacement just about anywhere.

Got onto the highway and someone honked; I looked up and saw Beth and Karin and a friend of Karin's, in Beth's car, on the way to the same concert I was going to. We wove in and out of traffic for a while until they turned off the freeway to take Karin's friend home. There's something nice about driving "with" a friend that way—I like the feeling that I'm not completely surrounded by strangers while on the road. (Of course, if your friend doesn't tend to drive at roughly the same speed as you, it can be frustrating for both participants.)

Everything took longer than I expected, including stopping for gas. I'd intended to spend a couple hours poking around Northampton before stopping in to see Karen; instead I was 45 minutes late to meeting her. Fortunately, she (like most of my friends) seemed resigned to my perpetual lateness. I hate that I do this, but I've been doing it for many years and don't seem to be willing to do the work it would take to change myself. Ah, well.

Karen and I talked for a while and made plans to get together again the next day. I got to the Iron Horse, the folk club where the concert was to be held, only half an hour after I'd said I would meet Beth and Karin there. We had some food, and were found by Michelle (Geoff H's sweetie), who luckily recognized me as I wouldn't have recognized her.

Geoff arrived (he'd been out of town checking out a job possibility) about halfway through the show. Nice concert. We chatted a bit afterward, then I said goodbye to Beth and Karin. I stayed at Geoff's place that night.

Monday I finally reached David H (we'd sent email back and forth but hadn't made firm plans about when/where to see each other). He was very ill, but put up with my visiting for a couple hours. Also chatted a bit with Annie Shapiro, whose house David was convalescing at. Then it was time to go meet Karen in Amherst, which I did. I spent most of the next eight hours at a cozy café in Amherst called Rao's: talked with Karen for a couple hours, then Jesse and Geoff & Michelle joined us for dinner a couple blocks away at Amber Waves, then Geoff & Michelle and I met a friend of theirs back at Rao's for several hours' worth of their teaching me how to play bridge. I've avoided learning bridge for years, but finally took the plunge. Not so bad if you've played a bunch of other trick-taking games, though most of what I did right was entirely by accident. I'm still no good at keeping track of everything that's been played, in any game—too much data, too little brain capacity. But I gather that comes with practice.

At the last minute managed to contact Elliott, who'd been out of town up 'til then, and decided to stay at his place that night. Talked with him a little then, more in the morning. The usual sorts of topics: linguistics, alien races (and whether alien language might be remotely compatible with human language), computers, games, the just-passed Swarthmore Reunion weekend. Dropped him off near work early Tuesday afternoon, and headed off to Ann Arbor, only about three hours after I'd planned to leave town.

Spent much of the drive to Buffalo thinking about a novel. I ran a roleplaying game a couple years back which involved characters traveling from Boston to Minneapolis; at the time I just made up the details of the trip, having no idea what the real territory was like. Sometime after the game was over it occurred to me that it'd probably make a better novel than game, so I started working on piecing that together. So one of my goals for this leg of the trip is to take copious notes (photographs of places, and tape-recordings of anything that occurs to me as I travel) for background for the novel.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

Arrived at the Motel 6 outside of Buffalo around 9:30 pm. It was right next to a Hooters bar; I was half-tempted to stop in just to see what it was like, since it's something I'd be unlikely ever to do again, but wasn't up to it. Settled in my room, looked over tourist info, and discovered that Niagara Falls remains illuminated in the summer until midnight; I thought I remembered being told it was worth seeing at night, and certainly wasn't going to be around the following night, so I asked the desk clerk how long it would take to get to the falls. She, predictably, answered "twenty minutes"—"predictably" because the tourist info called Buffalo "a City of Convenience," and claimed it only took 20 minutes to get from anywhere in the area to anywhere else. Also predictably, it actually took more like half an hour to get to the falls; I guess Buffaloers (Buffaloans?) drive faster than I do, but it looked like at peak traffic periods it probably would've taken twice that time... Took a few minutes to find the falls once I'd parked, too; it had been hot all day so I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but since it was cooler near the falls I put on my trenchcoat, and wondered if people seeing my bare legs would assume I was a flasher. At any rate, the falls themselves were kinda disappointing because I could only see one small section of them from the publicly accessible observation area. Took various photos—I believe I was close enough to them to make using a flash not completely stupid, but I admit that I'm not certain that distance is the reason people scoff at those who take flash photos of the falls.

Took me several more minutes to find my car, and then proceeded to get lost by (I thought) trying to follow the signs back to the freeway. Eventually found the freeway, and made it back to the motel by around 12:30. Proceeded to stay up much longer than I'd intended checking email and trying unsuccessfully, for the fourth or fifth consecutive night, to finish the Words & Stuff column that was supposed to be in place on Sunday. One nice thing about Motel 6 (and probably most other motels, I'd guess) is that the phones these days have an extra jack in the back for a data connection; lets me stay fully wired at all times. Whee!

Sign: "Push Button to Cross Delaware"
Sign: "Push Button to Cross Delaware"

Another nice thing about this particular Motel 6 was that checkout time wasn't 'til noon. (A third nice thing was that since they were out of non-smoking single rooms, they gave me a double at the same price. Not that I had any extra use for the vast extra space, but it was nice of them.) I took full advantage of that fact by sleeping late and getting off to a slow start. Spent an hour or two wandering around Buffalo, trying to pick up local color for the novel, but I couldn't find the rowdy nightclub regions that the tourist info had recommended (perhaps just because it was the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday). Got lost again. Eventually crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada—

And ran afoul of the dreaded Canadian Customs Agency.

Everyone else crossing the bridge was waved through after a perfunctory question or two. I was asked half a dozen questions, a couple of them more than once, and then sent over to the Inspection Area to have my belongings prodded. Nobody bothered to tell me that I'd been singled out because I had a large quantity of Stuff covered with a blanket filling the back of my car, though I did begin to suspect that was the issue. The customs agents were nice, and most of them were awfully cute, but they were also pretty suspicious. In a friendly sort of way. Every question was asked two to six times, sometimes multiple times by the same agent. I was sent to speak to Immigration, who asked me how long I was going to be doing business in Canada; I told them I wasn't doing business, just passing through, and expected to take no more than about six hours to do so. I repeated this answer every time I was asked; each time, the agents sounded like they thought they could trip me up by asking again.

They pulled various items out of my car and examined them; I stood off to one side and read a book, since there wasn't anything else for me to do. They were very very suspicious of an envelope addressed to David Van Stone in Somerville, containing cassette tapes, because I'd already told them my name and address and that wasn't it. I explained that the envelope belonged to a friend, an answer they seemed skeptical of. (After all, why would anyone carry around an envelope not addressed to them?) They were also skeptical of my statement that the envelope contained audio tapes, although the envelope was open and the agent questioning me was in fact looking into it at the audio tapes at the time. Very odd.

The same agent was particularly concerned about the anti-theft device in my car, an electronic key/plug without the presence of which the car won't start. I'm not sure what ta thought the thing was... But ta eventually seemed satisfied with my explanation.

Finally another agent (about the fifth one to become involved in my case) led me through a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only" and into a bare back room. Ta explained to me that there was so much stuff in my car it would take a long time to take it all out and look at it, so since there was a drug-sniffing dog on the way for another car, they were going to have the dog go through my car as well. I said that would be fine. The agent pressed on: had marijuana, or any other drug, ever been consumed in my car? Not that I knew of, I said. Certainly not in the past couple years; and I don't think the previous owner was a drug user. The question was repeated three or four times in various ways. I stuck to my story, only adding that I'd loaned the car to various friends at various times but I was fairly certain none of them would've left drugs in it either. The agent tried one final bullying attempt: "Okay. But some people aren't aware that if they tell us there's nothing in the car, and we find even one joint, we can confiscate the vehicle. If they come clean from the start it's no problem, but if they don't..." I maintained my innocence yet again; the agent had me empty my pockets, then said there was no point in detaining me further and that I was free to go.

I asked if there was any way I could make my trip through Customs easier next time I enter Canada, in a couple weeks; the agent told me that anyone with a carload of stuff was likely to get stopped. "Especially since you come from California; a lot of people from those Southern states are carrying guns." It had never remotely occurred to me that California was a Southern state, but I suppose SoCal residents might be carrying guns on road trips. I explained that I was from Northern California, and we didn't do that kind of thing...

I spent most of another hour getting to the Canadian side of the falls and trying to get a good look at them. It became clear that I would need to spend at least another hour there, between parking and getting to the observation areas and getting back, to get a good stationary view of them, so I settled for the rather spectacular (now there's a DH Lawrence phrase) view from the road that follows the river's edge. Eventually managed to extricate myself from the town and headed northwest on Queen Elizabeth's Way.

The six-hour drive through Canada was mostly boring. It looked just like the US except for all the signs being in metric. Listened to Canadian radio, made more progress on the novel than I have in months (on tape), and had a small panic when it became clear that I wouldn't make it back to the US without buying gas, and especially when I stopped for gas and found a pump that appeared to indicate it cost $5.99 a litre. It was only after I decided to try elsewhere and got back on the freeway that I realized it was 59.9 cents per litre, but by then it was too late. I eventually found a very rural gas station (6 km off the freeway) that was happy to let me pay with American dollars (at a one-to-one exchange rate). Got back on the freeway and 1 km later came to a major highway service centre, complete with fully modern Shell station. Ah, well.

Was delighted to learn, at a stop for food, that my calling card works perfectly from Canada. Called Chris to tell her just how late I was going to be...

Crossed back into the US at Detroit. The US Customs guy was hostile but bored; after snapping some hostile but bored questions at me ("How long were you in Canada? Why did you go there? What are you carrying with you?"), he mumbled, "Ycngo." I said, "Hmm?", expecting that I'd have to go through the whole pull-everything-out-of-the-car routine again. He snapped, "You can GO!" I didn't wait for more, just took off. (Customs people at both ends seemed really annoyed at me for wanting to cut across Canada to trim two hours off my travel time from Buffalo to Ann Arbor; I suspect, given the time I spent at Canadian Customs, I didn't really save much time in the end...)

After the pastoral farmland of the previous several hours, Detroit's industrial wasteland was a bit of a shock. Fortunately I was through it fairly quickly, and reached Ann Arbor not much later. (Speed limits on that stretch of I-94 vary rapidly from 35 to 70, but that's okay 'cause everyone travels a constant 65 at all times.)

Reached Chris' place without mishap. Talked with her for a while, then (just for fun, I guess) I poured boiling water over my hand while trying to make tea. Spent the next couple of hours with my hand immersed in ice water and/or iced tea, taking it out occasionally to daub it with aloe vera gel or spray solarcaine on it.

Fortunately the hand was all better in the morning. I spent most of Thursday reading, napping, and wandering the nifty streets of Ann Arbor trying to find particularly obscure information from Herodotus for my column. Eventually glanced into a copy of the novel version of The English Patient (I'd gotten the Herodotus citation from the movie version) and found even more relevant stuff than is in the movie; checked the indexes of various handy copies of Herodotus (this was all in one of Ann Arbor's numerous bookstores) and discovered that the info just isn't from Herodotus at all. Sigh. So I bought a copy of the novel, as I'd been thinking of doing for some time, at the marvelous (and not at all New Age-y) Shaman Drum bookstore.

Chris and George and I went to dinner, then to a Steeleye Span concert. I'd been sad that I was going to miss Span concerts in both Northampton and Boston, so was thrilled to get a chance to see them live, though a bit disappointed in the actual show. Afterward, we hung out in Café Zola (I sometimes feel that I spend more time in cafés these days than in any other kind of enclosure except my car) and talked. [Note: I've been informed that the Lynx text-only browser doesn't handle certain entities properly; in particular, it seems to display "é" as "i." Sorry 'bout that... Readers using Lynx, read "cafi" as "cafe."]

I stayed up late almost-finishing my column, then did some final Web research and discovered a bunch of new relevant info, so postponed final posting of it in favor of sleep.

Got up late Friday, finished up the column and posted it. Read some, did some laundry, updated the travelogue (and the associated map). Finally attempted to make some firm plans to see the next few people west of here; discovered that one of them is out of the country 'til July, and another won't be back 'til Monday or Tuesday, and a third is now living in Arizona. Oops. Oh, well; if I were better organized, I'd probably be done with the trip by now...

Aside: My column finally got listed in Yahoo this week! I first submitted the URL to them six months ago, and have been trying to get their attention ever since. Someone finally responded a couple days back to my latest bug report ("your suggestions page says you'll get back to the suggester soon, but you don't, so you should change the 'we'll get back to you soon' message"), so I explained the situation, and lo and behold, 24 hours later the listing was in place! I'm delighted. I expect readership to expand quite a bit in the next few weeks; that was certainly the result when my anti-chain letter URL got a Yahoo listing... Now if only I can get back to getting columns out on time, all should be copacetic.

Friday evening (I think), Chris made some marvelous soup that we ate on and off for the next few days. Saturday we met with some biologist friends of Chris' to go canoeing: a leisurely drift down the local river for a couple hours, with occasional desultory paddling. It was just what I wanted (especially since I'd just received email about a whitewater rafting trip happening in CA, and was sad that I was going to miss that): relaxing, surrounded by water, drifting through the warm sunshine, with a bunch of biologists to answer my every question about the local flora and fauna. We narrowly avoided a run-in with a swan (angrily protecting his young—I'd never seen a swan puffed up like that before), observed swallows and ducks, ran into occasional trees, and generally had a great time. (It also helped that George, steering our canoe, knew what he was doing, so I didn't have to worry about the fact that I had no idea what I was doing with the other paddle.)

We all had dinner together and talked about a wide range of topics. Cool folx. In the evening, I opted to skip watching Xena and do email instead. I suspect I stayed up 'til the usual late hour Sunday morning.

Movies, Books, etc.

Bob Franke, Lui Collins, and Fred Small (concert)
Started out good (Franke had several songs I liked quite a bit, though several others I was lukewarm on), got continually better (Collins wasn't at her best, stage-presence-wise, but still sang and played quite well), and ended up superb (Small was on; I even enjoyed "Hot Frogs on the Loose" for once, and half his songs left me in tears). And then they proceeded to a trio of encores with all of them onstage, including my favorite audience-singalong song (Lui Collins' "Blessed"), and I joined in the standing ovation at the end (something I almost never do).
A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge
Started out good, but never quite lived up to its promise—the main alien race is way cool, the galactic scope is nicely relegated to background (with the struggles of individual characters in the fore), and Vinge remains the best combination of hard science with emotional involvement available; but things start to deteriorate halfway through the book, and several items I was taking on faith (trusting Vinge to resolve satisfactorily) never got resolved. Worth reading, but somewhat disappointing nonetheless.
Steeleye Span (concert)
I'm glad to've finally seen them live, but I suspect (as was true when I finally saw Laurie Anderson live) that I'd have enjoyed them much more ten years ago. A lot of loud, long, and repetitive songs, and Maddy Prior's voice wasn't nearly as marvelous as I expected (though on the plus side, the guitarist (whose name I've forgotten) turned out to have a marvelous bass voice); though there were a few songs I enjoyed, I definitely didn't participate in the standing ovation for this show.

(Last updated: 22 June 1997.)

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