Thursday, December 31, 2009

An End to the Decade

Magnet # 130: Times Square, New York City

Material: Wood, Laminated Paper

Purchased By: Dad

There are just a few hours left in the aughts (if that's what we're calling them) in the United States, and all around the world, people are celebrating the arrival of 2010. Here, we tend to celebrate with fireworks and parties of friends staying up until midnight. Some churches host Watch Night festivities that continue to midnight and beyond, when their faithful gather to give thanks for the past and pray for a blessed new year. And then, of course, there's the annual dropping of the Waterford crystal ball at Times Square.

Add that famous ball and enough revelers so that you couldn't see the pavement and this magnet might be a somewhat accurate representation of what is going on tonight in New York City. I just can't imagine the chaos that is going on there tonight (probably because I don't want to). I did see Times Square a couple of times on my trip to the city back in January of 2000, and it really is as crowded and noisy as it's said to be. Back then, TRL was still airing on MTV, so a few of us went by, looked up at the windows, and saw Freddie Prinze, Jr, who was their guest for the day. We didn't stay long, but it was kinda fun to participate in what was a daily event at Times Square st the time. And there were some girls there who take that stuff pretty seriously. It was definitely worth seeing what Times Square is like, and at a less busy time of the year.

I admit, I have no plans tonight - and that's fine with me. I'm not very big into New Year's Eve celebrations. I think it's because it requires me to stay up until 12 when all I want to do is curl up on the couch in my pj's. I've tried various celebrations with friends over the years - hanging out, having dinner, going to a church party. My least favorite by far was going to downtown Savannah to hang out with the crowds for the local celebration. It was noisy, cold, and packed with people and all I wanted to do was run home and never come back. And I haven't, to this day. Stuff like that great for some, but it isn't remotely fun for an introvert like me. So I intend to have New Year's Eve my own way this year - Chinese takeout, turning on the countdown, and waking up when all the noise for the New Year erupts. I guess that's pretty boring, but it sounds good to me. Plus, there's the added benefit of not being on the roads with possibly drunk drivers. As many of you know, they make this is one of the most dangerous driving night of the year. Luckily, the police are aware of this and, in many places, take extra measures to catch them behind the wheel.

So I wish you all a happy and safe New Year's Eve. I guess it's time to finish up whatever is left on your plate, if anything! I'm looking forward to more traveling in 2010, the return of a few of my favorite TV shows, and, of course, getting new magnets, amongst other things. And I hope, as many do, that in this coming year, our worldwide financial situation will improve. Enjoy your celebrations tonight, whatever they may be, and I'll see ya back here next year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Texas, My Texas

Magnet # 129: Texas Cowboy

Material: Resin

Purchased By: Grandma

This is the anniversary of the day in 1845 when Texas finally joined the United States after years of shifting from one ruling power to another before finally fighting to become independent. Maybe I'm biased, but after studying up on so many accounts of far less dramatic transitions to statehood, I have to say Texas has one of the most interesting pre-statehood histories our nation has to offer. Of course, some of the original 13 might give it a run for its money - but just some.

Oddly enough, for some time, the Europeans ignored the area that would one day become the Lone Star State. The French landed in the area by mistake, and were the first to establish a settlement there. However, it didn't last long, and soon the Spanish began establishing missions there to challenge the French's claim to the land, eventually founding San Antonio, its first civilian settlement in the area. The French occupied nearby Louisiana, and when they sold all of their settlements to the United States, many believed that Texas was included in the bargain. But Spain did not agree with this belief, and a boundary was soon set at the Sabine River, which still divides parts of the two states. This didn't stop Americans from settling the area, and when Mexico finally gained its freedom from Spain, taking Texas with it, and for a time, they encouraged Europeans and Americans to settle the area. However, when the United States persistently attempted to purchase Texas and many settlers began to show blatant disregard for Mexican law, particularly by owning slaves, the Mexicans cut off immigration into the area. Soon, angry American settlers were fighting back in a series of conflicts that included the Battle of the Alamo and eventual Texan victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. During these conflicts, the Republic of Texas was formed. Some Texans wanted to remain independent, and even claim more land as far west as the Pacific Ocean, but the more practical ones, led by Sam Houston, realized that their best choice to remain free was to join with the United States. Eventually, they prevailed and Texas became the 28th state.


I must admit, I missed not going home to Texas this Christmas as we do most years. It's always fun getting to see my family there, and just experiencing the frenetic energy of the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area. There's just more of everything there - shops, traffic, people, and so on - and quite a lot of it is bigger than I'm used to seeing. Even stores I have at home, like Jo-Ann's crafts and Best Buy, can have much bigger stores here, even some that are two stories, and are filled with a much better selection than I'd usually get to see. And then there are the shops that I don't have back home, like specialty shops for crafts and comics, and eateries like La Madeline's Bakery and the Spaghetti Warehouse, a restaurant my family has been going to for generations. What can I say, Christmas is just not the same for me if it's not spent in Texas. But there was one event we missed out on this year that I don't mind having avoided. For the first time in at least over a hundred years, it snowed in Dallas on Christmas Eve, covering the ground with as much as three inches. It's odd that the one year we weren't there was the year it snowed, but I've never been a big fan of the white stuff outside of photos and paintings. And considering it - and the up to 50 mile gusts of wind that accompanied it - caused plenty of automobile accidents in the metropolitan area, perhaps one that was even fatal, I'm kind of glad we were safely absent from the area. From what my relatives said, most of it turned to slush by noon Christmas, and only one of them seemed to be happy about the snowfall. Well, I don't think it'll happen on our next trip home to Texas for Christmas, so I'm glad that those who wanted some snow, got it. And I look forward to another trip home to this state that means so much to me, hopefully one in the coming year, for Christmas.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fields of Gold

Magnet # 128: Iowa Map

Material: Rubber

Purchased By: The Kibby Family

On this day back in 1846, Iowa was granted statehood by President James Polk.  Ever since it became a territory, the settlers there had been extremely eager in pursuing statehood, and this was a great victory for them.  The French were the first Europeans to claim and settle the area, and when they lost the French and Indian War, they were able to pass the area onto their ally, Spain, who had little to do with the area, mainly allowing the British and French to trade there.  Under Napoleon, however, the French took it back from Spain in a treaty before selling it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.  About thirty years later, the first American settlers arrived, coming from states such as Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and even as far as New York.  Before long, the Territory of Iowa was established and statehood would be realized as quickly as possible.

Having never been to Iowa myself, I turned to my Mom's sister, who married a Iowa native, for a little extra info about it. According to her, yes, there really is that much corn in the state - they're not making it up.  For the most part, the state is made up of small towns and communities filled with down-to-earth, patriotic citizens.  Most of what she's seen in Iowa has been very flat land, with the exception of Winterset, a picturesque, hilly area that's one of her favorite places in the state.  Its covered bridges were the inspiration for the novel The Bridges of Madison County and the movie it inspired was filmed there.  It also has Clark Tower, a single, limestone tower that's reminiscent of a medieval castle turret and gives its visitors a beautiful view of the surrounding hills.  But perhaps the area's greatest claim to fame is that it's the birthplace of film legend John Wayne.  There's even a birthplace museum that I'd love to tour someday - after all, how can you not like the Duke?  Sounds to me like Winterset is definitely worth visiting.

In becoming more familiar with the state capitols, I've come to share the popular opinion that Iowa's capitol is one of our country's more attractive. It is the only state capitol in the nation that has five domes. The central dome, at 275 feet is the largest, and its covered in thin sheets of 23-karat gold sealed off to prevent damage.  It's flanked on four sides by smaller but nonetheless impressive green domes with gold accents.  There are also pediments and Corinthian columns on both the front and back entrances that make the building even more impressive.  The overall brown color of the structure really sets off the colors of its domes, and helps to set it apart from other state capitols.  Inside, there are impressive features such as a grand staircase, a five-story law library, and a rotunda that filters light as far down as the basement.  Truly, this is a distinctive and strikingly beautiful capitol building, and I'd like to see it for myself one day.  The grounds it stands upon are also worth mentioning.  There are a great deal of memorials scattered on the grounds surrounding the state capitol, but in learning about them, I was most interested in a Japanese Bell and Bell House that was given to Iowa by the citizens of Yamanashi. When that city was devastated by typhoons in 1959, the people of Iowa stepped up and sent them livestock and feed corn. Their interactions eventually formed a sister-state relationship, the first between the U.S. and Japan. There are also quite a great few war monuments on the grounds, and even a miniature Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty. I think a visitor could almost spend as much time touring the grounds as the interior!  My aunt told me that, while she's never toured the capitol, she has visited its grounds around July 4, when a symphony orchestra performs and canons are shot off for families who've gathered to enjoy the celebrations from chairs and blankets on the lawns.  It certainly seems like an incredible way to celebrate our nation's birthday.

So, although some might be tempted to write off Iowa as a really long cornfield (and I'm guilty myself), clearly there are some great sites to be visited in this quiet state.  I certainly hope that someday I'll be able to overlook Winterset from Clark Tower, walk through John Wayne's birthplace, and take in all the opulence of the state capitol building for myself.  And I imagine there's even more great places to be found in the Hawkeye State.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's the Most Wonderful Day

Magnet # 127: Hallmark Halls Station

Material: Plastic

Purchased By: Me

Now that Christmas has come to an end, it's time for me to enjoy my absolute most favorite day of the year - the day when all of the Christmas merchandise goes on sale for around 50% off. I've been hitting the December 26 sales for over a decade now, and I always have fun seeing just what items I can find for less.

As with Black Friday, I usually don't go out ridiculously early on December 26. And I never wait outside stores in the cold until they open - that's just too hardcore for me. But I do show up as soon as I'm able to check out what's left at shops like Hallmark, Jo-Ann's, and Hobby Lobby. And I sometimes drop by Target or maybe Best Buy - they can have some great sales this day, even if they're not really on Christmas items. I bought my own Christmas tree years ago at a Target on this day. I paid 40 bucks for a seven foot tree - not bad. I've also gotten decorations, lights, countless ornaments, and all sorts of goodies. Most often, I tend to go out with my Dad's sister, who is also pretty big into Christmas decorations. When we first started doing this, there tended to be many more customers involved. I remember even seeing a pair sitting outside a Hallmark in lawn chairs. One year, I did get to a Hallmark before it opened and stood in a line. But now, even when we accidentally pull up to a store before it's open, that doesn't seem to be the case. And I can remember one store having a line that wrapped about halfway through it. At the end, the employees gave each customer a little extra ornament to thank them for waiting so long. I've never seen either of those happen again. Now, if I have to wait, I'm rarely behind more than a couple of customers. And this all happened a good deal of time before our current Recession. So what gives? Are people no longer interested in saving on Christmas trinkets?

In any case, I thought this magnet would be perfect to post today because it is actually based on a Hallmark ornament. Yep, Hallmark turns a few of their ornaments into magnets every so often. I ended up getting this one (on sale) because it just wasn't as obviously holiday-themed as the rest I found and I figured I could display it on my fridge all year. And yes, I do. I also really like the amount of detail on it, and just how perfectly done it is. None of the paint is where it doesn't belong, but that rarely happens on Hallmark's products. And, yes, I realize that they may be mass produced, but they're co cute, I just don't care. I have other, more individualized ornaments to balance them out. But one trend I've missed about Hallmark ornaments is how they no longer showcase their designers like they used to. Sure, they still provide customers with the name of the ornament's sculptor, but when I first started collecting their ornaments, they would set aside pages of their annual Dream Book to feature group photos of all of their artists. They would also give them quotes throughout the book that made me feel like I was included, even just a little bit, in the process. Nowadays, they seem more corporate and less individualized by not focusing on those talented artists who provide some of their most popular items. I hope that someday they change back and provide their loyal customers more contact with the people who are producing their holiday keepsakes. And, no, a reality show is not necessary.

Well, you know where I'll be today. I admit, as the years have gone by, I've gotten considerably less motivated to shop this day. I guess there are only so many ornaments one person can really keep up with. And I may have even more Christmas ornaments than I've got magnets. Of course, I always manage to bring back more by day's end. Now, if there were a day when all magnets were on sale for 50% off, I might be pretty excited to go out then and do some serious damage, but I guess that'll never happen...

Friday, December 25, 2009

Bless Us, Every One

Magnet # 126: Madonna and Child Icon

Material: Paper, Foil, Stone

Purchased By: Mom & Dad


Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you're all having a wonderful time with your friends and families. I've had a great time with mine. I unwrapped plenty of presents this morning (and, yes, got some great magnets to post here in the future), and enjoyed seeing everyone open what I'd gotten for them. I know I've mentioned on here before what a fan I am of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods on Travel Channel, and for our Christmas meal, we had a dish he's sampled on the show - turducken. While in Maurice, Louisiana, he tried it with Sammy Hebert, who first prepared the superfowl dish in 1985 at his establishment, Soop's Seafood & Steak House Restaurant. If you've never heard of it, it's a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey. Although I'd eaten it once before, it had been at a buffet and there was quite a bit on my plate to distract me. Today, I had more time to concentrate on the dish and it really was quite tasty. I think the duck was my favorite part. If you're curious to try it, we got ours at our local Fresh Market. All we had to do was cook it for two hours, but it did crumble when we cut into it. The last one we bought didn't have that problem.

For awhile, I had planned on posting this magnet on a Sunday, perhaps, until I realized Christmas was coming and it would be perfect to post today. I thought it was from my parent's trip to Russia, but they told me it was actually from Greece, where religious icons like this one are all over the place. This actually didn't start off as a magnet, but they knew I'd stick a magnet on the back, anyway - and they were right. It's a pretty tough one, and when I put it on a magnet board, it was just too heavy for it, so I had no choice but to display it on the fridge. You know, when I look it, I'm reminded of a recent sermon I listened to about Joseph. The pastor delivering it remarked on how in all of his many years of service, he'd never remembered giving or hearing one about the humble carpenter who became Jesus' mortal father. Although he must have had a great deal of faith to still take Mary as his wife after she was pregnant, and not by him, he never appears in the Bible after Jesus is an adult. Not long after hearing this, I was looking through a Hallmark Christmas publication and I noticed something funny about a Nativity picture in it. When I studied it a bit more, I realized that Joseph was holding a staff and a lamb. And one of the shepherds had neither - sure enough, the two had been switched and nobody had even noticed! I guess it's true - Joseph really doesn't get much respect. Even in one of my favorite movies, Simon Birch, when one character claims that Joseph is the hero of the Christmas story, the title character reminds him that it's the Virgin Mary and that Joseph didn't have much to do with anything. And, of course, he's omitted from this Icon, as well as most others of its kind. Joseph may be overlooked to a great deal, but he was vitally important in Jesus' life - particularly when he took his family to Egypt and escaped King Herod's Massacre of the Infants. So, if you've got anyone in your life that means a great deal to you, but you might tend to overlook, this is an excellent day to remind them just how much they matter to you. And I do want to thank everyone who follows my blog (all one or two of you!). It's much more fun knowing there are folks out there reading all that I've taken the time to write up on here. So, thanks all, and I wish you the best on this special day!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Grand Debut

Magnet # 125: Biltmore in Snow Photo

Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By: Me

On this day in 1895, the doors of George Washington Vanderbilt's mansion, the Biltmore in North Carolina, opened to receive its first visitors. As the largest private home in the United States and arguably the most awe-inspiring, the guests were probably amazed by all they saw that night. Of course, these were some of the richest people of their time, and although they'd doubtlessly stayed in many a mansion in their lives, Biltmore was still in a league of its own. In building it, Vanderbilt employed the most renowned American architect of the time, Richard Morris Hunt. They drew inspiration from traditional French chateaus, particularly those in the Loire Valley. But the Biltmore was also furnished with some of the most innovative amenities of its day, giving this old world style chateau advancements with which few residences could compete. Of course, there were a great deal of indoor bathrooms, but there was also a heated indoor pool with a tiled, arched ceiling that no doubt amazed more than one guest. And on the fourth story, Vanderbilt included a two-story observatory which overlooked most of the estate. And the house wasn't complete. Over the years, one of the first bowling alleys ever placed in a private home would open at the Biltmore, along with a great many more guest rooms. Curiously, the Music Room on the first floor was never finished during George Vanderbilt's lifetime. No one seems to know why, but it later became one of the most intriguing rooms in the estate. During World War II, Vanderbilt's daughter, Cornelia, was approached by the curator of the National Gallery of Art. It was feared that, if Washington D.C. was attacked in air raids by the Axis powers, the institution could loose a great deal of their priceless images. They wanted a remote, quiet place to hide them away, and Cornelia agreed to store them in the incomplete room. Guards were posted with these works of art at all times, and tourists to the Biltmore never realized what was going on just a few feet away from them, behind closed doors. It's another chapter in the story of one of America's most beloved homes.

I saw Biltmore for the first time in November of this year. We were just in time to tour it during its Candlelight Christmas Evenings event. The house was completely decked out in time for the Christmas holidays and it was so incredible to experience it in such a manner for the first time, just as the original visitors did in 1895. Our package allowed us to tour the house twice, both during the daytime, and later, when the lights were turned off and special Christmas performances were being given. In the Winter Garden, a beautiful, circular room with a glass ceiling, there were couples in costume engaged in ballroom dances from the time. And they were relieved by a choir singing Christmas favorites. There was also a storyteller regaling guests with Christmas tales in another part of the house. We were also fortunate to be touring Biltmore at that time. We were able to visit all four floors, and two had not been open to tours for many years. If you're interested in seeing all of the floors, you'd better schedule a tour soon. A guide explained to us that they're planning on shutting down one of them soon (the fourth, I think) to make more improvements. The tour would just not have been the same without all these floors. Sure, the guest rooms got a bit repetitive, but when I saw rooms like the observatory and the architectural model room, which houses the original model of the house, I was pretty blown away. Even more amazing, I found out with all of the walking we did - probably about two hours worth - there was still a good deal of the house that wasn't included. Apparently, it's even more guest rooms - I think omitting them might not be a bad idea.

If you've never been to the Biltmore, but are curious, I highly recommend it. The price tag of around fifty bucks might seem a bit high, but you will get your money's worth. And, yes, it's filled with tourists, but it is possible to get away from the crowds at times. When I was there, it was a rainy day, so I didn't get a chance to see the grounds, which were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape pioneer who also oversaw the production of Central Park in New York City. But they're supposed to be amazing, and walking through them is included in admission. A visit to the Winery and the River Bend Farm, which recreates life in the 1890's, are as well. Although I only got to see the house itself, I'm still very glad I went. And by going through twice, I was able to see some features I'd missed on my first time through. If you're able to tour when Biltmore is decorated for Christmas, don't miss out. It's a wonderful way to connect with the history of this amazing estate and get yourself into a festive holiday mood that can last the entire season.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Eye Over Tokyo

Magnet # 124: Downtown Tokyo cityscape, Mount Fuji

Material: Resin

Purchased By: Dad

Today is a particularly important day in Japan - it's Emperor's Day, when they celebrate the birth of their current Emperor, Akihito, in 1933. This is one holiday that fluctuates with time, and as one emperor replaces another, Emperor's Day moves around the calendar. Still, some previous Emperor's Days remain important, like November 3, the birthday of former Emperor Meiji, which is now Culture Day.

On this day, Emperor Akihito will address a crowd filled with well-wishers and tourists alike, many of them carrying banners and flags. The entire imperial family is also likely to put in an appearance for the crowd, waving from the windows of their Imperial Palace in Tokyo. This is one of only two days in the year that the inner areas of the palace are open to the general public. During Emperor Akihito's lifetime, a great deal of change has been made to the thousand year plus tradition from which he descends. He was the first of his line to attend school with regular children, rather than be separated from normal people all of his life, which was the standard until then. This was done in the hope that he would form an empathy for those he would rule over and their plight. When Emperor Akihito was grown, he shocked his people by choosing not to marry an aristocrat. And when he and his wife had three children, they decided not to send them away at the age of three to live with nurses and tutors, as was the tradition, but to raise them in their home. When their only daughter was an adult, she followed her father's example and married a commoner, which required her to relinquish her position in the Imperial Family. However, she did so with the full support of her family. There seems to be a sense of progress in the current Imperial Family that was not always there in previous times.

Historically, some significant Japanese events have been scheduled to coincide with this celebration. The most important came in 1958, when Tokyo Tower was dedicated. It's the large red and white structure depicted on this magnet. Many know that it was designed after the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but it also takes after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Both are painted in International Orange, but while it's necessary to protect the bridge from rusting in such a moist environment, the Tokyo Tower is painted with that shade due to air safety rules.  Around the 1950's, as broadcast stations boomed all around Tokyo, leaders became concerned that a large amount of unattractive towers would detract from the city's aesthetics, and decided instead to construct one giant tower that could handle all of the signals.  They also wanted a symbol to show the rest of the world what a powerful, modern nation they were becoming.  Although a Japanese architect was hired to design the structure, he choose to draw his influence for the tower from the Western World.  When the Tokyo Tower was completed, it stood 13 meters higher than its French predecessor and took the title of the largest freestanding tower in the world.  Nowadays, it is still a very important broadcasting center for the region, and it's also become a popular tourist destination.  At the tower's base, there is a 4-story building called FootTown.  There, visitors can stop by destinations ranging from an aquarium to a wax museum, to an amusement park.  And if they choose to head up to the tower, there are two observation decks for them to choose from.  Tokyo Tower now has two mascots, cartoon brothers named Noppon, that were introduced to the world on December 23, 1998.  And on this day in 2008, they debuted the Diamond Veil, a new nighttime lighting motif that cost $6.5 to complete.  The tower is now one of the most easily recognizable symbols of its city, one that brings this ancient nation a touch of the modern world.

There is one other noteworthy Japanese event that took place on this day in 1948, although it's a bit notorious. And I highly doubt it was scheduled to occur along with the Emperor's Birthday. This was when seven Japanese men convicted of war crimes during World War II were executed by hanging at Tokyo's Sugamo Prison. One was the infamous former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo who, along with his fellow prisoners, helped perpetrate such atrocities as the Nanking Massacre, the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, and the inhumane treatment of countless Allied POWs. They died with the blood of millions of Asian and Pacific civilians on their hands. Hopefully, by purging Japan of the influence of these and other war criminals, the nation became better able to move away from the sins of its recent past toward a better tomorrow. As evidenced by Emperor Akihito and his family's behavior, the country is now more willing to embrace new ideals and break from traditions that are no longer prudent in modern times. Japan seems to be on the right track, under the guidance of its Emperor, to reach a bright and prosperous future.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Longest Night of the Year

Magnet # 123: Red Artemis Vase

Material: Ceramic

Purchased By: Me

Happy Winter Solstice to everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere. Yep, today, our side of the planet is as far from the Sun as it gets, and some are celebrating with Yule festivities. Celebrating at this time of year goes as far back as the Romans, whose festival of Saturnalia didn't actually coincide with the Solstice, but with the completion of Saturn's temple. It also came after a military defeat when the leaders wanted to boost their citizens morales. They had so much fun in their reveleries that first year that they made it an annual event, and it even stretched out to an entire week, despite some emperors' efforts to shorten it. Some traditions began then that have persisted to modern times, such as decorating homes with evergreen trees and boughs of green plants like laurels. People also brought gifts to their friends, such as cakes, fruit, and jewelry. Another interesting part of Saturnalia was that the Roman's slaves were allowed to join in and were free to do and say as they pleased. Some believe that Saturnalia was part of the inspiration for Yule, a Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic pagan celebration that truly began as a way to celebrate the Solstice.  It's believed this was a particularly important holiday to them because the winters in their northern land were so hard on them.  They were far colder and darker than those of the Romans and others who settled along the Mediterranean, and when they had made it to the longest dark day, it was a perfect time to celebrate.  They did so by sacrificing livestock and, once again, decorating with evergreens.  The Celts introduced mistletoe to the festival, which because it had no roots and appeared  high in trees, was believed to be produced by lightning.  People also believed it protected them from lightning, and hung it about the doorways to their home, above their children's cradles, and fed it to the first calf of the season.  The Yule log, which consisted of a tree trunk burned  in the hearth for good luck, also first appeared in these celebrations.  But it's easiest to see just how important the Solstices - both summer and winter - were to these ancient cultures by the structures they left behind.  Most everyone is familiar with Stonehenge in England and how it both Solstices were in perfect alignment with the neolith, but this is not the only structure for which this is the case.  Ireland's Newgrange is older than Stonehenge and perhaps even the pyramids and it is in the perfect position to receive a shaft of light deep in its innermost chamber at dawn on the Winter Solstice.  And then there's Maeshowe in Scotland, aligned to allow in light from the Sun as it set on the same day.  There are many of these structures scattered around the world, even in the Americas.  Given that almost any kind of construction was a major undertaking for ancient civilizations, particularly any that would last thousands of years, these ruins drive home the point of just how important the concept of the Solstice was to our ancestors.  In fact, as many know, when the early Christians were trying to convert pagans, they found it best to combine their celebration of the birth of Christ with Yule for an easier transition.  And it's interesting to see how many of these ancient traditions we still practice today.

I thought this magnet would be appropriate to post today because the Greeks were one of the first civilizations to recognize the Solstice and it features Artemis, their goddess of the night. I imagine the longest night of the year would be particularly appealing to her, as it would give her even more time to hunt, which was her greatest passion.  She's one of the three great virgin goddesses of Olympus, and one of the most beloved gods to early Greeks.  While I prefer her half-sister, Athena, I must admit Artemis is another favorite of mine.  She's a strong female figure who didn't need a man in her life, and I hope she inspired the young girls in those ancient times.  Many stories do depict her as cold, even ruthless, killing those who insulted her, but she also saved some mortals, like the female athlete Atalanta.  And when two sons of Poseidon threatened to destroy the gods of Olympus, it was Artemis who finally devised a scheme to destroy them.  Realizing that only the brothers could kill each other, she tuned into a deer and swiftly ran between them.  When they tried to spear he with their weapons, they ended up striking one another instead, and the gods were saved.  I also appreciate how Artemis refused to be involved in the Judgment of Paris, an event that occurred when Eris, goddess of discord, threw a golden apple into a celebration attended by the gods.  It was inscribed "for the fairest."  The resulting competition between Hera, Aphrodite, and, yes, Athena, helped bring about the Trojan War.  Okay, so she doesn't really tie into any Winter Solstice traditions, but I think she's still the best choice of any of the great gods of Olympus.

Many Wiccans and pagans still celebrate Yule nowadays.  So, if this is the night to observe your holiday, I hope it's a good one.  May your Yule log crackle and your mead be sweet.  And if you're heading outdoors to celebrate the Winter Solstice, by all means, cover up.  For me, this is a good day.  I love the light and I'm pleased to have the darkest days of the seasonal cycle behind me.  Here's to getting closer to the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Merry Making In Michigan

Magnet # 122:  Upper Peninsula

Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By:  Jessica

Well, we're headed up to Michigan for more old Christmas memories, some that occurred before I was ever born.  My parents spent some of their first Holiday seasons as a married couple in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, one of the coldest areas in the United States.  Really, I have no idea how anyone could love it there this time of year - it's around 18 degrees today!  One year, my Mom's parents and her sister traveled up there from Texas.  My aunt and I are completely alike in two ways - our favorite color is purple and we are both extremely cold natured and hate cold weather.  Well, it was so incredibly cold up there that she was convinced she had frostbite.  I think they had a nice visit anyway, but boy, am I glad that my folks had moved away from Michigan's Upper Peninsula by the time I was born.  We did visit it once, during the summer, to see their old haunts and it was nice enough.  But they even have a framed print of a winter scene in the area hanging in their house to remind them of those days - and make them grateful they're over, I guess.

If I had to be in Michigan at this time of the year, I'd head south to Frankenmuth and hit up the biggest Christmas shop in the world - Bronner's Christmas Wonderland.  I've mentioned that I am as enthusiastic  a collector of ornaments as I am of magnets, and this would definitely be a place where I could get a fix for my habit.  This store was founded in 1945 by Wally Bronner and while it remains a family business, it has grown a good deal since its opening - and then some.  Today, it is as large as 7 football fields and is packed with every sort of Christmas themed item imaginable.  If you're looking for ornaments, they have over 8,000 different styles to choose from in more than two dozen different categories - and they even have some that are Bronner's exclusives.  Looking for a tree to put it on?  Well, Bronner's sells over 200 different tree varieties and have over 500 different kinds of lights to put on them.  Everywhere you look in this store, there are countless Christmas offerings - even their ceiling is covered!  And if all of that crazy commerce is too overwhelming, take a break at their onsite Silent Night Chapel, a replica of the original in Oberndorf, Austria.  How many stores have their own chapels?

Bronner's has a long, celebrated history, but their greatest moment may have occurred in 1976, when John Wayne himself appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson's Christmas Eve broadcast wearing a Santa suit he ordered from the store.  And don't worry, even if you can't make it there this season, they're open 361 days a year.  Check out http://www.bronners.com/ if you're curious.  As for me, I'd definitely like to check it out sometime.  Looks like they have two sections where they sell souvenirs.  And how great would a Bronner's magnet look in my collection!

Friday, December 18, 2009

On Top of Big D

Magnet # 121:  Downtown Dallas

Material:  Rubber

Purchased By:  Me

Well, I've mentioned by great love for Texas before on this blog, and of all the cities, Dallas is by far my favorite.  Sure, some might go with Austin, San Antonio, or what have you, but the Big D, as it's also known, is easily my favorite.  I guess to a certain degree, it's tied in with the fact that most my extended family is living there.  This is the place I often spent summer vacations and the Christmas holidays.  And no sight in Dallas stirs up a Texas fervor in me like that of Reunion Tower.

It's pictured toward the center of this magnet - it's basically the stick with a ball on top.  So why does this place inspire such love for me?  I have to admit, I'm not exactly sure why.  I think it's partially because it's the most distinguishing building in the Dallas skyline.  I know I'm looking at the Big D when I see it, and I know when we're on a twelve hour drive home that we've made it when I glimpse this structure.  It was completed in 1978 as part of a renewal in downtown Dallas, before I was born, so it's been there all of my life.  And I also love the criss-cross look of the aluminum slats that cover the dome at the top of the tower, and how they light up at night.  All of my life, various members of my family, like my Mom's sister, had told me about traveling to the top of the tower and seeing the view of Dallas from there and, although I hadn't made a big deal about it, I always wanted to go up there, too.

So you can imagine my dismay when, a few years back, my Mom's mom told me about how she and part of the family had gone to the restaurant at Reunion Tower to celebrate Mother's Day.  I was so bummed that I had missed out!  But we were coming later that year at Christmas, so my grandmother decided to treat us all with a trip to the tower on Christmas Eve to have our meal there.  I was so excited, and I was not disappointed.  The meal was a big buffet with all sorts of tables, all lined up in a circle that followed the shape of the structure.  None of the buffet tables moved, but the dining tables did.  They were arranged around the huge windows overlooking the city, so the view was impressive, even if it was a little cloudy that day.  The food was great, and it was neat to see which buffet table we were coming up on next.  And I was really happy that they had sushi on the table, even if it was just the veggie kind - I had been having sushi withdrawal on the trip.  I also remember the dessert table was particularly impressive.  After the meal was over, we went to the observation deck for an even better view of the city.  It was all I had hoped for, and having my family there made it even better.

Even though we're not going home to Texas for Christmas this year, I'm not sure if we would have gone to Reunion Tower even if we did.  The restaurant changed hands earlier this year, and it's now run by Wolfgang Puck, so I don't know if they are having a Christmas Eve buffet.  Plus, the observation deck is currently closed for construction.  But we will always have the memories of that great Christmas Eve visit, and I'm glad to know Reunion Tower will be there next time I go to Dallas to be reunited with my family.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Learning To Fly

Magnet # 120: North Carolina State Quarter

Material: Pewter

Purchased By: Me

Well, we're staying in the Outer Banks of North Carolina for another noteworthy event that occurred there - the world's first successful human airplane flight. It was conducted by the Wright Brothers on this day in 1903. It's funny, but for many years, nobody realized this incredible event had even happened. There were no press in attendance that day, and only one man took photographs. By day's end, their Wright Flyer I had been so damaged that it could never fly again, although Orville did restore it years later. But the press largely ignored the news of this story, and some began to believe the Wright brothers were liars.

Many years and a great deal of work had led up to this event, and there was much more hard work ahead of the brothers. They had grown up with two older brothers and one younger sister in the home of a bishop who traveled and edited news articles. He always encouraged his children to learn, and their home had two libraries. It was in the general downstairs library that the brothers became aware of the concept of flying. Later, their father brought them home a toy made of bamboo, cork, and paper which resembled a helicopter. The pair were enthralled by it, and played with it until it broke, then rebuilt it. They also made a good deal of kites. When they grew up, they opened their own bicycle shop, and later began producing their own bicycles. This made them familiar with the concept of balance, which would help them in designing planes. When they finally began to work on a plane, they poured over the work of engineers who had gone before them, including Otto Lilienthal, who had recently perished while flying his own glider. They knew what was at stake, but they continued, undaunted. They began to travel from their home near Dayton, Ohio to the Outer Banks, which featured strong winds to carry their gliders and soft sands to land them on. For four years, they commuted, experimenting with gliders until their 1903 breakthrough. Most of their contemporaries were focused on building more powerful engines to keep planes in the air, but they were able to succeed where others had failed thanks to their creation of the three-axis control, which allowed the pilot to control the plane's course and balance it out.

After their success, the Wright brothers returned to Ohio, and shifted their operations to nearby Huffman Prairie. There, they began working with the Wright Flyer II. They invited the press to view a flight, but it turned out so poorly that they ignored the brothers for over a year. Some think this was a deliberate act on their part to keep the press and their competitors unaware of their progress. By then, they had decided to abandon the bicycle business and focus all of their efforts on planes, believing they could later sell their creations. They worked hard, progressing to the Wright Flyer III, which they rebuilt. But, soon, they had flown for over 30 minutes and the town was abuzz with stories of their success. And, yet, governments still would not take the duo seriously. It didn't help that, fearful of someone stealing their designs, they refused to demonstrate their machines without a contract. When their patent finally came through, they were able to negotiate contracts with France and the U.S. Wilbur headed to France in 1908, where his demonstrations finally captured the attentions of the world and put to rest any accusations that the brothers were fakes. In Virginia, Orville's demonstrations were initially successful, but he later suffered an accident that killed his passenger and had him in the hospital for seven weeks. This incident made Wilbur even more determined to achieve greater success in Europe, and before long, the Kings of Spain, England, and Italy sought him out. The pair went on with setbacks, but were also given all sorts of accolades and awards. Their contributions had changed the course of the world, and none could deny it.

It's amazing to see how far we've progressed in airplane technology in just a little over a century since that 1903 Kitty Hawk flight. Sure, if the Wright brothers hadn't made their advancements, someone would have figured them out eventually, but who knows how long that would have taken? Oddly enough, neither brother ever married, which may have helped their progress, for few wives would have tolerated their obsession with airplanes. Regardless, today, in the Outer Banks, the First Flight Society is celebrating the 106th anniversary of this historic day with its annual Anniversary Luncheon. And, back in 1948, this was the day the Smithsonian first introduced the Wright Flyer I into its public display. This put to rest a longtime feud between the institute and the brothers over its claim that another flyer had been the first capable of man powered flight. Now, the record has been set straight, and though both Wilbur and Orville are long gone, wherever an aircraft soars, whether on Earth or in space, their legacy lives on.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As Big As They Come

Magnet # 119: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Material: Resin

Purchased By: Me

It stands 208 feet tall, towering over every other lighthouse in the United States. And on this day in 1871, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse gave off its first light. It's also the largest brick lighthouse in the world, and over one million bricks were used in its construction. This is indeed a megastructure and one of the most beloved lighthouses our country has to offer.

The current lighthouse is actually the second one built at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina's Outer Banks. The first was considered almost useless by sailors and when its lens and lantern were destroyed, funds were allocated for another lighthouse. This time, a team of engineers and scientists on the Light-House Board conferred with Navy officers to determine the optimum design and placement for the new structure. Their task was of critical importance. Cape Hatteras is located on one of the most treacherous areas on the East Coast, where the warm currents flowing north from the Gulf Stream collide with colder ones coming south from Labrador, resulting in powerful storms at sea and very high swells. Also, the sandbars of Diamond Shoals that extend from Cape Hatteras can travel as far as 14 miles into the sea, further endangering sailors. The combination of these two deadly factors resulted in quite a few ships sinking or running aground at the area, so many that it was given the dubious nickname of "Graveyard of the Atlantic." Clearly, something needed to be done. And with the lighthouse's completion in 1870, the area finally became much safer for ships to navigate.

One of the more amusing bits of trivia about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is that it was intended to be painted with a diamond design that would have been particularly appropriate, considering the nearby location of Diamond Shoals. But, as the legend goes, an engineer accidentally swapped its plans with those of the nearby Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Now, that lighthouse features a diamond pattern and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is painted in spiral stripes, a look that has earned it the nickname of "The Big Barber Pole."

When determining the best place to construct the second lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, the Light-House Board overlooked one critical consideration: erosion. Almost since its completion, the Atlantic Ocean has been getting closer and closer to this enormous structure. The situation became critical in 1919, when the water was getting as close to the lighthouse as 300 feet. Dikes and breakwaters were created to try to keep the tides away, but finally, in 1935, the waters reached the site of the lighthouse. It was then that another, less attractive light was installed at a safer distance and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was abandoned. But when wooden revetments were installed and they managed to keeps the waters at a safer distance, a new light was brought to the lighthouse and it resumed its duties in 1950. Even then, the encroaching water remained a threat. Finally, in 1999, the decision was made to move the historic structure a half mile inland. Considering it weighs over six thousand tons, this plan of action caused a great deal of controversy. Many believed the lighthouse would be destroyed during the move, but it went on nonetheless. It was cut loose from its base, hydraulically lifted onto supportive steel beams, and slowly moved across railroad tracks until it reached a new, safer location. All told, the process took 23 days. And now, the lighthouse has reopened to the public, and is as far from the ocean as it was at its 1870 completion.

If all this of this information about the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse has piqued your interest and left you itching to climb its 268 steps, don't hop into the car and head over just yet. It's actually closed this time of year, and should re-open around April. I confess, I've never seen it before, but since I've began this blog I've gotten progressively more interested in seeing the Outer Banks, perhaps because they're fairly close to my location here in Savannah. And what trip to the Outer Banks would be complete without seeing its most famous lighthouse? I think it's absolutely worth visiting this incredible structure that has saved so many lives and enriched even more.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Scarlett's Big Night

Magnet # 118: Gone With the Wind Still

Material: Acrylic

Purchased By: Me

On this day in 1939, downtown Atlanta was filled with limousines, throngs of onlookers, Confederate veterans, and the Hollywood elite when Gone With the Wind premiered at the Loew's Grand Theatre. It was the biggest event the city had ever seen, which is fitting considering the movie they were there to celebrate went on to become one of the biggest films ever. It was the first film to ever win 10 Academy Awards and it still tops lists of the greatest films ever made. It was played in theaters for years and has been theatrically re-released over five times. And when adjusted for inflation, it's still the top-grossing film of all time. Pretty good for a movie that's now 70 years old.

Having the movie premiere in Atlanta was a major victory for the mayor, William B. Hartsfield. The producer, David O. Selznick had planned to debut it in Hollywood, which was pretty standard at the time. But this was one of the most highly anticipated films ever, and Hartsfield and the citizens of Atlanta argued that this was their story and it was their right to premiere it. They prevailed and won, throwing a lavish 3 day ceremony, although Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, and a citizen of Atlanta, was concerned the movie would be poorly done and humiliate her in front of her friends. Of course, her fears were needless, and she and her husband were overcome when they attended the showing. However, not everyone involved in the project was able to come to Loew's Grand Theatre that night. Because of Jim Crow laws, the African American cast members were not permitted to attend the premiere. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of their movie characters, Clark Gable was enraged when he learned of this and threatened to boycott the event. But he was calmed down and convinced to go by Hattie McDaniel, who would later win the first Oscar ever awarded to a black person for her portrayal of Mammy. In another interesting twist, a Junior League ball was held in conjunction with all of the premiere festivities for whites only, but a children's choir with African American boys from Ebenezer Baptist Church performed, and Martin Luther King Jr. was among them. He was only six at the time. Unfortunately, we can no longer celebrate the film's anniversary by viewing it at Loew's Grand Theatre, as the cast did. A fire destroyed much of it in 1978 and the remains were demolished to make way for the Georgia-Pacific Tower. Some believe the fire to have been arson, because the building could not be torn down for its historic value, although it stood on prime real estate. However, the Fox Theatre, which was across the street from the Georgia Terrace, the grand hotel where the cast and crew all stayed during the event, still stands and has become Atlanta's premiere theatre venue.

I must admit, while I've seen a good deal of Gone With the Wind, I've never been able to make it through to the end. I usually stop watching after Bonnie Blue is born. I know what's coming, and I know it's not pretty. Maybe I'd be able to watch Rhett abandon Scarlett at the end if there were another film that sets it right. But this is like watching The Empire Strikes Back with no Return of the Jedi. It's a fantastic buildup to an unsatisfying ending. This is one movie (and book) that demands a sequel. Margaret Mitchell claimed she would never write a sequel, but some wondered if she might eventually do so nonetheless. I don't blame her for not wanting to - it would have been difficult to make her fans happy, as the expectations were high. When she died unexpectedly, it seemed a good sequel would never be published. After four decades and a good deal of drama Scarlett was published. This sequel, written by Alexandra Ripley, wasn't really satisfying to fans, and neither was the television miniseries that sprang from it. I hope that if a worthy sequel is published, by then technology in movie making will be so advanced that they can do computer generated likenesses of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable and even capture the Technicolor look of the original. They could make it look like the entire film had been shot by the same crew with the same actors. I know, it may seem like a pipe dream now, but in the future who knows what advances we'll make. And maybe then Scarlett and Rhett can finally have their happy ending, and I'll watch both that and the last scenes in this epic flim. Well, I can dream, anyway... and tomorrow is another day!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Magnet # 117: Map of Alabama

Material: Wood, Laminated Paper

Purchased By: Me

This is the anniversary of the day Alabama gained its statehood in 1819.  When Europeans came to the area, the Spanish, French, and British had all tried to claim the land for themselves.  Prior to becoming its own state, it had been part of Spain's Florida, Britain's Georgia, and the United States' Mississippi territory.  Once it had gained statehood, settlers were attracted to the area to a large degree because of its rich, dark soil.  And, ever since, they've been growing cotton, peanuts, corn, and peaches, to name a few.

It's odd - I think it might be easier to write a post about a state I've only visited once or twice than to come up with one for a state I've spent more than half my life in. Just what do you narrow it down to? Well, for starters, Alabama isn't as bad as some might think. I know there's the stereotype of trailer parks and crummy old pickup trucks and, yes, we have those, but there's plenty of nice, modern homes, and Antebellum gems to be found. I'm from Montgomery, where we actually have one of the nicer Shakespeare festivals in the country. Yes, Bubbas can enjoy Hamlet, too. I've never found the state lacking in the cultural area, particularly in Birmingham, where there are a number of museums, gardens, and an extensive public park system.  And NASA's US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville has been the site of many advancements in space exploration.  So clearly, Alabama has much more than beer bellies and trucks propped up on cement blocks, as some might be tempted to think.

I guess to a large degree, Alabama tends to get underestimated or overlooked, but I still think it's a great state.  It's home for me, even if I don't live there anymore.  The state doesn't get a huge amount of attention from Civil War buffs, because, although it supplied a great deal of Confederate soldiers, no major battles were fought there. Of course, Sherman also never made it to there with his troops, so while Southern states like Georgia and South Carolina have had historical Antebellum areas almost completely wiped out, those in Alabama remain mainly intact. And the state also gets the wrong sort of attention from all of the ways it continued to treat its African American citizens after the Civil War.  But the Civil Rights Movement pretty much began in the state, so it does have that in its favor.  It's taken on more industrialization ever since the Civil War - Birmingham was the South's leading steel producer until World War II was over.  Since then, that industry has dwindled while others have risen up.  More recently, Alabama has become very a very important manufacturing site to the automotive industry - it's the fourth highest producing state in the country.  And for those of you who are currently freezing your buns off in the northern areas of the country, Montgomery's highs this week are in the 50's and 60's.  Not bad - I love those Deep South temperatures (okay, the humidity isn't great, though).

In eighth grade Alabama History class, I was taught one of the funnier tidbits I've learned about Alabama - apparently, there's a rivalry between lower and upper Alabama.  I don't know if this stems from the Auburn and Alabama rivalry or not.  But my history teacher used to joke that he's from L.A. - or lower Alabama.  And he claimed to have come across some tension while shopping in Birmingham in the upper regions of the state.  I confess, I've never experienced this rivalry firsthand and I remember another classmate saying as much, but if it does exist, I think it doesn't make much sense.  Instead of dividing ourselves, why not join together and be one proud group of Alabamians?  Maybe then, the state can do a better job of overcoming its negative stereotypes and showing the rest of the country all it has to offer.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

To Helen

Magnet # 116:  Helen Buildings

Material:  Resin

Purchased By:  Lindsay

Well, I had an adventure this weekend.  After work on Friday, I drove up to my friend Lindsay's house near Atlanta and spent the night.  The next day, we joined up with her friend - and fellow faithful reader of this blog - Danny and all went to Helen in north Georgia.  Why Helen?  Well it was once home to a gold rush and later became logging town, but after these industries dried up and workers moved on, the city found itself in a decline.  So its leaders came together and hired a local artist who had lived in Germany to redesign the downtown in the tradition of an Alpine village, only in the Appalachians.  In 1969, construction began to make these designs a reality.  Since then, the town has been revitalized through the many tourists who come to enjoy its unique feel.

Helen is known for its Oktoberfest, June hot air balloon races, and summertime tubing down the river.  But when I found out about it, I thought it would be a great place to visit in December, just in time for Christmas.  And when we got there, the town was indeed all decked out for the season.  There were ornaments everywhere, Christmas songs being played, decorations galore, and Santa was even driving a horse-drawn carriage.  It really was charming to behold.  Sure, it was in the thirties, and we arrived a little late in the day, so we didn't have as much time as we'd have liked, but we still had fun.  Everyone bought something, and Lindsay was particularly pleased with her purchases.  And she got me a few magnets for Christmas.  Even though this one isn't a completely accurate replica of Helen, it's so cool I had to have it, anyway.  Helen doesn't really have a castle, but who knows, maybe someday.

Want to visit Helen, but aren't close enough?  Well, there are towns like it scattered across the United States and they'll have you wondering if you aren't actually in Bavaria or the Netherlands.  Solvang in California is perhaps the best known of these - it was actually founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants who wanted to keep the feel of their old homeland.  There's also Leavenworth in Washington, Michigan's Frankenmuth, and Lancaster in Pennsylvania, to name a few.  A visit to any of these should put you in a Holiday mood.  As for me, I'm so glad we were able to see Helen this weekend.  It was definitely a special Christmas-themed activity.  And I hope we're all able to get together for another trip sometime soon.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Home on the Hill

Magnet # 115: Maymount House Photo

Material: Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell

Purchased By: Me

Well, we're almost halfway through December, and I haven't really even mentioned Christmas and the Holiday season yet. While I don't have enough magnets that tie into this time of year to do a theme for the entire month as I did with scary magnets in October, I think there's a sufficient amount to fill in for the remainder of the time until the 25th.

I didn't realize this one was a Christmas magnet when I bought it earlier this year, I just thought the red sky was a nice departure from the typical blue ones. Only later did I realize there are little Christmas wreaths all along the windows of the bottom floor at Maymount. I'd never heard of this 100 acre estate before my Mid-Atlantic trip, and it wasn't a must see on my list, but I'm so glad I visited there. Honestly, the main reason I stopped by was because I got to Richmond around four on a Saturday, and not many other tourist stops were going to be open after five. Plus, Maymount just sounded like an interesting spot to visit. When I got there, I had a difficult time figuring out just where I was going, so I called up their main number to get help finding my way from an employee. I think I took every wrong turn available through their maze of streets, but she was incredibly patient and stayed on the line with me until I was in the Visitor's Center parking lot. The call must have been around ten minutes long. When I got in, I sheepishly asked one of the ladies behind the counter if she'd been the one I'd talked to and she said yes. Turns out she once led someone there from the Interstate. She and her co-worker encouraged me to head over to Maymount House before the last tour of the day was given. I hurried there, which wasn't easy because of all the hills, and managed to get there in time. There was a suggested donation of 5 dollars to tour the house, and I went ahead and paid. I hadn't really had any plan to tour the house and no idea what it would be like, but as soon as we got inside, I was amazed.

Really, the best word to describe the interior of the Maymount House is opulent. I was simply overwhelmed by the beautiful furnishings in it. It was built in 1893 by Mr. and Mrs. James Dooley, an extremely wealthy couple. James Dooley was an attorney with a number of successful business dealings, and his wife Sally was from a prosperous Southern family. They named their home "May" after her maiden name and "Mount," the French term for a hill. As they had no children, they were able to focus on perfecting their home. They filled it with furnishings from all over the globe, as was fashionable during their time. Every ceiling was given an individual decorating scheme - some were painted, some cofferred, but all had an distinctive touch. A stained glass window by Tiffany himself graced the stairwell, and Mrs. Dooley's room had a swan bed. When the couple finally passed, they chose to leave their incredible estate to the City of Richmond. Realizing what a gem they had, they opened Maymount to the public within a year, and faithfully maintained it, until they handed it over to the Maymount Foundation, which has maintained and repaired it. Because this home has passed through so few hands, it's almost exactly the same as it was when the Dooleys lived there. Nearly all of the furnishings are the same, and for anyone interested in touring an authentic Gilded Age mansion, this is one of the best examples available. Visitors can both see what life was like then for the privileged and their servants.

I am so pleased that I was able to visit Maymount and encourage anyone heading to Richmond to see it as well. Not only does it have the Maymount house itself, but it also has a Nature Center with a host of animals, a petting zoo for children, and extensive grounds with several gardens, including a Japanese one with a waterfall and Koi pond. It's perfect for both parents and children. Currently, there are Holiday tours being given at the estate, with Christmas trees and festive decorations all from the Victorian era. When I was there, they were featuring a Mourning in the Age of Poe tour with items that tied into the Victorian mourning process. Because I was there for the last tour of the day, there were quite a few people there, and I was dismayed that I couldn't see everything clearly. But one really cool moment happened that I wouldn't have seen on an earlier tour - an actor arrived in full Victorian attire for an evening event and passed by our tour. It was really something to see someone dressed in clothes of the time walking around the house. And, yes, you might not run into someone like that if you ever tour Maymount. But don't let that stop you - this is a gorgeous place to visit and should not be missed, particularly at this time of the year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Where the Hoosiers Are

Magnet # 114: Map of Indiana

Material: Acrylic

Purchased By: Dad

Indiana celebrates its day of statehood today. Back in 1816, President James Madison approved the state's admission into the Union, ending its days as a territory. The first Europeans to the area were the French, who established several trading posts. But the British were hot on their heels, and tried to take control of their fur trade. This resulted in the French and Indian War. The Indians sided with the French because they were better to them than the British, but they lost nonetheless. But the Indians continued to rebel against Britain, even burning down a couple of their forts in the area. Indiana saw a little bit of action during the Revolutionary War when two battles were fought against the British there. Once the war was over, America gained control of the area and turned it into the Northwest Territory, and later the Indiana Territory, which was governed by William Henry Harrison. During this time, it became the site of building tensions between the settlers and the Shawnee Indians who were led by Tecumseh that ended in the famous Battle of Tippecanoe and later the lesser known Battle of the Thames. Both resulted in Indian losses, and the Indians mostly left the area. Several years later, Indiana became the 19th state. Nowadays, the state is a place of both agriculture and industry. It boasts the nation's largest steel production, and also manufactures a number of other products, including automobiles and pharmaceuticals. A great deal of produce is also grown there, including corn and soybeans. Indiana really is an example of a state that has embraced modern industry while keeping ties with its agricultural roots, and it has helped to keep its economy strong.

While I've traveled through Indiana, I've never really spent much time there. I do remember passing through the state years ago. My Dad was behind the wheel and we were headed to Michigan. It was one of the first times I was following our progress on a map, and I kept checking to see how close we were to Fort Wayne. I'm not sure, maybe we spent the night there. Yeah, I know, it's not much. But I've already mentioned my desire to travel in the state on this blog, specifically to visit West Lafayette and tour the Clay Critters factory, where some of the best magnets ever are made. And I'm sure I can find some other interesting places to check out in the state.

So just what is up with the name Hoosier, anyway? People who live in Indiana aren't even referred to as Indianans or Indianites, they're just Hoosiers. It's also the only state I can think of that the residents share their name with a mascot - pretty much everyone there has to cheer for Indiana University by default. Well, no one is totally clear on how the name surfaced, but the debate has gone on for well over a century and there are a few theories and various books have been written on the subject. The most common is that "hoo" is derived from the Saxon word for a hill or cliff, and that "sier" may come from shire. The combination of the two would result in a term for "Hill Country" and perhaps extend to those living there. Although Indiana is not a particularly hilly area, descendants from the nearby Cumberland Mountains may have imported the name as they settled into the area. Some claim it began as a slurring of the phrase "who's there," which was yelled out when visitors came to wary settler's cabins and the inhabitants wanted to know their identity before they began shooting. And there's also a story that tells about Samuel Hoosier, a builder who preferred to hire workers from Indiana when he built the Louisville and Portland Canal. Over time, his men came to be known as Hoosiers. Whatever the origin, it's almost certain that it began as a derogatory term. The term most likely originated in the South to describe coarse, and vulgar, often those who live in rural areas. It was similar to calling someone a hillbilly. In Missouri, they still refer to low-class, lazy individuals as Hoosiers - in fact, it's one of the ugliest terms they can use to slander an individual. It can be applied regardless of race and age. And somehow this ugly term spread to Indiana, where it was used to refer to their residents, Regardless, earlier residents decided to be proud of their status as Hoosiers, rather than be offended by the term. It's a credit to their good natures that they were able to do so. Now, oddly enough, what could have been a source of irritation and the Hoosiers are as proud of their name as they are of their state. I guess it's a lesson we can all benefit from.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Child of Promise

Magnet # 113: Thomas Cooper Gotch's The Child Enthroned

Material: Plastic

Purchased By: Me

Victorian painter Thomas Cooper Gotch was born on this day in 1854 in Kettering. He came from a successful family of shoemakers and bankers. Unfortunately, when he was still young, his father went bankrupt and they were forced to move in with relatives until he was able to pay off his debts. For about three years, Thomas worked in the boot and shoe business with his father. However, both he and his older brother, John, would eventually pursue more artistic careers. John became a noted architect while Thomas, of course, went on to paint realistic, romantic art. He studied at several noteworthy art schools, meeting fellow artist Caroline Burland Yates at one of them. After a lengthy engagement, they married in 1881.

The image featured on this magnet is a detail of Gotch's most famous work, The Child Enthroned. It was painted fairly early in his career, after he had returned from traveling in Italy and discovering the beautiful art of romantic European symbolists. It wasn't popular in England, but when Gotch saw it, he decided to change his own style to incorporate its characteristics. For a time, the critics rejected him. But when this image hung in the Royal Academy in 1894's show, they could no longer do so. One newspaper even went so far as to call it the star of the show. His only child, Phyllis, modeled for the child in the image. It was not his first image portraying a girl-child, but its success propelled him to paint many more images of beautiful girl-children. He became one of the leading artists depicting these subjects. Oddly enough, one of his lifelong friends was artist Henry Scott Tuke, who often portrayed the boy-child in his work.

Gotch is known for rebelling from the Royal Academy of Art and refusing to follow its unified beliefs on art. He joined with other artists including John Singer Sargent to form the New England Art Club, an organization with less rigid artistic beliefs. He also moved to Newlyn, a coastal area where a more simple artistic community was thriving. There, he was very active in this community, both establishing a Newlyn Art Gallery as well as Newlyn Industrial Classes. Gotch also taught, served on committees, threw parties, and participated in dramatic performances. And, through all of this, he still found time to paint his masterpieces. He stayed there for over a decade until moving to London, where it was easier for artists to advance their careers. Eventually, he returned back to his beloved Newlyn. After World War I, when the popularity of more romantic images faded, Gotch turned to painting images such as landscapes and flower still lifes in watercolor. Although the Royal Academy never made him a member, he continued to exhibit there. When he was in London in 1931 for their painting day, he died suddenly.

Although Gotch is not one of the best known Victorian artists, he enjoyed a good deal of success in his day. In the past decade, there has been an increased amount of interest in his work, and both a biography and a 2001 exhibition have centered on Gotch. Kettering's Alfred East Gallery owns a large collection of his work, and some is on permanent display. I hope Gotch continues to become more popular. He helped bring new attributes to Victorian art, and the beautiful work he left behind should be available for everyone to admire.