Monthly Archives: January 2016

Mom & Dad’s Anniversary – 2016

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This coming Thursday, February 4th would have been my parent’s 67th wedding anniversary. And while I still recall the actual dates and events that led up to their untimely deaths, it is the more joyous occasions, their wedding and birthdays, that I choose to celebrate.

Last fall, I was going through some old photos and ran across pictures of my parents before they were engaged and at their wedding. So this year in celebration of their anniversary, I want to present a pictorial story of their early years together.

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My parents met in the small Texas town where my mom was born and grew up. My dad, being a minister-in-training, was invited to come preach at the church that my mom attended (Dad was actually fourth on the list to preach that Sunday, the previous three being unavailable). After the service, my mom was invited to lunch to meet the soon-to-be-ordained minister. Upon returning to seminary that night, my dad stated to his roommate that he had met the woman he wanted to marry.

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In the album I found, this photo labeled “The Courting Couple.” Whether it was on this occasion when the photo was taken or another in the same spot, it is here that my parents must have begun to talk about starting a life together.

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And in this photo labeled “Should She? Or Shouldn’t She,” is where my mom must have been contemplating what that possible future would mean, for it was on this petrified wood bench that my Dad proposed to my mom.

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That fall, my mom visited my dad where he was attending seminary.

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And then sometime in 1949, my parents became engaged, this being one of my dad’s favorite pictures of my mom.

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The wedding was at my mom’s church, where she had seen my dad for the first time…

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…and then the reception was at my mom’s home.

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Soon, they were off to start their life together, a marriage that would bear my three siblings and me, a marriage that would last 50 years!

So Happy Anniversary Mom & Dad!

Best Books of 2015 – III

Although written in chronological order, these three posts can be read in whatever order you like…

AmericanGhost

A book that was a surprisingly good read to me was American Ghost: A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest by Hannah Nordhaus. I don’t know if I would have even picked up this book had I seen it in a bookstore. But this was another one that I heard about from an NPR podcast when the author was being interviewed about her just published book. This non-fiction book is about the author’s great-, great-grandmother who is purported to be a ghost haunting her stylish Santa Fe, NM, home from the 1800’s that has now been turned into a hotel. The book traces the story of Julia from her home in Germany to her frontier life in New Mexico and back to Germany when her health is failing. The author tells about her visits to all of these places as she searches to unravel the mystery of how Julia died and why she is still haunting her old home. The author even consults mediums, psychics, and dowsers in her research with most interesting and surreal outcomes. I can’t tell you how many times while reading this book that I got goose bumps when a new detail was revealed, up until the very last page.

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While on vacation in North Carolina, I picked up a book about my favorite place in the world, appropriately entitled Montreat by Mary McPhail Standaert and Joseph Standaert. This is one of those slim historical books filled with vintage images and snippets of old stories. This issue told the history of Montreat from its early beginnings in 1897 through the present day mostly through vintage postcards. In spite of it being a brief read, I learned the genesis of the name for Lake Susan, why so many of the distinctive buildings were made from smooth rocks taken from the creek that runs through the town, and how the iconic, nearly 100 year-old gate that greets all visitors came to be.

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As I learned other interesting facts about this peaceful place, I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know about this place I have loved so much for as long as I can remember. Fortunately, there is a bibliography that can serve as a reference guide from which to draw future learnings.

TheInnovators

Based on my reading and enjoying two of Walter Isaacson’s previous books, Einstein and Steve Jobs, this year I read and thoroughly enjoyed his most recent non-fiction, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. For someone born in the 50s who grew up with the development of the digital age, I found it most interesting to read how the computer and Internet actually evolved quite separately from each other even though we think of them as almost one and the same today.

This book starts in the 1800’s with the development of “mechanical” calculating machines through the development of electronic systems that incorporated vacuum tubes as the original “on-off” circuits of digital computers, through the miniaturization of these circuits first with transistors, then microchips, and ultimately micro processors. Concurrently while computers were advancing from mainframe to mini to desktop PCs (a part of digital history I vividly remember having programed by typing on punch cards in college), the Internet was maturing from the military and research-based “ARPANET” to the Internet as we know it today, ironically in large part thanks to wider access everyone was granted thanks to Al Gore’s political efforts in spite of all the jokes to the contrary during the 2000 presidential election that Al “invented the Internet”.

And while the development of the computer and Internet cannot be attributed to just one innovative inventor, if it were not for one individual that probably few people have heard of, Tim Berners-Lee, who actually invented the World Wide Web, we might still be using the Internet predominately for what it was originally most used for—email.

RememberingWoolworths

Following in the vein of historical nonfiction books about companies and their founders I have grown to enjoy, an entertaining read this year was Remembering Woolworth’s: A Nostalgic History of the World’s Most Famous Five and Dime by Karen Plunkett-Powell. As I’ve grown older, more and more, I enjoy reflecting back on the nostalgia of my youth in the 60s and 70s and this title seemed to offer more of that opportunity. Although my adolescent memories are less of Woolworth’s and more of the Ben Franklin’s 5 and 10 in Malvern, AR, as I read I began to appreciate that were it not for Frank Winfield (F.W.) Woolworth’s rag to riches story, the knock-offs I am more familiar with (Kress, McCrory, Ben Franklin’s) likely would never have come into existence.

Although his iconic Woolworth’s “Red-Fronts” sat majestically on main streets all over the US and throughout many parts of the world from their humble beginning in 1879 to their demise in 1997 (a colorful 118 year history), what was so amazing about this story is how Frank literally turned our nickels and dimes into at one point the largest chain of stores in the world. And along the way, with 13.5 million dollars in hard-earned cash, he built the 60-story Woolworth building on Broadway in New York, an edifice that reined as the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930. Frank invented the successful 5 and 10 stores earning billions of dollars in the process and pioneered under the same roof, the addition of “Refreshment Rooms” (what would become the luncheon counters) and the sale of parakeets, hamsters and turtles, pets of which it has been estimated that every baby-boomer once owned at least one in their lifetime.

Two facts I particularly enjoyed learning was that Woolworth’s sponsorship of the traditional New Year’s Day Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, CA not only began in the early 1950s, but the 1954 parade was also the first program ever to be televised nationwide in color (something of significance for those of us who can recall our first color TV being brought home to replace the old black and white model). The other fact of interest to me was that it was at the Woolworth’s luncheon counter in Greensboro, NC that the famous “sit-in” occurred in 1960 during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Without even realizing it at the time, I’ve actually seen that historical luncheon counter as it now resides in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History.

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For my classic this year, I read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, a book I selected based on having visited Cannery Row last year on a trip to San Francisco.

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I have mentioned before that I managed to get out of school without having read very many classics so I have a lot of catching up to do. Often we wonder what makes a book a classic and now that I finished reading this one, I am no clearer on understanding that. But for those yet to read this book in high school, they will be fortunate in two respects: that it isn’t a long book (less than 200 pages), and towards the end, they will encounter this gem of a sentence upon describing an undesirable type of party.

These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.

Overall this year, I read a total of 34 books, 11 fiction and 23 nonfiction, a far cry from the number you fast readers out there probably devoured this year but maybe an inspirational number for those of you who haven’t realized that there are only so many great books you can read in a lifetime and as they say, “Time is of the essence.”

Best Books of 2015 – II

Although written in chronological order, these three posts can be read in whatever order you like…

Cell

One of the fiction books I enjoyed this year was Cell by Robin Cook. I have been a longtime fan of Robin Cook ever since he published Coma and have read many of his books enjoying some of his characters that carry over from one novel to another. I am often humored when people ask me what book I am reading and I respond a Robin Cook book—their expression of sheer amazement that a recipe book exists on how to prepare a sweet robin red breast for dinner.

This novel centered on the invention of a smart phone app called iDoc that was to revolutionize the medical industry and the protagonist’s (a radiology resident) investigation of mysterious deaths associated with the program. About half way through the book, I began to question how realistic the story was until I heard two back-to-back stories on NPR about smart phone medical capabilities, which just so happened to be sponsored by a health insurance conglomerate (just like in the book). The plot twists and turns and in the end with a surprise ending, leaves you wondering just how the future might be with such a device. Interestingly, in the author’s afterward, Cook cites a non-fiction book that he ran across while writing Cell that allowed him to incorporate some not-so-science-fiction details.

Flameout

A nonfiction book I read this year that had a personal interest to me was, Flameout: The Rise and Fall of Burger Chef by John P. McDonald (interesting that the author has the same last name as that other highly successful fast-food chain). Not that I am a fan of fast-food but a hamburger is my all-time my favorite food and the first fast-food hamburger I ever had was a 15 cent burger from Burger Chef in West Monroe, LA when I was probably about 8 years old. Seeing that familiar marquee on the book cover and recalling its original design featuring a prominent 15-cent sign at the top (obviously a poor choice when it became apparent the price would have to increase) sold me and I had to buy this book.

As I read the story, I could picture in my mind’s eye that first evening when we stood outside the order window for the first time. I remember thinking I couldn’t believe it only cost 15 cents. But what I learned of interest was that Burger Chef was actually started as a franchise chain to increase sales of milk shake machines and chain driven flame broilers (the ones common in Burger King today), both patented inventions by the company’s founders. For a time, these innovations allowed Burger Chef to keep pace and even exceed McDonald’s sales since flame broiled burgers were simply more tasty than griddle fried burgers. Sadly, it was a series of missteps, not the least of which was switching from natural gas fired flame broilers to griddles during the energy crisis that led to their downfall and eventual purchase by Hardees.

AstronautsWives

When I heard the podcast interview with Lily Koppel about her latest book, I knew The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story was a must read for me. Having grown up in the 60s with an inborn fascination with the space program, I have read just about every book that has been written about the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs reliving the memories from my childhood of the excitement of space exploration through each author’s words. But all of those stories presented the perspective from the astronaut’s side. This book was an eye opener to how the seemingly idyllic lives of their husbands dramatically affected the wives.

To grasp this reality, it is important to recognize that these astronauts were the “rock stars” of the early 60s living lives close to and sometimes over the edge. Loving, supportive wives and happy marriages were the expectation of NASA and a perquisite for mission assignment. But in fact, nothing was farther from the truth. As with all rock stars, young hormonally active women—“Cape Cookies”—literally threw themselves at the astronauts whenever they were training at the Cape while their wives held down the fort in Houston where many were next-door neighbors. Unofficially, NASA ignored this as long as it stayed in the Cape and never filtered into their homes in Houston.

Being the astronaut wives who themselves were prominently featured in many Life magazine articles and photos, it was an incredible challenge for them to always put on the “happy face” for the reporters given the almost open infidelity and the fact that often, they had no idea if their husbands would return safely from their mission. This book gave me a completely new “Steel Magnolia-like” appreciation for the difficulties these brave women faced and the important, but previously untold part they played in our nations race to the moon.

Amsterdam

A surprise nonfiction that I really enjoyed this year was Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto. This was a book my wife gave me for my birthday while we were actually in Amsterdam. Even though I have been to Amsterdam many, many times, I found that I learned a number of interesting facts that I didn’t know in spite of being there so many times. From the miracle of Amsterdam, which I had never heard of, to the fact that Holland is one of the oldest republics (26 July 1581), I relished learning the new information. But the part I particularly enjoyed was the interweaving of the story of a friend of Anne Frank interviewed in the book and the snippet of YouTube video of Anne, the only known video of her. I often say that Amsterdam is the first city anyone should travel to who has never been to Europe, similarly this is the book they should read before they go.

WrightBrothers

One book that I read this year that was an absolute delight was The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. I was already an avid David McCullough fan having enjoyed many of his previous historical non-fiction but when I saw this one was being published in May, I knew it was a must read. Most everyone knows of the famous Wright brothers and that iconic black and white photo of the first sustained, mechanized flight on a cold December morning in Kitty Hawk, NC, but until I read this book, I didn’t really have an appreciation for what the brothers truly accomplished.

The Wright brothers were by no means the first to attempt to fly but they were by far the most successful. On their own, they discovered the physics of flight and with the aid of the first ever wind tunnel designed and engineered the first successful airplane. But while others were scheduling large demonstrations that often ended in dramatic and sometimes fatal failure, the Wrights were without spectators or spectacle, quietly learning how to safely control their flying machine. The part of their story that I never knew was that the Wright brothers literally taught the world to build and fly “aeroplanes.” Wilbur spent over a year in Europe; mostly in France flying demonstrations and garnering fame for himself, Orville, and their sister Katharine.

Flying is such a commonplace activity to us today. But it was just a little over 100 years ago that it all got started. Having read this book, I dare say that forever more as I pass through the boarding door of a commercial flight, I’ll think of what the Wright brothers accomplished and how were it not for them, much of this might not have been possible.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2015 – I

This year, my annual “Best Books” post is coming to you in three parts. Not just because I read so many good and interesting books that I wanted to share with you, but also, because rather than just provide a brief glimpse into the books, I wanted to share with you what attracted me to the book in the first place and what I found of most interest in it. Recognizing that over our lifetime, we can only scratch the surface of the universe of books out there, I feel I spent my limited reading time this year with worthwhile reads.

WaltDisney

My book reading year started out early with Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas, a book I actually started in 2014 but didn’t finish until January 2015. I first became interested in reading about Walt Disney after watching the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.” I wanted to learn more about the woman behind Mary Poppins, and how she interacted with Walt in his obtaining the rights to make the movie. In researching books about P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins stories, I ran across this book by Bob Thomas that seemed to be an authoritative history of Disney since he wrote the authorized biography of this creative individual. Unfortunately, it was not available from my usual book source, Amazon.

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Fortunately when I went to Disney World with my brother in December 2014, I was able to find a copy, the last one, in a bookstore in one of the four Disney parks, Hollywood Studios.

It was an extremely enjoyable book tracing Disney’s life from early childhood all the way through to his death just a few years before the opening of his dream park, Walt Disney World in Florida. His drive, his almost nonstop hard work and his creativity came through in the writing and it was a pleasure to learn more about the man who was behind it all. Since this trip to Disney World was my first, I was most impressed with how so much of the details were taken care of everywhere I turned. Having learned so much from this book, I can now appreciate that it was Walt’s own attention to details that came through in my visit.

Liberty'sTorch

Next up of particular note was a $1.99 find from Amazon. Each month, Amazon makes available 100 books for $3.99 or less. I always peruse what is on their virtual markdown rack and one that caught my eye was Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty by Elizabeth Mitchell. If you have read my posts about books before, you know I love reading books about building things. And this book did not disappoint.

This was a most interesting history about the man, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who created the Statue of Liberty and the difficulties he encountered in bringing this now iconic structure to the shores of New York City. Of particular interest was how he first tried to sell the idea to the Egyptians to stand at the mouth of the soon to be completed Suez Canal. Failing in that effort, Bartholdi envisioned the statue in America but met with much indifference from the French and American governments. To help sell the idea, he actually displayed the arm and torch in Philadelphia and then in New York, the latter fact playing important in another great book I’ve read, Time and Again. While I’ve been to New York many times and flown close to the statute, I’ve never been to see it. But after reading this book, a must visit on my next trip to the Big Apple will be to the Statue of Liberty.

Goldfinch

Another most enjoyable book I read was, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize winner. This book was recommended to me by my wife and positively reviewed by my daughter so I knew it would be a safe investment of my limited reading time. But I must admit, I was a little taken back when I discovered that it was 770 pages long considering how slow a reader I am. However, I just loved how this book interwove such an interesting and believable story around a famous painting that is probably much more familiar to everyone now with the publishing of this book. And I could not believe it when I turned the last page and realized that I had read it in just three weeks (I know that is slow for some of you but really, really fast for me). It is the kind of story that you will want to luxuriate for hours at a time reading and soaking up the intriguing plot.

Thunderstruck

Another great book I read was Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. If you are like me and loved his book, Devil in the While City, then this is a must read for you. Thanks to his extensive research, Larson narrates this true story as if he were witnessing it himself weaving a tale that reads more like a novel than an exhaustively detailed historical documentary. As with “the Devil”, this plot develops from two different perspectives alternating between them—one the inventor of wireless telegraphy and two a murderer almost as infamous and well know at the time as Jack the Ripper—two individuals totally unrelated as the story unfolds, yet uniquely intertwined in the climax of the story.

Chunnel

A book my wife gave me for Christmas, The Chunnel by Drew Fetherston, was an intriguing tale of the building of the tunnel beneath the English Channel. I very much enjoy reading books about building things, a topic which I have written on before. I was vaguely aware of the novelty of the Chunnel’s building in the early 1990s but was amazed to learn in reading this book that the idea for tunneling between the two countries dated back to the 1800s.

After reading this book, I was even more amazed that it was actually built. Between gaining consensus between two countries that had warred with each other over the centuries, to disparate construction syndicates based in England and France agreeing with each other, to the multitude of politics and financial uncertainty that occurred during the construction, even to the fear of rabid dogs running through the tunnel from France to England, it truly was an “amazing” story. I started out reading this book thinking that the technological challenges encountered tunneling under the channel would be the focus of the book, but in the end, it was the sheer determination of the individuals involved that were the stars of the story to bring this project to completion. Thanks to reading this book, I now have a new European destination in my future, riding a train through the Chunnel.

To be continued…

Travel 2015

Happy New Year! I thought I would start out the New Year reflecting back on the trips we took in 2015, some of which I wrote posts about last year (linked below if you are so interested to read more details). So buckle up and come along for the ride.

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My travel started out fairly early in the year with a trip in February to Orlando, not to Disney but to teach my class. Interestingly, I had just been to Disney for my very first time with my brother in December of 2014 so when a Disney bus passed me at the airport while I was waiting for the hotel shuttle, it brought back very fond memories of that trip.

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I typically try to avoid air travel in the winter because of all of the uncertainties the weather can bring. Case in point, last year I had to make a business trip to New Jersey in January and as I often feared, a snowstorm blew in and I got stranded for two days in a Newark hotel waiting for a flight out.

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But I figured going to Orlando in February would be a safe bet weather-wise and sure enough it was. And it was really nice to escape the cold Memphis winter weather and be able to walk around outdoors in the warm sun wearing a short-sleeved shirt.

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My next trip wasn’t until May, but it was a big one. After a couple of years of planning, my siblings and I had our annual “SIBSAB” in Amsterdam in conjunction with me teaching my class there. The four of us met up in Amsterdam the week before I taught for quite an adventure. My brother had planned out a great itinerary and I served as tour guide having previously visited Amsterdam more than 25 times. This was the first time my two sisters had ever been to Amsterdam so we made sure we hit all of the main attractions—the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijks Museum, a canal boat ride, the Anne Frank House,

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and the ever beautiful Keukenhof Gardens.

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Then at the end of the week, my wife and sister-in-law joined me for even more adventures in between my teaching.

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Our next trip was a road trip to our son-in-law’s parent’s farm in Illinois over the 4th of July. In addition to the joy of getting to see our daughter, grandson, son-in-law and his family, I got a great lesson from my daughter’s father-in-law in farm equipment…

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…and we got to celebrate our grandson’s first birthday early.

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In August, we made another road trip, this time a vacation to Asheville, North Carolina for just my wife and me. Before going to Asheville, we first went to visit my wife’s sister and her family in Winston-Salem where my wife had a really special treat when we arrived in town just an hour before the close of Maya Angelou’s estate sale, just enough time for her to get in and have a great time.

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After a few days in Winston-Salem, we went on to Asheville where the highlight for me was to get to spend the day in my favorite place on earth—Montreat.

Assembly Inn overlooking Lake Susan

Assembly Inn overlooking Lake Susan

Also in August, I had a business trip to our manufacturing site in eastern Tennessee. While not a pleasure trip, it was nice to get together with some colleagues there that I have worked with for many years.

September found us in San Francisco for our annual trip there for me to teach. An added treat this year was that our son and his wife had moved back to the bay area and so we got to see them while there. And our daughter and grandson flew up from LA to spend time with us as well.

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October turned out to be my busiest travel month of the year. The first week of the month, I flew up to New Jersey to spend three days at one of our R&D sites. And then less than two weeks later, I was back in New Jersey to teach a new class. After the course, I got back to Memphis at 10:30 PM on a Tuesday and then was on a flight to California the next morning at 6:15 AM (a very short night). This last trip was to meet our newest granddaughter, a mere three weeks old at the time.

So if I’ve done the math right, I had a total of nine trips in 2015, not a huge number but certainly some very special trips. Adding in the trip our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson made to Memphis in February and another in August, I got to see my grandson on four separate trips; not bad considering he lives almost 2,000 miles away. And actually not counting my business trips, every one of our trips this year were also visiting with family. So really, it was a splendid family travel year, well worth documenting and reflecting on early in this New Year.