During the last three months, I have become hooked on karaoke.
It’s not that I am new to karaoke. In fact, I’ve done it lots of times, mostly by joining with friends to rent out small private studios at karaoke clubs. Many of them are fellow students in a weekly singing workshop that I’ve been taking for many years at the Boston Center for Adult Education. (I wrote about the latter experience here.) I’ve also done karaoke with a group of (gasp) fellow law professors and other legally oriented types in places as far away as Vienna, Prague, and Toronto.
But until last November, I hadn’t tried the main stage at Limelight Stage and Studios, located in the heart of Boston’s theatre district. Although my compatriots and I had rented studios there before, we had never done the main stage. But some muse inspired us to give it a try, and we — or at least I — haven’t turned back. Since then, I’ve been back there about a dozen times.
The atmosphere at the Limelight is friendly and lively, a mix of regulars and groups of young (and not-so-young) people stopping by to have a good time. Every once in a while, someone steps up to the stage and simply blows everyone away.
Folks, it is so much fun to get up there and sing, as well as to enjoy the performances of friends and others. I’ve been developing a list of “go-to” songs that, so far, includes:
- Sinatra, “Summer Wind”
- Sinatra, “Learnin’ the Blues”
- Sinatra, “Fly Me to the Moon”
- Elvis, “Blue Hawaii”
- Tony Bennett, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”
- Bobby Darin, “Mack the Knife”
- Elton John, “Your Song”
- Frankie Avalon, “Beauty School Dropout”
- Bee Gees, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”
Yup, I’m old school, and mainstream. The 70s are about as recent as I get. In fact, I don’t know a lot of the more current stuff that many of the younger folks sing. (“Younger” being an expanding share of the population for me.) If the music catalog were to expand to include more of the Great American Songbook — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, etc. — I’d be even more old school.
To fuel my habit, I’ve also taken to reading about karaoke. Rob Sheffield’s Turn Around Bright Eyes (2013) is, well, a sort of karaoke memoir, with a dash of karaoke history mixed in for historical perspective. Karaoke, as the name suggests, started in Japan during the 1980s, and soon made it to the U.S. Although karaoke song lists typically offer thousands of selections, a handful of the same numbers are very likely to pop up on any given evening. According to Sheffield:
Let’s get a couple things out of the way right now. One of these things is called “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and the other is “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
These are easily the two most popular karaoke songs. Indeed, as far as many of my fellow revelers are concerned, they seem to be the only two karaoke songs. Once, spending a night at Sing Sing [a karaoke club in Manhattan] with my friend Dave, who works as a wedding videographer, he got all stressed by all the believin’ and livin’ we heard through the walls. “These same two songs all night,” he said, shaking his head. “This is like being at work.”
Hey, at least my oldies-but-moldies selections don’t come up all the time. (OK, the Sinatra numbers are popular with others as well.)
Seriously, though, I consider singing to be a form of mindfulness, a way of being in, and enjoying, the present moment. It’s therapeutic for me. Compared to “serious” singing, karaoke is often regarded as being rather common and amateurish. (Heh, one of caustic American Idol judge Simon Cowell’s favorite putdowns of a performance was that it “sounded like bad karaoke.”) However, it’s a form that gives anyone, regardless of talent, a stage on which to have fun and enjoy singing their favorite songs. That’s a big part of what singing should be all about, right?
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
It sounds like pure paradise to me.
You might logically assume that creating this vacation should be easy for someone who enjoys the flexibility of an academic schedule. But in reality, academic work has a way of collapsing work-life boundaries, such as they are. So long as you’re checking your work inbox, or opening a Word file just to peek at a draft of something, you can get sucked back into it in a second.
This geeky vacation fantasy also reflects a considerable downsizing of my travel bucket list. I’ve been fortunate to visit some pretty cool destinations during my life. And there are still places that I’d like to visit or revisit.
But I’m not yearning to spend more time on the road (or in the air). Right now I travel a lot to see friends and family, and to participate in conferences and other work-related events. I look forward to these trips, but I’m always happy when my calendar shows several approaching weekends that don’t involve printing out boarding passes.
Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.
Sometimes I like to scroll through this blog for the fun of it, as if I’m walking down Memory Lane to revisit writings about Memory Lane! In addition to enjoying periodic nostalgic memories, I’m reminded of where my own cultural center of gravity is located. I am, at heart, a middlebrow kind of guy, grounded in the late 20th century. Here are 25 reasons why, many of which are drawn from previous posts:
- My MP3 music lists include the likes of 80s and 70s pop hits, old standards featuring music of the Gershwins and Cole Porter, and soundtracks & cast recordings of classic musicals by Rodgers & Hammerstein.
- I still have much of No. 1 on CDs.
- I like Stouffer’s French Bread pizza.
- I belong to the Book-of-the-Month Club and occasionally hunt down past BOMC premium books on e-Bay.
- I make my coffee using a drip coffee maker and pre-ground beans.
- Despite my dovish leanings, I enjoy watching old World War Two movies.
- I will indulge myself with an occasional Big Mac.
- I own, and sometimes even read into, a pre-owned set of the Harvard Classics.
- Give me the voices of Olivia Newton-John and Karen Carpenter over those of most of today’s female pop singers any day.
- I miss American Heritage magazine.
- I love watching re-runs of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.
- I still regard Baskin-Robbins ice cream as a treat.
- My leisure reading tastes go to mysteries and suspense, sports books (baseball, football, basketball), and popular history, as well as self-help and psychology.
- Walter Cronkite remains for me the iconic example of a television newscaster with utmost integrity.
- Given a choice, I’ll take a casual meal at a favorite diner over a fancy meal with multiple forks.
- I’ve been a steady subscriber to Sports Illustrated for decades.
- My first computer was a Commodore 64, and I got years of use and fun out of it!
- I continue to rely on Rick Steves for travel advice when planning blessed trips to Europe.
- Pumpkin pie is my favorite Thanksgiving dessert.
- Having my own personal library is deeply meaningful to me.
- Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” are simply awesome to me.
- I miss talk radio from the days before it got so politically strident and polarized.
- I regard Stephen King as one of our great contemporary storytellers.
- Growing up, I pursued hobbies such as stamp and coin collecting, science, and playing sports simulation board games — and I still do when time permits!
- There’s something thrilling and adventurous about being in a large old train station.
One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.
With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!
Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.
I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?
Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.
The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.
I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.
For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.
Over the weekend I was fiddling around with some photos using the editing tools on my computer, when I reminded myself of an important lesson, buttressed by scientific research: When it comes to using my discretionary cash, I am more likely to derive longer-term happiness by spending it on experiences than on material possessions.
Jonesing for bad weather
The photos were taken during a 2012 storm chase tour with Tempest Tours, a company that offers storm chasing expeditions into America’s tornado alley for enthusiasts of bad weather, led by highly experienced storm chasers.
I have been drawn to tornadoes ever since I was a very young child, when one passed through our NW Indiana neighborhood. (I’ve told the story in more detail here.) This fascination has continued well into my adult years, to the point where I’ve devoted to several vacations to storm chase tours with Tempest. In fact, one of the most exciting days of my life was the first day of my first chase tour in 2008, when our group intercepted a single supercell in northern Oklahoma that spawned multiple tornadoes throughout the afternoon and early evening.
My summer 2012 tour happened to deliver a great week of storm chasing, even without the benefit of post-facto tornado verification. We had a wonderful group of people that simply jelled, and thanks to our expert lead guides, we witnessed memorable storms, including several tornadoes.
But just how many tornadoes remains uncertain. One of the notable characteristics of that tour was encountering a number of “Is it or isn’t it?” views of possible tornadoes. You see, not every tornado is a sharply defined funnel from cloud to ground, with a visible debris field at the bottom. Light, distance, and angles may make it difficult to discern whether a funnel has actually reached the ground, thus becoming an “official” tornado.
So here I am this past weekend, playing around with photos from the 2012 tour, especially the “Is it or isn’t it?” shots. By using the photo enhancement tools on my Mac, I was able to make out various funnel clouds and apparent tornadoes on the ground. Four years after the fact, I now understand that we witnessed more tornadoes than originally met the naked eye!
Studies tell us…
I have great memories of these chase tours, and I’m still in touch with many of the professional storm chasers and fellow tour guests. Now, I don’t blame anyone for questioning the wisdom of someone who wants to spend precious money on a week of traveling thousands of miles in vans, eating grab & go meals from fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and staying in motels that will never be highlighted in travel guidebooks.
But for me, it’s an awesome experience that gets into my bones.
As I noted above, this isn’t just me talking. A growing body of psychological research suggests that, when we are making discretionary spending decisions, using our money to create good experiences rather than to accumulate more “stuff” will likely create greater happiness over the long run. Experiences, studies tell us, have staying power. They become a part of us, sometimes even more positively as time goes on. (Remember that vacation when everything seemingly went wrong? Now it’s the stuff of great stories.)
New possessions, by comparison, may give us a momentary new morale boost, but after that, the happiness they bring tends to level off. (Think about the fleeting pick-me-up of “retail therapy.”)
This is not to say that we do not derive satisfaction from buying nice things. After all, how we use, consume, or view them can provide ongoing pleasures, i.e., they may help us to create experiences.
Think about a favorite book, movie, game, item of clothing, or piece of art. Or new cooking utensils that lead to delicious meals. And, yup, the computer that enables us to sort out and play around with our collections of photographed memories.
Sometimes good experiences overlap directly with buying stuff we like. For example, I love checking out used bookstores and used book sales, and I confess that I get a little soggy over some of my book buying expeditions.
I get it
But I understand the larger point. As I scroll through this personal blog, I sense my energy levels rising when I write about favorite experiences, which include singing with friends, extended visits with friends and family, quick weekend trips, holiday rituals, and even academic conferences in the company of great people. They contribute to the fabric and richness of my life, often in ways that my latest purchases cannot.
That’s something to think about whenever I walk into a store or browse the retail world online. Better to seek out stormy weather, yes?
In looking back at 2015, one of the highlights for me was doing more singing. Previously I’ve written about the weekly singing classes I’ve been taking for years at an adult education center in Boston (e.g., here and here). From those classes has emerged a cohort of folks who have moved their singing up a notch to participate in cabaret-style open mic nights at a nearby club. It means that during some weeks, we’re standing up to sing in front of others on multiple occasions!
Most of us are not experienced performers; many among our group haven’t done any real singing since school days. We have all felt the butterflies in facing an audience to sing alone. Yet we are drawn to this activity because it brings us great satisfaction and enjoyment. For me, it’s a chance to revel in the old standards that I’ve been drawn to for years. Give me the Great American Songbook stuff from the 20s through 50s any day, and I’ll be happy.
There is a therapeutic component as well. Singing is a form of mindfulness practice for me. It’s an invitation to be in the moment, doing something enjoyable. In both singing class and open mic nights, enthusiastic, supportive applause is the norm, with not a boo to be heard. Both settings provide safe, positive environments, shared with a wonderful group of people.
With these experiences at the core, I’ve noticed that singing has manifested itself in other venues of my life as well, including karaoke nights with (of all people) law professors and lawyers, an annual workshop on human dignity, and even a traditional Thanksgiving feast with family and friends. It’s good for the soul, and I look forward to doing more of it during the year to come.
Late in my grade school years, I discovered a world of baseball board games that simulated the National Pastime through sophisticated play charts and statistical ratings of real-life major league baseball players. Dice or spinners typically served as activators for game play.
Most tabletop board games could be played solitaire or head-to-head. Devoted gamers could replay an entire season of a favorite team, or even a full-blown league. You could also play short schedules of your favorite teams, or draft players to stock your own teams and play a league schedule that way.
Every spring, pre-season baseball magazines such as Street & Smith‘s were chock full of tantalizing ads for these games, such as those pictured below. The sales pitch was simple and effective: It would appeal to a sports fan’s fantasies of managing a big league baseball team and of imagining themselves up at the plate or on the mound as their favorite players.
Some of these (mostly small) companies sold their games directly by mail. Others offered a “free” player performance card and brochure that described the game in greater detail, with ordering information included.
During the late 1960s and through the early 1980s, a lot of kids and young men discovered these games and drooled over the ads in the baseball magazines. We’d either order the games directly or send away for the descriptive brochures, and then we would wait in great anticipation for the mail delivery.
Even though, as these photos show, the games themselves were full of numbers, charts, and symbols, we weren’t disappointed. We were not expecting the equivalent of today’s video sports games, where players and their movements are rendered so realistically on the digital playing field. The charts, cards, and dice activated our mind’s eyes, so that we could recreate player performances on the tabletop and imagine the action on the field. More than a few of us would narrate the games like sports announcers, either in our heads or out loud.
Gil Hodges’ Pennant Fever, sold by Research Games, Inc., in New Jersey, was my first exposure to a serious baseball board game. Its statistical game engine wasn’t as sophisticated or as precise as some of the other baseball simulations on the market at the time, but its play descriptions fueled our imaginations.
For example, if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see on the right a pitching card that says “Throw him blazing FAST BALLS.” Use of that card was specially limited to strikeout pitchers such as Juan Marichal and Sam McDowell. You’ll also see a pink CONNECTS chart, which was used when a dice roll resulted in the possibility of an extra base hit, especially a home run.
Pennant Fever had the added bonus of being among the less expensive offerings, and — unlike most of these games — it could be purchased at retail store outlets.
I also sent away for a neat little game, Extra Innings, that had an attractive price tag ($9.95), the novelty of a game contained in a three-ring binder, and an extensive basic package that included player performance ratings for the most recent season as well as all-time great teams and Hall of Famers.
The designer of the game, Jack Kavanaugh, was a retired ad man and a thinking man’s game designer. His Extra Innings Newsletter, a copy of which is pictured above, contained some of the most thoughtful commentary about the challenges of statistically reproducing baseball in a tabletop simulation game that I’ve ever read. Kavanaugh is no longer with us, but his game still has a devoted following today.
I played a lot of Negamco’s Major League Baseball. This game, as you can see below, was activated by a spinner, which would create a few extra seconds of suspense for each play sequence. It wasn’t the most realistic game around, but it was easy to play and had a somewhat addictive quality to it. I recall summer nights when I’d stay up late to play just one more game.
If you want to read a great boyhood remembrance about playing Negamco baseball, check out Mayer Schiller’s “Killer Goryl” in the Elysian Fields Quarterly. And in 2011, Michael Weinreb wrote a similarly evocative long form piece for Grantland about playing another popular offering, Statis-Pro baseball, as an adolescent: “Statis-Pro Baseball: An Instruction Manual”
When it came to baseball board games, however, the big kids on the block were Strat-O-Matic (SOM) and APBA. Both games had been around for some time: APBA debuted in the early 1950s (and it was based on an earlier game that appeared in the 1930s!), and SOM appeared in the early 1960s. As the ads below indicate, you sent away for a brochure and game samples first, then made the decision to buy.
The brochures were incredibly descriptive, and for a young baseball fan conjured up images of managing a favorite team and players to the World Series, replete with box scores and statistical sheets marking the season’s progress. If you want a sense of how the marketing and advertising for these games captured our imaginations, go to the APBA Baseball Archives and click around.
APBA and SOM were also among the most expensive offerings — somewhere in the $15-20 range for full editions if memory serves me right. Their game parts were first rate, and each player was represented by his own performance card. (Most of the less expensive games featured team roster sheets with the relevant player data rather than individual cards.)
Here are cards from a reissue of APBA’s 1968 season:
And here are cards from a commemorative reprint of SOM’s very first edition:
These are the Good Old Days
APBA and SOM were both beyond my meager allowance back in the day, but as you can see from the photos, I’ve become a collector and occasional player of both games today. And as I collect vintage seasons, I keep telling myself that when I retire in X number of years, I’ll play them all the time!
Which brings up another point: Bouts of nostalgia aside, for anyone who wishes to play some type of baseball simulation game, these are the good old days, because diverse and fun options abound.
There’s still a steady interest in and demand for tabletop baseball simulations, stoked primarily by guys 40 and older. To capture the flavor of current offerings and interests, check out the Delphi Table Top Sports forum.
Another great site is Tabletop-sports.com, which hosts an active forum and links Downey Games, a popular sports game company offering well over a dozen game titles. The One For Five blog and magazine also provide lots of support for the hobby.
The APBA and Strat-O-Matic game companies are still offering their famous baseball games, now in charts & dice, computer, and online versions. Previous seasons are readily available from the companies and via a rich resale market through online forums such as the Delphi site and e-Bay.
They are joined by many other small companies offering a multitude of tabletop and computer baseball simulations. Replay, History Maker, and Ball Park (once favored by famed baseball statistician Bill James) are among the popular offerings.
I recently supported a Kickstarter campaign for Pine Tar Baseball, a new offering that appears to be carving a niche by recreating 19th century baseball seasons.
Computer baseball simulations are often remarkably deep and sophisticated in their game play. The Out of the Park computer baseball game, and its boiled down tablet/smartphone version, for example, allow players not only to replay past seasons and create fictitious leagues, but also to play the role of owner and general manager. (I’m partial to OOTP because it’s one of the few baseball sims available for the Mac as well as for Windows.)
Of course, the major video game platforms offer baseball sims that put a premium on hand-eye coordination, with some stunning graphics and features to boot.
And if you’re like me, you’ll also want to manage a fantasy baseball team or two.
The Draw of Baseball on a Tabletop
Especially for guys who grew up rooting for their favorite teams and players and who tracked baseball stats in the daily paper, these baseball simulations retain a special draw. They provide us with a connection to a beloved boyhood sport in a way that allows us to participate and play in a league of our own, and to relive the exploits of diamond heroes of days past.
As I’ve mentioned before here, my friend Ken Heard, a professional journalist, writes a marvelous blog — Love, Life and APBA Baseball — detailing his devotion to the APBA baseball game and how replaying past historic seasons has been a form of entertainment, engagement, and sometimes refuge over the years. Two summers ago I wrote an extended piece about Ken’s blog for my own professional blog.
Last year, I wrote a post about writer Jack Kerouac’s homebrewed tabletop baseball game, replete with fictitious players and news accounts of their on the field exploits. Kerouac kept up his fictional baseball league for years.
And Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968) is considered a minor classic and one of the best books about the dramatic pull of baseball. It’s a novel about a man who invents his own cards & dice baseball game and becomes lost in the life of his fictitious baseball league.
So yes, there is something about baseball and the imagination that keeps us attracted to these simulations of the National Pastime. Even if they become obsessions, we could do a lot worse.
The title of Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow (1989) is perhaps the world’s easiest eight-word commencement speech, and it has been repeated, mantra-like, in countless pep talks and career counseling sessions. At least before the Great Recession hit, the book was extraordinarily popular in college career services offices, especially for liberal arts majors.
In fact, it’s a pretty good read and worth a look for anyone in a career/life shifting or changing mode. However, the message conveyed by the title may sound downright starry-eyed and naive to those juggling rent payments or a mortgage, kids, car payments, a grocery bill, and the rest…maybe to the point where you’re saying to yourself, oh c’mon, what a load of fertilizer.
And yet, we go around only once in this lifetime, and it strikes me as being a terrible shame for folks to give up on what activities engage and excite them. So here’s what I call the Realism Edition of Pursuing Your Passion:
First, it may be possible for you to turn your passion into a job. Is there a demand for what you like to do? Are your talents sufficient to satisfy that demand? Will the income pay the bills? It could take you a while to answer these questions, but if the answers lean toward yes, then maybe you can make a go of it.
Second, even if the prospects of turning your passion into a full-time job are limited or doubtful at this juncture, can you start by doing it as a side gig or perhaps as an avocation? You’ll be able to derive enjoyment from the activity, maybe earn some income from it (or at least cover expenses), and plant possible seeds for turning this into your next career.
Third, if your passion doesn’t necessarily translate into income, can you pursue it as a hobby? With the busy demands of everyday life, we’ve lost sight of hobbies as a meaningful, important activity. Maybe it’s not in the stars, at least for now, for you to be a pro basketball player, famous clothes designer, or featured nightclub singer. But how about joining a hoops league at the Y, setting up a knitting space in a spare corner, or participating in a local singing group?
In some cases, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow may be more dreamy invocation than hard reality. But even if your passion isn’t meant to be your main income source, there should be a way to bring the core joys of that activity into your life. There are no guarantees, of course, but wouldn’t it be a shame not even to try?
During a quick trip to Washington, D.C. to speak at a program sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, I proved once again why my nickname should be Mr. Excitement: Given a free afternoon, among all of D.C.’s many cultural and historic attractions, I chose to visit the National Postal Museum, adjacent to Union Station.
In other words, I spent my time looking mainly at old postage stamps.
Now, in my defense, I should explain that the weather was lousy, I didn’t have unlimited time, and both my hotel and the APA program were near Union Station. More importantly, on the merits, this museum is a hidden treasure for history buffs and stamp collectors alike. It’s also free, uncrowded, and can be enjoyed in an hour or two.
During grade school, I was an avid stamp collector. So even today I understood how neat it is to see a specimen of the Penny Black (above), the first modern postage stamp. And as a lifelong student of American history, viewing the Pony Express cover below stoked my imagination about the Old West.
You see, stamp collecting’s biggest fascinations for me were the stories told by the stamps themselves and the imagined journeys of the letters and parcels to which they were affixed. I learned a lot about history, geography, culture, and famous people of all stripes and colors through stamps.
As a young boy who loved trains and airplanes, stamp collecting played right into those affinities. At the museum, you can step right into the old mail car pictured above and imagine postal clerks sorting letters and packages as the train zips along the tracks.
You can also gaze at this vintage, post-World War I de Havilland biplane and picture the daring young flyers who pioneered early air mail delivery.
The cover below was the only piece of mail carried by the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Europe in 1919. I read about this historic flight when I was a kid!
The letter below also has great historic significance. It was salvaged from the wreckage of the Hindenburg, the famed German airship that caught fire and burned to the ground as it was completing its transatlantic flight at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. (You can watch a YouTube video of the Hindenburg’s final flight and demise here.)
Given that both sides of my family are from Hawaii, I’ve long been fascinated by Hawaiian history. Postage stamps are a part of that story, and some collectors specialize in them.
In fact, one of my stamp collecting keepsakes is an unused private parcel stamp from the late 1890s, for use on the Kahului (Maui) railroad line. My late Aunty Elaine gave it to me years ago when I was stamp collecting. When our family visited Maui in 1966, we went on the very last train ride of the old Kahului railroad, a treasured memory to this day.
I shouldn’t dwell solely on the older stamps, so here’s a more recent one that caught my eye. This adorable little critter was one of ten cats and dogs selected for a postal commemorative series celebrating the adoption of rescue animals.
About a decade ago, I attempted to get back into stamp collecting, but I found that work and other activities got in the way of this studious and more reflective hobby. Over the years, however, I’ve continued to pick up stamp issues and covers here and there. Somewhere within me the stamp collector still lurks, and this was proven to me again by my enjoyable visit to the museum.
Six years ago this month, I was embarking on one of the great adventures of my life: A week-long storm chase tour, sponsored by Tempest Tours, a professional storm chase tour company.
Okay, so maybe I exaggerate, but not by much. You see, ever since I was a kid growing up in NW Indiana, I had harbored a fascination with tornadoes. When I was very young, a tornado touched down in our town of Griffith, Indiana. Mom had my brother Jeff and me safely huddled in the basement. (I don’t know if we actually were huddled; it just sounds like the thing to do when a tornado is passing over one’s home.) Fortunately our home was not badly damaged, although I remember being bummed that our swing set was blown over!
Ever since then, tornadoes had this draw upon me. Well into my adulthood, I would have dreams about tornadoes (and still do). When I read a newspaper travel section piece about a storm chase tour written by novelist Jenna Blum (a bestselling author and now among my dear friends), I tracked her down and asked her whether this was all legit. She was effusive in her praise of Tempest Tours, so I
saved up my money got out my credit card and signed up for their “Memorial Day Week” tour in May.
Our group of 20 or so converged on a “base motel” near the Oklahoma City airport, and we began our tour with an extended orientation on the art and practice of storm chasing, safety issues, and general logistics. Our guides were honest with us in saying that a storm chase tour cannot guarantee a tornado sighting; after all, Mother Nature is not in partnership with them. (Real storm chasing, you see, rarely involves hopping in a car or van and then quickly running into a bunch of tornadoes.) Nevertheless, they promised to do their best to show us some of the best stormy weather during our week together.
For our first tour day, it appeared that our best bet would be to blast into Nebraska, where the forecasts indicated some promising mischief in the skies for the next day. We loaded up our stuff and hopped in the tour vans for the ride north.
Within around 90 minutes of departing OKC, however, the radar picked up a small front in northern Oklahoma that had produced a supercell, a storm capable of spawning a tornado. And so began our first storm chase!
We had no idea that we had hit a surprise jackpot. This supercell would spawn multiple tornadoes. Our first sighting is pictured right below. I was awestruck; my heart was pounding with excitement.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening following this storm and watching numerous tornadoes. It was a singularly memorable day. Even writing about it gets my adrenalin going.
The typical chase day is not so dramatic, at least in the morning. Breakfast is followed by a morning weather briefing. Here, Bill Reid, veteran chaser and our lead guide, previews the day’s chase.
The late morning and early afternoon often involve a lot of driving to position the group for the most promising storm(s) of the day, paying close attention to evolving weather forecasts. Next comes more driving around the targeted area, followed by . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . more driving . . . and more waiting. You spend a lot of time gazing into the sky. It can be a very contemplative experience.
When you sign up for a storm chase tour, you start rooting for bad weather during your vacation. On days when the weather is nicer, or when your group is driving hundreds of miles to position themselves for a stormier brew the next day, you may stop at tourist-type places to see local sites, like the Monument Rocks in Kansas.
Tornadoes are not always easy to see, especially if they’re wrapped in heavy precipitation. Here’s a rain-wrapped tornado going through Kearney, Nebraska. Though the photo doesn’t capture it, we could see sparks of electricity from power lines as the tornado made its way through the town.
It’s not all about chasing tornadic storms. Looking into the sky while you’re in wide open spaces can be an awesome experience. Sometimes the views are simply spectacular. As corny as it sounds, it gives you a new appreciation for nature.
Storm chasing is not for rank amateurs. It’s why I’ve paid good money to travel with, and learn from, some of the best and most safety-conscious storm chasers around. If we needed any reminder of the deadly power of these storms even for those trained in intercepting them, last May a massive tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma caused the deaths of three experienced, responsible tornado researchers, to the shock and grief of the storm chasing community. The risks posed by these storms must be honored.
I’ve been on four subsequent storm chase tours since 2008. Each has been memorable. While I probably won’t be chasing this spring or summer, I’ll be checking the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center regularly and turning on The Weather Channel when the skies get murky in Tornado Alley.