News flash, Postal Service patrons in the District: the mandatory furlough of several federal offices today also means that one of the central branches of the United States Postal Service in our nation’s capitol is completely inaccessible today, as it is located in the same building complex as the EPA.  Not knowing of the furlough, I was completely befuddled this morning when I attempted to access my usual on-the-way-to-work Post Office and found the building locked and bolted at every entrance.  It took me ages to figure out what was going on.  Call me crazy, but it just seems nuts to shutter any branch of a federal agency that needs money as much as the dear old U.S. Mail—one of many government services upon which I daily rely.

What I had to do instead was call up the Post Office in the USDA building, verify they were indeed open, make my way across the Mall, go through security, sign in, get approval to access the P.O., get directions from several employees along the way (who were all very helpful and kind), and eventually make my way through the rabbit warren that is the Agriculture building to the little one-woman Post Office in the sub-basement, where I was finally able to post two important packages before the holiday weekend.

Of course, this speaks to a larger D.C. problem: the dearth of actual Post Offices conveniently located in the downtown. Millions of CVSes and Wells Fargos where you can buy stamps (which, irritatingly, the USPS web site brings up in its search for you), and like five actual full-service counters where you can do complicated things like purchase unusual stamp denominations and combinations, and speak with a human postal employee who is willing to help you. Between my apartment and the Metro, there is both a UPS Store and a FedEx outlet, but no Post Office (it’s in the opposite direction—though it is close, it is not on the way to anywhere). What is wrong with this picture?

Gimme shelter (at home).

I’m visiting friends in Boston, and very glad that I arrived on the train yesterday. We’re safe on Beacon Hill on this lovely spring day, with land-line and mobile alerts coming to us from the city and the state. It’s basically been like a snow day here, but with 70-degree weather. Always good to be cooped up with friends!

A message from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
A message from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

The new old way of getting around.

As someone who doesn’t own a car of her own, recent news about proposed upgrades and expansions to the rail network in Massachusetts is a thrilling prospect, particularly for my future life in New England. Paul and I were thinking about these issues over the weekend, when we added another stretch of the Air Line State Park Trail to our walked-it list. The Air Line was a rapid route between Boston and New York City, operated by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad beginning in 1873, which began to be abandoned in the 1950s, although parts remained in operation until the 1970s. In the early 2000s, it was gradually turned into a long state trail, which runs 40-odd miles and counting across central-east Connecticut. We’ve walked a couple of its easternmost sections now, and each time we turn to one another and say, “Would it be incredible if we could just hop on a train in Middletown and be in Boston or New York in a couple of hours?”

The Air Line crossing the impressive Lyman Viaduct, ca. 1880.
The Air Line crossing the impressive Lyman Viaduct, ca. 1880.

The explosion of rails-to-trails projects in the past two decades, and the current interest in restoring and improving rail service in places like New England, as evidenced by Deval Patrick’s plan in Massachusetts and some improvements Amtrak has been making of late, are certainly reason for hope and celebration in times of high fuel prices and airfares. I have been taking the train regularly between Washington and New Haven, and have found it to be a wonderful way to get around, one I wish I could make use of whenever I travel. It is nowhere near the hassle of air travel, and I can actually get work done (which I can’t do on, say, the bus). If we could invest in more high-speed rail in this country, I think it would make a lot more sense for many travelers.

But while there is much to be enthusiastic about, when I walk on the Air Line, or get a glimpse of an abandoned track while driving around Connecticut, I feel like we are forgetting things. The first is the enormous set of changes we have witnessed in the past 60 years or so in how places in the U.S. are connected to one another. We have a tendency to imagine that we are always becoming more and more connected — through cars and highways and phones and the internet — but a mile on the Air Line, or a glance at an old rail route map, should dispel us of these notions. It’s not that we’re becoming more connected; we’re connecting up different places in different ways.

One of the big changes we’ve seen is how small towns are connected to big ones, hinterlands to centers. When doing my own research, which relates to rural life in the 20th-century U.S., I am often struck by how closely connected rural places were, both to urban areas and to one another, for most of the century between the Civil War and the 1960s. Extension officials and agricultural and home demonstration agents write of their extensive travels across their states and counties, going primarily by train. While there is plenty of truth to the story of how the automobile transformed life for farm families in the early decades of the twentieth century, we have a tendency to imagine that these places were more isolated before the Model A than they are today. But that is only if you are speaking of short-distance travel between farms and from farm to town. If you want to know how easy it was for people living in small towns to travel beyond that space, contemplate some of these railroad maps from the late-19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries:

Railroads and Townships of Massachusetts, A. Williams & Co., Boston, 1879.
Railroads and Townships of Massachusetts, A. Williams & Co., Boston, 1879. (Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, digital ID g3760 rr002350.)
New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines, 1929.
New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines, 1929.
New Haven Railroad, 1956.
New Haven Railroad, 1956.

It’s clear that, while major urban areas have always had great connections to one another, one of the big differences between even the 1950s and today is how big cities are connected to smaller towns that are not necessarily their suburbs, and how those smaller towns are connected to one another. In most cases, they aren’t anymore, by any means of transportation other than the automobile.

For instance, in the 1920s, it would have been possible for Paul and I to take a steamboat directly from our home in Middletown, CT, to Trefethen Landing on Peaks Island, Maine, where the Ericksons have a summer cottage. To get there now, we drive about five hours overland, including the always-a-huge-pain-in-the-butt stretch of 495 around Boston, then have to pay an arm and a leg to either park our car somewhere in town, or bring it over on the ferry. I’m sure it’s faster, but I’m not sure it’s better.

Ithaca, NY, another town in which I’ve spent a lot of time, is another great example. When I lived in Ithaca during the summer of 2011, I had my bike as my sole form of transport. When I wanted to visit my parents in Albany, I had to rent a car. If I wanted to go to New York City to visit a friend, or to Connecticut to visit my husband, I would have had to either fly or rent a car again. There was no bus service to be found. But each day I was in the archives, reading reports of extension workers who were taking trains from Ithaca all over the state and beyond, to towns as small as Geneseo and as large as Chicago or New York City. I was jealous. Why was I trapped in Ithaca’s heat wave, when the people I was studying could travel so freely?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that “things were better in the old days” or anything like that. As we are wise to remember, the railroads were the original trusts and monopolies, the corporations that gave us standard time, that helped exterminate the buffalo, that benefited more than possibly anyone from government subsidy, and that mastered the art of turning state favor into enormous profit. They explain so much about landscape change in this country, about settlement, about politics. They are surely deserving both of our pride and our invective, from the Canadian Railroad Trilogy to The Octopus.

Nonetheless, I still like to travel by rail. I hope to be able to do it more and more in the future. Although there is something magical about walking along a track once traveled by high-speed trains, on the whole I think I’d rather be able to travel that way, too.

Going faster miles an hour.

Scott has alerted me to this news story, which is one of those things that doesn’t really matter, but definitely brings a smile to the face of this former Mod Nite goer, who has since often listened to “Roadrunner” at full volume with the windows down speeding through the darkness on some summer night in Massachusetts. Perfect.

Okay, now you say it, Modern Lovers…

Winter comparisons.

Projected highs for today, in degrees Fahrenheit:

Middletown, Connecticut: 49
Madison, Wisconsin: 40
Albany, New York: 49
Minneapolis, Minnesota: 39
Portland, Maine: 41
Kiev, Ukraine: 14
Berlin, Germany: 10

It’s a good thing I brought my merino wool long underwear!

I know this is a major cold snap here in Europe, but as someone who thinks this is just normal winter weather, it’s a bit hard to believe that 14 degrees in Kiev or 5 degrees in Moscow is newsworthy. But, as a February trip to Mississippi last year taught me, what constitutes severe winter weather is completely dependent on what the average person and municipality is prepared for. When you don’t have snow plows, or piles of sand and salt, or even just a brush and ice scraper in your car to clear off your windshield, then, yes, an inch of snow can be dangerous.

Personally, I’m loving the cold, because I can dress for it; and it means it’s sunny here most of the time. Today they sky is clear and flawless blue. I’ve been in way, way, way worse cold on more than one occasion.

The Moccasin Bar, Hayward, Wisconsin, February 2007.
The Moccasin Bar, Hayward, Wisconsin, February 2007.
Inside the Moccasin Bar.
This is what you do when it's 40 below zero.

Cat in an empty apartment.

Die? One does not do that to a cat.
Because what’s a cat to do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls.
Caress against the furniture.
It seems that nothing has changed here,
but yet things are different.
Nothing appears to have been relocated,
yet everything has been shuffled about.
The lamp no longer burns in the evenings.

Footsteps can be heard on the stairway,
but they’re not the ones.
The hand which puts the fish on the platter
is not the same one which used to do it.

Something here does not begin
at its usual time.
Something does not happen quite
as it should
Here someone was and was,
then suddenly disappeared
and now is stubbornly absent.

All the closets were peered into.
The shelves were walked through.
The rug was lifted and examined.
Even the rule about not scattering
papers was violated.

What more is to be done?
Sleep and wait.

Let him return,
at least make a token appearance.
Then he’ll learn
that one shouldn’t treat a cat like this.
He will be approached
as though unwillingly,
on very offended paws.
With no spontaneous leaps or squeals at first.

~ Wisława Szymborska (1923–2012)

Interesting articles from the past few days.

Things are busy here, so I thought I’d just post a few links for now. These are articles and pieces I’ve found interesting over the past few days.

a photo essay on pronatalist policies in the Caucasus

a lovely piece about stories and the art of listening

And some interesting parallels between these two online-versus-brick-and-mortar stories:

on Amazon

on online public schools

Good resonances in that last one with a central a lesson of the listening story: information ≠ knowledge.