Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

I still read Garrison Keillor. Since he retired from the radio show, Prairie Home Companion, his weekly syndicated column from the Washington Post began appearing in our local newspaper. When I wanted to recall last week’s column, I found on the Internet his column was at least weekly but extra ones occasionally appeared, apparently at random. I now read him both on the Internet and in our newspaper.

The column I wanted to recall was of September 27. In it, he quotes Minnijean Brown (later Minnijean Brown-Trickey).

You have probably forgotten who she was, but she was one of the nine black students attending the opening day of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, on September 25, 1957. They were guarded by over 1,000 federally-assigned paratroopers as Governor Orval Faubus stood defiantly on the school steps. The “Arkansas Nine” needed guarding as they worked their way through crowds of snarling citizens exercising their constitutional rights to protest in the ugliest way possible.

In response, Minnijean said, “I figured, ‘I’m a nice person. Once they get to know me, they’ll see I’m okay. We’ll be friends.’ ”

And that’s how the movement started. No matter how you may feel the movement has warped into something different, it started like this, with the gentlest of expectations.

(Perhaps I am especially tolerant because virtually all of us will end our lives in the care of a black woman. I am close to that age, now, but I don’t expect Minnijean, herself.  She has a doctorate and is a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.)

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Longwood Gardens Maps

I often see visitors puzzling over the maps of the grounds given out by Longwood Gardens. The maps are in various languages, both European and Asian, but visitors still puzzle over them. When I approach to help, their first question is often, “Where are we on the map?”

Problem solved. Technology has caught up. If you open the interactive map on the Longwood website (Longwood has a a free WiFi connection throughout the Gardens, or you can use your own smartphone connection), you will see a blue circle marking your position that will move along with you. This is possible because smartphones and tablets today have a GPS function that an interactive map can use.

There are two ways to get to the map.  You can simply enter (Note it is .org, not the more familiar .com or .net, and “map” is singular.  This one map does it all by zooming in or out. Every browser I know of will automatically add the preface “http//:”)  Or, you can log into the Longwood Garden’s website,, then click on “Maps” prominent in the upper right corner of the opening screen. You can’t miss it.

The opening screen on the computer version has a view of the new fountains taken by a flying drone that is worth seeing. You can see the open spaces and benches the fountain area now has. (The site graphics are different for phones and tablets to account for their smaller screens and narrower bandwidth capabilities.)

My favorite place in all of Longwood Gardens is the Acacia Passage, especially in winter when its tiny yellow flowers are in bloom on long, dangling vines. After the bloom, the gardeners severely prune back the vines, as they must to make room for next year’s growth. Come after the pruning, and you will not be impressed by the stubble.

I panicked when the Acacia Passage did not show on the map, but all I needed to do was zoom in a little further.  (The search box takes you away from the map.) The map is designed for the tiny screen of a smartphone and more details emerge as you zoom in. Many areas have photos that open with a click.

(Most of the references to the flowers in the Acacia Passage are about other flowers displayed there, but I think the acacia blooms themselves are magical.  The plants give off a faint cinnamon-like odor that generates memories of my childhood visits. Another volunteer from South Africa, where acacia grows wild. said it evokes childhood memories for her, too. We both agreed the faint smell is different from any other.)

International Exit Icon

There is an orange icon on the map of a stick-man getting up from a wheelchair.  Younger people are used to icons with no explanation, but I am not.  Click on that one and it will highlight all of the paths accessible by wheelchair (or scooter, or stroller).  The stick-man, I have learned, does not represent getting up from his wheelchair, but zipping along on his own power.

(Icons are easy to mistake.  When in China, I saw many icons of a running man (above).  I thought this was the symbol for a restroom, but it is the international symbol for “exit.”  Now I know, but I still think he looks like he is running into a brightly-lit restroom.)

If you are not at Longwood Gardens, obviously the map cannot show your position. (I confess I am only relying on Longwood’s description of the blue dot.  I cannot test it here on my home computer, and I always forget to test it on their tablet while I am there.  I do know you can still view the map on your home computer to plan your visit.  Except for the dot, all else will be the same.)  Once you are here and you do not have a tablet or a smartphone you can carry around with you, many volunteers throughout Longwood are supplied with iPads that can display the map and your location on it.  I expect visitors will understand the blue dot actually on the map much better than my vaguely waving finger.  I promise to use the map more often.

You cannot (yet) draw your planned route on the map, but they have many smart people constantly working on their website, and I would not be surprised to find that feature on a future update.

Be tolerant.  Some websites, like Longwood’s, are necessarily complex because they have a lot of information for a variety of users: students, contractors, employees, volunteers, and visitors.  Each comes to the website with a unique set of needs and knowledge.

Zooming in on the map will open more details and labels.  If you are operating an Android system, don’t bother going to the Play Store to download a Longwood Gardens app.  The only ones are for the the Bruce Monroe light show of several years ago.  You have to go to the Longwood Gardens website for the current information.  Apps no longer supported should be taken down by their owners or at least warn you on their opening page.

When I encounter any complex website with many menu levels, I try to find the site map. The site map lists all of the pages on that site with their links, and I often go there first (or as a last resort) to find what I want. You can find all sorts of nooks and crannies of information on a site map, I kid you not, but sometimes you wish there was a site map to show you where the site map is.

Rather than spending most of your day searching for the Longwood Gardens site map, you can go directly there by  (The site map lists a blog, but that blog is not this one.)

Note 9/29: I was at Longwood, did use the map with my Nexus 7 tablet, and the blue dot worked as advertised, both on the grounds and inside buildings.  An unidentified icon of a large blue dot with an arrow at an angle on one side, looking like the symbol for a male, will center the map on your position.

Occasionally, the map was slow to respond, but that could have been the fault of my tablet, and perhaps a weak signal where I was standing.  But respond it did, with enough patience.  All-in-all, a very helpful tool when visiting the Gardens.

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Cutting My Own Hair

I have been cutting my own hair for 40–50 years, and that means I have not been to a barber in 40–50 years. If I had to go now, I would not even know where to go. The last barber shop in our area closed about 10 years ago. (The owner and head barber was often in the news because he had breast cancer.  Even men can get breast cancer.)

His was a typical, old-fashioned barber shop with about three barbers manning three chairs. No appointment was necessary, or even possible. You just went on a Saturday morning and waited your turn.

Where did the barber shops go? I never see red-and-white striped barber poles anymore. Where do men get their haircuts, today? Surely, not everyone cuts their own. I’ll have to ask my sons.

I had already practiced on my young sons when I started on myself. My hair had gotten so thin and wispy, the time and effort required to get to a barber, let alone the $5 charge (nobody tipped a barber back then, and I have never tipped a barber in my life), seemed a joke. Who would care how badly I cut it? And why would I care what anyone thought?

I was right. My social life did not suffer one iota when I started cutting my own hair. I started by using several spacers that came with the clippers. (The spacers are shown in the photo above.  You can’t see it, but each one is a different height.  They fit over the blades to keep them from getting too close.

“Spacers” are only what I call them.  The clippers themselves are adjustable for any desired height between those set by the spacers.) Back then, I cut my hair about 1/2-inch on the top, 1/4-inch on the sides, and 1/16-inch on the back and sideburns. Today, I only use the one 1/4-inch spacer for everything (including my eyebrows). I have never used scissors, thinking they require greater skill, too much for me. (The reversed image in a mirror, alone, is often more then I can handle.)

Now that I think back on it, my wife cut my hair with a comb and scissors for a short time at the beginning. She thought her results looked good, and she was the only one that mattered. I never even checked for myself in a mirror (although I did make a show of it and telling her how good the haircut looked).  I started taking over gradually, using the clippers myself, and her for a final evaluation and touch-up. Her touch-ups became more and more brief.

I was encouraged by an early mistake. I was taking it very casually, reading a magazine while I cut, and I forgot to put any spacer on the clippers. I could tell almost immediately something was wrong by the sound, “GRrrrr,” but I had already gouged a 1/16-inch swath about 3-inches long up one side. But no one later said anything, and within a few days, it had grown out enough to be unnoticeable. (The surrounding hair was only 1/4-inch long.  There wasn’t much to catch up with. ) I lost no friends over it and my wife did not leave me. Since then, I figured even the worst mistake would not matter much. Having thin, mousey gray hair is a blessing. Not much left to lose.  I would advise Donald Trump to follow my example.

I have found the important variable to get all of the wispy hairs is the time the clippers are touching your head.  You can use many rapid strokes, or fewer slow strokes.  The results will be the same.  The skill required is almost zero.  And after I finish, I always spray the clipper blades with WD-40.  I used to use a light machine oil that came with the clippers, but the object is to protect the blades from moisture and the “WD” stands for “water displacement.”  I have used the same clippers from the beginning, so it must be working.

As a bonus, when my middle granddaughter was only about ten, I encouraged her to cut my hair. She loved it, I loved it, and even her friends joined in and loved it.  I considered the bad haircuts a badge of honor, done with love. In the next few years, she had gotten to be very good, and someday a boyfriend will benefit from her experience.

Neither of my sons have ever come back to me for a haircut.  Beginning high school ended that stage of their lives, I kid you not.



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What the Sam Hill, Cortana?

“What the Sam Hill?” was a phrase my father often used, but none of my generation did, and I had not heard it for years, not even in old movies where they often said  “swell” and called adult women “kid.” But I heard it last week, and it came out of me. All those years, it was sitting inside, ready to pop out in the right moment of stress. Who was Sam Hill? What does the phrase mean? I didn’t know, myself.

My grandparents on either side never used it, so it was not a Pennsylvania Dutch or an Old English thing. It seemed unique to my father’s time and had the earmarks of a trendy flapper-era term, or it may have been a Clifton Heights thing, and perhaps some of it migrated to Aldan.

Cortana, as some imagine her.

Ah, but this is the age of electronic information, and all I had to do was ask Cortana, the voice on my computer. Your computer may have a different, but similar, voice. She will answer questions, but not actually do anything. That would really sell computers.

(I do not picture Cortana as the image on the left. That must have been drawn by a testosterone-poisoned teenaged boy who is scared to death of real women.  I picture my personal assistant as an efficient post-menopausal woman, not a half-naked bimbo the age of my granddaughters. Putchur clothes on, Sweety, and get ready for school! Fred Weinstein of our safety patrol is waiting at the corner to help you cross the street.)

Cortana did have an answer—maybe not the answer, but an answer, which was more than I expected.

A Wikipedia reference has citations that go back to the 1830s, and suggest it was a simple bowdlerization of “hell.” Instead of saying, “What the hell?” you could say, “What the Sam Hill?” as something less offensive.  Today, even mature women say, “WTF?” and who cares if you are offended?

One early Sam Hill owned a general store in Arizona that carried almost everything (like Fairfax Hardware, my local hardware store). The original building still stands in Prescott, Arizona.

Another Sam Hill was a fiery Connecticut legislator who was the subject of the phrase, “Give ‘em Sam Hill!”

Still another Sam Hill was a famous millionaire businessman who became associated with the phrase in the 1920s, although he wasn’t yet born when it first appeared.

Yet another Sam Hill (1819–1889) was a Pennsylvania surveyor whose language was so foul his very name became synonymous with swear words. (I like this one the best. His language must have turned the sky blue to be so immortalized. He was a real cursing #$%&!!!)

And there is even the variant, “Samil,” which is a shortened name of the archangel Samuel that may factor in somehow. (My father never said, “What the Samil?”)

As with many popular usages, any of these Sam Hills could be a valid origin since all of their reputations contributed to the popularity of the phrase that my own father eventually picked up. Now I have it, too, I kid you not.

Scheduling Note:  My usual posting schedule has been on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  I am excited by each one, and I usually post them as soon as I can, shortly after midnight on those days.  But I can change, and will move up Monday’s posting to sometime on Sunday evening to give the weekend readers more material.  I can’t imagine this will make any difference to most, but thought I should let you know before you wonder, “What the Sam Hill is he doing?” If you still want to read Monday’s posting on Monday, it will be there waiting.

The change has nothing to do with my getting more sleep.  I can schedule a posting for anytime in the future, so I can be dead and gone, deep in my eternal rest, but I have enough backlog to speak from the grave for months and months.  Chilling thought!

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Misplaced Modifiers

Languages are either inflected, meaning endings are added to words to specify their relationship, or uninflected, as in English, where the relationship is specified by the position in the sentence. We find speaking an inflected languages (such as French) especially difficult. We have to first develop an almost instinctive knowledge of grammar so we can apply the endings on the fly. The natives do not need to know the grammar. By growing up with the language, one way just sounds right, and anything else does not.

We also go by what sounds right. We run into trouble when writing where we have no sound to guide us, except in our imagination. In our English grammar of position, a modifier modifies the closest thing to it. Sometimes we garble the order and the logical modifier gets separated from the modifiee.  Then what? Do we believe the logic or the grammar?

My favorite example of a misplaced modifier was a joke in the old movie, The Thin Man.

Nora Charles (Myrna Loy) walks into the room holding a newspaper. She tells Nick Charles (William Powell), lying in a hospital bed,  “They say you got shot in the tabloids!”

Nick replies, “They’re lying! The bullet didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

(The movie was released in 1934, just months before enforcement of the Hays Code began.)

“In the tabloids” should logically modify “say,” but it is too far away. The phrase is closer to “shot” and grammar tells us  that’s what it modifies.  All it took was for Nick to change the definition of “tabloids,” and you have the joke. (Actually, Nora’s line sounds stilted, but she said it better that it reads.)

Nora should have said, “They say in the tabloids you were shot,” and then there would be no confusion, but also no joke.

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Unwanted Office Buildings

Two venerable old office buildings in downtown Wilmington are being repurposed, or trying to be repurposed. Not enough companies want the traditional offices anymore.

The first is the Hercules Building, once the headquarters of the Hercules Chemical Company. The other, the newer one, is the Du Pont Building, once the headquarters of the Du Pont company. Those two were largely the reason Wilmington was known as “the chemical capitol of the world.”

I understand that even the most seemingly enduring companies go out of business and merge with other companies. Change is the American way. But this change is more fundamental. The very concept of an office has changed.

I’m talking about the traditional office we are all familiar with: The boss’s office with adjoining open space for his secretary, her desk and a filing cabinet or two. Corporate presidents, vise-presidents and directors with their own suites with an outer lobby manned (or, more accurately, “womaned”) by a receptionist/secretary. Support people with degrees in individual offices lined up on either side of a hallway. Lower support people grouped together in a larger room divided into cubicles. Nearby restrooms, vending machines, and a lobby with a receptionist and perhaps a cafeteria on the ground floor. Below that, underground secure parking.

Private restrooms for upper management had already disappeared by my time. Sometimes in our shared restrooms, I saw more than I wanted to see, and wished they had their own restrooms back. No one wants to see the boss’s package.

All gone. Business is not done that way anymore. The boss is no longer isolated in his own office (he was always a “he”). He is now one of the boys, working where they work. It is now a world of break rooms, shared offices, private areas (where the boss can reprimand an employee), playrooms (can you believe it?), and computer terminals everywhere within reach. The office, itself, is no longer in center-city, accessible by public transportation that no one uses anymore. but in a leased one-story building in the suburbs, surrounded by a huge parking lot. Much more convenient for everyone.

I think this new office system is just a fad that will have a short life.  In a few years I expect people will be clamoring for a return to the old offices.  But, who cares what I think?  I am a known fuddy-duddy, resistant to change.

Do you have any ideas for an obsolete downtown office building? A dog run, perhaps? Indoor tennis courts?  Many people are looking for suggestions.

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That Yellow Traffic Light

In most states, as long as the front of your vehicle entered the intersection (passed the crosswalk or limit line) before the light turned red, you haven’t broken the stoplight law. —Internet, 9/17/2017

Back in our high school days, Mr. Brown, our unfailingly patient Driver’s Ed teacher, taught us a yellow traffic light meant “clear the intersection.” If we wanted to make a left turn from a highway, we drove up to a green traffic light, stopped fully in the intersection with our left turn signal on, perhaps even turned a little left, and waited. The oncoming traffic would stop on the yellow signal, which gave us a chance to make our turn before the light turned red.

I only see drivers of our generation do this. Younger drivers do better.  They stop, pointed straight ahead, before entering the intersection and wait for a break in the oncoming traffic. If there is no break and the light turns red, they will wait for a green arrow at the start of the next cycle. Only a driver with a death-wish would purposely stop in an intersection on a yellow light. Those who do by accident back up as soon as they can.  Those behind them make room, recognizing a dangerous situation.  I suspect the laws have changed, but this is only my observation. Many highways now have left-turn lanes that encourage the new behavior.

As we know, many drivers in all states consider any yellow traffic light seen within a quarter of a mile ahead as a signal to stomp on the accelerator and speed through the intersection, even if the light turns red before they reach it. Many times I have felt guilty squeaking through a yellow light, then seeing in my rear-view mirror five more cars going through what is now an obvious red light.

Traffic engineers build in a few seconds delay between the light turning red and the cross-traffic light turning green.  The trouble is, drivers who use that route every work day know this.  They quickly learn how much grace time they have and depend on it to run the red light.  The engineers  can’t win.

In most countries—and states—there are two sets of traffic laws: the written, official laws handed out to minors, the mentally challenged, and foreigners, and the unwritten, unofficial laws that the locals know and abide by. (My wife claims the real speed limit is always at least 5 mph over the posted limit.  I think she is right.)


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