austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

'Cause a little bird never tells me anything I want to know

It may not seem like a long time since we were last together but for the latter half of her Spring Break week bunny_hugger came out to visit me. It would be a frightfully short visit, just Thursday to Sunday, but we would be together and that was the important thing.

It was also rainy, a theme that would run through the whole weekend and would drastically shape some of our time together. I can't blame the rain for getting me off to a slow start, although I can blame the road repairs being done on the turn from local roads to Route 9 to really putting me behind schedule. I would have been doing fairly well to get to Newark Airport in time for her flight's scheduled arrival if the jam hadn't left me stuck at an intersection through an extra traffic cycle, although since her flight got in quite early I'd have left her waiting around the baggage claim area without baggage to claim regardless. I'm glad I didn't decide to take time before setting out to do a half-hour Free Step on the WiiFit.

Nevertheless we got together, and held each other, and that's a pretty good way to start a weekend.

From the airport we drove not to my parents' home but, where else, to my alma mater? This would be in part the chance to show off some of the areas which were important to my formative years; it also let me return some books to the library and take out some others for purposes that I'll get around to explaining later if I don't forget. That might not sound terribly romantic or personal, but we are a pair of occasionally quite frustrated academics and at least I feel like we naturally gravitate towards campuses. And university libraries.

Although the campus has been partly savaged by renovations since I attended, particularly in the road system around it, much was still recognizable as what stuff was like when I was there. The mid-60s stylings of the Library of Science and Medicine, for example, still sparkle in their wooden-plank-handrails-inside-concrete-stairwell glory. There's a little museum-type display of What Libraries Used To use by the first floor stairwell, displaying such antiquities as microfilm portable readers, the punch-cards that used to be used for inventory control (and that are still buried in back of about half the books I take out, showing how literally people do take the warnings about removing them), one of the library's first laptops, and 3.5" floppy disks.

One book bunny_hugger ran across which amused her by its title was What Is Mathematics?, which is the sort of title that does sound funny tucked deep in the Q section of the Library of Congress system. I naturally spoiled the joke by asking if it was the one by Courant and Robbins, since their What Is Mathematics? is a wonderful introduction to many of the fields of mathematics. (As a general rule, any Courant and $_AUTHOR book is a rather good book on whatever the subject matter is. Courant had a knack for picking coauthors and whipping them into shape.)

In walking around campus I was able to point out what had been a long uninterrupted field (there's a new building blocking the street-facing side of it now) which as an undergraduate seemed like an impossibly long trek between where most of my classes were and where that particular Library was. It doesn't seem so far now, sure, but you know how it is being an undergraduate and walking to classes from the bus stop. I also was able to peek in the window to what had been the computer lab where I first used my first Unix account and was introduced to the WorldWideWeb and Usenet. Unfortunately it had been renovated and merged with the Mac lab where I wrote most of my unpublished Next Generation novel so there was even less to see there than I might have imagined.

But in the Mathematics building the nostalgic show was back in full force: there was the successor to the ice cream machine which used to taunt my meager weekly budget with the choice between several days' pinball ration or an ice cream sandwich, for example. The new machine is one of those that lifts the lid and pulls a selection out with a vacuum tube. The one in my day was a still metal box that lifted a selection on an elevator which, occasionally, malfunctioned and left your ice cream where it couldn't be extracted except by pulling hard enough on the stick or wrapper as to rip the ice cream open and mangle the whole thing on the shelf.

It also had the computer lab where I first learned to use Photoshop (closed, renovated out of existence as a public lab), the computer lab where I discovered SimCity 2000 the last month of my senior year and which consumed so much of that time and nearly all of Senior Week (still a computer lab but I must admit I'm not sure which of two candidates it was), or the world's most depressing student lounge ever that I rarely used because it was and is a few Uncomfortable Dorm-style sofas and chairs in an otherwise unadorned open square by the stairs. It's the sort of lounge designed in that late 60s ``the students might riot and the Commies might drop the bomb without warning, so we better design this to look like an air raid shelter so depressing the survivors will swiftly kill themselves'' style. Also in the Mathematics library was a sadly thick book promising all the Algol one needed to know.

With my library and primary nostalgic needs finished --- although, oddly, we didn't set foot on the other campus where I spent most of my extracurricular time, working on an unread weekly newspaper which mercifully didn't seem to have an issue out that week (I can't bear to be one of those folks comparing the newspaper to what it was When I Ran It, although I could happily compare the daily paper we used to mock back then to what it is now. Back when I was there, for example, the daily paper was much better about spelling the names of comic strips correctly) --- we drove on to something quite special to bunny_hugger and interesting to me. This would be letterboxing.

I'd seen my first letterbox and stamped my first entry when visiting her in February, and even discovered my first ``hitchhiker'', a portable letterbox tucked inside another letterbox. I'd forgotten to do the various stampings on that before leaving, but with her visit to me and the existence of letterboxes in the area, including one on the agricultural campus, there was a fine chance to get the hitchhiker cared for and relocated from the middle of Michigan to the middle of New Jersey. (It also seemed to me a pretty nice move for a box, although bunny_hugger's report was that the box had started on the East Coast and had only recently got out as far west as Ann Arbor. Well, movement is movement, anyway.) She'd printed out the clues to several letterbox locations and with luck we'd find at least one of them.

We would need good luck. Besides the day getting drastically colder fast and getting ready to rain again we would have only a little stretch of good weather Thursday and if the forecasts were right none at all the rest of the weekend (this was close enough to dead-on right). And finding a letterbox from the clues requires a bit of luck as well, since, first, letterboxes can easily go missing as they're found by people who have no idea what they are but imagine boxes with booklets and mysterious stamps inside can't be up to any good; or just because someone takes it in good faith and fails to return it; or it gets stolen by squirrels who need the ink pads. And then there's the migration of clues, since many will be tied to geographic features of a location which turn out to be surprisingly changeable.

For example, the directions to the first one we tried suggest starting at an intersection looking away from some trailers which were nowhere in sight. But we could find some structures which looked like they might have supported the existence of trailers and carried on as though that were as good as being in the right place. Then there was the frustratingly ambiguous direction of walking ninety paces left from a certain sidewalk spot, which if we took it literally would require us to walk directly through those tangly bushes apparently made of barbed wire and set foot in a drainage pond. We kept diverting around that, and around again, and somehow found by walking pretty well south of west that we ... got to what didn't quite sound like the tree promised as the location, but which seemed like the best fit of anything we could find among the candidate trees.

Somehow, amazingly, we did all this exactly right and bunny_hugger put her hand in the opening of the tree just like the directions said and the box was right there. We agreed that there was no possible logical way we could have found this, and yet, there it was. Triumph.

So she got out her stamp, and I got out mine, and we went to work on the slightly involved process of checking in a hitchhiking letterbox to a static one, as well as to getting my stamp put in the hitchhiker and into the new fixed-location one. And she got hers and ... if this sounds like a concentrated burst of acting like a notary in public, it kind of is, but it was still fun to have such a perfect bit of success, and so relatively easily. The only way to improve it would have been had it not been starting to rain, cold rain, as we were wrapping things up and finishing the cleaning, although since we had all the real work done before the rain came that was pretty good timing regardless.

One more pleasant side-effect of this route, instead of going straight home, is that it took us near enough my sister-in-law and her daughter that we could drop in and bunny_hugger could meet an energetic nearly-three-year-old. (She's met my brother and his wife before.) Unfortunately my brother had work obligations he couldn't get out of, but two-thirds of a loaf and all that, you know?

The meeting went very nicely, though. My niece is still at an age and temperament where whatever she's working on is the most interesting thing she's encountered, and a new person is a very interesting thing to work on indeed. bunny_hugger was also able to fascinate her with the various pieces of rabbit and star-and-moon iconography she has around her, not to mention an earring which brought some shininess into play. She also showed my niece how to play with the cheerleader-style pom-poms in what seems to be a novel way --- they can be used as a very silly plastic wig, or even be used to hide someone's face. My niece got perhaps a little too excited by the prospect of hiding my face behind the pom-pom and letting it go only when I had reacted with the proper horror at being cut off from everyone and everything in the world. But as far as introducing new tricks to the young one goes, this met with much more parental approval than did my mother showing ways to stab, back at Christmas.

We also shared dinner at a relatively fast food Mexican place, which has an almost unbeatable location. There's a strip mall which opened about two or three years ago and which so far has an renters ... that fast food Mexican place. It's otherwise remarkably desolate. The restaurant has been around stably for a year plus and brings this little cluster of parked cars to its location in an otherwise empty parking lot. How it sustains itself, none of us can fathom, although the spicy chili sauce is pretty respectably chili, I should point out. My niece enjoyed a series of cookies, including a replacement issued when she accidentally dropped nearly a full one; the replacement was broken up into pieces more sized to her hands.

Back home --- surprisingly late, even for how much we'd done in the day --- bunny_hugger saw my father for the brief and only chance she'd really get. He had been planning to visit my other brother --- the one she hasn't yet met --- that weekend for months and was setting off in the morning. But they got to say hello to each other at all.

Trivia: For the dedication of Los Angeles's Mines Field airport, the Army Air Corps staged a mock aerial attack. Source: Naked Airport, Alastair Gordon.

Currently Reading: Beyond The Wild Blue: A History Of The US Air Force, 1947 - 1997, Walter J Boyne.

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