Thus, the Diner

PHILADELPHIA — Often, we try to locate a decent diner early in any multiday stay. On our own, we stay at Hampton or Comfort inns that include a regrettably starchy breakfast. You still need a diner. For conferences, like the one of last weekend, you reside on-site. The Sofitel here had a terrific and expensive restaurant. No mini-coffee maker in the room but complementary morning coffee and tea downstairs was welcome and unusual in this class of hotel. We still needed a diner.

My Beloved spotted it on our first walk through the hotel’s neighborhood: Little Pete’s, 219 S. 17th St. at Chancellor, 24/7. On our first full day, we had wonderful short-order-grill omelets — cheddar, mushrooms and peppers for her, feta and spinach for me — with decent hash browns and an unexpected treat, rye toast. This was not breakfast or even a weekday brunch but a late lunch (mid-afternoon) that we do so often, at home or on the road, that we have named this very early dinner as “linner.”

We ate at Little Pete’s two more times. Once comprised salads and sandwiches late in the evening because linner at 3 will leave you hungrier than a dessert will take care of at 9. And we had a breakfast-time breakfast, though they already had run out of oatmeal, which M.B. was counting on. Cash-only, and Little Pete’s is not listed in any of the tourism guides — it’s a local joint.

Price is part of it, but convenience matters more. Travel also forces an economy of time, along with realizing while fine dining is a delight of travel, it can deaden the senses. If you’re spending 50 minutes looking at guidebooks, chatting up the concierge or Googling on the lobby PC to choose a place where you’ll be eating — for 70 minutes — that can start to feel depraved, especially if done more than once a day.

A decent all-night diner — though more than once we’ve used a Panera Bakery Café instead of the ol’ greasy spoon, and Whole Foods Market was a revelation last fall, being a pricey grocery but a moderately priced cafe full of healthy food — helps the traveler better place priorities. Economy of time: Add up all the travel expenses and divide into the number of hours you’re away. Time is what you’ve saved for all year, and yet you need sleep and other down time. A taxi thus can make economic since (though in Philly the inexpensive train/subway can be faster by missing traffic). And the diner cuts out the recurrent discussion, “Italian or pizza?” “Chinese or Thai?” that not only blows minutes but makes hungry people cranky.

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Word Pictures. Picture Words

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Museum of Art had a special exhibit of the calligraphy of the 17th-century Japanese artist Ike Taiga, as well as his wife, Mamie.

As is customary, he illustrated the words with scenes of woods, mountains and a few people here and there. Often Taiga and Tokuyama Gyokuran (his wife, really) used the poems of others but sometimes they wrote their own verses as well. Illustrated words, or captioned pictures is a strain of modern art, too, but the current efforts so often are diary entries where the young artist whines at best, lectures viewers at worst.

One Taiga work struck strongly. It shows a man sitting at a window, looking at a pastoral scene. The poem is “Convenient for Chanting Poems” by Li Yu (1611-1680) (translator not named):

My window shutters with no set purpose open on a mountain view:
I need not go in search of poems, poems come here of themselves!
Don’t marvel that my purse is poor, while I’m rich in poems and verses:
It’s only since I’m living here, in a little paradise.

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Tuesday’s flights were delayed by well-reported storms in the middle of the country, particularly in Texas. Our 4:15 flight from DFW to XNA took off more than four hours late. On arrival home, we found our checked luggage to be soaked through. Doesn’t Dallas put tarps on those luggage carts? But we didn’t really have a monetary loss on which to file a complaint. The bags and shoes dried out, we washed all the clothes, and as I had wrapped important columnist documents (several government proclamations of welcome) in plastic bags so while damp the ink didn’t run.

So I resort to griping here. If a duffel or a suitcase falls apart the next time I use it, or a similar calamity, I still have the claim checks.

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The conference sessions of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists are covered thoroughly by Dave Astor for Editor & Publisher, which is searchable. May I suggest the key words “columnist” and “Philadelphia” to start with. -30-

Uncle Cousin

PHILADELPHIA — A fellow columnist, Ernesto Portillo Jr., on hearing my description of my mom’s favorite cousin, who’s lived in a suburb in New Jersey for 19 years, said last week, “Mexicans would call him your uncle, never mind the precise lineage.” I’ll continue to call him by his name, or Cousin (my brother calls him Cuz, and Mom was the only one allowed to call him by the childhood name Junior), but Ernesto nailed the relationship: Uncle-Nephew.

I have few relatives. Dad had a much older brother, my blood uncle, but he married late and had no children. Mom was an only child, and this man we’re seeing was, well, as close to a brother as she ever had, she in Fort Smith and he in Hot Springs, but the families got together several times a year. He spent most of his adult years in New York, and visits at best were annual. I haven’t seen him in 11 or 12 years, but we write and phone.

We met here Sunday after the conference, visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art, concentrating on the favorite of the three of us, Impressionism. We traveled to Medford on Monday and spent the afternoon at his home.

Uncle Cousin at 85 is a lifelong traveler, and he always has great stories about his trips. Earlier this month he returned from a couple of weeks seeing several Adriatic countries. I hoped to hear sage advice from him on our trip to Philly. We talked about everything else, but maybe I picked up what I needed: The importance of planning even when circumstances later force changes. The openness to improvisation and surprise must trot alongside the research and scheduling. But most of all, being aggravated is a part of travel. He is easily annoyed, as we are, too. I thought that had to be ditched, in order to tolerate travel, but apparently you take yourself with you wherever you go.

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Pennies Tossed

PHILADELPHIA — While columnist conferees last Friday toured both the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, I had a 40-year closure issue with Benjamin Franklin so My Beloved and I skipped the latter.

When I was age 10 3/4, late summer 1968, Dad had business in Camden, N.J. Time for a road trip! From Fort Smith, we first drove my sister to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where she would have been starting her sophomore or junior year. The eastbound destination, for Mom and me, wasn’t Jersey but Philadelphia (we then drove to New Orleans for business then back to Arkansas).

The Pennsylvania stop turned into an oft-told family story: We saw the main historical sites in an afternoon, ending at Christ Church Burial Ground. We reflected on the grave-and-a-half-wide flat stone covering the remains of Franklin and his wife, Deborah. Being such an old churchyard we explored it, seeing resting places of other signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was dusk and soon time for dinner. But the gate was locked. Whoever closed the cemetery for the night didn’t see we still were there. We shouted to passers-by. The caretaker was just down the street, fortunately, and he returned to let us out.

Having not been back to Philly since, I had to see the grave again. Coincidentally, it was closing time again — who ever heard of shutting down a tourist site at 4 p.m. in the middle of visitors’ season? The two young bucks at the gate let us in for five minutes, until 4:15, just to see Franklin’s grave, for half price, a dollar apiece.

Lingering at the site were a man and his two young daughters. As we approached the girls were jumping on the flat stone, about 8 inches off the ground, and the dad was doing nothing. Sacrilege! Continue reading

Down to the Wire

PHILADELPHIA — The final sessions of the 2007 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists were the most traditional. In panel discussion format, largely avoided until this morning, perennial subjects were again addressed: techniques, ethics, books and technology.

This will be brief, a note or two on each. After all, three panelists and a moderator turn into transcription summary mush. And to what end. These are trade secrets. Want to know more? See you in New Orleans in June 2007.

Columnists turned authors emphasized considering the Publication on Demand format, except for when they didn’t.Dave Lieber said look for better price points with overseas printers, then market yourself online and in person with the confidence you want to project. Jennifer Weiner and Lisa Scottoline have New York publishers; the vanity press need not wait for their checks, yet they put in their years first and still work diligently.

Ethics turns into a not-black, not-white, but gray area again, where each incident is judged separately. In part this was today due to having as one panelist Philadelphia Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross, where his beat keeps him in nightclubs while the rest of us debate accepting a cup of coffee. Continue reading

Dave Barry, But Seriously

PHILADELPHIA — Amazing speakers addressed the opening morning of the 31st annual conference of the National Conference of Christians and Columnists, er, National Conference for Columnists and Justice, er, National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Time, and the potential for flagging interest (mine or readers?), prevents a full transcription of today’s notes. So, Dave Barry or Bill O’Reilly? Or a panel discussion of the First Amendment? OK: free speech in action.

O’Reilly — yes, the Fox News / Factor dude — writes a syndicated column published in a couple hundred papers. He spoke the way fans and foes would expect. I was neither, because I’ve never seen the show. I’ll start watching it some because he was entertaining. Also funny, smart, arrogant, and wrong. Is he as influential as his critics contend? The most popular political talker on cable still means he’s no Oprah. Oprah in ratings beats Leno and Letterman, who are network stars, not cable.

Dave Barry skipped his routine campus speech and talked writing mechanics. He apologized for his tips being obvious, but that doesn’t stop them from being ignored from all of the humor writers and would-be humorists and would-be writers who are not Dave Barry.

“There are no rules for humor, but here are mine:”

  1. It should be funny. “A writer might be amused by something, but he doesn’t use — here’s a technical term — ‘jokes.'” Continue reading