Saturday, January 31, 2009

the minister's tree house and the museum of science and energy

Sometimes I wonder if everyone has bizarre things in their state and you just don't realize it until you look at the state as an outsider, the way I'm discovering the often really weird corners of Tennessee. Other times, I wonder if I moved to a magical kingdom of the weird and wonderful.

Case in point:

the minister's tree house

That's the Minister's Treehouse, in Crossville. A man named Horace built it over the past several decades, piece by piece out of scrap wood, because God told him to. Let that sink in for a minute. God told him to build a treehouse on that spot, so he built the best treehouse he could. Whether or not you believe in God, the treehouse itself is an impressive piece of work, especially from the inside.

There is a warning, though:

Warning from Horace

The treehouse is not for the faint of heart. While none of the boards moved under my feet and it seemed incredibly sturdy (I tested every single board before I put any weight on it, so my progress through the treehouse was incredibly slow), in most places you can see down through the spaces between boards. When I got to the second and third stories, it was way too much vertigo and height issues, and I couldn't climb any higher. You can also tell there are definitely no building codes in effect:

inside the treehouse

The most stunning part of the treehouse, though, is that there is a full sized chapel on the second or third floor, with a cross, pulpit, skylight, choir loft, and pews:

pulpit and bible

I don't know if anyone actually conducts services there, but it looks like it could hold 40 or so people. A couple of teenagers came in while I was there, and looked as dazed as I felt. One of them looked around and said, "This is kind of awesome", and I'd have to agree.

The Museum of Science and Energy, where I also went today, was kind of awesome in a completely different way. It's located in Oak Ridge, "America's secret city". They call it that because the Army Corps of Engineers built Oak Ridge during World War II in complete secrecy, housing 75,000 workers and scientists behind miles of fencing and guardposts to build the atomic bomb. It was the fifth largest city in Tennessee, and wasn't on a single map. Four smaller cities and a college were displaced and eventually destroyed to build Oak Ridge, because the government seized the entire valley and fenced it off. I can't imagine trying to do that today with the media, Youtube, blogs, i-reports, and things like that. The world really was an entirely different place back then.

Don't Have Accidents!

Before you even get into the museum, though, you have to walk past the World Trade Center sculpture out front:

World Trade Center sculpture

I can't decide how tasteless that is. There are two hollow twin towers, constructed out of scrap metal, the same thing that the real twin towers were turned into. Is it a fitting memorial, speaking of recycling and renewal, or a bad joke, like building a tomb out of human bones? More importantly, what the hell is that doing in Tennessee?

As for the museum itself, there are good points and bad points. The first floor is a museum of Oak Ridge, and the work that was done there. There are displays for the displaced towns, life in Oak Ridge itself, and the war in general. I found it really interesting that the Manhatten Project was shrouded in such secrecy that the workers themselves didn't know what they were working on. Bomb components were assembled in different factories and put together off site, and workers were told to turn this dial if that guage went above the red line but were not told what the guages measured or what turning the dials did.

Also, there were adorable kittens delivering bombs:

bomb kitty

It's when you go upstairs, to the Science and Energy part, that the real fun begins, because the whole place seems like it was designed by lobbyists. Have you ever seen strip mining that looked so clean and tidy?

strip mining

If you can't tell from that picture, a lot of it also seems very dated, like this nuclear radiation game that looks like it was designed for an Atari:

nuclear radiation game

As dubious as those are, though, they pale in comparison to the multi-wall display about how you get superpowers from cosmic energy:

captain photon

I wish I was kidding.

There are also some amusing random science displays, like the exhibit on blacklight:

glowing eye

And, of course, there's this:

plasma ball

Nothing says "SCIENCE!" like a plasma ball.

More pictures of both places, as well as the chicken that baked in the slow cooker while I was at them, are available on my flickr page.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

random photo roundup

Submitted for your approval, random photos that are completely unrelated to each other and boring anecdotes about them.

1) I took this one a while ago and forgot about it, but then it popped up on my screensaver the other night and I wondered why I'd never posted it:

sunsphere shadow

At the time I was struck by how odd it is to see an entirely round shadow outside of an eclipse. Fortunately, it's just the Sunsphere, not the eternal chase of Masaka and Korgano.

2) Jeannie and I had to stop on the way to work this morning and pick up 26 dozen cookies for a program:

26 dozen cookies

The cookies filled the cart.

3) I saw this tree on campus and liked the shape:

leafless tree

It was hard getting an angle without buildings.

Friday, January 23, 2009

man about town

In addition to my New Year’s resolutions, I also make unofficial ones, which is where I try to do things, but if I don’t make it I don’t have to beat myself up and feel really awful about being a total failure because it wasn’t a “real” resolution.

One of my unofficial resolutions was to have somewhere to go every weekend this year, and to bring the camera. It doesn’t have to be a huge roadtrip or anything, but just an excuse to spend the smallest part of Saturday and Sunday outside the safe womb of my apartment/hermitage. So far I’ve been doing pretty well, but I was also supposed to be unofficially resolved to update this blog regularly, and I’ve fallen behind on that.

One weekend my “place to go” was one of the streets I drive down every day to get to and from work. I do it so often that the scenery is no longer interesting, since familiarity breeds contempt, and I decided that I should stop and look along the road instead of just blowing through it as fast as I can on my commute. I actually did it before New Year’s, but I was already planning the unofficial resolution, so it totally counts.

Plum Tree dragon

mani pedi

lingerie mannequin

the americas

While on that trip, I saw a neon guy that I wanted to come back and see after dark, when he was all lit up, so I went out again another day, after dark:

neon waiter

My next big adventure was to head out to one of the greenways to look for the allegedly haunted remains of the flooded and then burned down Lakeshore Asylum. Unfortunately they tore the ruins down after the fire, but you can spot where the building used to be by following the road to where the driveway was. It’s still raised and flanked by trees, even though it’s not paved anymore, so it’s not hard if you look for it near the lowest point of the trail. Even though I didn’t get to tour the haunted ruins, the rest of the trail was nice.

twisty path



It also leads past some abandoned buildings on the grounds of the psychiatric institute.

oxygen storage

another closed building



I really wanted to know what they were like inside, because, you know, it’s not like Hollywood has spent millions teaching me that wandering alone into abandoned buildings on the grounds of your local psychiatric center right before an impending rainstorm is a bad idea, but I figured trying one of the doors and actually going inside would be trespassing.

Since I had such a good time walking that greenway, I decided to try one of the others in town, and go look at the trail around the abandoned, flooded quarry. (Does every town have one of those?) Since the one by the asylum was nicely paved, I assumed the quarry trail would be, too, but when I showed up after five days of rain it looked like this:


I’d worn flat deck shoes, which had absolutely no traction and were not ideal for a sloping trail that was 50-70 percent mud. Because of that I could only hike the flat side, but that means I can go on another trip out there later when it’s dryer and warmer. The part I saw was really pretty, though, and I want to go back anyway to see it in summer with green trees.

painted point

more rock cuts


In addition to the lake, which is all I expected to see, there are also some remains of the quarry buildings.


brick circle

crumbling wall

Then on the way home I drove past the coffee sign, and discovered that they have a turnoff nearby, so I stopped again.

the letter J

This past weekend, while I was out running errands, I remembered that I’d seen some vandalism by one of our buildings last week, so I went out to look it over:

loading dock graffiti

stairwell graffiti

I’ve already got a plan for this weekend, too, and some big dreams about the rest of the year. Did you know there’s a Paris, Tennessee, and that they have a replica of the Eiffel Tower? Or that Memphis has a Statue of Liberty holding a cross instead of a torch? And what about Graceland?

Someday I must see these things.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

52 pickup

For the third year in a row one of my New Year's Resolutions is to read a book a week this year. They don't actually have to fall within the week itself, but by the end of the year I should have at least 52.

So far, I haven't made it. This saddens me, because I've always thought of myself as a reader. In high school I always had a book in my bag in case I got bored, and it was the same in college. I was always reading books of my own on top of the reading load that an English major carried, but now I feel like I've slowed down. For 2007, my tally was 49 out of 52, and for 2008 I only managed 44. I realize 44 books is still a lot compared to some people I know (and have dated) who proudly boast that they only read magazines, but I feel like I can do better.

In any case, here are the 44 books I read this year, in case anyone cares:

1: James Othmer's The Futurist was funny, but not as funny as the cover said it would be.

2: John Grisham's Playing for Pizza was lighthearted.

3: Douglas Coupland's Generation X was vaguely unfocused and drifting, like the subject matter.

4: Lance Bass' Out of Sync was so laughably terrible that I'm convinced he wrote the entire thing himself. After I finished it, the book spent a year circulating through our department so everyone could read it and laugh at it. Not only was the writing terrible, but the words were so big that I thought I got the large print edition by accident. It looks like he stayed up all night writing a term paper and thinking, "It has to be 180 pages. I know! Triple spaced 16 point font!"

5: Max Brooks' World War Z was pretty entertaining.

6: Todd Gregory's Every Frat Boy Wants It was a gift from a friend who thought it would amuse me, and she was right. It was amusing as hell. Apparently what every frat boy wants is to be behind a closed door in the frat house with another frat boy, pair of frat boys, pledge master, mailman, water polo player, or some combination of the above, so that they can engage in acrobatic, borderline painful-sounding sexual contortions. The worst part of all of this, other than the book itself, was that in April I forgot to send back the response card for my gay book club, and this was the main selection. That means I had it in paperback and hardcover, before both copies took a trip to the used bookstore.

7: Dean Koontz's Brother Odd was pretty entertaining.

8: Alan Weisman's The World Without Us was an entertaining, though provoking exploration of the artifacts humans will leave behind. Mt. Rushmore, which I had a chance to see as a child but did not get to because my parents went to the Cabella's super-store instead, will apparently last forever.

9: Stephen King's Blaze was a shameless attempt at emotional manipulation from an author with all the emotional subtlety of Homer Simpson.

10: James St. James' Freak Show was a decent plot about a gay-bashed teen who fights back by running for homecoming queen that was derailed by an overblown, pretentiously annoying effected writing style.

11: Carol Higgins Clark's Hitched revealed the author coasting on her mother's name even more than usual.

12: Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission kept filling me with rage and making me have to put it down. It's an investigation of how the "ruling class" of America buys their children's way into elite colleges, but it was also a reminder of the moments at my job where I have to skip someone ahead of 300 other students on the waiting list for a certain building because their mom is the alumni association president or we named the street behind the baseball field after their grandfather.

13: Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl was so vacantly plotless that I can't believe they found enough in it to make such a good TV show.

14: David Hajdu's The Ten Cent Plague was probably the best book I read this year. It was a good, well researched book, but it's always disturbing to read about how the media and the government piled onto a problem and stifled dissent and America's people blindly followed along based on no evidence, because it reminds you that even though this was half a century ago nothing, really, has changed.

15: Lincoln Child's Deep Storm was nicely diverting on my summer vacation.

16: Sam Staggs' All About "All About Eve" was a good book about a movie I love, and makes watching the movie even more fun.

17: Ray Bradbury's Let's All Kill Constance was not his best work.

18: Clive Barker's Mister B. Gone seems widely hated by the Amazon reviewers, but I found it sad and kind of touching despite the flaws. Unrequited love does that to me, I guess.

19: Peter Sagal's The Book of Vice was a good idea that I've seen other authors execute in a more entertaining fashion.

20: Douglas Coupland's JPod was grating and annoying to read.

21: Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You was good, but ground to a halt as if he had no ending in mind.

22: Christopher Rice's Blind Fall had a coherent plotline, an actual ending, and appeared to have been edited, so it was a shocking departure from his other work.

23: Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion was good, but I probably think that because I agree with most of it.

24: Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise was a sad, moving book, made more so by the story of the author. I found it really hard to separate my feelings for the book from my feelings for the author's tragedy, knowing that the things she was writing about as fiction were things she was experiencing at the same time around her while she was writing.

25: Kevin Anderson's The Last Days of Krypton added new layers of hubris to a familiar tragic story. It was a little light on actual science, but, you know, it's a novel based on a comic book written in the 1930's, so that could be expected.

26: Timothy Callahan's Teenagers from the Future was awesome, because it was a series of scholarly essays on my favorite comic book, the Legion of Superheroes. There are essays dealing with artistic styles, sexism, homophobia, feminism, drug abuse, racism, morality and ethical decision making, the dangers of technology, post-adolescent rebellion, fashion, and other topics, but it's probably not as accessible or enjoyable for a non-fan.

27: Mark Moran's Weird US The ODDyssey Continues was highly entertaining, and is the book that sent me on the road trip to the Giant Ten Commandments. That, alone, makes it worth it.

28: Gregory Maguire's A Lion Among Men was the second sequel to Wicked, and continues to water down a good book with mediocre followups.

29: Charles Mann's 1491 was a well written, well researched book offering a new look at life in the Americas before Columbus, but was lacking in a few geographical areas. It mainly focuses on South America, with side chapters on New England and the Mississippi delta, but pretty much ignores the American west, northwest, and arctic regions. Weren't those people doing anything interesting before Columbus showed up?

30-36: C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, which, even though I knew it was a Christian allegory, still managed to surprise me at the end. Skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled (if anyone is even still reading this list), but at the end of the last book all the kids get to stay in Narnia forever because there is a terrible train accident in London and they all die. And they cheer about this. Aslan is like, "You get to stay in Narnia forever, because you're all dead!" and the kids are all, "YAY!" Seriously, what the hell?

37: Preston and Child's The Wheel of Darkness is another decent thriller starring their superhuman FBI agent. It's time to retire that character.

38: Carol Goodman's The Night Villa was pretty good.

39: Stephen King's Duma Key was long without feeling bloated, but like so much of his recent work seems to be cannibalizing from his older stories. Imagine if Bag of Bones was about a painter instead of an author.

40: Stephenie Meyer's Twilight was pretty bad. It reads like the author's personal platonic love fantasy with the added bonus of having absolutely no action. The whole book builds up to this big fight, and then she doesn't show the fight because the first person narrator gets knocked out! She wakes up, and they're like, "Well, the fight's over. Everything's fine!"

41: John Grisham's The Appeal was pretty standard John Grisham.

42: Rob Rogers' Devil's Cape was entertaining, but starts off slow.

43: John Saul's The Devil's Labyrinth reads like someone gave him a checklist of topics and fun words, and he just shrugged and said, "I'll write a book with that."

44: Jeff Hobbs' The Tourists was a load of overhyped crap. He's trying just as hard to be Brett Easton Ellis as Marisha Pessl was to be Donna Tartt.

Reading this over, I've noticed I use the word "pretty" a lot, and contextually it's kind of useless. I think I'll add a resolution to stop doing that.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Today Jeannie and I were supposed to meet George and Rachel to go see "Doubt". When I drove over to pick Jeannie up, her husband was outside taking pictures of something by the dumpster, so I asked her what was going on.

"Last night I heard this screaming in the parking lot! It was this couple, and they were yelling at each other, and one of them was hitting the other, and then there was glass breaking!"

"Did you call the cops?"

"No, because the woman was hitting the man."

I glared, and was about to launch into a lecture on how equality for women means that they can be domestic abusers, too, and also on how this kind of thing never happens at my end of the apartment complex, but Jeannie cut me off.

"OK, I know, I should have called anyway. We're taking pictures so we can complain to the office."

I shrugged and we went to see the movie, which was good, but odd. The four of us couldn't agree on whether or not we thought the actual crime took place. Anyway, I drove home and we were sitting in the parking lot chatting, but completely not gossiping about anyone we work with or anything they might have done in the past three days, when I remembered the bloody glass and towels.

"Let's go look!"


crime scene

There was a lot more glass, and a beer can, but I was trying to get the tissue and the blood spots all over the sidewalk in the same frame. Jeannie filled me in on the part she witnessed.

"The car was parked here, and they were yelling and then someone broke the window. It went for a couple minutes."

"Probably one of them punched out the window. That's a lot of blood."

tissue closeup

We looked at the tissue and glass for a minute, and then noticed a bunch of bloody paper towels on the stairs leading from the parking lot to the sidewalk.

paper towels

This intrigued me.

"They had tissue, and then switched to paper towels. People don't keep paper towels in their car, so they must have gone back to an apartment. Probably because they were bleeding everywhere."

"If we knew who it was, we tell the office when we go complain!"

"We could follow the blood spots."


There were a lot, so we spent a couple minutes slowly walking down the sidewalk, pointing at spatters.

"There!" "There!" "Over there!" "There!"

"Why are they so far apart?"

"They were running."

"That makes sense."

Of course it does. Those decades of TV viewing had to pay off some time.

"We're like Nancy Drew and her gay boyfriend."

"Shopping buddy. I'm not your boyfriend."

After we figured out which apartment it was, we walked back to the parking lot, and I reconstructed the crime.

"They were fighting here. She was hitting him, so he got in the car to get away from her, and girls are crazy so she punched out the window. They had tissues in the car, so she grabbed one or he gave her one, then they realized she was gushing blood so they ran to the apartment to get paper towels. Then they ran back to the car to drive to the emergency room, and that's when they threw the beer out."

the beer

"Why would they stop to throw the beer out?"

"In case they got pulled over? If your window is smashed out and you're bleeding you don't want the cops to know you're drunk, too. Anyway, she cut her right hand, because she dropped the paper towel going up the stairs and the stair railing is on the left. Since she was drunk and staggering, she would have let go of the bandage to grab the railing and steady herself. There's no blood on the railing, so she grabbed it with her good hand. Then they got in the car and drove away."

"Cool. We should be detectives."


We might need a few more seasons of "Bones" and "C.S.I." first. And handguns.