Up in the Air: Milwaukee and Miami
Christina writes: Earlier this year, Wayne and I were invited by Bill Fliss, Archivist in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to give a public lecture as part of Marquette’s programme to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. Marquette has a special reason to celebrate this anniversary, since its Archives contain original manuscripts, typescripts, and proofs of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Mr. Bliss. We agreed to speak on 8 November, and that Tolkien’s art would be an appropriate topic, drawing upon our latest book, The Art of The Hobbit, as well as our earlier J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. For the title of our talk, we chose ‘J.R.R. Tolkien and the Art of Middle-earth’, and aimed to cover Tolkien’s illustrations for ‘The Silmarillion’ and The Lord of the Rings while, naturally, paying special attention to The Hobbit.
We were happy to visit Marquette again, where we have spent many hours doing research, and to speak under the auspices of a fund established by our late friend Richard E. Blackwelder. I first met Dick Blackwelder in 1987, when I stayed for a few days with Gary and Sylvia Hunnewell in St. Louis, Missouri, and they took me to visit Dick south of St. Louis in Cape Girardeau. Dick was an eminent zoologist who in his retirement discovered Tolkien and turned his scientific mind to collecting primary works (particularly Ballantine editions), theses and dissertations, secondary sources (carefully referenced and indexed in a well-defined scheme of arrangement), and portraits of Tolkien (photographs, cartoons, artist’s impressions). His Tolkien Thesaurus was published in 1990. Also that year, Wayne and I stayed in Cape Girardeau for a few days to consult Dick’s Tolkien collection which Wayne found very helpful in settling some queries for his then forthcoming Tolkien bibliography. For a second visit a few years later, Dick had installed a photocopier, so that we could make copies of significant items lacking in my own substantial collection of reviews and secondary literature. Dick’s collection eventually went to Marquette, which was also a major beneficiary of his estate when he died in 2001 a few days short of his 92nd birthday. His bequest also helped to fund the 2004 Tolkien conference at Marquette, the proceedings of which we edited (The Lord of the Rings, 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder, published in 2006).
Wayne and I are wary of travel within the U.S. in the period from November to March, since our nearest airport is an hour’s drive over mountain roads which may be icy and not always speedily cleared, but we accepted the invitation from Marquette and kept our fingers crossed. In the event, the weather posed no problem; nevertheless, we rose early the day of our flight and left plenty of time to drive to Albany and to clear security. (Getting up early was not too difficult as we had put the clocks back only the previous Sunday, and despite our having gone to bed late after watching the election results.) While waiting at the gate, I began to read the book I had brought with me, I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett, while Wayne started his travelling book, On Conan Doyle by Michael Dirda. Our plane to Chicago was on time, but our onward flight to Milwaukee was delayed a half hour by mechanical problems. Once we had our rental car – the Avis agent tried very hard to sell us upgrades, insurance, and other add-ons – we visited two Half Price Books outlets (a mix of remaindered and second-hand books and various media) and a Barnes & Noble, and had a rather disappointing supper at a Bravo restaurant. Probably because we have so much already, we found very little this time at Half Price: Wayne bought two used DVDs, and I bought two books, Pompeii: The Living City by Alex Butterworth and Ray Lawrence, and The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands by Nicholas Clapp.
Marquette very kindly booked us two nights at the Ambassador Hotel. This is billed as an Art Deco hotel, and indeed has some 1920s decorative elements retained from its earlier days, but also modern features and here and there an odd mix of period styles. Our room was nicely furnished, and the hotel staff were friendly. Wayne remarked that anyone who works at the Ambassador needs to like (as he does, in moderation) the music of Frank Sinatra, as the sound system is constantly playing American standards, and it seemed as if every third or fourth song was sung by Sinatra.
On the morning of our talk, we had a leisurely cooked breakfast in the hotel restaurant, then walked to Marquette’s John P. Raynor, S.J. Memorial Libraries and to the Archives on the top floor. There we were welcomed by Bill Fliss and by the new head of Special Collections and University Archives, Amy Cooper Cary, and later had lunch with them in the Alumni Memorial Union. We spent most of the day, until it was time for our lecture, working on Lord of the Rings papers. Wayne was researching various queries we had received since our last visit to Marquette in 2009, while I was looking at Lord of the Rings chronologies for a paper I plan to write some time in the future. Both of our efforts were fruitful.
One of the larger suites on the lower level of the Library was reserved for our talk, able to seat about 120 people, and I believe we filled it. It has an excellent projection and sound system. Marquette technicians hooked us up for wireless microphones and loaded our PowerPoint document into the podium computer. Wayne took care of changing images with a remote device, regardless of which of us was speaking at the moment. Unlike the Boston Book Festival last month, we had up to an hour in which to speak, and used much of that time, referring to prepared texts but embellishing as we went along. We then had a further half hour of questions and answers, and fifteen or twenty minutes answering still more questions after the formal end of the talk.
We returned to our hotel at about 6.30 p.m. and had a little time to relax before going down to the restaurant for our evening meal. I began with wild mushroom soup, while Wayne had a Caesar salad. He followed with chicken breast with fingerling potatoes and autumn vegetables, and I had a second starter rather an entrée, baked Wisconsin brie cheese in puff pastry with spiced walnuts and Door County cherry compote. For dessert, we shared a scoop each of lemon and passion fruit sorbet.
Rather than have breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we drove to a Perkins Restaurant very close to the airport. We find their cooked breakfasts as good as, and often better, than the ones we get at most hotels, and at about a third of the price. We arrived in good time at the airport, returned the rental car, and checked in, but did not go through security straight away, as we wanted to visit the Brooks Brothers shop (where I bought a Shetland sweater in a bright copper colour) and the Renaissance second-hand bookshop, both in the outer part of the terminal.
We were very glad that our flight from Milwaukee to Chicago was on time, as we had only fifty minutes between planes. Even though airlines build extra time into their schedules, it sometimes can take an eternity to load. Since one generally has to pay for checking bags now, some people try to get around this by taking as much into the cabin as possible. I am sure it used to be that a carry-on bag was defined as something which had to fit under an airplane seat if there was no room in an overhead locker, but we saw remarkably large bags being carried on, big, wheeled, and heavy, and difficult to impossible to manage on a small regional jet; and even when they do fit, there are now so many passengers with them that it adds considerable time in getting people and baggage settled before take-off, and then off again upon landing. Wayne and I had only one reasonable carry-on each, a backpack and a shoulder bag, plus my very small handbag. We watched in amazement as other passengers forced their much larger bags into the overhead bins, possibly damaging items already stowed there, or else had to relinquish their bags to go into the hold (at no charge; we wonder if some people see this as a way to get a bag checked free). Also, we could not understand the current boarding system. In the past, after boarding first class, business class, and special passengers, planes used to board the rear-most seats first, to allow free movement down the aisle, but now everything is done by group numbers which seem to have no relation to the layout of the plane, so that progress is slow and haphazard.
We had an easy flight back to Chicago, entertained by a very casual flight attendant who seemed to be enjoying her work. On such a short hop, no more than a half hour, there isn’t much for a flight attendant to do except to get the passengers ready for take-off, and then a few minutes later, get them ready for landing. Frequent air travellers could almost recite from memory the warnings and advice one hears from attendants, which on landing usually includes the phrase: ‘Please refrain from smoking until you reach a designated smoking area outside the terminal’. But our attendant said: ‘Please refrain from smoking for the rest of your life’, which drew laughs as well as a few nods of approval.
We also had a good flight back to Albany. Our luggage took a little time to come through, and heading east through Troy, New York we crawled in heavy Friday evening traffic, but reached home just after 6.00.
Wayne writes: Only eight days after our return from Milwaukee, we flew to Miami for the second promotional event for The Art of The Hobbit arranged by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As for Boston, we prepared PowerPoint images of Tolkien’s art to present following a short talk on The Hobbit by Corey Olsen. The Miami Book Fair International, held 11–18 November this year, is much larger and longer than the Boston Book Festival, but we missed most of its events since we didn’t arrive in Miami until the 17th. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Miami from Albany, and we had to change planes at Washington, D.C.’s National Airport. The Book Fair arranged our travel, booking us on USAirways for the Albany–Washington legs and American Airlines between Washington and Miami. This proved cumbersome and not a little worrying, once we found how confusing and time-consuming it can be to change terminals at National. Signage is poor, and as far as we could tell, the electronic boards in, say, Terminal B, list the arriving and departing flights only for Terminal B, not for Terminals A and C, making it difficult to look up connections and allow for last-minute gate changes.
Almost all of our Miami flights were overbooked. This now seems to be the norm since airlines have reduced the number of flights, making it important to check in online in advance, if possible. We did so for our outward travel, and in the process tried to improve our seat assignments. The Fair’s travel agent had us at the very back of the small USAirways jet to Washington, which I know from experience is an uncomfortable place to be. We paid a modest sum for better seats, and the exorbitant standard amount to check one bag. We also tried to change our seats on the Washington–Miami leg, where we had been assigned to different rows, but something went wrong with the computer system; the gate agent at Washington, however, managed to put us together. After a very bumpy flight, amazingly our bag was the first out of the chute at baggage claim, and we soon picked up a taxi to the Hilton Miami Downtown, an elegant modern hotel with which the Book Fair has an association.
As soon as we settled in our room, we went to the hotel restaurant for something to eat. Christina had a crab cakes starter with lemon mustard aioli, followed by apple crumble with cinnamon ice cream, while I had pappardelle in a braised short rib ragu, and then a mango cheesecake on a sponge base. While waiting to be served, we were approached by a woman carrying a paper doily, who asked us what that object is called. ‘It’s a doily,’ I said, and Christina agreed. ‘No, it isn’t,’ the woman replied. ‘A doily is crocheted, not paper.’ ‘Originally, yes,’ I said, ‘but that’s a paper facsimile which is still called a doily.’ To support this, I googled ‘doily’ on the small Android wi-fi-enabled device I had with me to check e-mail, and that settled the matter. Well, I thought, a librarian is never on holiday – and to prove me correct, while we were eating one of the waiters came up to us with the title of a book, and asked if Barnes & Noble could find it for him without the author’s name! ‘Just a moment,’ I said, looked it up on my Samsung, and answered his question. Another satisfied customer! but I felt as if our table had a sign reading ‘reference desk’.
The next morning, after a buffet breakfast (in retrospect, the pastries and fruit probably would have been better than the cooked eggs, bacon, etc., though the cheese blintzes were nice), we looked in at the special authors’ room set up at the hotel by the Book Fair, but saw no one at the desk to check in. The view from the outside deck was terrific, overlooking the city and an area where cruise ships docked. Since it was a warm day (naturally, in Miami), I was happy that I had brought a short-sleeved shirt, cotton trousers, and Reeboks, though I dressed them up with a black sportcoat and a blue and pink madras bow tie. Outside the hotel, we picked up the free shuttle van to the Fair, which was held on the campus of Miami-Dade College, and received our name badges and so forth. We also visited the Fair’s media desk, as we had been scheduled to record an interview with Kim Alexander of Sirius/XM’s Book Radio around 2.00–2.30. We were told that this was now to be at 1.50, so we agreed to come back at 1.30 to be on the safe side. In the meantime, we explored the many publishers’, authors’, and booksellers’ stalls set up as a street fair. Among these, we spent the most time in those stalls selling second-hand books, in one of which Christina bought Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queenship by Lois L. Huneycutt for a small fraction of its list price. The stalls were useful also as shelter during a couple of passing light rain showers. At one stall, the owner complimented me on my bow tie and asked if I was from Boston, because she associates bow ties with Boston. No, I replied, but I live in the same state.
For lunch, we went to the authors’ hospitality suite which served good food prepared by the local culinary institute. Christina opted for salad, while I tried some moderately spicy food with, I think, a Cuban influence, and we were lucky to pick up two small key lime cheesecakes which were in short supply. We stayed in the hospitality suite until 1.30, then learned that our interview was now to be conducted at 3.00. When we pointed out that this was very close to our presentation at 4.00, the time was changed to 2.30. Eventually, our interview moved again, to 2.00, and we spent an interesting fifteen minutes with Ms. Alexander. (We haven’t heard yet when the segment, no doubt only a small, edited part of what we said, will be broadcast. We can, however, point to the result of an interview we gave by phone before we left, to John Williford of the Miami Herald.)
By this time, I realized that we should have picked up our per diem payments at the hotel, and that the author’s room there would be closed by the time we returned from our talk. So after some confusion about where to pick up the shuttle van, I hurried back to the Hilton, quickly collected our payments, and returned to the Fair. Christina and I waited in the hospitality suite until it was time to find the room in which our session was scheduled. While I was catching my breath after my return from the hotel, an attractive woman – whom I later learned is one of the leading feminist authors on sex and erotica – flattered me by saying that I was the best-dressed man at the Fair. I thought at first it was the bow tie (again), but no, it was because I was wearing an ironed shirt, which apparently is an unusual sight in Miami.
We soon met up with Corey Olsen, and after waiting in vain for the promised Fair volunteer to take us to our presentation room, we sought out some officials and were duly directed. I needed a few minutes before the event to set up PowerPoint, but an earlier session was still going on in the same room and also using projection. Christina, Corey, and I therefore spent a few minutes talking with others who were also waiting outside the room for the event to begin. Finally I was able to plug in our flash drive and we were ready to go. Corey spoke first, about the poems and songs in The Hobbit which so many readers skip over, to their loss. Then Christina and I made our presentation on Tolkien’s Hobbit art, following a shorter text than we had in Boston, to allow more time for questions and answers and a better connection with our audience of at least 100, including standing room in a space otherwise being used as a small art gallery.
Although in Boston we avoided questions about the Jackson films, mainly because time for Q and A there was so short, in Miami this wasn’t possible. Our rather low opinion of the Lord of the Rings films, and of what we’ve seen of the first Hobbit film, contrasted with Corey Olsen’s qualified enthusiasm, but I think we managed to disagree in a friendly way while each made good points. At least some of the audience agreed with my statement that Jackson’s film treatments are like fan fiction (I was quoting Joan Verba’s opinion from a recent Mythopoeic Society discussion). Corey, on the other hand, argued in favour of a medieval model of legitimate retelling. After the talk, we signed books for a while, then returned to the hotel and had dinner together.
Curiously, the Book Fair’s travel agent had given us no seat assignments for the return Washington–Albany flight, but the USAirways agent at Albany took care of this for us, and because their booking system was acting up, we were given ‘premium’ seats at no extra charge. We had already upgraded our seats on American for the return flight to Washington scheduled for 11.55 on Monday the 19th. But again, probably because we were booked on two airlines and their computers don’t ‘talk’ to each other, we weren’t able to check in online from the hotel Sunday evening, and would have to rely on the airport check-in desk the next morning. Our main worry was that we would have to change terminals at Washington, and would have only forty-five minutes in which to do it, provided that our flight from Miami wasn’t delayed, and now knew that this was very problematic given the layout at National. There didn’t seem anything we could do about it online, though, since we hadn’t booked the tickets ourselves.
But we decided to get to the airport early the next day, at least to avoid the morning traffic, and put our case to the agent at the American Airlines counter. She agreed that forty-five minutes would be very tight at Washington, indeed so tight that even our bag might not make it between planes; but she suggested that we could register as standby passengers on their 9.35 a.m. flight to Washington, which had some seats left, and our bag would go on that plane instead. We agreed, and hurried to the security checkpoint – where we spent around forty minutes in the queue. The airport had only one person checking tickets and identification for two lines of passengers, and half of the inspection machines were out of service. The clock ticked away as we waited, getting more and more nervous, until it was past 9.05 when the early flight was to begin boarding. Fortunately, three other passengers let us go ahead of them, and security personnel hurried people along as best they could, though with so much to funnel through the x-ray there were bottlenecks. We were also lucky to be sent through a metal detector rather than a more time-consuming body scanner. Once clear, we quickly put our shoes back on and raced for the ‘skytrain’ to take us to one of the far gates – around a corner and up two escalators. A train arrived quickly and took us to Concourse D, where we then had to go down two escalators; and even then, our gate was far into the terminal. I raced ahead, and found that the gate agents were expecting us. Christina reached the gate a few minutes later, and we boarded, sitting side by side though across the aisle. We were glad to see that we weren’t the last ones to board.
At Washington, we had three hours to wait for our flight to Albany, but now could relax, eat, read, and check e-mails. As it happened, the 11.55 flight from Miami did arrive on time, but even so, we would have reached the USAirways gate with only a few minutes to spare, assuming that we could have boarded a shuttle bus without delay, and as the flight was overbooked we could well have lost our assigned seats.
Image: Some of the stalls at the Miami Book Fair International, 18 November 2012.