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Midwestern Journey

July 22, 2013

Just over two weeks after we returned from our visit to Washington State, we left again for western parts, though only as far as East Lansing, Michigan where the annual Mythopoeic Society conference was held this year. As usual when travelling to the Midwest, we went by road and took our time. We were glad to exchange hot (high 80s F) and humid weather at home for more moderate temperatures. On the first day, we drove as far as Cheektowaga, New York, near Buffalo, taking sandwiches for lunch and eating our evening meal (grilled chicken marsala) at a Bravo’s Cucina Italiana restaurant in the Walden Galleria mall. Then, to stretch our legs after the long drive, we walked around the mall and noted some items in Pottery Barn and Macy’s to use in further interior decoration – but more about that in a later post.

On the second morning, we drove to Cleveland, Ohio, another three to four hours west. At the Mayfield Heights shopping centre, we ate at a Panera Bread café, a franchise we have enjoyed for lunch in many places since our friends the Hunnewells introduced us to it in St. Louis. Wayne had a grilled cheese sandwich, while Christina chose a strawberry poppyseed chicken salad, which also includes blueberries, pineapple, and pecans. Thus fortified, we walked a short distance to the Half-Price Books outlet in the same complex, one of the three we visited when we were in Cleveland in 2012. (Since then, our favourite, the Rocky River store, has closed.) This time, we found very little among books, CDs, or DVDs. The latter two categories especially seemed understocked (an indication that more people are listening to streaming audio and subscribing to Netflix than buying physical media?), though there were also fewer interesting remaindered or used books. (Has the stock been affected by the growing popularity of e-books? Or is the better stock being put online rather than in shops? Or did we not find much because we already have so much?) We also visited that afternoon the North Olmsted, Ohio Half-Price Books, and similarly found very little to buy.

For supper, we ate at one of our favourite restaurants, the elegant LockKeeper’s in Valley View, Ohio, near our hotel in Independence. For dining, this was the highlight of our trip. Christina began with a beet salad (frisée, mesclun, toasted almonds, goat cheese, red wine vinaigrette), Wayne with an ‘iceberg wedge’ (iceberg lettuce, tomato, hard-boiled egg, crispy bacon, red onion, creamy Gorgonzola dressing). We both followed with lobster ravioli in a tomato cream sauce, then shared a selection of gelato. Delicious!

On the third day, we skipped the hotel breakfast buffet (included in the room rate, but like all franchise hotel buffets, with mediocre food and a limited selection) in favour of a hearty meal at a Perkins restaurant in Wayne’s Ohio home town, Brooklyn. That kept us going while we drove to Michigan. We stopped for lunch at another Bravo’s, in a new upscale mall in Lansing, the state capital. Wayne had a half order (still substantial) of lasagna with a small Caesar salad, Christina one of the daily specials, pesto ravioli with chicken Fra Diavolo (pesto ravioli with grilled chicken and asparagus in a spicy tomato cream sauce). From there it was a short drive to the Kellogg hotel and conference center at the heart of Michigan State University, the Mythcon venue. We registered and were able to check into our room before the usual hour.

Almost immediately, we ran into old friends, and talking with them meant that we missed most of the opening papers. Wayne went to one on Nature in Tolkien’s works while Christina visited the dealer’s room and bought a copy of W.H. Lewis’s The Scandalous Regent: A Life of Philippe, Duc d’Orleans 1674–1723 and of His Family to add to our Inklings collection. She also inspected the items to be auctioned later in the weekend, but found nothing of interest. Meals at the conference, except for the banquet on Sunday, were held across the street in a food court-style dining hall with different kinds of foods served at different stations in a confusing, meandering layout. Most of the offerings were enjoyable – there were particularly good grilled pork chops with apple, roast chicken, and pizzas – though we expect they would have become monotonous if the conference had gone on longer than three days. The amount of fresh fruit, including strawberries, was also unusual in our experience of student cafeterias. Generally we took time over our meals, enjoying conversation with old friends and new acquaintances. The Society stewards’ reception the first evening was also very enjoyable: ice cream was served out of doors on a patio between the centre and an area of walkways through trees.

Each year, the Mythopoeic Society holds a conference (‘Mythcon’) in a different location. A theme for presentations is suggested but not prescribed, so long as they fall within the interests of the Society: the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, and myth and fantasy literature in general. This year the theme was ‘the land and its inhabitants in fantasy’, and whether in this vein or not, papers on Tolkien predominated. We attended more talks on the first full day of the conference. Douglas A. Anderson, editor of The Annotated Hobbit, was the scholar guest of honour and gave a keynote address in the Kellogg Center auditorium, which was so fiercely air-conditioned that our friend Gary Hunnewell called it The Freezer: we were glad that we brought light sweaters with us, though outside temperatures were quite high. After Doug’s talk, we played hooky from the papers (missing one on Tolkien’s landscapes we regret not having heard) and walked to one of the nearby secondhand bookshops, buying only one book for our troubles. Lunch found us once again talking with friends, so that we missed other papers before Verlyn Flieger’s at 2:00 – and because we attended hers, on Tolkien’s trees and forests, we missed what undoubtedly was a good paper on C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair given by our friend Charles Huttar at the same hour. Verlyn’s paper was followed by one on ‘manifestation of spirits as breath and wind in Middle-earth’, given as always with substance and style by Carl Hostetter.

The evening entertainment for the Saturday was a concert in the auditorium by a folk/bluegrass/Celtic group from nearby Saline, Michigan called The Saline Fiddlers – fiddles, cellos, guitars, percussion, with singing and dancing added for good measure. The performers are all local high school students, young but with great stage presence and musical skills. We wondered, though, why such a large group needed amplification in a relatively small space (electric guitars aside). Christina retired early, since amplified music tends to give her a headache. Wayne saw her to our room, then returned to the auditorium and enjoyed the rest of the concert.

On the Sunday of the conference, we had breakfast with friends including Andrew Higgins, new to Tolkien studies and head of membership and development at Glyndebourne opera in England, and musicologist Meghan Naxer (there’s a great deal of interest in music among Tolkien fans!). Andrew gave his interesting paper in the first session of the day, ‘A Linguistic Exploration through Tolkien’s Earliest Landscapes’. Meghan followed Andrew in the auditorium with an expert examination of the Donald Swann song-cycle based on Tolkien’s poetry, The Road Goes Ever On: since we had known Swann personally, and Wayne has long collected Donald’s works, we made sure to attend this paper and weren’t disappointed.

We then took a break and went to lunch early, as our own paper, ‘Writing The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien’, was at 1:00 and we needed to get to the auditorium well before the hour to set up our PowerPoint slides. Our presentation went smoothly and had good attendance, with a long question-and-answer period afterward and kind comments made to us about our talk during the rest of the weekend.

Later that afternoon, we attended Christopher Crane’s paper on ‘narrative ambiguity’ in Tolkien’s writings: Christina was impressed by the weight of evidence, Wayne felt that the presentation could have been more focused and concise. In the evening was the conference banquet, with very good food and conversation, followed by entertainments: a masquerade, Tolkien-related songs built upon pop tunes, and the ‘Not-Ready-for-Mythcon Players’ presenting a mash-up of Watership Down (paper cutout rabbit ears) and Downton Abbey. During these proceedings, but also generally throughout the conference, we were surprised to encounter so many negative comments about Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films – not entirely, by any means, but more than we would have expected. Our friend David Bratman has written more about this.

The conference wound down on the Monday morning. Some attendees left early to catch planes. We split up to attend different papers held at the same time: Christina went to Steven Wissler’s hour-long presentation on ‘healthy creation and fecund procreation in Middle-earth’, which included a discussion of the dysfunctional marriage of Finwë and Míriel, contrasting it with that of Aragorn and Arwen. Appropriately, given the marriage theme of the paper, champagne was served afterward! Wayne, meanwhile, heard two half-hour papers by newcomers to Mythcon, Michael Muniz on love experiences in C.S. Lewis’s later fiction, and Isabelle Guy on the influence of Thomas Aquinas’s natural law on Tolkien.

Finally, we attended the Society’s members meeting, at which we heard that our friend Richard West will be the scholar guest of honour at next year’s conference near Boston, Massachusetts. But we left before closing ceremonies as we had a lunch date with Wayne’s sister and brother-in-law and nieces about an hour’s drive away. There we also met our very lively three-year-old great-nephew Luke for the first time.

We stayed that evening near Toledo, Ohio, and had a supper reservation at Mancy’s Bluewater Grille in Maumee. We had had good experiences there before, but now were somewhat disappointed. We did not remember the atmosphere being so dark and noisy, perhaps because we had always been seated near a window or in a quieter part of the rooms. Our starter of lobster bisque was good. Wayne found his main course, grilled walleye (a Great Lakes fish), less good than on our last visit, but Christina liked her maple bourbon salmon (salmon with butternut squash ravioli and roasted pecans in a maple bourbon sauce). Our salads were either nondescript (Christina’s house salad) or bland (Wayne’s coleslaw). We skipped dessert. [Comment from Christina: I am not a ravioli freak, it was just chance that ravioli was included three times in dishes that appealed to me on this trip.]

The weather had already begun to turn hotter and more humid before we left East Lansing, and on the last two days of our trip became oppressive. Thank goodness for good air-conditioning in our car and hotel rooms! On our drive back to the Buffalo area, where we stayed the final night of our trip, we visited the third of the current Half-Price Books locations in Cleveland, at Mentor, and were more successful with our purchases than at the Mayfield Heights and North Olmsted stores. We also had the opportunity to see a set of American book club volumes of The Lord of the Rings with Tolkien’s signatures and a 1966 inscription, a description of which we’ve posted on an appropriate website.

For lunch, we again visited a Panera Bread. Wayne tried the Sierra turkey sandwich on cheese focaccia, while Christina again had the strawberry poppyseed chicken salad. For supper, we returned to the Walden Galleria, but now chose the Cheesecake Factory over Bravo’s. Christina had our usual orange chicken, now made with a much reduced quantity of the once more generous sauce, while Wayne tried the Moroccan chicken, grilled breasts in a harissa tomato sauce over couscous. Both were very nice.

We returned home the next day, after staying at the Staybridge Suites in Clarence, New York, near one of the Buffalo entrances to the New York Thruway. On our way west, we find it convenient to book at a Residence Inn in the Buffalo area, and when in Cleveland at one or other of the hotels in the suburb of Independence: Residence Inn, Courtyard, Hampton Inn, all adjacent to each other and all much of a muchness. This time we chose the Hampton Inn, where we were greeted first by a harried and (as she was on a previous visit) slightly rude desk clerk, and then by a sticky note on our bed, reading: ‘duvet covers and sheets are clean for your arrival’. We should hope so! At Maumee, Ohio, we were unable to book a room at the Residence Inn this time, so we tried the Homewood Suites and weren’t impressed with the franchise. For breakfast on the day of our return to Williamstown, we ate at a Friendly’s near our hotel. Friendly’s breakfasts are a pale shadow of those at Perkins, but sufficient, and we’re both now able to order from the senior citizen part of the menu. Wayne was struck by the sight of a wall cabinet, with signs indicating that it contained emergency medical equipment – but access was blocked by a stack of child seats!

Roadworks, marked by orange cylindrical cones we took to calling Daleks, were abundant during the trip, especially in Ohio. Some of these stretched for about twenty miles with little indication of actual activity. But except for a major holdup due to an accident near Erie, Pennsylvania, we generally made good time, and were very pleased by the better-than-EPA estimate fuel economy of our Buick Verano. We arrived back in Williamstown mid-afternoon to find it even hotter and more humid than when we left, with no break forecast for another few days.

  1. Troelsfo permalink
    August 2, 2013 8:57 am

    I wonder if the more negative comments about the Jackson films is a result of his far looser interpretation of The Hobbit — on the internet I have seen far less enthusiasm about his Hobbit film than we saw about his The Lord of the Rings films, and this may have caused a more general shift.

    Anyway, just musing 🙂 Thank you as always for the detailed reporting.

    • August 11, 2013 8:01 am

      Hi, Troels. Negative response to Jackson’s Hobbit certainly entered into it: one person was particularly unhappy with the portrayal of Radagast. We couldn’t say whether it caused a general shift of views of the Lord of the Rings films. We began to notice more negative views of the latter expressed on the Internet before the first Hobbit was released, but after enough time had passed to consider The Lord of the Rings outside the whirlwind of initial publicity.

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