Saturday, April 30, 2005

Item from the Past: Late April 1994

April 29, 1994.

We’ve made it to Hangzhou, famed in travel books everywhere, and Chinese poetry, they say. But we haven’t seen the West Lake yet, just parts of the city and Hangzhou University, where we’re staying in a dorm. Total cost for two per night: 56 yuan, or about $6.50. A fine place to flop for a few days, a dorm room about as big as my freshman room. There are two fragile wooden beds, two nicked desks, two worn bookcases, two clothes cabinets, all in various states of disrepair.

We woke this morning early in Shanghai, caught a taxi to the station and had some nikuman [steamed meat buns] for breakfast from a vendor. After a little confusion, we found our train, which left on time at 9:45. We sat across from a couple in their 70s, both wearing neat Mao jackets. Their son and daughter-in-law were sitting nearby, wearing expensive Western clothes. The son spoke some Japanese-- he told Yuriko that he was a student in Tokyo. We didn’t delve into whatever connections this family had to make that possible.

We watched the fertile, springtime Yangtze basin roll by. Complete with people working the fields. A lot of people. A whole lot of people. Take your hand: each finger represents a billion or so people. One finger represents Chinese peasants.

We arrived in Hangzhou on time, and after a little confusion (getting off the bus too soon, etc.) we found the university. We went to an on-campus restaurant for dinner, spending about $3 for fish, soup and fried rice -- heaps of it, more than you’d expect. It wasn’t really that good, but it sure was filling.

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Hooray for Capt. Spaulding

Lilly did my heart good last night when, at the end of Animal Crackers on DVD, she asked if there were any more movies with them, especially the one who doesn’t talk. I reminded her of Duck Soup, which we have on VHS, and assured her that there were others as well, which we will watch by and by.

I remember seeing Animal Crackers when it was re-released in the movie theaters in 1974. I don’t remember whether I saw it again after that on tape, though I might have in Japan, when I often rented tapes, all in English with Japanese subtitles, from a conveniently located rental video (and CD!) store on Nagaikoen-dori with a better stock of titles than Blockbuster or Hollywood or their ilk.

With the marvel of DVD, I watched “Hooray for Capt. Spaulding” a few extra times, including moments when the kids were asleep and not making much noise. I’m pretty sure I learned the word “schnorrer” from that scene. Not a word you hear much -- or ever -- it’s a Yiddish confection meaning someone who wheedles others into supplying their needs, a concept that needs a word, certainly. “Moocher” doesn’t quite cover the same territory.

Guests: Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer!
Capt. Spaulding: Did someone call me schnorrer?
Guests: Hooray, hooray, hooray!
Horatio Jamison: He went into the jungle where all the monkeys throw nuts.
Capt. Spaulding: If I stay here, I'll go nuts.
Guests: Hooray, hooray, hooray! He put all his reliance/In courage and defiance/And risked his life for science.
Capt. Spaulding: Hey, hey!
Mrs. Rittenhouse: He is the only white man who covered every acre...
Capt. Spaulding: I think I'll try and make her...
Guests: Hooray, hooray, hooray!

The line “I think I’ll try and make her…” isn’t actually in the movie, even to this day. On the DVD version there’s a jumpy cut immediately after Mrs. Rittenhouse’s (Margaret Dumont’s) line. According to the imdb, the Hayes Office insisted on the line’s deletion. I would have thought that as a precode movie, Animal Crackers could have gotten away with something like that, but apparently the Hayes Office had some say even before the Production Code started being enforced.

I also spent extra time with the bridge game scene with Chico, Harpo and Margaret Dumont; the scene in which Chico asks Harpo to produce a “flash,” (flashlight) only to get flesh, fish and other things -- I remember the theater audience roaring during that scene; and the surreal exchange between Capt. Spaulding (Groucho), and Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin).

Actually, the surreality of that conversation is pretty much all on Groucho’s part, as you’d expect. I’d forgotten this line of his: “Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.”

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

Force of Habit

Habit still wakes me up early. Too early, sometimes. Today, for example, it was at 5:30, not long after the daylight makes itself visible. Then I had trouble getting back to sleep, since I started ruminating on the day ahead. So I went to my office -- the house’s “fourth” bedroom -- unrolled a blanket on the carpeted floor, and laid down with my old brown radio next to my head. I fooled around with the dial for a little while, eventually settling on a Spanish station, turned down low.

Why Spanish? It was enough to get my mind off things, but since I couldn’t understand much, especially the commercials, it didn’t engage my mind either. Sure enough, the next thing I knew, I was waking up as everyone else in the house was, around 7.

It wasn’t a bad day. I had a talk with an editor I know who’s going to assign me something next week, a short quick job for the June issue of his magazine, with the promise of more assignments in the coming months. So things are moving along.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Decline of Youth

Every day has its highs and lows, just like they always have. High point: I was offered a job. (Well, not formally, but I was on the verge.) A pretty good one too, except that it would mean moving to New York. Twenty years ago? No problem, sign me up. Ten years ago? Yes, we’ll go. Even five years ago, when I was actually hired by a New York publisher -- who wanted me for my Chicago expertise -- we would have considered it seriously. Now? I look around, see my house, my child of two, the school that my child of seven can walk to. No, sorry. But I probably will be doing some writing for this company before long, from my little desk in the Chicago suburbs.

Low point: When Ann decided to remove her diapers, which were heavy with a recent deposit, before I could do to the job. This happens sometimes now, and it probably means that her development is proceeding normally. I don’t remember Lilly doing that, but then again you forget a lot. Ann’s also able to eject a video tape at its end, push the tape in again, and press the start button, thinking that it will play again. She’s still missing that critical step called rewind. When she understands that, I guess she won’t be a toddler anymore.

Yet in the future, when everyone uses DVDs or whatever medium will come to the fore in the coming years, no one will need to learn the patience involved in rewinding a tape. The same goes for audio. If I believed in such nonsense, I’d take it as another (small) sign of the decline of youth.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Weird Ronald

I was in the city for part of the day, and happened to be in the River North district, which abuts the Loop proper to the north. It isn’t a gentrifying neighborhood; it’s already gentrified, but in a peculiar way that allows for a statue of a demented Ronald McDonald.

I went with Lilly to meet my old friend Geof Huth (, whom I had not seen in person in nearly ten years—during, in fact, another period of unemployment in late 1995 and early 1996. We supped at Ed Debevic’s, a faux diner that serves decent food, intense milkshakes, and entertainment in the form of the wait staff dancing on one of the counters. Ed’s ought to be part of a chain, since it’s very chain-like in its approach, but oddly enough there’s only this one and another that opened very recently in the western suburbs. During lunchtime, the place is packed. At dinner, there were plenty of open tables.

Ed’s is one of a fair number of restaurants in River North, most of which have sprouted in the last decade or so (though Ed’s is older), along with condo towers, expensive art galleries, assorted boutiques, a handful of nightclubs and other businesses that feed on an affluent population—or tourists, who count as temporarily affluent in most cases.

The latest development in River North is a new McDonald’s. Not just any McDonald’s, but an enormous replica of a 1950s-style restaurant. It replaced the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s on the same site, which was actually the second iteration of a Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s. The first, which I visited in the late ’80s, was a more or less an ordinary McDonald’s that had been stuffed with rock memorabilia of all sorts: the work, I think, of the owner himself, who took this idiosyncratic approach to driving traffic into his restaurant. Sometime in the mid-1990s, some fool (maybe the same guy) decided that it wasn’t good enough, so the place was renovated. It still had rock gewgaws, but it resembled a Hard Rock Café more than anything else—and it so happens that a real HRC is just across the street. I never went there again.

We walked over to see the new McDonald’s after we’d finished with Ed’s. The restaurant itself is two stories, but the overarching golden arches go up at least another story. It’s a commanding presence at that spot, especially since the rest of the half block is taken up with parking spaces. We didn’t go in, but the interior is very visible, and we took note of the many TV monitors inside, all showing McDonald’s products, and the escalator, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a McDonald’s.

Just outside the entrance were about a half-dozen bronze figures, slightly larger than life, standing or sitting in various positions. The more you looked, the odder they seemed. One looked like a well-dressed retiree watering the lawn, compete with hose in hand. A couple sitting on a bench pointed excitedly toward something—away from McDonald’s, toward the Portillo’s Hot Dogs across the street, actually. Of course there was a Ronald McDonald, standing next to a child on a tricycle. His mouth was open almost in a scream, though I suppose that was supposed to represent McDonald’s Happiness. Still, not even the TV Ronald we all know ever shows that kind of ecstasy -- but maybe the sculptor was thinking more along the lines of Ecstasy. But that wasn’t his worst feature. Instead of irises in his eyes, he had a hollow spot, except for a small triangle right at the top of the iris-hole. All of the statues had this feature. Creepy, if you looked at it too long.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

Monday Short

My education in home-with-a-toddler advanced a little more this morning when, from the next room, I heard the unmistakable whoosh of cereal rushing from the box to the floor, the entire contents of the box, no less. I’d foolishly left it on the table, within her reach, and she took the toddler approach to getting more cereal: lift box, turn over completely. Some of it did heap onto the bowl, but a lot more escaped onto the broad plains of the kitchen floor.


Sunday, April 24, 2005

More April 1992

Just for contrast, yesterday was a cold April Saturday, following a day or so rain, compared to the previous two exceedingly warm April Saturdays. Today spring looks the part—clear skies, new greenery everywhere, birds atwitter (many seem to be perched over my car), but it’s still distinctly cool.

I dug up more verbage from April 1992. I didn’t know it was such a well-documented period. So I might as well post more.

April 20

Not long ago I made the trip to Nipponbashi, Osaka’s electronics district, poking around a clutch of stores, eyeing a host of PCs. I found a place that sells used computers—one of several stores all together down a small side street—and among the stacks of machines, there was an Epson 286 Book STD, an older model, for Y88,000. State of the art in 1988.

The newer model is a 386, but all I need is a word processor, so the extra speed is an extravagance. It’s a laptop of the slightly bulky kind, with a green screen that unfolds upward on a hinge, two slots for floppy disks, and an English keyboard with katakana characters alongside the Roman. It also has a standard spacebar; a remarkable number of Japanese word processors (word-pros in Japanese) have no long spacebar, but then again there’s no separation between words in written Japanese. Anyway, I bought it. I have a copy of software that I know will run it, and I’ve been using it like a new toy for a few days now.

Last week I interviewed my travel agent for a short article in the local English-language monthly, Kansai Time Out, about the befuddlements of Japan-originated travel. Mr. Kruger—a Canadian who’s been here 15 years or so, now running his own agency in Juso, which includes a used English book store—was a gusher. Inquires brought forth a torrent of words. So the interview went well, and I also took the opportunity to make a tentative booking to Singapore in late June/early July, on KAL via Seoul. I’ve been grazing various sources (research is too strong a word) on that city-state and Malaysia, and they look worth a visit.

Postscript 2005: As long as I lived in Japan, the Epson served me well, and I used it to write letters and articles, including the extract above. After returning to the States, however, it proved impossible to use, since no one could promise me that any particular printer would work with it. As for Singapore/Malaysia, I made the trip, and remember it fondly.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

Busier Than You’d Think

Oops, yesterday I completely forgot to post something—which doesn’t happen often, and you’d think it wouldn’t happen at all, considering that I have no job for the time being to drain the hours away. But I was fairly busy anyway. Working on a writing assignment, which involved reading on line, spending some e-mails and making a few phone calls; doing things around the house, including the assimilation of debris from my former office -- you accumulate heaps in five years; and then there was the matter of looking after little Ann, which, as any experienced parent will tell you, is no trifle. All in a context of mood swings, which certainly must be common so soon after getting your routine upended: moments of vague dread for the future, mixed with Wow! I’m free of the office!

I expect it’ll even out soon enough, and I’ll be my more-or-less phlegmatic self before too long. In the evening, after Yuriko returned looking a little drained (it was her first away-from-home work in years), I went out and bought a printer for the computer. Actually, a printer/fax/copier, a low-end Brother device costing roughly a C-note and displaying great ingenuity on the part of its Chinese manufacturers in the use of cheap-looking plastic parts. If it lasts a year, that’ll be about right. I need it for printing cover letters, faxing clips of my work to prospective employers, and so on.

It wasn’t my love for Brother that decided the purchase. HP and Epson and others have combo function plastic boxes for in the $100 range too. But just about every one of them refused to work with any Mac OS lower than 9.1, and of course I’m still trog enough to muddle along with 9.0. Sure, I could have run out and upgraded a long time ago, but I’ve always taken my techno-procrastination seriously, since it has always saved me money. I was a mind to buy a computer in early 1987, as I recall, but I didn’t get around to it. It would have cost thousands, and where would it be now? Instead I bought a $500 Smith-Corona typewriter, a nice electric with a line’s worth of text available for preview in a LCD, and I can still use it. In fact, I used it earlier this week to type out Yuriko’s resume, since we had no printer then.

In any case, I was discouraged enough to consider upgrading, money I don’t care to spend just yet, but then I noticed that the Brother model is friendly all the way back to OS 8.6. Good work, Brother. Capture just a little more market share, made up of techno-slugs like me, when they invest a little in backwards compatibility.

My daughters have also decided they need the printer too. We haven’t had it even 24 hours, and already I’ve printed coloring pages from various Internet sites that Lilly knows. Ann has figured it out as well, in her rudimentary way. Just a few minutes ago, she asked, with points, noises and “want W” for a printout of the D.W. character from the Arthur web site.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Breakfast at Lou's

Sharp drop in temps in the span of a few hours—between breakfast and lunch this morning, it must have dropped 20 or 25 degrees. Blame Canada! I was downtown for this weather event, meeting with people in my profession, gathering information and probably another writing assignment, which is good.

Had breakfast with someone I’ve known over 15 years, who recently returned to the Chicago area after living in the Twin Cities for a good many years. He was hired at a certain company in Chicago just before I was in the late 1980s; I quit there in 1990 to go to Japan and he later, to go up north; but that company later bought the company he was working for in Minneapolis; and in the meantime I edited a magazine for a different company, quitting that in 2000, shortly before the company we worked for in the ’80s bought that magazine, so I just missed returning to work for them then. Now, he’s a publisher there and I’m probably going to get some contract writing there, after being disassociated with them for 15 years. And that’s the simplified version of the chain of events that brought us to the breakfast table.

Which was at Lou Mitchell’s, a West Loop restaurant institution. A joint that serves breakfast and lunch, but is known for its breakfasts, as I had: eggs, bacon, “Greek” toast (amazing thick bread), and so-so potato cubes, but they are the exception. Pancakes and other breads are also specialties. Atkins isn’t allowed in this place.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Eventful Tuesday

Another flawless day for unemployment: mostly sunny, not too hot, not too cold. Would have been a shame to spend it in an office.

Also an eventful day. Yuriko got a job, as an assistant at a Japan Travel Bureau office. It’s temporary, only until July or so, but it’s something. It happened quickly, I think because besides her talents, which are considerable, JTB also needed someone with Japanese, English and a green card. So for now, I’ll be spending much more time with our mercurial two-year-old. I have mixed feelings about that, of course.

I’ll also be doing some writing. I bagged two assignments in the last 24 hours or so. Sometimes, it’s who you know, all right.

Ann was eager to see “Doggie!” earlier today, that is, our tape of Lady and the Tramp, and as I turned on the TV I saw a tape of bells ringing, and I knew that could mean only one thing. Before I could watch much more, Ann lobbied loudly for Doggie! so I had to wait a while to find out about Benedict XVI. A fine Pope name; much tradition, and a high Roman numeral too.

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Cut Loose

Late last week, I was laid off. Two more weeks and the fifth anniversary of my employment would have passed, but it didn’t work out that way. I won’t go into the particulars, not so much because my severance agreement suggested that I not share them with the world, but because I don’t care to dwell on it. I feel a little strange, but not very bitter or even upset. No member of my family is panicking either.

There’s no immediate crisis, and little risk of being tossed out on the street someday. When I called an old friend and former co-worker on Saturday, one of the first things he said was, “I’ll bet you’re glad you’ve lived within your means.” I am.

So now I look for work, which includes freelance writing assignments until something permanent turns up. Better to be laid off in the spring. Last time this happened was in November 1995; a lousy time to be out of a job. As it happens, the weather lately has been flawless for unemployment. April is hit-or-miss proposition in terms of warmth up here in the North, and for once, it’s been warm, nearly 80 F these last few days.

I will continue writing here, but try not to turn it into a chronicle of unemployment. I may even be able to see a few things I would have missed by being in an office.

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Items from the Past: April 1992

April 11, 1992

It was an interesting banquet, thrown in Polen’s and my honor, only Polen didn’t show, so I was all that stood between most of the staff of Sumitomo Tube Technos and just another night out drinking themselves silly. The food was pretty good, and I’ve mastered the art of appearing to drink more than I really do, a necessary skill in the social life of this country. Those who don’t master it often leave the messes on sidewalks or subway platform, a salaryman’s hanko we call it, which somehow always includes cubed carrots.

Easter 1992

Yesterday I did hanami along with much of the rest of the population of Osaka, along the banks of the Tosabori River, which for eye appeal and cleanliness is like the Houston Ship Channel, writ small. The place for hanami, however, on the grounds of the Japanese national mint, is actually far enough from that river to be pleasant.

Hanami is flower viewing. Could involve any flowering trees, but it especially refers to cherry blossoms, which are in bloom at the moment. At the mint grounds on Saturday there seemed to be an endless array of delicate pink and white flowers, and equally endless people to look at and photograph them. Being in that human stream was like being small fry in a board estuary. No decisions to make, just drift along.


Friday, April 15, 2005

Tent Season

It’s supposed to be a warm weekend ahead, like the last one. The grass around here is green already — it turned green while we were in Florida. Soon, bourgeois impulse will lead me to mow it. Next to the walk in the back yard, there isn’t “a host of golden daffodils fluttering and dancing in the breeze,” but is a small row looking for the sun. They too emerged while were away. There’s also green fuzz on some trees.

It was so warm last weekend that I cooked some hamburgers outside on my simple barbecue, and later pitched our new tent for the first time. Got it when it was too cold to think about using it, but now we are. It’s larger than I’m used to, but not too hard to set up, with intermittent help from no. 1 daughter.

We’ve outgrown my bachelor tent, acquired ca. 1988. I think the last time we used it was long before Ann was born, when we went looking for Charles Mound in extreme northwestern Illinois—the highest point in the state. Turned out it was on private land, and inaccessible, but we had a good weekend anyway.

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sixtus the Sixth?

The mention of Pope names yesterday made me consult a favorite reference, The World Almanac, which of course includes a chronological list of Popes and—in italics—Antipopes. Interesting that the oddsmakers think that Benedict is the favorite name choice. Haven’t had a Benedict since 1922, when the 15th Pope of that name died. So I suppose Benedict has considerable tradition behind it, though not as much as John, which as far as my casual look at the list tells me, is the number-one papal name, with 23, not counting the two John Pauls.

Sixtus would be a fine new Pope name. The oddsmakers give it 66-1, so don’t bet the mortgage money on it. Still, I see that the next one would be Sixtus the Sixth, the fifth having occupied the shoes of the fisherman from 1585 to 1590. Other cool but unlikely choices from the annuals of the Roman Catholic Church include Anastasius, Agapitus, Pelagius, Marinus, Sergius, and the ever-popular Innocent. There’s already been more than one Pope of each of those names, though in some cases you have to go back more than 1000 years.

And the odds for a disputed election, resulting in competing Popes, one of whom history and tradition will eventually call an Antipope? Maybe with one in Rome and the other, say, in Dallas? Pretty slim. But it would make for a fine media circus — Florida in 2000 taken up a couple of notches.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Florida Wrap

The passage of days and (especially) the changeable weather—it was cold today—are making Florida seem distant, so it’s time to wrap it up with some odds and ends.

Current events, if you pay any attention to them while traveling, take a slightly different cast somehow. You later think, “I was there when such-and-such happened.” Since we had no fewer than two TVs in our suite, one for each room, the adults in the party avoided the fate of Cartoon Network OD (and it doesn’t take much). We did not, however, avoid hearing about two hyper-covered deaths, those being of course the seriously unfortunate Terri Schiavo and the considerably more fortunate John Paul II.

I have nothing to add to the endless commentary on them. But I will note that we heard final word of the Pope’s demise not on TV, but on the radio on Saturday as we crossed the Howard Frankland Bridge, which is actually a long causeway connecting St. Petersburg with Tampa.

What’s the next Pope going to call himself? So far, I haven’t seen that question discussed by the media. But I did discover today that bookmakers have given the matter consideration.

Ft. DeSoto State Park, which is at the tip of a chain of barrier islands dangling southward from metro St. Pete, has the best beach I’ve seen in years. I don’t mean its smooth sand and long vistas, though it had those. I mean that it was practically empty, despite being such a lovely, classic beach. I read that it is a weekend destination for people who live in the area, and we avoided that mess by going on a Monday. If the air had been about 10 degrees warmer, it would have been perfect.

At the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, we saw many sea creatures, and some from the rivers and lakes of the peninsula. But none as bizarre as the leafy sea dragon, which I’d never encountered before. It was as if a sea horse were dressed up to dance at the Copa.

A catchment behind the Best Western was the place to take your pets for a walk. I know this because in front of the area a sign said DOG RUN. Also on the sign: a cartoon dog, much like the beefy mutts you might see in a Tom & Jerry cartoon, down on his (anthropomorphic) knees, front pews in a beseeching pose, cartoon sweat around his face, which said without words, Please, I gotta go!

A better sign was near a small Tampa lake I wandered by. No cartoon creatures, but it did warn that swimming in that particular body of water wasn’t safe. Why? Alligators. When I saw that, I really felt like I was in Florida.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Think Globally, Eat Locally

North America needs more neighborhoods like the charming Ybor City, a part of Tampa that sports brick streets and sidewalks of hexagonal concrete pavers, plus cast-iron street lamps. Best of all were the wrought-iron balconies, which shaded our stroll down the district’s main thoroughfare, Seventh Ave (Ave. Septima), reminding me both of New Orleans, with its ironwork, and the shady sidewalks of old Kuala Lumur (really), though unlike the uneven footpaths of KL—each shop decided how high the sidewalk outside its door was to be—the sidewalks of Ybor City are all on the same level.

Ybor City was site of a major cigar industry about 100 years ago, populated by immigrant Cuban workers. These days, the structures live on mostly as shops, restaurants, nightclubs and other amusements. Cigars are still sold in the area, with a handful of shops specializing in them, but I doubt that many are actually rolled there any more.

Cigars weren’t on our minds on Ave. Septima that day anyway. Lunch was. I knew I wanted something Cuban, and we lucked into a place that fit the bill exactly, Carmen’s, whose interior reflected the early 1900s as much as the streetscape outside, with its punched tin ceiling, dark woodwork and tiled floors. Both Yuriko and I ordered Cuban sandwiches, “a submarine-style layering of ham, roast pork, cheese, and pickle between a sliced length of Cuban bread,” according to What’s Cooking America. It seems like a fair description, though I don’t know how something so seemingly simple gets to be so good. Add a side of black beans and rice, a beer (Icehouse, but anything would have done), and some Key lime pie for dessert, and the crystalline spheres of taste all line up and sing harmony.

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Monday, April 11, 2005

Dali in St. Pete

“You’ve been to the Dali, now come to the Deli.” So said the little sign inviting people in the parking lot of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to come to a little restaurant next door. I’m glad someone was able to use that punage. Yuriko went into the museum first, so I went there with the kids and fed them. It was a very warm, almost hot day in St. Pete, our last full day in Florida.

We’d taken a walkabout in the area on our first full day in the state, spending time in parks along the waterfront, in view of hundreds of docked boats. That was a warm afternoon, too, and St. Pete proved an agreeable place to lounge around in a park under copse of palm trees, or do as much lounging as one can do with a quick two-year-old out to investigate the place, including the adjacent streets.

The day we went to the Dali Museum, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was being held, which complicated parking a little. Later I learned that part of the track included a general aviation airport not far from the museum, along with a few blocks of streets nearby. It sounded like a lawn mower race off in the distance to me, but that only shows how little I know about that realm of motor sports.

Housed in a mid-sized, appropriately modernist building, the Dali Museum is all Dali, all the time, as it should be. It’s enough to say that I like a lot of his work, and am impressed because there really isn’t anyone else like him; otherwise I’ll leave art criticism to minds more inclined to it. Equally interesting to me, however, was the question of how a museum solely dedicated to the work of Salvador Dali came to be in a small Florida city, far from the ambit of the flamboyant Catalonian.

Short answer: interested parties in St. Petersburg saw to it that enough scratch was raised to build a place to house the sizable collection of an Ohio industrialist. And why not? Places like New York or Paris or Barcelona have enough art. In any of those cities, Dali would be just another little museum. In St. Pete, he’s a big fish.

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Sunday, April 10, 2005

Florida 60 and US 17

I-4, with its construction and high-growth towns clinging to it rock candy, proved to be slow going on the way to Disney World, so we decided on an alternative to the Kennedy Space Center: Florida 60, then US 17, then the Bee Line Expressway. I wasn’t worried about the Bee Line, a.k.a. Florida 528, which is in fact a straight-east beeline from greater Orlando to a point near Cape Canaveral, because population centers don’t cling to it so much. In fact, there are few exits and much undeveloped land along the way.

The same can’t be said for Florida 60 and US 17. Though there were agricultural stretches—we saw orange groves, and migrants too—there were plenty of industrial facilities, shops and dwellings, many of which came in the form of tornado-baiting manufactured housing, but we spied gated communities as well. People live near these roads, and the traffic and road construction reflected it, so I doubt we saved any time compared with the Interstate. Still, it was good to pass through just a little of workaday, instead of tourist, Florida.

The route we took passed through Brandon, Mulberry and Bartow; then Winter Haven, Lake Alfred, Haines City, Davenport, Loughman and the curiously named Intercession City. The final large node of humanity before Orlando is Kissimmee, which from US 17 looks more or less like any North American suburb—all the usual retail suspects are represented.

I did note recently while watching Channel 26 here in the Chicago area that Kissimmee is advertising itself as a vacation destination for you and your whelps. We didn’t stop, however, and I’m a little sorry I missed this (from The Rough Guide to Florida): “In shabby downtown Kissimmee, talk a walk around the 50-foot obelisk called Kissimmee Monument of States. Comprising garishly painted concrete blocks adorned with pieces of stone and fossil representing all the American states and 20 foreign countries, this funky monument was erected in 1943 to honor the former president of the All-States Tourist Club.”

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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Space: 2005

Yuriko was the one who really wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Center on this trip. I was a little surprised, since we’d had discussions about the American space program before, and I’d come to believe that she thought of it as a large example of U.S. national hubris. It’s an opinion I don’t share, since I think the first decade of manned space flight—and that includes the Russian program—was one of the great achievements of mankind, and I’m lucky to be old enough to remember some of it.

But she wanted to go, and I was happy to oblige, even though it looked like at least a two-hour drive between the coasts of the state. I went by myself to the KSC in February 2000, and wrote this about it: “The trip to Florida really wasn’t a tourist trip, but I did manage to squeeze in some things, especially the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, which is only about 45 minutes away from Orlando. I had obligations back in Orlando Sunday afternoon, but I was free that morning. I had enough time to take the NASA bus tour, see some of the visitor center exhibits, include the “Rocket Garden,” and eat lunch at the café—roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, tea and Key lime pie.

“The bus tour takes you to (1) an observation deck some distance from Launch Pad 39, where the Shuttles lift off; (2) a large building with a genuine, restored Saturn V rocket; and (3) and exhibit about the yet-to-be finished Space Station. The first and third stops were OK, but the Saturn V rocket exhibit was worth the price of admission alone. It is, of course, a huge thing, but more impressive was what it did. NASA brags that it was the greatest machine ever built, and I think they have a case.”

Things are not so different at the KSC now. The star attraction is still the Saturn V, the cafeteria seemed about the same (I shared pizza with the kids this time), and the gift shops were still chockablock with space gewgaws.

On the other hand, everyone now goes through a metal detector to get in, plus a hand search of bags, which wasn’t the case five years ago. Also, the bus tour now stops only to see Pad 39 and the Saturn V. This is an improvement, since the Space Station practice models at the third stop had all the panache of a clean bus station, and you left with the sense that maybe you were looking at a very expensive white elephant. So I didn’t miss that stop this time around.

The Saturn V is still worth the price of admission. Worth the drive across Florida. Worth the lines that weren’t quite of Disney magnitude, but still long enough, to board the tour buses. Yuriko was indeed impressed. “I didn’t know it was so large,” she said. She also hadn’t realized that the rocket came in stages, or that the lunar module was tucked inside the top of the third stage, or that only the command module returned to Earth, while the rest of it went into the ocean or into space. She was not fortunate in her childhood in that way, like I was; I absorbed a lot of information about this rocket as a boy.

Last year’s hurricanes left their mark on the KSC. The Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the largest buildings in the world, had had parts of its skin shorn away; this was being repaired. The Saturn V building had been damaged in one place, making the roof leak; this too was under reconstruction.

Then there was the missing rocket. The Rocket Garden is an outdoor display of various early Space Age rockets, such as the Redstone, the Atlas, the Agena and others. Each one stands upright behind a circular railing, the better to discourage anyone with a mind to climb them. Behind one of the circular railings was an empty spot—and a sign informing the public that the display, a Juno II, had been damaged by the hurricane. A section of the rail was bent, so the thing probably fell over on it. So it’s out for repairs. NASA must be doing this itself, since I don’t think that’s something you can take to the corner rocket repair garage.

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Friday, April 08, 2005

Florida and Fauna

My old friend Ed Henderson, who travels to enviable places as a matter of course, pays closer attention to wild animals on his journeys than I do. In his letters to me he details seeking out whales or bears or other exotic species. He’s spent a lot of time in Alaska, which must make those observations easier, but even so it’s also a matter of temperament. I’m more inclined to seek out the works of man. If I spot an interesting wild animal somewhere or other, I pay attention, but with certain exceptions—like in Australia—animal-spotting isn’t something I pursue.

We didn’t even make it to the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa this trip, though we considered it, and I would have substituted it without hesitation for Disney World, had Lilly somehow forgotten about the Magic Kingdom. But I did spot a few animals in Florida I’ve never seen wild, at unexpected moments.

Our hotel had an ad slogan probably unique in the hospitality business: “So close, the parrots escape to our trees.” If you check the hotel web site or its stationery, you’ll see that the phrase is a registered trademark, lest the Comfort Inn down the street steal it, I guess. They’re referring to the Busch Gardens’ parrots, and when you read something like that, you naturally look around for parrots when you’re out at the pool or fetching ice. I didn’t see any parrots in their trees last week, but there were pigeons. Slightly different featherage than Yankee pigeons, but they bobbed their heads the same.

On the second-to-last day of the trip, we visited Clearwater Beach just as the sun was arcing down toward the Gulf, and found a spot to park ourselves in the sand. I went back to the car to get some things, to a parking lot between the beach and the town’s main seaside drag. As I closed the trunk, I looked up and saw three parrots sitting on a telephone wire, their plumage as green-yellow-red-colorful as I’d ever seen.

At the Kennedy Space Center, one of the guides on the bus ride between parts of the facility made a point of emphasizing how much of the area was actually given over to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. He pointed out an alligator in a roadside gully, just as the guide did when I was there in 2000. But he also had the driver slow down a little and focused our attention on a large tree among several not more than 100 yards or so from the road.

“There was an eagle in that tree a little while ago,” he said. Sure enough, he was still there, perched near an enormous-looking eagle’s nest. The eagle was mostly in shadow, but the outline was unmistakable. That was definitely a first. I’d never seen an eagle in the wild before. Ed’s probably seen dozens, but I don’t make it to eagle country much, though that apparently includes Florida.

Most of my close encounters with wildlife involve critters smaller than eagles, but who can hone in on their prey with just as much skill. Insects, that is. I think we arrived ahead of the Florida mosquito hordes, but since we didn’t go anywhere really rural, we might avoided them that way (I had my eye on Myakka River State Park, but it didn’t happen).

I did notice some ants in the hotel room. Nothing alarming. In fact, they were the smallest ants I’ve ever seen, just barely recognizable as such, visible from a seated position in the bathroom. Each time I found myself in that position, I noticed them: two or three millimeter-sized black specks making their way along the floor next to the wall.

If there had been dozens or more, that would have been an issue with the hotel. But two or three made me wonder what they were doing there so consistently, and what they found for food in the vicinity, since I’m sure ants don’t do anything else outside their nest other than look for food. After a while, the obvious occurred to me: in ant terms, the people who occupy the rooms probably exude a nice supply of biomass, mostly invisible to us, but which might be useful to tiny ants. I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly gave me something to meditate about in the privy.

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Thursday, April 07, 2005


It’s good to be open to serendipity. This goes double when you’re someplace unfamiliar. We went to Florida for the usual reasons, of course—warm days, cool pools, tourist attractions, some new places to eat, essentially as a way to remove ourselves from the barnacles of day-to-day living for a while.

We didn’t go to be introduced to a beer from Pennsylvania, but it worked out that way. We drove a number of times along the main road next to the Best Western Busch Gardens, the unassuming but fairly busy north-south 30th Ave., and the very first time we noticed the Yuengling Brewery, a plain industrial facility set back from the road. A couple of large signs announced the name of the place, but it took a few drivebys to notice smaller signs that advertised brewery tours every weekday at 10 am and 1 pm.

Yuengling. I rolled that name around in my head for a few days. I thought it sounded familiar. I also thought it sounded like a cousin of Tsing Tsao, but I placed it on the wrong side of the Eurasian landmass, since it’s an Pennsylvania brew with roots in Germany (Tsing Tsao was also set up by Germans, as I recall), founded by a Herr Yuengling before the Civil War.

We’d had a long day visiting the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, so we opted for easy things on Friday: sleep late, a brewery tour at 1, lunch, and a late afternoon at Clearwater Beach. We arrived about 15 minutes before the tour, and in the combination factory office/waiting area/gift shop/bar, which also had old brewery and brewery worker photos arrayed on the walls, our guide offered us a beer before the tour began.

“That’s unusual,” I said. “Usually, you get your sample after the tour.”

“You can have one then as well,” she answered. She was a chipper middle-aged British woman who was clearly fond of her job. She explained at one point that she had married a man from Massachusetts whose job had taken them to Florida, but she never did say how she wound up at Yuengling. Still, she had a pleasant voice and knew a great deal about beer.

I had a black and tan, Yuriko tried the lager, and the kids got Sierra Mist. Not bad at all, but I’m no beer fanatic. I just enjoyed the novelty of drinking something I’d never really heard of before. The reason for that, it turns out, is that Yuengling is still an eastern U.S. beer—a regional in this era of nationals and microbrews. It has not (yet) even made it as far west as Illinois, but our guide did say that the brand is growing at a considerable clip.

We did the tour with about six other people. The brewery itself is a dowdy facility, its chipped steps and dim hallways dating back to the 1950s, when it was originally a Schlitz brewery. We got to see the beer taster’s lab (he wasn’t there), which reminded me of a high school chemistry lab, but I was distracted at that moment because Ann had a strong urge to take the taster’s pens and mark up his notes, which I had to prevent.

The brewery floor is visible from a set of windows one story up. Thousands of bottles were in motion, but, true to the state of the art, almost no people were visible. Laverne and Shirley would have to get jobs elsewhere these days, so automated has the process become, but that was even true in 1983 when I saw a Stroh’s brewery in Memphis. Six people ran the whole place.

Our guide also pointed out that there’s a machine to check each bottle to make sure it’s filled exactly to 12 oz. or 14 oz. or whatever it is supposed to be. Overfilling, at least according to Florida law, amounts to bootlegging, a legality that never would have occurred to me. “If it’s overfilled, we have to throw it away,” she said. “That’s a shame. No one can drink it. That’s what I consider alcohol abuse.”

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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

It’s a Faux World After All

The most direct way by car from greater Tampa to Disney World is by Interstate 4. I went that way with five other students back in ’82, and I have a couple of vague memories about that stretch of road, as it was then. Mainly, I remember long tracts of undeveloped roadside, either wooded or ranch land, which sometimes included cattle—an industry that’s still very large in Florida, but little known. I don’t remember what the traffic was like, but it couldn’t have been heavy, or I would remember it.

Twenty-three years later, there seemed to be much less open land, much more development along the way, and a lot more traffic. Miles and miles of the road were being rebuilt, widened to six lanes it looked like, and about 30 miles ahead of the Disney exits, we hit a traffic jam that added about an hour to our travels. It was, as it turned out, an omen for the day.

All the guidebooks advise preparing for the Disney parks in certain ways, but I’m not sure you can really be ready for the throngs of spring break. Lines for the rides, of course. Lines for food. Lines for the bathrooms. There were even lines to ride the tram that takes you to the lines to buy your ticket which are followed by lines to ride the monorail that takes you to the lines to go through the turnstiles.

If not the happiest place on Earth, Disney is at least one of the best organized. Exasperating as they were, all those queues were orderly, and it was mostly a good-natured crowded, unlike, say, the mobs waiting for buses in China, which likely as not would spawn fistfights the way hurricanes spawn tornadoes. I saw a couple of people screaming at their kids at Disney World—I couldn’t be completely unsympathetic to that—but that was about it.

So we rode some rides, nothing that required more than about a half hour wait. Once she learned it was a roller coaster, Lilly had no interest in the likes of Space Mountain, or even the log ride, so we mostly avoided the hour-plus lines of those amusements. People aren’t quite as willing to line up for rides like the spinning teacups, the faux Indy 500 cars, Aladdin’s “magic carpet,” the faux jungle cruise accompanied by the worst jokes in the park, the Tiki bird show (under new management! A sign said… is Disney outsourcing?), or It’s a Small World, which I’m glad to report still replies on positive stereotypes, practically every one you can think of. We did all those rides and some others.

Then there was the Pirates of the Caribbean. It had the longest line we put up with, artfully concealed from the outside by a maze of corridors done up in faux 18th-century stonework. I insisted on riding it this time. I went on it in 1973, at Disneyland; we were in the front seats, and got a little wet. I rode it again in 1982 at Disney World, and back at Disneyland in 2001 it was the first thing we rode after entering the parking at opening time, and there were no lines.

Four years ago, as I went through that ride, I came to appreciate Disney for its mechanical prowess. Whatever else you can say about it as a rapacious organization, it puts on an amazing show at a place like this—just one ride among dozens. The animatronics have to be set in motion and maintained, the lights have to work a certain way, the sound effects need to function flawlessly, the boats need to keep moving; thousands of things need to happen to take thousands of people through the ride every day. It’s hard to imagine the effort, the sheer man-hours, that go into making the thing run. Multiple that by a factor of who knows how many, and you get the whole park.

One other thing: Disney employees, probably by a combination of nature and intensive training, proved unfailingly helpful. Early in our visit, we stopped for ice cream on Main Street, and as we stood outside the shop eating it, Lilly’s scoop popped out and fell to the ground. A nearby Disney worker, Eric I think was his name, immediately came over and asked what Lilly had had, and went in the shop and got her another cone. I can’t imagine such a thing happening at Six Flags.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Not the Best Best Western

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to err on the side of keeping your complaining, carping, bitching and bellyaching to yourself, but I’m going to suspend that rule for today. The problem described below isn’t of great importance, but it did touch a nerve—mainly because I didn’t get what I paid for, and for no good reason other than thick-headed hotel employees. So earlier today I wrote this letter to one Ric Leutwyler, senior vice president of brand quality and member service at the hotel chain Best Western.

“Dear Mr. Leutwyler,

“My family and I stayed at the Best Western All Suites Hotel near USF behind Busch Gardens from March 27 to April 2, 2005, in Room 1300. On the whole, the stay was pleasant, but unfortunately toward the end there was a serious lapse in service, and no acknowledgement of it by hotel staff.

“On April 1, we stayed in until just after noon, affixing the No Maid Service sign to the door. The sign specifically said that if a guest needed maid service for the room, the front desk needed to be informed by 3 pm. As we were leaving at about 12:30 pm, I called the front desk and asked for maid service.

“When we returned to the room briefly at about 4 pm, we noticed that nothing had been done, so I went to the front desk in person and asked for the room to be cleaned. When we returned for the day at about 10:30 pm, nothing had been done. There was a considerable amount of garbage in the room, no clean towels, and little toilet paper.

“I returned to the front desk to see what could be done. The woman at the desk was polite enough, but she couldn’t say why the room had never been cleaned, and said that the cleaning staff was gone. 'At least can someone remove the trash?' I asked. I thought that was only reasonable, considering that I pay for that service when renting a room. No, she said, the cleaning staff is gone. She didn’t use these words, but she meant: It’s not my job, go away.

“I don’t remember her name, or know whether she was the shift manager or not, but I know what a good manager would have done. A good manager would have taken two minutes and removed the garbage personally. That simple act would have made amends for the hotel’s error, and prevented this letter.

“As we were leaving the next day, there was no inquiry about how we liked our stay, and no acknowledgement of any problem. I paid fully for a day in which I received aggravating, substandard service, and will think twice before staying at a Best Western again. I’ve stayed at hotels all over the world, and this has never happened anywhere else.

“Since you are SVP of Brand Quality, I thought I would share my experience with you.”

Like I said, a minor complaint, but I think Best Western ought to dole out a tongue-lashing to someone over this. Still, I was honest when I said that property was, on the whole, pleasant. All the rooms (all suites) faced a courtyard shaded by palms and other trees, with a kidney-shaped pool and a hot tub in the mix. It wouldn’t have been a vacation for Lilly without that pool.

Also, breakfast was no extra charge each morning. I’m not taking my kids anywhere that doesn’t do this. Mostly, it was average breakfast food, but the grits were unexpectedly tasty, and the orange juice was a consistent delight. It was Florida, and the juice should have been delightful, but you can’t count on these things.

The property is near Busch Gardens, located near a good many other hotels and motels, so even in spring break the prices were competitive—less than $100 a night. Considering the location and amenities, that was a good deal. We didn’t actually go to Busch Gardens, though the roller coasters were visible from the Best Western parking lot. I had no special interest in it, Yuriko didn’t care about it, and most importantly, it’s still outside of Lilly’s zone of awareness. For her, the theme park world is bipolar: Six Flags and DISNEY! More about that tomorrow.

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Monday, April 04, 2005

Florida IIII

“Is it still cold up there in Chicago?” the clerk at the Enterprise car rental desk in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport, a nattily dressed young black man, asked me last week.

“Yeah, it’s still pretty cold. Spring hasn’t come to us, so we decided to come to spring.”

“That sounds like a good plan.”

And it was. I arrived in Florida late in the afternoon Easter Sunday to a welcome surprise. Instead of leaving the airplane into a sterile jetway, I felt the warm Southern air immediately, because we disembarked down stairs directly onto the tarmac. I don’t remember how long it’s been since I’ve done that, but it was long, long ago in an airport far, far away. A small but worthwhile treat.

At that moment I was traveling without my family. Because of the details of my frequent flier miles, I had one free flight on ATA, which took me to St. Petersburg; also available were two free flights on Southwest, which uses the considerably larger, mall-like Tampa International Airport; Yuriko and Lilly and Ann went there. We flew to our respective Florida airports, and back to Chicago Midway, on the same days, within hours of each other, with me scheduled to arrive first and take care of things on both ends, like picking up a car in St. Pete, or picking up our bags in Chicago. Like any plan that depends on airline schedules, a lot could have gone wrong, but fortunately nothing did. Our flights were all more or less on time.

So we had about six days in central Florida. A line from Tampa Bay to Cape Canaveral, roughly paralleling I-4 and the wonderfully named Bee Line Expressway, formed the axis of our vacation. It was Yuriko and the kids’ first visit to the state, and my fourth. It included an empty beach, the Mouse Empire, strange sea horses, a Saturn V, a brewery with good beer, a busy beach, Salvador Dali, swimming, walking, driving, near-sunburn, crowds, traffic, noise, too much Cartoon Network, excellent orange juice, decent barbecue, stellar Cuban food, warm days, cool nights and commercials on the radio advertising the best way to rid your property of fire ants. It was good to be away.

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