Thursday, June 30, 2005

High Summer

A mark of high summer—fireflies. I saw some thing evening, along with a perfectly pleasant sunset late in the evening. Lilly says she’s seen some already, but I missed them until today.

The last day of June: half a year gone. It should be a holiday, along with Juneteenth (the 19th), the Solstice, and July 4. We could string them all together for something like the week between Christmas and New Year’s: a national slowdown, but in summer instead of winter. I can dream, can’t I?

I can also take a few days off from posting. I’ll pick it up again around July 5.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Matches & Cards

I come by my habit of collecting matchbooks and cards from restaurants honestly. My mother has, or had, a large collection of restaurant matches. That was simply part of the restaurant experience: get some matches at the end. She never smoked, so smoking had nothing to do with it.

These days you’re more likely to get a business card than a matchbook, but I still collect whatever’s available. Back in April, I was a little disappointed to discover that the Cuban restaurant we visited in Tampa (Carmen’s) had no matches or cards to give away.

This came to mind over the weekend when I assimilated the collection of cards and matches accumulated in my former office into my larger collection at home. At home, I have three former fruit-cake tins nearly full of matches, a business card-holder full of cards (104, I just counted), and probably that many loose cards.

They’re good memory aids, like snapshots. Better in some ways, because rather than looking at a fixed image, they evoke some other kind of memory: the taste of something you ate, a bit of odd décor, someone else at the table with you.

For instance, one beaten up box, emptied of its matches, says Restaurant Metro. 2400 Lübeck-Gr. Burgstrasse 59. Täglich kalte und warme. Speisen von 11 Uhr bis 23 Uhr. See Sunday’s small posting for my arrival in Lübeck—this is where I had lunch with my friend Rich later that day. All I remember is that the service was glacially slow.

Keeping in a German theme, another matchbook I have is from Gerst-House Restaurant. Famous German Style Foods. Draft Beer. Nashville, Tenn. Free Parking. Did that place ever have good pigs’ knuckles. The key was the sauce.

Picked more or less at random, there’s also a reminder of Arthur Bryant’s, a superb barbecue shack in Kansas City, Mo.; the dining room of the remote Kalaloch Lodge on the coast in Washington state; Mama Desta’s Red Sea, on Clark Street in Chicago, where I used to introduce out-of-town guests to the pleasures of Ethiopian food; Gautama, an Indian restaurant in Osaka; Arizona Charlie’s, a second-string casino in Vegas that had huge, terrific breakfasts for about $3 even after the trend for Strip casinos was to make their food service into profit centers, too.

Fine memory aids. Unless, of course, they evoke no memory.

Al’s Steak House. Entertainment Nightly. The Finest in Food & Cocktails. 1990 W. Jefferson St., Joliet, Ill. The matchbook’s a dull red with a fleur-de-lis as the only decoration. I don’t remember spending much time in Joliet, or at any steakhouses there. My best guess would be on one of few business trips I took while working at the Law Bulletin, 1987 to 1990. Probably with Ernie, my boss, who was fond of steakhouses.

There’s also Barney’s Market Club. For Great Steaks. Since 1919. 741 W. Randolph, Chicago, IL 372-6466. With a small drawing of a prosperous fat man, ca. 1940, complete with cigar and caption: Yes sir! Senator. Another steakhouse I don’t remember, and the matchbook shows its age—pre-1990 again, I’m sure—with its missing area code. Every place in metro Chicago was 312 until the late 1980s, and even then we got only two area codes.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Deadly Cloud

Yesterday I recalled a cloudburst on Sunday, with thoughts about lightning and its dangers. Today I read the following in the Tribune, by reporter Claire Heininger:

“The lightning crackling in the steamy suburban air signaled that a storm was approaching, but nothing could have warned the Coopers just how fast.

“As they stacked lawn chairs and gathered dirty dishes in the back yard of their Roselle home Sunday, the lightning that had seemed distant struck and killed Patrick Cooper, 15, and knocked his uncle to the grass...

“The cause of death was electrocution, said a spokeswoman for the Cook County medical examiner's office.”

Roselle shares a border with Schaumburg, fairly near where I live, so the strike must have been only two or three miles away. I saw the same storm and heard the same thunder -- while I was outside, as I said yesterday. Fifteen years old. A damned shame. The article continued:

“The storms that raced through the northwestern and western suburbs Sunday night came from that mold, said WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling. Clusters of small storms are common in the summer, he said, and can produce lightning strikes without the typical warning signs.

" ‘Very often there's been extended sunshine beforehand,’ he said. ‘I don't think people realize the degree of risk they're at.’

“It's also not uncommon for lightning to dart down into small spaces like yards, as bolts ‘can arc some distance away from the cloud that produced [them],’ Skilling said.”

Gee, something else to worry about. On the other hand:

“It was only the fourth lightning fatality in the Chicago area in the last 10 years, and the 10th in Illinois during that time period, said Jim Allsopp, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service…”

Not what I’d call bad odds. Car accidents are still the Reaper’s number-one method of choice when it comes to those who die young. But if you’re under that bolt, the long odds don't matter. A little detail on Patrick Cooper:

Numerous family members gathered at the Coopers' Locust Lane home Monday, talking and laying bouquets of flowers near the grassy spot where Patrick died. [He] was a member of the football and track teams at Lake Park, recently earning honors in the triple jump, his brother said.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Lightning Days

Rain on Sunday. It came toward the end of a hot and sticky day, so uncomfortable that we passed on the Long Grove Strawberry Festival, which we enjoyed last year. But we couldn’t see putting up with the drive and the heat and the crowd and the toddler. The prospect of strawberry cake doughnuts from the Long Grove Confectionery and good amateur entertainment just wasn’t enough to get us there.

Around 7 in the evening, I was sitting outside reading, enjoying the decline of a hot day. I started hearing occasional rumbles of thunder, which was odd because it was cloudy only in one corner of the sky. At first I thought it was airplane noise. Later, some clouds moved overhead, and the noise was clearly thunder, but it still didn’t look like rain. A good two-thirds of the horizon seemed clear, and the overcast parts weren’t all that dark. Still, low rumblings continued.

So much so that Yuriko came outside and asked me to come in, worried that lightning might do me harm. I wasn’t worried, since the clouds didn’t seem too vicious, and I hadn’t seen any lightning, even within the clouds. But one should have deference to wifely concerns of that kind, so I came inside. I would have been driven in anyway, since three or four minutes later the skies opened up and rain poured for about half and hour.

I can remember being really in danger of a lightning strike only a few times, since I usually take the risk seriously enough to get out of its way. There was the time at the Singapore Zoo in '91, described here (see April 4, 2003).

In the summer of ’82, most of which I spent at summer school in Nashville, I was on the Vanderbilt campus one cloudy day when the sky grew angry, but not rainy. Instead of taking refuge inside Furman Hall, I stood at its entrance, looking up at the clouds. At least one other person was there, a fellow named Larry who’d lived across from me during my first year at school. We weren’t completely unprotected -- a college campus isn’t a golf course, and there were trees and other buildings nearby. Still, the crackle of lightning seemed awfully close, immediately overhead. We stayed for a few minutes, fascinated by the overhead display.

When it seemed to be over, Larry said, “Wow, that was dangerous, wasn’t it?” I agreed and we went on our way. I never had all the foolhardiness you’re supposed to have at 21, but I guess I had some. The lightning could have taken me out, too, since that summer seemed to be open season on Vanderbilt students. By the end of September, one had committed suicide, another had been shot to death in a bar near campus, and two more -- kids that I knew -- had died in a helicopter crash. No one was hit by lightning, however.

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Itemoid from the Past: Lübeck, BRD


Breakfast with Karen and Cindy, then boarded a bus for Lübeck. Nice ride up, lots of greenery, and as we approached, a view of the seven spires of Lübeck. Before we entered the city center (Zentrum) we stopped at a wide place in the road and disembarked. Three busloads of tourists, crowding around to take a look—from a distance, behind a large sign warning us to proceed no further -- at a mean-looking fence and a grim guard tower, looking just like one you’d see over a prison wall. We’d come to the border with the DDR. We were told that there are guard towers every 500 meters from the North Sea to Switzerland.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

Coleridge, Weatherman

Illinois this June:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

In all my hundreds of postings, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned Coleridge. Just an oversight. Among the romantic poets we covered in Donald Ault’s English Poets of the Romantic Period, which I took at Vanderbilt in 1982, Coleridge grew to be my favorite. I’d read some of his work in high school, of course, especially Rime, but high school was too soon to appreciate him.

He captured Illinois in January, as well:

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

More Eminent

Hot indeed. The meteorologists were right, mid-90s or thereabouts today. Complete contrast to last summer, a wimpy excuse for a season, that was. I’m sure it never reached 90° F the entire season last year.

Of course I did the rational thing anyone who grew up in subtropical South Texas would do. I stayed home most of the day. I filed a story yesterday, so this opened up the possibility of slacking off, which I pursued as much as possible, considering the presence of wee children.

I actually know a little about the Kelo case that the Supreme Court just decided. Decided wrongly, in my opinion.The last editorial I wrote for Real Estate Media concerned Kelo, from which I quote:

“The question posed by that kind of eminent domain is this: who’s serving whom? It’s as if property owners exist -- live and do business -- so that government agencies can reap tax revenues. If those owners don’t produce enough, the government can toss them out in favor of someone who can generate a better tax base. In other words, the citizens serve the state -- or else. Doesn’t that seem backwards?”

But what do you do when you think the Supreme Court is wrong? Slap your forehead. And not even literally, just figuratively. That’s about it.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Weedy Heat

The weather page of the Tribune is all abuzz these days about the dry heat of June -- driest since 1988 and hottest since 1999, or something like that. Not much rain at all this month, and temps near 100° F Thursday and Friday, authoritative opinion says.

Yet the nights are pleasant, especially since the mosquito count is off. In fact, I don’t remember any bites myself this summer, nor any for Ann, though Yuriko and Lilly seem to have gotten a few. Compared to last year, though, nothing’s biting.

The garden’s doing OK, because we irrigate. Trouble is, we’re not always sure which are the vegetables we planted about a month ago, and which are weeds. it's not enough to check the rows. Not everything we planted in rows comes up, some weeds act as interlopers in the rows, and seed packages are useless when it comes to depicting the young vegetable -- what you get on the pack is a picture of the glorious veggie as it appears after being force-fed Soylent Green brand plant food daily in hyrdoponic beds where weeds are not an issue.

Ah, well. It’s too hot to weed anyway. Some farmer I’d make.


Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Little Cleaning Lady

Typing along, typing along, typing along… your toddler comes into the room where you are typing, small dry towel in hand, and starts to rub down the furniture. Ah, how nice, she’s cleaning. Rub, rub, rub. Exit toddler. Return a few seconds later. Rub, rub, rub. So cute. Exit again. Longer period. Type, type, type. She returns. Rub, rub, rub. This time out of the corner of your eye, you see a trail of water on the chair.

Hey, where’d she get the water? I don’t hear any water running, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t find a small chair, move it into place, turn on a faucet real high, and splash water everywhere. Or go to the bathroom and… yes, she’s very resourceful.

Turns out she was dipping her rag in one of the pot plants in the foyer—one that grows in a few inches of water. I discouraged this, for the health of the plant. Besides, she might get a notion to clean the computer one of these days.


Monday, June 20, 2005

Notes From Ed

Too busy! After I'm done with buzzing through a current assignment, I need to take a couple of days off. Except from child-rearing and blogging.

I only have access to a Mac these days, which makes you a second-class citizen in Blogger-world. For one thing, you can’t use the shortcut buttons when posting, to do such functions as post a link without having to enter all the html code. So I would have posted this link earlier, but when faced with html code, my indolent streak kicks in.

But here it is. You might remember traveler Ed, who’s now in the big leagues of the travel-writing world (Arthur Frommer knows his work and gives him assignments, for instance). Ed’s started a blog, Unexpected World. It’s even the same format as this one. The main difference is that he gets to go far and wide, while I go near and narrow.

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Item from the Past: Fan Letter

I can’t remember what inspired me to write the following letter, since the number of fan letters I’ve written could be counted on one hand, probably. But since I save many things, I’m able to post it here.

L. Sprague de Camp
3453 Hearst Castle Way
Plano, TX 75025

June 26, 1996

Dear Mr. de Camp,

I hope this letter finds you well. As a lad some 20-odd years ago, I read your book Lest Darkness Fall, and had fond memories of it. A few months ago I happened on a copy and re-read it with considerable enjoyment.

I’m merely writing to say that I believe that you wrote quite a remarkable book—one that not only appealed to me at two different points in my life, but that has also help up for nearly sixty years. It's a good yarn indeed.

My brother gave me your address. He has read a number of your books, copies of which I believe our late father had read. Our father also probably read much of your work in the pulps, back when it was new.


Dees Stribling

Soon after, I got a postal card from L. Sprague de Camp, on which he had typed the following:

5 Jul 96

Dear Ms. [sic, I’m used to it] Stribling:

Thanks for your kind letter of June 26th. I am still writing and being published, albeit more slowly because of the debilities of age (I shall be 90 in 13 months). My autobiography, TIME AND CHANCE, is due out shortly from Donald Grant, Publisher, and a venture into paleoanthropology, THE APE-MAN WITHIN, is now out from Prometheus Books. I hope you get something out of them.


(signed) L. Sprague de Camp

He died on Nov. 6, 2000. A number of his books are still in print.


Saturday, June 18, 2005

Item from the Past: The Fallen Tree

I spent a day at Mount Rainier National Park 20 years ago this month. I took a walk that day on the Trail of the Shadows. I still have the booklet I got describing the trail. On the back cover, there are notes. I came across something along the way that inspired me to sit down right then and there, and write down my thoughts.

JUNE 1985 – Washington State

There’s an amazing living thing in front of me -- only it’s dead. Alive and dead. It’s a fallen tree trunk bigger than a van. It’s on its side and looks ancient, with gray old roots reaching into the air to twice my height, clawing out in every direction.

Opposite the roots, the top looks like it was sawed off years ago. Yet part of it lives. Young shoots grow out of this end, very green now. A little green moss hangs on its side here and there.

Now I see that a different, fully grown tree, alive and upright, growing from among the gray old roots, its living roots mingled with the dead. It must be 30 feet tall, this tree that grows from the ancient one. Now I see insect holes. It must be a whole world for bugs in there.

I look more closely, and on the sawed end, I see some graffiti carved in one spot. “R.D. 1933 NYC.”

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Friday, June 17, 2005


Mild day, not excessively busy. Didn’t have a $5 Dominick’s pizza today, in spite of what I wrote yesterday. Lilly said she didn’t want any. Even at seven, you sometimes burn out on things.

Visited two new retail concepts lately, new in the sense that I’d never tried them, and in a more global sense. They’re both growing young chains. First, noodles. Then hair. Despite similarities in shape between those things, the shops were very different.

Ann and I had lunch at Noodles & Co. in Arlington Heights, Ill., a few weeks ago. The place was wombish. Pastel walls, soft brown tables, soft track lighting, an enclosing—but not claustrophobic—interior space that happened to be a noodle-focused restaurant.

Lunch there was the very last lagniappe of my former job at Real Estate Media. In early March (see the March 2-4 postings), I went to Grand Rapids for a retail conference, and for a while listened to a fellow from Noodles & Co. I can’t remember a thing he said now. But at the end of his presentation, he gave members of his small audience postcard-sized gift certificates for a free entrée at the restaurant chain.

All along the Noodles & Co. walls were photos with black frames. Each one, large and glossy and colorful, had food or food establishment as a subject: an open-air market in Seattle, baskets of peppers in Bangkok. The food equivalent of wildlife shots that lull one into thinking that the wilderness is full of picturesque creatures at every turn.

Speaking of Thailand, I had the pad thai, which was really pretty good. I ordered macaroni and cheese for Ann, but she preferred to eat from my plate, so I ended up eating most of hers. It was several cuts above the boxed variety, as you might expect.

On my birthday I went by myself to a place called SportClips for a haircut. Sam the barber downtown is just a little far away now, and besides, I wrote an article about SportClips a few months ago, so I decided to give it a try.

The concept assumes that men and boys think about sports pretty much all the time, or would if they could. The place has tiles like a locker room, sports photos and memorabilia, and one TV for each of half a dozen barber chairs, tuned into one of the ESPNs. Seemed like overkill to me. Enough to have one big TV off in the corner, broadcasting whatever sport is in season.

A young woman cut my hair. All the staff were young women, and if you read between the lines at SportClips web site, the chain seems to recruit them from beauty parlor jobs with the promise of somewhat better working conditions and pay, and especially the prospect of customers who are easy to please, that is, men and boys. I think they’re on to something.

My haircutter wasn’t bad, but she was noticeably ham-handed compared to Sam the barber. After the cut, however, was the shampoo, and that was worth the price alone (about $15 with tip, incidentally). More barber shops ought to do that.

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Grocery Obsession

There’s a copywriter at Dominick’s Finer Foods that surely has foodie hell in mind. Or he -- she? -- works for an ad agency in the pay of Dominick’s, a popular grocery store chair here in Chicagoland, though for some years now it has been owned by Safeway, reportedly to that company’s regret, since it wasn’t used to dealing with unionized grocery workers.

On Friday’s, Dominick’s deli sells large pizzas for $5. Since I’ve been home on Fridays, I’ve often gone there with the kids and taken one of these pizzas home for lunch. It’s mediocre pizza, better than frozen but not parlor quality, but it is enough for the three of us, with some leftovers, for that low price. On the box it says, “MAKE EVERY DAY A DOMINICK’S PIZZA DAY!”

Every day...? Every week is too almost much. What’s for lunch? Oh, another pizza from Dominick’s… ugh. No, please, no more pizza...

That’s bad enough, but not long ago I bought some potato salad from that same deli. It too is mediocre, but it saved me the trouble of mashing potatoes that night for dinner. I noticed this on the label, a little advertisement for the deli’s sandwiches: THEY’RE SO GOOD YOU CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT THEM.

Must have… sandwiches. Must have… SANDWICHES! I can’t STOP thinking about THEM!

But of course there are 12-step programs for the sandwich-afflicted, if we accept the disease model of sandwich obsession.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Open the Door, Bugs

Distinctly cool today, must have been in the mid-60s. Clouds and a little rain. That’s a Northern summer for you. Heat for a while, then a break for a few days, then more heat.

A collection of Looney Tunes cartoons came in the mail today, and it wasn’t long before the girls were watching it, and me sometimes too. Some of these we have on tape, others not. All of them featured Bugs Bunny. A few of them I hadn’t seen in many years, maybe never in color — and boy is the color fine on a DVD.

The gag in “High Diving Hare” is that Yosemite Sam repeatedly tries to force Bugs to do a high dive but each time falls himself. At one point, Bugs builds a locked door on the diving board between himself and Sam, who then bangs on it, saying something like “Open the door! Open the door!” Then, in an aside to the audience, he says, “You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘Richard.’ ”

I laughed out loud. I’ve probably seen this cartoon 20 times in my life, and only now did I get the joke. Last fall I heard “Open the Door, Richard” on a jazz show, and not long after that acquired a collection of novelty songs of the ’40s and ’50s that included it. That’s one good thing about getting older. Sometimes to details fall into place.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Wrong Way Time Zones

The Sienna’s battery was indeed powerless, permanently so. Now a new box of acid and mysterious electrons is fixed into the car, and the cars drives. Naturally, the shop found something else to do, for more money, but it isn’t wise to argue with fixing the brakes. The cost of bum brakes would be high indeed.

Here’s how the mind works. Mine, anyway. Yesterday I set up an interview with a man in California. He said he wanted to talk to me the next day, today that is, early -- 9 his time. I made a note of it: call the guy at 7. Sure, that’s an early interview, but I’m a pro. So I set the alarm for 6:45 or so. I have a short commute.

Around 4 a.m. or so, there was a little thunder. Distant thunder. I woke up for it, and thought good, we need rain. (There was no rain.) Then I thought, the interview is soon. Then I thought 7 a.m., which is... 5 a.m. in California. Dunce. I’ve been through all the time zones personally and I used to pride myself on knowing the difference between Central Time and Japan Time without having to look it up, any time of year. (I’ve forgotten this now.)

I was relived that I could sleep a little longer, but baffled that I could get something so simple backwards. Oh, well. Call it a Wrong Way Corrigan sort of thing. (Whom I just looked up. He lived until 1995.)

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Jumper Cables

Exhausting day. Eleventy-hundred things to do, and then the battery in the Sienna decided to give up the ghost. Yuriko drives it to work, and it lasted long enough to take her there. So I had to take the kids and go get her in the other car in the late afternoon. Considerable waiting for AAA’s greasemonkey minions then ensued.

So long, in fact, that we took the offer of a Good Samaritan to jump-start the car. The battery then worked a short time. Time to slap myself on the forehead, because I had cables in my other car, but, having experienced an episode of futile jump-starting some years ago, I didn’t bother. Surely AAA will show up within an hour, as they usually do.

Just before dark we were able to get the Sienna home, where the battery went kaput again. So I will have to deal with it tomorrow: a new battery.

There was one good thing about waiting in that vast suburban parking lot, though. It was underneath a flight path into O’Hare, and we got to see a lot of planes, fairly large in the sky, sometimes as often as one a minute. Lilly thought that was pretty neat, and so did I.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Item From the Past: The Death Railway

This item is from 11 years ago, around my 33rd birthday.

At 10 in the morning on June 10 [1994] we caught a minibus to Kanchanaburi. We rented a bamboo hut overlooking the banks of the River Kwai for all of 100 baht per night (about $4), complete with mosquito screens. No mossies got in by night, but a bird lives somewhere in the walls. That was our best guess, anyway, since we never did see it. A few times an hour, it would sing, “uh-oh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-oh.” That’s what I heard. Yuriko heard “aho,” “aho,” “aho,” “aho,” which means “stupid” in Japanese.

Late in the afternoon of the first day we walked to the Bridge On the River Kwai -- luckily under cloudy skies, though still hot. It’s a fine railroad bridge, rebuild after the war, unexceptional but for a bloody past and the gloss of Hollywood. You can walk across it. We did. There are essentially two planks alongside the rails and nothing much on the sides, so it’s best not to stumble. It isn’t a high bridge, but the river is still far enough down to do some damage after a freefall. Every 20 feet or so there are places to stand away from the tracks in case you’re on the Bridge when a train comes to cross, but nothing came along while we were on the Bridge. Since the line doesn’t go into Burma anymore, traffic is fairly low.

Near the Bridge are souvenir shops and a gaudy WWII “museum" -- overpriced even at 30 baht. All we bought we a couple of bottles of Coke. We walked back to the guesthouse via the main road through town, a long strip occupied largely by auto/motorcycle sales and repair shops. The town’s main recreation, it seems, is buzzing down the road, mostly on two wheels.

The next day we rode the train to the end of the line at a place called Nam Tok, a few miles shy of the frontier with Burma. In the signs for tourists, this is called the Death Railway, though it’s only a small part of the line that Allied POWs and native conscripts slaved on. The ride to the end of the line takes about two hours, and a regular ride costs 17 baht each way—so for two round trips, we paid 68 baht, or about $2.70. At a table at the station were tourist tickets for 100 baht each. For this you got a guaranteed seat, a soft drink (which normally run 10 baht), and a silly certificate saying you’d ridden the Death Railway. The tout at the table wasn’t especially energetic, and he left us and a handful of other tourists alone after no one showed any interest in his tickets.

The Death Railway is a local line, making whistle stops fairly often. The line follows the river, though a lush tropical valley. You see the river only occasionally, but then spectacularly. The train had mostly emptied out by Nam Tok, which sported a seedy, nearly deserted station building under dense foliage. There were only a few minutes to look around anyway, since the same train was going back to Kanchanaburi. En route back the train hit a truck, just enough to jar the passengers a little. I think it was a maintenance truck parked too close to the rail. This delayed our return about 30 minutes, but we weren’t on any schedule, and didn’t care.

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Item From the Past: Waldfriedhof

Notes from half a lifetime ago: 22 vs. 44. I’m glad I’ve had the habit of writing things down for many years now. It’s a pillar of history, personal or otherwise.

11 June 1983, Lüneburg, West Germany

Woke late (10), idled for a while, then walked to the far side of the river, to the Waldfriedhof, the Wooded Cemetery. Singularly the most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever visited.

It isn’t an old burial ground. Most of the stones I saw dated from the late 1960s to the present, including stones with names but no date of death, and patches of land for expansion. The Waldfriedhof is set in a pine forest with light underbrush, little of which seemed to be disturbed to create the cemetery -- the Lüneburgers merely built between the trees and among the bushes and grass. An upright stone marked each plot, and usually had a cluster of flowers growing at its base. A flower-garden-forest: bright yellow, red and blue to garnish the hard stones.

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Friday, June 10, 2005

Turning 40, Base 11

Earlier today, Lilly took to closing my home office door on Ann, and holding it shut for a while, telling Ann, “You’re going to jail!” Ann protested this treatment by hitting a fist on the carpeted floor and saying “Why, Why, Why?”

This is the first time I’ve ever heard her use that useful word. But I suspect she got it from a scene in SpongeBob SquarePants. One of the characters was thrown in jail, and may have reacted that way, but later grew to like it because she didn’t have to deal with SpongeBob any more. (I sympathize. Curiously, SpongeBob at one point actually said the jailed character had been “institutionalized.”)

We returned a SBSP disk the other day, and there aren’t any more new ones available from Netflix for now. But the hypercheerful yellow sponge is still with us, in the form of a drinking cup, a toothbrush, toothpaste and Band-Aids. Oh, for 1% of the merchandising revenue of that character. Probably even 0.1% would make my job search unnecessary.

I turned 44 this week. I don’t think I’ve meditated on my birthdays much, if ever, here. But that’s a nice repeating double-digit number. If we counted in base 11, I’d have turned 40.

I spent the day in scenic Schaumburg, Illinois, dining in the evening at a good Mexican restaurant we’d long wanted to try. Contrast with my 33rd birthday: spent it in Bangkok, in an un-air-conditioned guesthouse, eating at the little place downstairs (man, the food was good in Thailand). When I turned 22, I was in Lüneburg, West Germany -- been a while since one needed to put it that way. The best meal in that town was halb Henchen mit Pommes Frites at a greasy spoon my friends discovered.

As for 11, I’m fairly sure I was it home in San Antonio, though I did spend some time in the summer of 1972 in Ardmore, Oklahoma, with my Aunt Sue and Uncle Ken. The Democratic National Convention was on TV with I visited them, so that would have been the second week of July.

I had to Google “Democratic Convention 1972” to get the date, of course. I’d forgotten that both major party conventions were in Miami Beach that year, with the Republican one in August. Maybe it was chosen for ease of crowd control: a narrow island with a handful of streets.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Wisdom from Slappy

The site meter function sends me a report every week about the hits I receive, which are consistently modest -- 60 to 80 a week. This week’s report tallied more than 100 for the first time, so I took a look at some of the details, and it seems there was a rush of strangers around 1 a.m. on June 7. Go figure. A herd moves in, grazes a little, moves on.

Mostly, though, this site is for myself and people I know, so here are a few items to bring things up to date. I had a job interview last Friday at an interesting magazine published by a large company. The interview went well enough, but it might be a while before I know if they’re interested. Such is the case at a different company I interviewed at last month. That’s still pending. In fact I noticed that they’re still advertising the position.

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of things to do. Both kids are home, Yuriko is at her office full time. I’ve received and completed assignments from a number of places (a magazine, a web site, a PR firm) in the last six weeks. I’m trying to wrap up a couple of articles in the next few days, in fact.

“The trouble with unemployment is that the minute you wake up in the morning, you're on the job.”

--Slappy White


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Building a Better Emperor

Took the girls to Burger Czar a while ago. This is the strategy at such places: two kid’s meals, plus one item such as a small burger from the dollar or near-dollar menu. Lilly eats all of hers, Ann eats some of hers, I eat mine along with the rest of Ann’s. Two toys are procured. Everyone’s happy, or at least fed, for about $6.

Burger Czar’s promotional toy tie-in these days is Star Wars III: Revenge of the Claims Adjusters, or whatever. The kiddie meal bags had drawings of each of the possible plastic figures available, more than 30 in all. I didn’t recognize a lot of them, but trog that I am, I quit the series in 1983. I did wonder whether the factories in Shanghai made each of the 30-odd figures in equal numbers, or whether production was skewed toward the more popular characters. If the latter were the case, then Jar Jar Blinks, say, would be a good find, since it would presumably be rare, and a potential collector’s item.

How do I know about that character? You don’t actually have to watch a movie like that to know about a character like that.

In any case, we got the character that evolved into Darth Vader… Anatoli Skywalker? and the Emperor Doowaddi-Doowaddi, or whatever he was called. Darth Vader, of course, was the series’ best character, but the Emperor was a missed opportunity. In the first movie -- I mean the real first movie, Star Wars back in ’77 -- he was mentioned but did not appear, and it was downhill from there. I pictured a handsome yet ruthless tyrant, a spellbinding demagogue, a despot who made the hyperdrive trains run on time, and who had an intensely loyal following in parts of the galaxy that got public works contracts. But no. He turned out to be a drooling, hissing, ugly fellow who ruled by channeling the Dark Side, rather than bread and circuses (and maybe a gulag).

Better still would have been a despotic Emperor with some virtues, someone who offered peace to a Republic torn by civil war, someone along the lines of Augustus. In that case, the rebel alliance might still be fighting for freedom, but with less purity of motive -- and willing to blow up a planet or two itself. But movies like that don’t get made.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Summer Reading

Summer! Dry and hot today. More rain would be nice, but not at the cost of delivering a couple of summer days like last year -- June 11, when we went to Six Flags Great America and it got distinctly chilly in the evening, and another, August 27, when I took Lilly to see the minor-league Schaumburg Fliers for a home game. It rained, cleared up in time for the game to be played, and slipped just below 60 F that evening, with wind. Good thing there was a blanket handy to wrap her in.

I’m nearly done with the fascinating The Zanzibar Chest, a book by a former Reuters war correspondent in East Africa, Aiden Hartley. My brother Jay gave it to me along with a clutch of other books while I was in St. Louis last month. Hartley tells his stories well, too well sometimes, especially Somalia 1992-93 and Rwanda 1994. I’m glad someone has the mettle to be a war correspondent. I’m too phlegmatic for it, not to mention chicken.

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Monday, June 06, 2005

Cricket Short

Short posts this week, since I’ve got a couple of articles to finish, and an important assignment to begin any day now. Should be an interesting one. More about it someday.

Summer is here at last. Got to about 90 F today, back in the 70s by night. A dry heat, though. Usually the mosquitoes have started their hit-and-run blood raids by now, but there have been few so far this year. Didn’t have the May showers necessary to make June pests.

Lilly pointed out the other day that the crickets had come back. As soon as she said that, I noticed that they had, just a few soloists singing out there in the night. I expect choirs of them as we pass deeper into summer, and then sometime in July, the sparks of fireflies -- light to go with sound. I wasn’t surprised by the crickets, but by Lilly noticing them. That’s the kind of child development I want to encourage: pay attention.

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Sunday, June 05, 2005

DSL Takes a Holiday

Though written and dated June 3, the previous post about Clyde Tombaugh was published Sunday evening. On Friday, our DSL decided to take the weekend off. In fact it's still off, and I've connected via dialup. Switching back to dialup isn't especially hard, but it does take a few steps, and it's an irritation, so I didn't get around to it till tonight.

I also wanted to check my e-mail. I should have known better. Got several on-line pharmacy spams, a couple of ads for bogus Rolexes, a phishing message, and other junk.


Friday, June 03, 2005

Pluto and Illinois

Lilly finished first grade today. It was a short day for her elementary school, some kind of assembly in the morning, and that was that. I except she won’t remember much about the day, if my experience with the end of first grade is any guide. I don’t even think anything like an assembly marked the occasion. The bell rang and that was that.

One more item from our excursion last weekend. I wanted an alternative to the Interstate for part of the return, so after retracing our route up Illinois 26 to near Henry, we then headed east on Illinois 18. We’d had lunch in Henry the day before, on the porch of a small restaurant called Nan’s, served by pleasant waitress who had just started waiting on tables the day before, she said. Sure enough, there were a few mix-ups, nothing serious, and eventually we got our decent road food. Down the street, we stopped at a yard sale, and Lilly scored two Bratz dolls for $2, both in good shape. For her, this was like finding a couple of real gold nuggets for sale by people who thought they were iron pyrite.

Illinois 18 took us exclusively through flatlands, once the Illinois River valley was behind us, and on to Streator. Streator’s one of those towns that the Interstate system has completely bypassed. It didn’t seem any worse for it, though, with all the usual features of rural Illinois county seats: a small downtown, a district of fine-trim houses, a trailer park or two, parks, schools, a police station, firehouse, and library with a historic marker out front dedicated to the discoverer of Pluto.

I saw a sign that pointed to that sign: something along the lines of Historic Marker: Discovery of Pluto: This Way. I had to see that marker, which, as I mentioned, was planted in front of the town library. I knew, of course, that Pluto had been discovered in Flagstaff, Arizona, by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. How Streator figured into that, I didn’t know.

Turns out that Tombaugh was born near Streator, and attended the local high school before moving with his family to Kansas. Later he made his way to the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill -- a museum now, well worth visiting if you’re in northern Arizona. I didn’t know Tombaugh was a native Illinoisan. Like Ronald Reagan, he found fame elsewhere, but his hometown hasn’t forgotten.

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

The One Tower

“Tower Park Observation Tower,” says a red spot on my road atlas, specifically on the Peoria submap. It’s in a suburb to the north called Peoria Heights. When you cross over into that town, you notice that a lot of the area’s wealth is there, especially in the form of sizable houses. Nice, but I wanted to see the observation tower, to do some observing.

It’s something I like to do: find a high spot somewhere new, climb or be elevated to the top, and look around. Maybe that kind of enjoyment goes back to the days I rode to the top of the Tower of the Americas, the name given to the observation tower built for HemisFair -- the world’s fair in San Antonio in 1968. It’s a stark modernist tower in most ways, such as the unadorned concrete shaft, and the glassy top that owes something to the design of satellite.

Still, at 750 feet, it’s a distinctive part of the San Antonio skyline, a very aesthetic feature. I couldn’t imagine San Antonio without it. Better still, it offers a great view, both from the exterior elevator on the way up, and the top. I went up there with my mother and brothers, both at the fair and occasionally afterward; I took a date or two up there in high school; I took Yuriko there before we were married; and one of these days, I’ll take Lilly and Ann up for the view.

The tower in Peoria Heights is a lot closer to our home, however. But what were the odds that it would be open at about 11 on a Sunday morning? After waking up around 7 or so -- habit, and a hard one to break at that -- and sluggishly eating breakfast, fooling around some at the campground (more rocks needed to be thrown by small hands into the nearby lagoon of the Illinois River), and watching the childless couple at the next door campsite pack and leave, we got around to packing up. By the time we were on the road, the warm sun of the early morning had vanished under some clouds.

I knew roughly where the tower was from the map, figuring it would be visible as we closed in. It was. Peoria Heights doesn’t sport a lot of tall things. The mostly circular tower is dull red, painted steel, and reaches up about 200 feet. I asked the woman at the ticket booth about it, and she said it was formerly a water tower for a nearby Pabst Brewery, since closed. Now it’s a municipal water tower, with a three-tiered observation deck, which is supposedly unique among water towers. We paid the modest admission and took an exterior elevator, with mostly glass sides, to the lowest of the three decks.

How to describe a view? It didn’t qualify as magnificent. The Illinois River valley isn’t the Grand Canyon, after all. But it was pretty with the flush of spring, new greenery rolling all around and down to the river, where a couple of barges floated by. Peoria’s small downtown rose to the south, and facilities I took to be Caterpillar’s weren’t far away either. I would have meditated more on the view, but Ann was most interested in hiking up and down the metal staircases between the levels, and I followed her around. She doesn’t care a bit for views (I think), but she knows a good staircase when she sees one.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Fishin’ Lilly

I’m not a recreational fisherman. When I was seven or eight, my grandmother’s next-door neighbor took me with her son, who was about my age, to a lake in south Texas for fishing. I remember disliking the worms and dreading the fishhooks—I’d heard they were painful and hard to remove, if you got one in your finger. I avoided that problem, but sitting around in the heat waiting for the pole to move didn’t seem like much fun. Especially since it never moved.

Much later, after I’d grown up, I tried again. This time I went fishing in a stream in Idaho. Fishing in Idaho. I’d read my Hemmingway. I knew this was supposed to be a fine place to fish. Probably it was. But even sitting around in the shade, waiting for the pole to move, wasn’t much fun. Especially since it never moved.

Lilly may feel differently about fishing someday. Among the sport fishers at the lagoon near our campsite was a middle-aged woman by herself, parked near the water, managing two poles. On Saturday evening, Lilly and Ann spent a lot of time near the water’s edge. Ann especially was fascinated by poking a stick into some of the algae scum. Lilly became fascinated by what the fisherwoman was doing, and started to watch her.

The woman was nice, and we talked to her a little. Eventually she let Lilly hold one of the poles. I didn’t think any harm could come of it, so while Lilly was doing this I went back to our campsite to build the fire. About 10 minutes later, Lilly came to me holding a bucket. She’d caught a fish. A small thing, who knows what kind, but alive in the bucket. “I caught a fish! I caught a fish!” she said, as pleased as could be. There wasn’t anything we could do with it, so she soon threw it back. Still, that’s more luck that I’d ever had fishing.

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