Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Above Sea Level

No blogging till Sunday or so. Plenty to report after that, I hope.

Warmish days and distinctly cool nights in this border zone between summer and fall. It’s rained so much lately that the grass has reverted to green, and grown enough so that I decided to mow it today. It's been so dry that I haven't mowed in about two months. That strikes me as a good lawn-care schedule.

I forgot to mention yesterday that the former courthouse building in Woodstock, Ill., tells you that it's 954 ft. above sea level and 373 ft. above Lake Michigan. These facts aren’t posted on signs, but carved into the building on either side of the main entrance. Someone thought that was worth doing, as if to reassure the citizens of McHenry County that deep water had no chance of lapping at the steps of this sturdy building.

Unless, of course, a large meteorite hits somewhere near the Great Lakes and the shock pushes a 400-foot wall of water westward from Lake Michigan. Then the courthouse would be about 27 feet too short, but it isn't a scenario that’s going to keep me awake at 4 a.m.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Bag of Apples

Busy day. Not such a busy weekend, though. We’d imagined an overnight trip down to central Illinois, to take advantage of Lilly being off from school on Friday (“Institute Day,” it says on the school calendar). But that notion got pared down to a day trip to the Royal Oak apple orchard near the Illinois-Wisconsin line. See last year’s posting.

Last year we had a warm, clear day to pick apples for fun. This year it started to rain heavily as soon as we got there. It rained for so long that we gave up on the idea of venturing into the orchard, and instead had lunch under a large tent: a combination of apple doughnuts, some food we’d brought, and apple cider. We bought a bag of Fuji apples before leaving. Not a bad visit, but not worth driving an hour for.

En route home, I was determined to see something new, so I took a slight detour and stopped at Woodstock, Illinois, to take a look at its historic courthouse square in the drizzle. Unusually, the square doesn’t contain the courthouse—former courthouse, in this case—but is a park. The former courthouse is across the street from the park, on the northern edge of the square.

It’s a handsomely restored 19th-century brick building, now housing an art gallery, a restaurant (in the former jail) and the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum. Only $2 to get in that museum, but the family was waiting in the car during my inspection of the inside of the former courthouse, so I merely looked in. Even when I was a kid, Dick Tracy seemed like a comic in amber, so I didn’t feel a great urge to go in. Someday I’ll go, maybe, just for curiosity’s sake.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Item from the Past: September 13, 1994

We went horseback riding today, and we got riding lessons from the Master of the Corral — a weatherworn, stocky Mongolian of good cheer and few teeth. That is, he showed us our horses, on we got, and off we went.

About a dozen of us rode single file. Horse trails marked the land, curling across unkempt meadows and skirting wooded hills. For half an hour, we rode along, seeing few things that a North American would think of as rural, such as gravel tracks, abandoned shacks or even fences.

For a while, we joked with each other about the condition of our mounts, who were past their prime, and about our inexperience in the saddle, at least in this nation of horsemen. But before long, the deep quiet of the place began to sink in. There were no mechanical noises. Just your breathing, your horses’ snorts, the neighing of the other horses, and not much else.

Except during water crossings. That part of north-central Mongolia is surprisingly well watered. We crossed little streams, shallow but rocky rivers, lazy brooks and occasional — more than occasional — fords across fast rivers. The Master of the Corral knew the easiest places to ford, and rest of us followed, slogging, splashing and hanging on.

“Try not to fall on your heads,” said our guide Altai, who was at the front with the Master of the Corral. He often put his near-perfect English to use in warnings of one kind or another.

As we came out of the woods, our destination spread out in front of us all at once. We were at the mouth of a broad, grassy valley peppered with yaks and horses. Our guides galloped off toward the far end of the valley. The rest of us were inspired to do the same. We spread out and flew the length of the valley, kicking up our own breeze, with the high hills and high sun and livestock whirling by.

Once we’d had some fun charging around under the noontime Mongolian sun, Altai let us know that we were invited to rest here. Besides a fair number of yak and horses, the valley had a human population. At one end stood a solitary ger surrounded by a handful of scraggly trees, some tools and a few metal drying racks. At that moment the racks were supporting pans filled with blocks of something white and crumbly, about the color of tofu. We would soon find out what it was.

The Master of the Corral motioned for us to enter the ger. We all managed to squeeze in and sit ourselves in a circle around the wood-burning stove in the middle. The interior had visible signs of prosperity, at least in Mongolian terms. A proud family possession, maybe just a step below its livestock and a fine family altar adorned with photos and incense burners, seemed to be its radio, a not-too-shabby Japanese brand featuring AM, FM and short wave.

The woman of the house — of the ger — greeted us with a wry smile. Mongolia may be famous for its horsemen, but traditionally women did the important work of milk and meat production from the herds. No doubt our elderly hostess, who had the passing of a good many Mongolian winters drawn on her face, had done her share of this kind of work.

Now she was helping provide for her family in a more modern fashion: attending to passing tourists. I was certain she was related to, or at least a lifelong neighbor of the Master of the Corral. She was surely getting a cut of the $2 an hour we were paying him for the ride. You can argue that this somehow corrupts their culture, but our hostess would probably have none of it. She’d rather have an excellent Japanese radio.

Her eyes were bright and her gestures crisp. She immediately turned to the task, along with her daughter or daughter-in-law, of distributing yak cheese and milk to us. It was the cheese we’d seen drying outside.

“If you don’t like it, you should eat a little in any case,” said Altai as a plate went around. “It’s rude not to eat at least a little.”

Yak cheese looks like laundry detergent and smells like it’s been in a hot glove compartment a while. Is it healthful? Perhaps, but don’t look for it in supermarkets any time soon. Maybe you have to grow up with it to appreciate it. We were polite, and nibbled a bit, but none of us went for seconds. Our hostess didn’t seem to mind.

Yak milk, on the other hand, is something like buttermilk. It went down well and seemed to solidify in my stomach, but it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. Just the thing, in fact, to fortify one’s constitution before the ride back through the hills of Mongolia.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Earthlink's Playhouse

No blogging for a few days. I’ll pick it up again on Sunday or Monday.

Getting through today was like driving across a field of molasses. For internal and mysterious reasons, Earthlink decided early today that I was unfit to send e-mail through its servers for a while. Then I was OK. Then persona non grata again. All the while, I could receive messages, however, so I didn’t miss any important spam.

On-line chats were initiated with techs in remote locations. Suggestions were made, settings were changed and then changed back. One suggested I upgrade my e-mail program, and I could almost sense what he was thinking: “That guy’s a caveman.”

I’m no caveman. I use bronze-age computer tools, you know, ca 2000. My attitude: if it ain’t broke, don’t upgrade it. But I have a feeling I’ll have to upgrade some things soon. Not because anything’s broken, might you, but because the information technology industry hates when people hang on to things for years, and so makes life hard for people who do.

Finally I called Earthlink. That tech, a nice fellow really, concluded that sometimes my e-mail would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t. He has been right so far.

I needed to file some stories today, so I needed e-mail. I tried to set up a hotmail account. I input everything, and then click submit. Nothing. Fine. I tried G-mail by Google. Submit, click. Nothing. Then AOL. “We don’t support your browser, get Safari.” Go to Apple, discover that trogs who used OS 9 don’t have a place in the Safari world. Get OS X. No, I don’t want to spend the money today, and then monkey around with it.

All the while, my DSL connection took coffee breaks, as it usually does. Finally I go to Yahoo! and get an account. A miracle! It actually seems to send e-mail, though it’s a much clumsier process than Outlook Express. So I file my stories. Whew. I decompress in the evening by watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse on DVD with Lilly and Ann. A world that makes more sense than the high-tech one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Give the Lady What She Wants

I researching my article about the Marshall Field’s name change yesterday, I did find out one thing I didn’t know about the department store’s landmark building, which dates from the 1890s. The granite pillars at the State Street entrance, according the Field’s web site, were installed in 1902 and are the second-tallest granite pillars in the world, after those of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt.

Now that’s the kind of fact I like. I will be sure to admire those pillars for a few moments next time I'm nearby. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to visit those taller ones anytime soon.

Anyway, I plan to boycott the Chicago Macy’s, which will be very easy, since my annual spending at Marshall Field’s, downtown or otherwise, has been vanishingly small in most years. I bought a pair of winter gloves there ca. 1988, promptly left them in a taxi a few weeks later, and then went back and bought another pair—they weren’t especially expensive, though Field’s has (had) that reputation.

When I worked at 35 E. Wacker, which isn’t too far from the State Street store, I would occasionally visit its basement, which had (for me) the most interesting merchandise: the food court, books, and Frango mints. But I almost never went there after I started working in the West Loop.

Last year I went to see the Christmas windows on State Street, and that was about it (see December 16, 2004). After 2005, Federated Stores might not bother with the windows, which clearly cost a lot of money to design, and do not function as a profit center. Can’t even charge people to look at them. They only serve to help distinguish the store from all the other stores in the world, and where’s the synergy in that?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Tale of Two Articles

Today two of my articles published on that lighter-than-paper medium, the Internet. One was about the New Orleans industrial market—about which I found out something truly surprising, namely that all the dry warehouses, which is most of them, have been leased to the last square foot—up from 90% or so leased, a rare quick movement of space.

It’s a town I’d never written about except for diary entries and letters. It’s been completely beyond my professional orbit until now. I get to be a more national writer all the time.

The other article was about a perfect example of a corporate bonehead decision. The new owners of Marshall Field’s department stores, including the flagship store in downtown Chicago, consulted their augers, voodoo men and other retail consultants and have decided that Macy’s, which instantly evokes New York, would be a good name for the chain, including the downtown store, successor to a line of stores in Chicago named Marshall Field’s since Millard Fillmore lived in the White House. In this market, the Marshall Field’s name has an accumulated good will that you can’t buy, though it can be tossed in the dustbin of history easily enough.

No one here cares about the Field’s stores in, say, Minneapolis—those are former Hudson’s stores anyway, a name lost to the good people of the Twin Cities a few years ago in another fit of department store homogenization. In fact, I’m sure that if Federated Department Stores (Field’s new owners) decided to change every Field’s to a Macy’s except the downtown store, no one would care. Those are just twigs. Field’s downtown is the roots, the trunk and the shady bower.

In a larger sense, though, this is just one of the noises emitted by a floundering industry, namely the department store racket. They’re on their way to becoming as relevant to the American retail business as the five-and-dime. Slashing and burning unique and regional department store brands in the name of cost efficiency is like throwing the passengers' luggage overboard in a violent storm, rather than finding a safe harbor.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Lilly and Chess

Lilly’s at-home education continued apace over the weekend. That’s not the same as home schooling, which purports to take the place of institutional schooling. At-home education isn’t really education in any pedagogic sense, it’s just the stuff you pick up along the way, at home.

She’s taken a sudden interest in learning chess as it’s actually played, rather than the preschooler approach, which is to move the pieces around and take pieces at random. So whenever Ann was sleeping—Ann has a pre-preschooler approach that wrecks the board—Lilly would come to me and want to play. Play we did, about a half-dozen games in two days. I showed her the Fool’s Mate. I let her checkmate me that way, once. But in the other games, I showed her how to play by winning. “Someday,” I said, “you’ll be able to beat me.”

And she will. I was a decent player as a youngster, but never got to be really good—I never quite overcame a tendency to make occasional foolish mistakes, no matter how carefully I studied the board. That’s still a problem.

My brother Jay taught me how to play, maybe when I was about the same age as Lilly. In the fifth and sixth grade, I’d go with Tom T. to the high school chess club and play there, occasionally even winning. We must have been inspired by the victories of Bobby Fischer. Tom and I and a fellow named Paul organized a chess tournament in the sixth grade, held one Saturday in covered patio sort of space that the school had. If I remember right, we structured it as best two out of three games goes to the next level—and somehow came out with three finalists, one of whom was me. We never bothered with playing a championship game or games, though.

I didn’t play much in high school, but had some good opponents in college—Steve P especially (a co-host of the party I wrote about yesterday), who could use his bishops like knife blades between the ribs, and his teams of knights to hook into his opponents. Later, in Japan, I played a Scotsman whose talent for game was roughly equal to mine, so our games tended to devolve into trench warfare. Somehow, metaphors of violence come with this game, at least in my conception of it.

I’m not under the illusion that skill in chess and high intelligence necessarily go together—look at what a disagreeable crank Bobby Fischer turned out to be. Still, it’s a good thing for Lilly to be familiar with.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Lonely Existential Blender Blues, 1982

I usually don’t go back this far, but I thought why not? I have a written record of the event. A patchy record, but I’m glad I have it, because I wouldn’t remember most of these details without it. Later we referred to this party—our semester opener in the fall of ’82 at our house at 207 31st Ave. in Nashville—as the Lonely Existential Blender Blues Party. I don’t know how we came up with that, but it’s sufficiently collegiate. Anyway, I’ve taken my diary entry from the time and reorganized and polished it a bit.

September 18, 1982

A lot happens at a party if it’s any good, and it’s beyond any single person to see it all, even one of the hosts, as I was. People scattered out across the house. To the living room, with its beat-up couch, odd table, empty fireplace. To Mark’s room, which is really a living room, and sports an enormous TV. To the kitchen, where people tend to congregate (we got it as clean as we could). To Dan’s room (formerly Steve’s), an interior space between the kitchen and the bathroom, and so the site of a lot of traffic. To the tiny hall between the tank room and the bathroom, where we installed a black light. My room, and Rich’s, both tips of the U shape of the house, didn’t receive so many visitors, but both were open.

The porch was also a focus of action, since we’d placed the keg of Hamm’s beer there. [Hamm’s! Gee, that takes me back.] So was the tank room, which is unlike any other, since most of it is occupied by the isolation tank we built in the spring. People stopped by to look at the tank and ask questions. It was the tank’s debut as much as anything, since many of the guests hadn’t been to the house over the summer.

The party reached critical mass at about 11. Besides the five hosts, Dan, Steve, Rich, Mark and me, the following showed up at one time or another: Layne, Jim L, Corby, Audrey, Cathy F, Steve F, Joan S, Patty Y, Howard, Gigi (whom we call Igig), Neal, Donna, Tanya, the three J brothers, Mac B, Susan B, Kathleen W, Brian R, and a dozen or so whose names I’ve forgotten, because I didn’t know them in the first place, or know them well, such as the Italian graduate student and the Indian soccer player.

Rich was the Master Mixer. The King of all Daiquiris, the Autocrat of the Blender. He got his hands on some rum and an assortment of juices—blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, others. Usually a crowd watched as he made daiquiris; sometimes, I did. Once, he put soap into the mix and made a soap daiquiri for an unsuspecting sap; that was me. Through the evening Rich had an amazing amount of energy at this job, and as the night went on, he sampled more and more of his own wares (except for the soap special).

So did Steve. Never seen him so far out of his regular consciousness. I missed him attempting a cartwheel in the living room, after Rich did one. I heard about it, though. I wonder if it really happened.

Neal and Layne and I had a good chat on the floor near the porch door. Donna came by periodically, like a goldfish coming in and out of view in a dark bowl. She was wearing a black blouse and jeans, with a round black Sunday hat. She was more fidgety than usual, for unknown reasons. I spent part of the early hours of the party with Audrey, but later lost track of her. Cathy F. got very loud very quickly, as per usual when intoxicated.

Mac B, a man always worth adding to a party mix, was in rare form that evening, reciting from memory at one point, “Be drunk! On Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.” [Baudelaire] Later, Mac tore the front pocket from Rich’s shirt with one quick grab. Everyone thought it was hilarious. No one was sure why he did it.

The party lasted until 3 or 4 or I don’t remember. Toward the end there was a fair amount of coupling up. I was very tired the next day, though not hungover. I think the soap daiquiri had put me off more alcohol for the rest of the evening.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Item from the Past: UP II

September 6, 2000

We’ve just returned from the Upper Peninsula. On the whole it was a good trip, though it didn’t quite go the way we planned. Our original thinking was to spend the first night in a motel in Green Bay, and then two more nights at the Hiawatha National Forest, at a place called Pete’s Lake, in our little tent. That’s more or less what I did by myself over Labor Day weekend in 1989, though at that time I stayed in Marinette, Wis., overnight, which is a little further up the road. And I stayed at Pete’s Lake two nights, but not by plan. It was just the place I picked.

This time we went to a Microtel motel in Green Bay for the first night. Odd name, and a brand I’d never stayed at, but the description in the guidebook sounded good, and turned out to be accurate. The rooms are basic, the price not too bad, and the best part was the pool, which Lilly was very happy to use on Saturday morning. It had fountains, a whirlpool effect in one corner, a “volcano” that dribbled water, basketball nets and water slides that were too big for her. Mostly the other guest were people with small children, a fact confirmed at the pool that morning, which was chockablock with kids and their chunky, middle-aged parents. I fit right in.

On Saturday, we pressed on to the Nat’l Forest, picnicking along the way, setting up camp at little Pete’s Lake, eating noodles for dinner and bedding down fairly early, as we tend to do while camping. Sometime in the dark night, an enormous thunderstorm broke over the Upper Peninsula. Over our tent, in fact. No light except the lightning, intense rain and rolling thunder, and the whoosh of the wind through the endless rack of trees. It was like being inside the storm. Lilly slept through it. Yuriko and I didn’t.

It would have been quite a thrill, but for one thing. We discovered that night the value of a ground cover, which we did not have under our tent. We’re only camping dilettantes, and fortunate enough never to have been rained on in the half-dozen campouts we’ve done, so we didn’t have one, and we didn’t appreciate the creep of water through the ground and up into the tent and into our sleeping bags & pillows &c. We do now.

The next morning (Sunday) everything was wet enough, with no prospect of sun to dry it all out, for us to change our plans. We discussed spending the day in the UP and returning to Green Bay, but the travel spirit moved us and we decided to return home via lower Michigan. Then, after breaking camp, we drove up to Munising, Mich., and the Pictured Rocks Nat’l Lakeshore. Lake Superior was foggy, cold and grey, the austere patriarch of the Great Lakes. (“Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings/ In the rooms of her ice water mansions.”) I want to see more of it someday. Say, from the wilds of Isle Royale or Whitefish Point or from the Canadian side. There’s a place on the Canadian side called Thunder Bay. Is that not cool geo-nomenclature?

We crossed the Mackinac Bridge (third-longest suspension bridge in the USA, says my almanac) on Sunday afternoon and began looking for a place to stay. Unlike Pete’s Lake, which was less than half occupied, the accommodations were mostly full around the Straits of Mackinac, so we headed south and ended up at Gaylord, Mich., in a golf/snowmobile resort. The golf season is declining, and the snow season hasn’t started yet, so we got a good deal on a fine room and access to an excellent outdoor heated pool. Which of course Lilly liked best of all. While I was sitting around in that pool with Lilly, a clutch of other guests — two middle-aged couples — discussed in great detail all the places they’d played golf. It’s a subculture I’ll never understand.

Monday was a tough drive home. You’d think that rural Interstates in Michigan would be free of traffic jams, but no, not on Labor Day. We did stop briefly in Lansing, and saw the outside of Michigan state capitol. In a way, it was all a test to see how Lilly would take to a long car trip, and in that she did very well. That is, she didn’t complain too much, and often we were able to provide her with things to do. For as long as I can remember, I liked those long trips. Maybe that’s part of growing up in Texas. Or more likely, that’s just me.

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Texas Pete vs. Wolf Brand

Today’s consumer note: a 10 oz. can of Texas Pete Chili Sauce, even bought at the modest price of 88¢, isn’t worth the price. But I had to try it. The quest for novelty doesn’t have to take grand forms. It can involve small things. It usually should involve small things, so the habit-minded human mind won’t be overwhelmed.

So I bought a can of Texas Pete. The label, done in hot colors like red and yellow and sporting a cartoon cowboy with a long whip, reveals that the TW Garner Food Co. of Winston-Salem, NC, is responsible for this chili. In the Nutrition Facts box, a serving size is one tablespoon, which leads to a calorie count of 10 per serving, which is one of the more distorted examples of label fudging I've seen.

I boiled a couple of hot dogs and got some soft new buns ready. But Texas Pete has a curious un-chili-like taste. Not bad, exactly, but… well, actually bad. I have a high tolerance for mediocre food. This has helped me get through school, be a functioning bachelor until 1993, and travel to dozens of countries. It occasionally helps me eat, and sometimes enjoy, canned chili. But bad is bad.

Texas Pete, bah. For real canned Texas chili, the chili that was with Houston at San Jacinto, find some Wolf Brand Chili. It had the best TV commercials when I was a kid, anyway. A mustachio’d cowboy looked straight at the camera and said, “Neighbor, how long has it been since you've had a big, thick, steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili? [Very short pause.] Well, that's too long.”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Metal Men of Science & Industry

I don’t know who Dr. Howdy is (see yesterday’s comments), but I have to admire the opacity of a line like “remember to never restrict anyone’s opportunities for ascertaining uninterrupted existence for their quintessence.” Sure thing, doc. And while I’m at it, I’ll do everything I can to protect our precious bodily fluids.

When I visited the Museum of Science & Industry a few weeks ago (do they have a quintessence wing now?), I not only took in a megashow, but had a little extra time for more obscure displays. It’s a habit of mine. At the Art Institute, for instance, I see the impressionists, the Chagall windows, “Nighthawks” and “American Gothic” at one time or another, but I also take looks at the Greco-Roman coin collection, arms and armor, the photo gallery downstairs, even the paperweight collection, though I haven’t been able to find that in a few years.

So at S & I, I wandered down a hall displaying the Robert Lesser Collection of Robots and Space Toys. Turns out that after World War II, one of the many export products that helped Japan recover was toy robots, since most of Lesser’s large collection were made there in the 1950s and ’60s. No plastic here, but a variety of real metal men, colorfully painted.

I collected some of their names: Winky Robot, Mr. Atomic, the Wind Up Space Explorer, and Jupiter Robot by Yonezawa; A-35 Robot by Masudaya; Radar Robot by Nomura; the Smoking Robot by Linemar (no cigarettes evident, though); and the High Bounce Moon Scout by Marx, one of the few North American-made examples.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cars on a Stick

Today I found a cache of notes that I made over the last few weeks — they’d gone missing for a while, as things often do in my home office, or in my home, period. So I’m going to write about a few things that I’ve skipped recently.

When I visited Forest Lawn Cemetery on September 1 to see the Showmen’s Rest, I noticed on my map that I would also be very near the Cermak Plaza Shopping Center in Berwyn. Then it occurred to me that I could also see “Spindle,” because it’s in the middle of Cermak Plaza’s parking lot, there for all to see.

So after paying my respects to the deceased showmen, I drove over to Cermak Plaza. In every other way, the place completely ordinary. It has a Circuit City Office Depot, Lens Crafters, Dollar Shop, Shoe Carnival — a cross-section of lower-middle to middle retailing, a lineup of the usual suspects. Actually, the shopping center is cut below most, at least in terms of looks. Not a cent has been spent on landscaping, for instance. The parking lot covers the entire space between the shops and the lot line next to busy Cermak Road — a bleak lake of blacktop.

But none of that matters up close to “Spindle.” Essentially, it’s eight cars skewered on top of each other on a sturdy-looking, 40-foot spike; 1970s vintage autos by the look of them. Probably junkers by the time that artist Dustin Shuler erected this work in 1989. A red VW bug is on top, poised like a cherry. One car that I could see still had an Illinois vanity plate: MARS 1. Wire mesh wraps around the bottoms of all the cars, to prevent heavy metal pieces from crumbling off, I suppose. Pigeons are obviously fond of this unusual work.

When we were returning from Yellowstone last month, I briefly toyed with the idea of driving by Carhenge in Box Butte County, Nebraska. We didn’t do that, but at least I’ve now seen our local car sculpture.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Goose Island

Today I drove from my home eastward on Irving Park Road, which swings south of O’Hare International Airport and then into the city of Chicago. I kept going, though the densely populated urban streets, eventually heading southeast on Milwaukee Ave., one of the city’s wheel-spoke streets. Most of Chicago’s streets are part of a grid: 19th-century contrivances. Not ones like Milwaukee. They follow the Indian traces that used to radiate from the meeting of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. Something's satisfying about following those ancient roads, even in a completely modern way.

My destination: an island formed by two channels of the North Branch of the Chicago River. It's known as Goose Island. Islands can be many things: tropical, wooded, rocky, volcanic, offshore, artificial. Goose Island, Chicago, is industrial. Fitting.

I was going to see a famous company’s new R&D facility there, so I can write about it. After I’m done writing about it professionally, I will write about it here. But it’s enough to say that today I visited one of the most important places on Earth in a very narrow sense: the future of confections.

Best of all, at the end of the tour, I got free samples. A weighty bag of them, which I plan to hide from Lilly and dole out as needed.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Thin Gruel

No time for this. Thousands of words to write this week. So only the barest of anecdotes, daily.

"You have three armpit things," Lilly said today, about my stock of deodorant in the downstairs bathroom.

"I have three armpits," I said.

"No! No one has three or four armpits!"

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Peter Pig

For whatever biological reason, I’m fortunate enough to possess a cast-iron stomach. A stomachache is very rare for me. I’m not even visited by the sort of nausea that results in throwing up very often.

But this weekend, something down there hurt. After two separate meals, two separate aches for about an hour each. The second time was after Yuriko’s birthday dinner. I knew it was a risk, but it was too good not to eat.

But I didn’t spend the entire weekend clutching my onaka (stomach or guts in Japanese, literally “insides,” with an honorific.) I had the pleasure of seeing the first Donald Duck cartoon, “The Wise Little Hen,” which is—logically—the first selection on The Chronological Donald, Vol. 1 DVD. I don’t remember ever seeing it before.

Dating from 1934, it is in astonishing Technicolor. Donald appears as a supporting character, one of two who refuse to help the Wise Little Hen plant corn, and so are ultimately denied eating any of it. It wasn’t long before Donald became a cartoon star, but that story is well known. I want to mention the other character whose career obviously went nowhere: Peter Pig. He had a goofy voice. He did the same jigs as Donald. He was every bit as much of a slacker.

Why didn’t people take to him? After all, Porky Pig has his fans. That’s show biz for you, even in the animated realm.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Off the Map

I've turned on the word identification feature to discourage blog spam. Don't know if it will work, but it's worth a try. It doesn't hinder any human beings who want to comment, but it's supposed to flummox automatic postings.

Note to ATA, the discount airline: on your web site, there’s a prominent page advertising assorted destinations, such as Albuquerque, Houston, Raleigh-Durham, St. Louis, and so on. Now might be the time to remove New Orleans and the accompanying stock image of Bourbon Street from that page, at least until flights are resumed.

Still warm and dry in metro Chicago, as it usually is in early September, but there are hints of the long slide into winter ahead. A few trees have touches of color other than green, which is a tired green anyway. In the park visible from our deck, peewee football practices have replaced amateur and pickup baseball games. Sunset comes just a little earlier than feels right, even though I’m familiar with the celestial mechanics of the decreasing daylight.

Lately been reading Off the Map, Tales of Endurance and Exploration by Fergus Fleming, which is structured for reading in bits and pieces -- about all I can do right now -- because it’s a chronological series of historical vignettes about travelers/explorers, beginning with Marco Polo and ending with Umberto Nobile’s unsuccessful crossing of the Arctic by airship in 1928.

Gripping reading. Fleming (British, but no relation to Ian or Peter that I can tell) writes vividly about very familiar expeditions (Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Lewis & Clark, Scott & Amundsen), half-remembered voyages (Vasco de Gama, Hudson, LaSalle, Humboldt, Burton & Speke, Burke & Wills), and some explorations I knew little or nothing about: “The conquest of the Mont Blanc: Horace-Benedict de Saussure,” “Across Canada’s Badlands: John Franklin,” “The quest for the Niger: Hugh Clapperton and Richard Lander,” “The discovery of Franz Josef Land: Carl Weyprecht and Julius von Payer,” among many others.

A common theme is extreme hardship and then death in faraway places, because of bad planning or bad luck or both. Reading some of these one-damn-thing-after-another stories makes you wonder how anyone came back alive sometimes, especially from the Arctic.


Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Groszy Day

Went downtown today to see a man about an airport. An airport that hasn’t been built yet, in a faraway state -- and yet someday I might be writing about, along with related developments, because there are always related developments, since airports are economic engines of our age with few parallels. Interesting where the paths of self-employment might be leading. More as it happens (months from now, probably).

Clear and warm, today was just right for walking from Union Station to Michigan Avenue, and later back. Funny, I didn’t feel like I’d been away from the Loop for long, though the last time I was downtown was about two months ago. It has the same pace and rhythms as always, though a few shops had closed, and a few others had opened—the usual retail churn.

Just off Michigan Ave. south of the Chicago River, there’s now a “Chicago Tourist Office,” which offers information, a Hot Tix location, and an area for exhibits. Today it had a history of candymaking in Chicago, a timeline across the wall illustrated by photos, ads and old packaging. One full-page magazine ad, from a boy’s magazine of the 1920s, claimed that (I’m paraphrasing) Baby Ruths were no candy for wimps, but “fit for two-fisted men.” I enjoy old ads as much as Lileks, I think. Wish I’d thought of making books out of them.

Another Chicago touch of the day: I bought one thing, and in my change I got a 20 groszy piece, which is one-fifth of a zloty, the currency of Poland, at least until they’re suckered into the euro. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between Chicago and Poland, so that isn’t as strange as it might sound. The coin is the same diameter and color as a dime, and dated 1998.

Between 1994, when we were there, and 1998, the country must have redenominated its money. There were no coins in circulation in Poland 11 years ago, only notes, and if I remember right, it was about 10,000 zloty to the dollar. The only “smaller” currency we encountered on our long trip that year was the rupiah of Indonesia, at about 20,000 to the dollar.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Maynard G. Krebs, RIP

Boy, I’ve been busy. I just noticed that Maynard G. Krebs had died. It must be ’60s television week here. Why not?

It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I saw any episodes of Dobie Gillis, or to give its full title, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, beyond faint memories of it on afternoon TV when I was four or five. (Mostly, these memories involved “The Thinker.”) I borrowed a tape of episodes from the library and watched with amusement. It holds up fairly well.

In one, Dobie and Maynard had forgotten to thaw meat or something, and a picnic was coming up, so they had to… I forgot how they had to heat it, but it was comically slow. I sat there thinking, “Boys, just put it in the microwave.” Oops, that modcon hadn’t been invented just yet.

In another, Francis X. Bushman made a guest appearance. Just the name evokes bygone movies, all the way back to silents. But I checked, and he worked right up until his death in 1966 at 83. His last movie was The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, made the year he died.

In Dobie Gillis, he played a eugenics-minded health fanatic who wanted to breed his daughter with Dobie, who, despite his longstanding desire for a girl, found the idea daft. They don't write 'em like that anymore.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Lost in Space, 1973

Here’s my short post for the day: a grumble: I hate DSL. It decided to go on holiday over the Labor Day weekend, and hasn’t really come back. Today was a fairly busy day, and I needed the damn thing to work. Of course, I got by, despite my connection failures.

My friend Ed posted a comment about yesterday’s Lost in Space posting, and he’s right: most of what I appreciate in the show now isn’t what I appreciated when I was 12 or so. I have vague memories of watching the show when it was on prime time, but it was cancelled when I was seven. Early in 1973, a San Antonio station started airing Star Trek reruns just after school (for any young readers I have, the original; that was all there was). Later that year—or it might have been the next summer—they replaced it with Lost in Space. Ostensibly I was incensed, but I watched it all the same. And I didn’t care a whit about things like cheap props or no redundancies aboard the Jupiter II.

At some point a girl I knew, Denise, called me and asked me to write a letter to the station protesting the change—she was calling everyone she knew, probably. I think part of the reason I was open to the idea was so I could sit there and listen to Denise describe what should be in the letter. But I duly wrote a letter and mailed it—a gasbag of a letter, at least two pages, comparing the superior Star Trek to the inferior Lost in Space. But I continued to watch LIS.

The station sent me a polite form letter explaining that they were just giving Star Trek a rest, and that it would be back in the fall. So I watched you-know-what for the rest of the summer.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Lost in Space, 2005

Loads of professional writing in the days ahead, so one long post today, then shorter ones, probably.

The following are ten reasons why the TV series Lost in Space isn’t that bad, at least as low-grade entertainment. I’m not going to cheat by claiming that it’s so bad that it’s good. As science fiction, narrative storytelling and even as mid-60s television, it was pretty bad. And yet there were redeeming elements—jewels in the rockpiles—that make it worth a look, even now, 40 years after its premiere (September 15, 1965).

My conclusions come after viewing the first four episodes of the series on DVD recently. I don’t need to watch any more for now.

Dr. Smith. Of course. He’s the main reason for watching the show. In the 8th grade, I learned the word “poltroon,” a word you don’t hear much, but I realized at once that it fit Dr. Smith perfectly -- a complete coward. He’s television’s best poltroon, and certainly the show’s best character: besides cowardly, he was dishonest, unscrupulous, lazy, scheming, effete, prissy, condescending and foolish. Everything the tediously serious-minded Robinsons weren’t. The late Jonathan Harris hammed it up terrifically. No wonder he stole the show.

Interestingly, in the first episode he was violent as well, knocking out an armed guard with one blow to the neck, perhaps killing him (it isn’t clear). In the second episode, he shot an uncommunicative alien with a laser gun. These were things that the Dr. Smith of later episodes would never do.

A gay character? It doesn’t take much trolling on the Internet to come across the idea that Dr. Smith favored gentlemen, but in a coded way for mid-60s TV. Certainly some negative gay stereotypes were bundled with his character, unconsciously or not, and in one of the early episodes Mrs. Robinson even acknowledged that Dr. Smith -- who had recently wanted to abandon her husband to a lonely death -- “was a good cook” (a more positive stereotype, that). But as far as I know, he never cast a longing eye at Dr. Robinson or Major West, so the point is moot.

The Robot (as a character). In a show of cardboard characters, the Robot became more interesting than anyone else except Dr. Smith. He too was violent in the early episode -- never heard of those Laws of Robotics, I figure -- but before long he’d evolved into a foil for Dr. Smith, who needed one. He had his own memorable catch phrases, too. The one with the most longevity is “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”

The Robot (as a design). Anthropomorphic in the tradition of science fiction robots, with a large debt to Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, it still had a cool design. The bubble head with blinking lights. The twirly things on its “shoulders.” The barrel chest with retractable hooked arms. The frontpiece that flashed when it spoke. The legs with treads. If I live long enough to see domestic servant robots available at middle-class prices (unlikely, but who knows), I want one that looks something like the Lost in Space Robot.

The Jupiter II. Now that’s optimism for you—mankind is able to build flying saucers by 1997. It made absolutely no sense as a spaceship. It seemed to have no redundancies. Dr. Smith broke the radio with his fist in a panic, and that was the end of communications with Earth. It was propelled how? By rotating lights on the base. It was navigated how? A plastic orb on a stick. Or maybe by some lights on the consol. And yet it flew through dangerous tinfoil asteroids and crash-landed dramatically in a California backlot desert when necessary. But somehow, despite everything, the idea of a flying saucer has real appeal, at least to the 12-year-old I once was, and I can’t think of any other TV SF that features one so prominently.

The Chariot. Clearly, the show was ahead of its time in modes of vehicular transport. The Chariot (a great throwaway name) was enormous, carried the whole family plus lots of gear, and could travel over rough terrain. In other words, a kind of SUV.

The fact that the show was set in 1997. Tempus fugit, eh? I suspect the producers just picked the launch date of October 16, 1997, out of a hat. When I was young, it sounded remote in the future. Now it’s becoming remote in the past, a month before my oldest child was born. Before launch, a gray-haired, paternal sort of President of the United States wished the Robinsons well by video. Obviously, it wasn’t Bill Clinton. Who would have believed in 1965 that the 1990s would sport a youngish chief executive, a charmer who might have requested a one-on-one meeting with Judy Robinson in the Oval Office before her historic journey?

The show’s attitude toward space science. Science fiction has long had the problem of adapting itself to science fact, with the speed of light proving especially troublesome. Reams of technobabble have been devoted to getting around that natural speed limit. How does Lost in Space handle this problem? It ignores it. You might call it the Irwin Allen method. As a youngster with a little more science knowledge than most of my peers, this used to bother me. No longer. Ultimately, the Irwin Allen method is just as reasonable as any other approach, and doesn’t clutter up the narrative by explaining away things that can’t really be explained away.

Related to that is the show’s refreshingly casual approach to space travel. Flying in space was something like getting into your station wagon and taking off. In the first episode, technicians were inside the Jupiter II until about two minutes before liftoff. Oops, the door closed on Dr. Smith -- who had been communicating with the enemy while inside the spaceship, which no one noticed. When Dr. Robinson wanted to walk in space, he popped on his space helmet like he was putting on motorcycle helmet, and out he went. His rope snapped. Gee, government procurement of shoddy goods is still a problem in the future. A hot comet came along (hot comet? In the Irwin Allen universe, yes) and threatened to barbecue him and Mrs. Robinson, who had gone out to save him. The heat causes the hatch to jam. Major West uses a fire extinguisher to cool it off.

And so on. But really, the show’s casual approach to space travel is only slightly less sophisticated than most television, and charming in a sort of Buck Rogers way. The slow and exacting nuances of real space travel have no place a popular visual medium anyway.

The parade of bug-eyed monsters. None of this “seek out new life and new civilizations” claptrap for Lost in Space. Life invariably sought out the Robinsons, and it wasn’t civilized. Often, these BEMs looked suspiciously like papier-mache, wood and paint confections, or men in rubber suits. No matter. I think it’s the consistency with which they showed up that impresses me. Another episode, another bug-eyed monster to deal with.

The Carrot Man. There was another kind of alien on the show sometimes, the walking, English-talking member of an alien species that represented mortal peril to the Robinsons. Often, Dr. Smith tries to cut a deal with these creatures, which he inevitably bungles. None was more hilarious than the man in a carrot suit. Lost in Space lore has it than Guy Williams and June Lockhart had a hard time keeping a straight face while filming this episode, one of the last of the series, and I believe it. But think about it. A giant, man-faced carrot who wants to steal your water to irrigate himself? The stuff of a bad acid trip. Just in synch with 1968, when the show aired.

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Friday, September 02, 2005

Showmen’s Rest

I’ll pick this up again on Tuesday. Even the self-employed have to have a Labor Day.

I’m not sure why Woodlawn is such a popular name for cemeteries, but even the most casual Google run of the name reveals, besides the noteworthy burial plot of the stars in Santa Monica, other Woodlawn cemeteries in the Bronx, Toledo and Dayton (Ohio), Chester County (Tennessee), Monroe County (Iowa), Everett (Massachusetts), Tampa, Saskatoon and more.

And near Chicago, in a little western suburb called Forest Park. I already knew about it before I went there on Thursday for my annual visit to an historic Chicago-area burial ground. It isn’t nearly as picturesque as some of the others I’ve seen, such as Waldheim or Bohemian National, since it only has a thin cover of trees and not a lot of funerary art, but there are a lot of upright stones, so it isn’t completely without visual appeal.

I’d come to see the Showmen’s Rest. It’s a rectangle of ground with small white statues of elephants marking each corner, and a larger elephant at the center back. Rows of flat gravestones line up within the rectangle. A large stone says: “Showmen’s Rest/In Memory/The Showmen’s League of America maintains this plot and has erected this monument in memory of the departed showmen who lie here.” In other words, circus workers, for the Showmen’s League is theirs.

The Showmen’s League is still headquartered in Chicago, a few blocks from my former office, in the floors above Harry’s Hot Dogs (see February 25, 2005). It was founded in 1913 with Buffalo Bill Cody as its first president, and bought a plot in the cemetery for its members in early 1918. It was put to use to bury victims of a circus train wreck near Hammond, Indiana, on June 22, 1918. I looked for the victims of that accident among the stones, which date from every decade after 1918. The stones are simple, and mostly uniform: a set of lines at the top with “S L of A” carved between them; the name of the deceased under that; and then the year of death (without a birth year or any mention of days or months, except for those who died in the train accident).

It must have been a terrible crash. I found a lot of names with a June 22, 1918 date of death: Earl M. Berry, Frank Harris. J. Barnett, Virgil Barnett, Mrs. Mary Roderick, J. Lott, others. On one stone, a nickname: Baldy. On another, a job description: 4 Horse Driver. Saddest of all were the rows and rows of stones that simply said: “Unknown Male,” followed by a number. The highest number I saw was “No. 61.” It reminded me of the rows unknowns I saw buried at Gettysburg.

It’s an itinerant business, the circus, even more so 90 years ago. No Social Security numbers in those days, no W-2s on file. No DNA identification for those burned beyond recognition. Lots of men riding that train more-or-less anonymously, who died anonymously.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

September 1

September 1 has long had a resonance for me, at least since I was a sophomore in college, when I decided that I was going to stick to keeping a diary, by God (“journal” in those days, since I thought “diary” was a girlish word -- a callow notion common to 19-year-olds). So on September 1, 1980, a full quarter of a century ago, I was newly ensconced in my little room in East Hall, and started writing: “Slept till 8:20 am...”

I won’t transcribe the rest of that day; it isn’t all that interesting, just a record of classes attended, people I saw, and things I read. But I was fairly good at keeping that diary. I filled 378 pages in a college-ruled spiral notebook, ending on April 20, 1981, after which I stared another spiral volume. Of course, I haven’t been consistent as all that over the years, but diaries, letters and now web logs have all accumulated with some regularity. I’m glad to have them.

Also around September 1 every year since 2000 -- and, as it happens, on September 1 this year, that is today -- I’ve attended an industrial real estate trade show near O’Hare. It always ends in the mid-afternoon, too late to return to the office (when I had an office), but too early to go home. So every year I’ve spent an hour or so visiting a storied Chicago-area cemetery not too far away, except for the year I visited a forest preserve that had a graveyard with exactly one grave: an old half-Indian, half-pioneer who lived near the future site of the airport before such a thing could even be imagined, and whose stone was worn and neglected.

Last year I visited the Bohemian National Cemetery, an enormous necropolis on the Northwest Side of Chicago, full of Czech names such as Marek, Navek, Proorny, Stetka (I took notes) as you’d expect, but now open to anyone -- as the head cremator, Bob, told me. There I was, ambling along in the vicinity of the crematorium. Actually, I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I could see it was a splendid domed structure, which I later learned was a Renaissance Revival style, dating from before World War I: a sturdy-looking exterior. A fellow in overalls with a patch that said Bob asked me if I was looking for anyone in particular. I said no, and then he asked me if I’d like to see the inside. So he opened the place up for me. Wow. The stained glass and the occasional frescoes were especially fetching, fit for any church of old Europe, and, just like a church, it had a place for an altar, plus pews.

Since it was meant for old Europeans, I suppose the style made sense. Bob told me that the coffin is placed on a platform that’s then raised to the level of the “altar space,” after which the funeral proceeds, with the mourners in the pews. When it’s over, the dearly departed takes one last trip, via this slow, dedicated elevator, down to where the actual burning takes place (Bob didn’t offer to show me that, and I didn’t ask).

Recently, he said, he’d witnessed an enormous funeral for an Indian woman who owned a number of successful restaurants in the Indian neighborhood along Devon Ave., not too far from Bohemian National. “You never seen so many flowers,” he said. “They were piled everywhere, big bouquets, like at a mobster’s funeral.” He went on to tell me that it was also the most colorful funeral he’d ever seen, because of all the saris.

The woman’s ashes, he thought, went back to India, perhaps (I thought) for disposition in the Ganges, though my knowledge of Indian funerary customs is pretty scant. Other people put the ashes in the building’s columbarium, composed of glass-in niches along the entranceway to the chapel. Bob said that most of the niches were taken, though a few at the top were still for sale. Some of them had urns and nothing else, but others were decorated with photos of the deceased, which tended to be black-and-whites or even sepias of stern-looking, formally dressed immigrants.

This year I didn’t have quite that kind of experience, but I did make it to a cemetery I’ve long wanted to visit, Woodlawn, which includes Showmen’s Rest. More on that tomorrow.

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