Thursday, December 29, 2005

Demented Teapot

A crummy day, with a headache and sore throat. Not very serious, but enough to interfere with my work. Slight fever too. OTC non-aspirin pain medicine has made me feel better, but I start to shiver downstairs at my keyboard in 68 F temps, unless I wear a coat and a cap.

I was going to write at length about a plastic teapot I gave Ann for Christmas, a talking teapot that doesn’t talk too well if you do the intuitive thing when you’re nearly three, and try to fill it with liquid. The battery case is inside, with the teapot’s hollow space blocked at the top—but not blocked in a watertight way. It says cheerful things if you push a button. If you put water in, it says cheerful things in rapid succession, like a lunatic in one of Oliver Sacks’ books.

Or at least it did that on Christmas night. As I listened to it babble, I wondered if it was going to address me like a possessed doll in a horror movie. “Whadda you lookin’ at, human?” Luckily, we do not live in a universe like that, I’m fairly sure.

Time to wrap up blogging for ought-five. I’ll pick it up around January 3, feeling as I do the usual how did these year numbers get so high?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas Eve Stories

Most of the snow outside is gone. It’s been a slow melt since about December 23. It can stay this way as far as I’m concerned, but Lilly is pushing for more snow, the better to sled.

Driving home from Science & Industry on Christmas Eve—actually we were headed for the 4 p.m. service at St. Nicholas in Elk Grove Village, which I like because of its intelligent vicar—the College of DuPage radio station broadcast A Christmas Carol. Not just any version of that familiar story, but Orson Welles’ production of it, first broadcast on December 24, 1939, as part of Campbell Playhouse, which is what The Mercury Theater on the Air became after Campbell Soup picked up the sponsorship.

I really wanted Lilly to hear it, but she’d fallen asleep. Ann too. And Yuriko as well, so there I was driving in the rain on various expressways, listening to Welles as heard 66 years before to the day. He played (at least) the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present. Lionel Barrymore played Scrooge. A captivating pair of voices. A first-rate production in every regard, available (amazingly enough; the Internet still amazes me) to listen to here.

Later in the day, of course, Lionel Barrymore turned up in It’s a Wonderful Life as the only one (plus his henchmen) who didn’t sing “Auld Lang Syne” at the end. I was in and out of the room when that movie was on, since I’m familiar with its plot points. Unlike most of my generation, however, I never actually saw it all the way through until the early 1990s, when I rented it in Japan. That was one consequence of living through the 1980s without a TV (that, and I missed a lot of crummy sitcoms).

After everyone was asleep for the night and I’d done my present placement duties, I switched on the set and discovered Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I had to watch that. Well, only about 30 minutes, which was enough. That was shown on TV in the 1970s, but somehow I’d never seen all of it. I still haven’t, but it’s one of those things you don’t actually have to sit through to appreciate.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Solar System Simon & the Hippo

I realized this year that it’s good each year to hear a Christmas song you’ve never heard before. At least one. This isn’t very hard if you go out only slightly off the holiday path populated by the usual-suspect songs.

A few years ago on Christmas Eve the deejays on WDCB were playing the most out-of-the-way Christmas music they could find, and I heard a thing called “Solar System Simon, Santa’s Supersonic Son,” a title so obscure that if you surround it in quotation marks, Google pulls up only two references—one of those pages a 404, the other a list of records for sale by a website. Recorded sometime in the 1950s I think. I don’t remember even one line, but I remember having fun listening to it.

This year one of the new-to-me songs was “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” a novelty recorded in 1953. It was on the commercial station that plays Christmas music from about Thanksgiving to Christmas (see December 5) and we heard it on the way to the Museum of Science & Industry on Christmas Eve. When heard once, a fun ditty, but I suspect that it would wear pretty thin pretty fast.

I was astonished that WLIT played it at all. It’s a station that doesn’t usually play obscure songs. As it turns out, though, it was no accident. A children’s book of the same name, and apparently based on the song, was released earlier this fall. I sense the efforts of the publisher’s publicity machine, encouraging stations to play the song again, to drum up interest in the book.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Eve on the U-boat

The run of days up to and including Christmas this year turned out very pleasant, especially Christmas Eve. We managed to get up, dressed and out of the house by around 9 a.m. on that day, something of a Christmas miracle by itself. But we had a goal that gray, drizzly morning: make it to the Museum of Science and Industry, located in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago.

Nothing like a simulated coal mine, model trains, nuclear energy exhibits and a captured Nazi U-boat to get you in that Christmas spirit. That and a display of dozens of Christmas trees decorated according to nations of the world in the main hall of the museum, an annual exhibit that’s always good to see (especially trees you wouldn’t expect, such as India). The clincher, however, was that it was free day at the museum, and it had been more than a year since we’d all gone there, though I went late in the summer to see BodyWorlds (see August 26 & 29 and September 15, 2005).

Last summer, I wanted to see the inside of U-505, which is indeed a captured German submarine—taken by the US Navy in off the coast of west Africa on June 4, 1944, in an amazing feat of seamanship and luck. Eventually the vessel came to Science & Industry, and just last year the museum completed work on an entire new building to house it. Such construction work is a capital expenditure, partly recaptured by selling timed admissions to take tours of the inside of the submarine. I didn’t know that last summer, and so got a good look only at the exterior.

Yuriko didn’t have any interest in taking the interior tour, but surprisingly Lilly did, so I got two tickets. At 12:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve, we boarded the U-505 with about a dozen other tourists and a guide. Cramped hardly describes it, and even so we didn’t quite experience its original claustrophobic dimensions, since some of the bunks and bulkheads had been removed to accommodate the likes of us tour-takers.

But it has all the cool submarine details you’d expect from a U-boat. A forest of values and pipes and dials, much of it painted gray. Enormous diesel engines, torpedo tubes and a periscope. A skinny ladder up to the conning tower. A galley little bigger than a phone booth, with three hot plates to cook for more than 50 men. A lot of signs in German.

The guide had a number of interesting things to say, but one fact that I’d never heard, nor seen depicted in any submarine movie, was what happened when the captain ordered an immediate, emergency dive. Much of the crew, those who could be spared for it, would rush toward to bow to add their weight to a nosedive, practically crowding on top of each other. The stuff of both nightmares and comedy, I reckon.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Joyeux Noël

(I've long been partial to the French greeting, without any particular interest in how the holiday is celebrated in France. Go figure.)

No blogging till Boxing Day at least. A Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good week.

Another winter solstice has come, and the weather page of the Tribune (among others, probably) claimed that winter started today. Today, after about three weeks of subfreezing temps, snow and bitter winds. This business of claiming the seasons start and end with the solstices and equinoxes has long puzzled me.

Last year just after Christmas, I wrote the following on the older version of this site, but I’m going to publish it again this year, since it fairly much characterizes what I think of the holiday. Besides, the weekly archive that included the original posting did not, for unknown reasons, ever publish. (Not that anyone ever visits the archives, anyway). So, without further ado:

Here’s a novel thought: I like Christmas. In some quarters, you’d be marked as slightly childish or hopelessly sentimental for expressing such a thing openly, but here I am publishing it to anyone who cares to read it. Moreover, I am an adult, and not an overly sentimental one either. I happen to think it’s fully possible to enjoy Christmas without being a child, or accepting a lot of the nonsense that goes with the season (and what human activity doesn’t come with a measure of nonsense in its train, or sometimes in the driver’s seat?).

Part of it is that I like all holidays, and if I had the power to create more, I would. And longer ones: the de facto downtime between December 25 and January 1 ought to be openly acknowledged as a national week off.

More than that, Christmas is special. It's a full-blown modern cultural experience with pagan taproots, Christian meaning, and secular frenzy. It obliges you to give presents, strictly as a matter of custom--and custom should have some authority. It has songs, some deeply moving, some ridiculous. It has lights and ornaments of endless variety. It’s deeply encrusted with lore, offering a wide cast of such instantly recognizable characters as baby Jesus, Santa Claus, and Ebenezer Scrooge, just to name a few major ones. It’s the backdrop of countless stories, books, stage plays, pantomimes, and movies, from
It's a Wonderful Life to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It’s a family holiday whether you like your family or not (a touch of social obligation again). It's a fusion of tradition and the distinctly new. You had it as a child, your children have it, and their children are going to have it.

Some effort is involved in Christmas, but so what? This year, for example, I put up outdoor lights and a decorated indoor tree, sent a number of cards (plus e-mails), obtained and wrapped some presents, took my family to Christmas Eve services at St. Nicholas, and did some of the food preparation—by which I mean breakfast on Christmas morning, not making elaborate special confections or a break-the-table feast, which we did without.

All that comes on top of assorted everyday living and its tasks. Still, Christmas wasn’t a burden this year, and never has been. Of course, people invariably complain that’s it involves too much to do. I suspect that it’s the perfectionists of the world complaining the loudest about Christmas, as they do about everything else. It has to be perfect, or it won’t be Christmas!

That’s an extreme characterization, but it seems to fit a lot of people. To
that I can say, Bah, humbug.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Lindsay’s Headaches

I talk with or e-mail people in New York most days, since a number of my editors are based there, and one of them was working from home today because of the transit strike. I sent him a message: “Transit strike, eh? I heard about it briefly on the news. Just like in the old days. Does it remind you of Mayor Lindsay's New York?”

He replied that he was about 11 when Lindsay left office, and by implication the numerous strikes of that era didn’t concern him much. Me neither, really, since I was only 12, and didn’t live anywhere near New York. But such is the lingering influence of television that I associate that mayor's tenure with strikes, because I’m fairly sure that it came up on All in the Family and other TV shows more than once.

I looked it up, and it isn’t an erroneous impression, despite its vague source. At, I found this in a bio of Mayor Lindsay: “On his first day in office [in 1966], Lindsay was greeted with a crippling transit strike that brought the entire city to a near standstill — it proved to be just the first of many bitter strikes he would contend with during his tenure as mayor. The transit strike denied Lindsay of sleep for 26 of his first 28 hours as mayor and forced the cancellation of a five-borough inaugural tour.”

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Cold Night’s Reading

Insanely cold at the moment, edging toward zero Fahrenheit. Just for grins I looked up the temp in Skagway, Alaska, where my friend Ed will be relocating for a time after New Year’s. It was 34 F. there.

Time to get in bed, cover up and read. I’m working my way through Forgotten Americans (Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra, 1998) a collection of biographical sketches of “footnote” people going all the way back to Anne Hutchinson, a puritan dissident who was kicked out of Massachusetts when it was a theocracy.

Others include Tom Quick, an early Pennsylvanian who made it his life’s work to kill Delaware Indians; William Franklin, bastard son of Benjamin and royal governor of New Jersey; Tecumseh, the Shawnee chief who fought William Henry Harrison and lost; and Charles Finney, an exceptionally popular evangelist of the early republic.

Especially interesting is the story of Benedict Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold, a loyalist who seems to have had a fateful influence on her husband. I’d heard of her, and some of the others, but like many good books, it’s told me much more than I knew before.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Errol and I

Degrees of difference may be worthless information, but somehow the concept makes you smile when it connects you to someone like Errol Flynn. On Saturday we visited my old friend Kevin, a man who among other things would make a fine dad, but who has no children of his own, so he dotes on his friends’ children. Besides candy, he gave Lilly and Ann each a large soft animal toy, a horse and dog respectively. He also has an enormous collection of DVDs and HVS video, so we watched some of those (Pee Wee’s Christmas Special isn’t really that bad).

While changing discs, we noticed that The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) was on one of the cable channels. Kevin’s video equipment is large and sophisticated, making that movie’s amazing Technicolor all the more amazing. The movie has a lot else to recommend it, so we watched a few minutes of it, including the fine climatic sword fight between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne (Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone), the likes of which have not been done in more recent films, except maybe The Princess Bride.

Kevin remarked that someone we both used to work with, Howard (who died a few years ago), had grown up near Hollywood in the 1930s. Back then, his family had known Herbert Mundin, who played Much the Miller’s Son in Robin Hood, a small but distinct comic relief part. “It’s probably true,” said Kevin. “If you’re going to lie about knowing an actor from the golden age of Hollywood, why would you pick Herbert Mundin?”

Mundin was a British character actor in the ’30s who died in a car accident in 1939. I knew Howard who knew Mundin who knew Errol Flynn, at least on the set of that movie. A worthless bit of information, but entertaining all the same.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Space: 2009

Dear Microsoft Word Spelling/Grammar Checker:

The following is not a sentence fragment: “Virgin Galactic plans to use the facility to launch passenger spacecraft into suborbital flights beginning as early as 2009, the facility’s expected completion date.”

I wrote that today as part of an article on the coming spaceport in New Mexico, and Word offered its unwanted opinion that the sentence is incomplete somehow. Subject = Virgin Galactic (a sister company of Virgin Air); verb = plans. An infinitive to fulfill the transitive nature of "plans." There you have it. Sounds like a full sentence to me. A nicely complicated, yet understandable sentence at that, one that strings phrases together in the way that you can in English.

I’m glad that it’s being referred to as a spaceport, a word rooted to seaport and airport in a way that makes it more alive than the term that NASA uses for its spaceport: space center. The “Kennedy Spaceport” would have more flair.

Anyway, it was a fairly interesting subject to write about, though my take on it wasn’t so much about space tourism as about the potential development on the ground. Truth or Consequences, N.M., may never be the same.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Numbers for the Day

An assortment of numbers came in the mail today. One, a dollar figure for the cost of natural gas, wasn’t welcome, though describing it as $7.40 a day for heating the house doesn’t sound as bad as the total. It’s going to get worse, too, unless January and February are unaccountably warm.

On the other hand, Lilly’s TerraNova test scores came in the mail as well. TerraNova is a McGraw-Hill standardized test that seems to be used quite a lot in schools all over the country. Naturally, I’d never heard of it before, since I haven’t paid much attention to standardized testing.

So I couldn’t say how useful or valuable such a thing is. Maybe no one can, really, but I can’t help but be pleased that Lilly’s in the 99th percentile for second graders in reading, 91st in language (and 76th in math, which isn’t bad). I don’t need a score to tell me she’s a good reader, however. That one I’ve already figured out. Good thing, too. Means that lifelong ignorance is less of a risk for her, whatever else happens.

It reminds of the time in the 8th grade English class when a wiseacre named Tim asked the teacher, Mr. Allen, why anyone had to learn what he was teaching. Mr. Allen, a man of decades of experience in dealing with the likes of Tim, did not hesitate. “Because if you don’t know it, you’ll be ignorant,” he said.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Seen in Big Boxes

I went out today and it promptly started snowing. Snow and little pellets of ice, but it wasn’t enough to impede driving much. Early in the afternoon, the radio was atwitter with predictions of a big snow coming soon. Then, on cue from the National Weather Service (I figure), the forecast changed abruptly in mid-afternoon: Just a little more snow ahead, nothing to write in your blogs about.

I went out gathering needful things at a few big box retail establishments. At one—not really big box, but one of a whole lot of drug store-sized boxes—I saw near checkout the revamped TV Guide. Bigger pages, but the same vacuous content you know and love. I haven’t paid much attention to that magazine since ca. 1980, so maybe “know” and especially “love” is a stretch.

Even 30 years ago, the only issue of real interest was the annual season premiere edition, which usually came out in late August or early September, featuring short articles about the new shows for the year. That’s probably where I first heard of such immortal ’70s programming as Bridget Loves Bernie, The Texas Wheelers, and Joe and Sons, just to name some obscure ethnic comedies (in the second of those, Texans were treated as comic ethnics).

Later, in the aisle of a warehouse store a young man wandered by, sporting baggy pants, a black t-shirt advertising some foul musician, and an assortment of body jewelry. He was singing—not quite the word, half-muttering, half-chanting—“Deck the halls with Santa’s blood, fa… la la la… fa…” But I’m not sure he counted as a bond fide weirdo. Around here, it’s most likely an affectation. On the other hand, maybe he’s working on a script for a holiday/slasher movie.

Still later, at yet another very big retail store, a clerk whom I’ll call “Mary” (that was on her nametag) checked me out. Though dressed as a woman, it was clear that “Mary” had once been, or maybe was still in part, “Bob” or “Chuck” or something. Note to “Mary”: if you want to live as, or become, or be—you choose the verb—a woman, you ought to shave that stubble off your face.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Five Houses Equals One Hotel

Winter’s a good time to spend most of the day at your desk, looking out onto a white yard, bare trees and gray sky, which has its own austere charms. Except I had to be looking at the computer screen most of the time, so the words I was typing would come out more or less as I wanted.

Mostly I worked on an article on the hotel market today, and this time around—not sure why I didn’t know this before—I learned of the industry consensus on which hotels are “luxury” and which are merely “upper upscale.” As I said, it seems to be a consensus, not based on any kind of measurement, but reputation.

Luxury = Four Seasons, InterContinental, Mandarin, Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis and W Hotels, among others (don’t ask what the others are, this is just a rough list).

Upper-upscale = Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, Omni, Renaissance, Sheraton and Westin, among others.

I was surprised to learn that I’d actually stayed at a luxury hotel, the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, Mich. Of course I didn’t pay for it. I’ve stayed at most of the upper-upscale brands, too, rarely paying for those either. But it left me wondering what makes the Ritz a luxury brand, besides the fact that its name means luxury. Then it occurred to me: fox hunting prints on the walls. The Ritz-Carlton had those, the others don’t. (See May 24, 2004 for more on that.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

O Tannenbaum

This year I wrote “Christmas Tree” on the December 10 date of the calendar next to the thermostat. A convenient Saturday close, but not too close, to Christmas. That way I wouldn’t be pestered by Lilly into getting one earlier. She pestered me anyway, but I referred her to the calendar.

And so the 10th came and didn't pass without a visit to the tree lot at the corner of Wise and Roselle here in greater suburbia. Sales of the trees benefit people who say the sales benefit Boy Scouts, or something like that. I went by myself. Lilly might have come, but she was busy watching a DVD of Cinderella, which she herself had picked out at Netflix and advanced to the top of the list. Disney Princesses form a subkingdom in the Empire of the Mouse, and its attraction for eight-year-old girls is strong indeed.

But I have to add that there’s more to her video habits than Disney. I put The Best of John Belushi on the Netflix queue recently, and Lilly not only watched it with me, but asked to see it again. “He’s weird,” she said with obvious delight. I’d done my fatherly duty for the day, introducing my daughter to “Little Chocolate Donuts.” (I wasted some time looking into it, and oddly enough that skit premiered 20 years to the day before Lilly was born.)

Speaking of Belushi, the tree-lot attendant last year resembled him in some ways, at least the unkempt Bluto Blutarsky of Animal House, though I doubt that he had the same range of facial expressions. This year the attendant was leaner and more clean-cut, and even helped me load the tree into the back of the van. Got a fairly fresh tree this year, with a good smell and a flat side.

Every year, Lilly takes over more of the decorating, and this year was no exception. I still do the lights. We had to replace a string, so that delayed things for a little while. It used to be—and I’m old enough to remember a string of lights like this, which we used into the ’70s—one goes out, they all go out. Now, the whole string simply fails after a few years.

Most of the glass ornaments went toward to top, to prevent Ann from knocking them off. But that’s really last year’s worry. She’s a more sophisticated toddler now, not (much) given to aimless thrashing around. Instead, she wants to take them down to look at them, and sometimes she takes them away for play, which can be just as dangerous to a breakable ornament as a random knock. Today I discovered that she’d moved a chair next to the tree to exam higher-up ornaments, something I discouraged, but I don’t think I’ve seen the last of it.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Item From the Past: Surreal Christmas El Car, W/ Big Elf

Dec. 16, 2002

Lately we’re been doing a moderate amount of Christmas preparation. We bought a tree and Lilly did most of the decorating of the lower branches (later, I re-arranged things a little). Last Sunday, which was unusually warm, nearly 50° F, I put up the outdoor lights but balked at the more tedious task of cleaning the gutters. I may yet do that, if I am unlucky and the temps stay above freezing. If it didn’t involve standing on a ladder, I might be more keen on it.

Last Saturday I had mostly to myself, since Y and L were off visiting a friend from Japan, so I drove to picturesque Oak Park and looked around. Among other things, it’s the hometown — roundly disliked by him, I’ve read — of Ernest Hemingway. Despite his feelings about the town, there is a museum there devoted to the writer, so I went to see that.

It was a case of another lonely docent, there in the museum by herself. I suppose people are out in malls this time of year. Anyway, it was a fairly engaging place, with plenty of interesting photos and facts. I understand that he was a packrat who kept everything, including ticket studs to bullfights and the like. So a good deal of ephemera was on display.

The docent was eager to talk. “Are you a teacher?”

“No, but I’ve read most of his books.”

“Which one is your favorite?”

The Sun Also Rises.

“Mine is For Whom the Bell Tolls.

And from there she went on to talk about reading that particular work at different points in her life (she seemed about 10 years older than me).

Then I went into the city by elevated train, and saw some improv comedy at the new Noble Fool Theater. A fine show. They reminded me of the British improv I saw in Amsterdam some long time ago, who were terrific.

I rode back to Oak Park on the El, and by chance I caught the train decked out for Christmas — little lights strung all around, the handhold bars painted like candy canes, a continuous loop technopop Christmas soundtrack, and a large black woman in green, pretending to be an elf. It was a surreal ride.

Friday, December 09, 2005


Be warned, more notes on kids ahead. The other day Lilly and Ann both were given the same “coloring and activity” book by a junior-level employee of a multinational financial services firm I sometimes do business with. Let’s Color is the fitting title, with the name and logo of the multinational financial services firm on a large banner at the bottom of the cover.

(I lapsed into magazine jargon. A banner on a cover doesn't have anything to do with an illustration of a flag, but is merely a stripe, narrow or broad, usually left-to-right but sometimes diagonal, typically a color to make it stand out, with words directing the reader somewhere inside the magazine. That wasn’t the odd part of the cover, however.)

The cover illustration was two cartoon dinosaurs, kid dinosaurs I guess, playing baseball. Behind them was an erupting volcano. The dinosaurs were taking no note of it. Perhaps this is why they died out—no aptitude for running from natural disasters. Then again, current educated opinion (as dimly I understand it) says that dinosaurs endure as birds. Probably none of this train of thought occurred to the illustrator.

Our neighbors have a trellis-like structure on their back patio, though vines don’t grow there in the warmer months. But they do hang things there sometimes. The other day, before the snow, they hung dangling clusters of white lights. Nice display.

As I went with Ann to the car in our driveway yesterday, she saw these lights and said, “Christmas.” She’s heard the word a lot lately, for certain, but it was the first time I’d heard her use it.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Big snow today, first big snow of the winter. It was tolerably warm (25 F), and snow began falling in mid-afternoon when I was at the post office buying stamps. The clerk asked if I wanted Christmas stamps (or did she say holiday?) or “regular.” I decided on regular, since I’m not planning to send Christmas cards this year, but interesting postcards instead. I asked for either constellations or Greta Garbo--one kind of star or another--but she was out of both. Settled for snowy egrets.

The snow continued for most of the evening, stopping only a little while ago. Looks like about half a foot or so.

Here’s a science project, for home or office, if it’s equipped for it. Take one stainless steel kettle, fill nearly full with ordinary tap water, heat on stove at a high temperature. Then, do other things, forgetting about kettle, until the water boils completely away. Return to discover empty kettle, remove from stove carefully with oven mitts, place in empty sink (well, sink cleared in haste). Turn tap on, run into kettle’s spout.

Short-term results: First, an intense hissing sound emanates from kettle, followed by a remarkable column of steam gushing from spout. Later, metal cools down, but unevenly, with the metal handle remaining hot after the rest of the kettle (ouch!). Long-term results: The kettle tarnishes a little near its bottom, but the bottom itself seems unchanged. A faint smell, a lot like skunk, lingers around the stove, though not so much that Wife or Child would notice, fortunately.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Toy-Sharing Arrangement

Funny things, memory and language. Thought of that profundity today when I was returning one of Lilly’s toys to its storage place, ahead of Lilly’s return from school. If Lilly discovers that her sister’s been playing with this or one of a handful of special toys, a ruckus will erupt, so I usually put it back.

I’ll also see to it that she doesn’t read this posting. Easy enough, so far, since she really doesn’t know her way around the Internet. This won’t last.

The toy in question is practically indestructible, so I let Ann have it during school hours, if she asks for it. When it came time to put it up today, she said, “It's not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair.” She’s at the age of constant new spoken-word acquisition, and it’s often mildly surprising, as if I hadn’t been through this before. But in way, I haven’t, since I find it nearly impossible to remember when Lilly couldn’t talk.

Ann's busy at concept acquisition, too. Not fair indeed, my little one, not having constant access to such a fine toy as a tea party set of pink and purple plastic, fashioned in far-away Guangdong Province or somewhere like that. Not fair at all, but I’m hard pressed to think of what is.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Within Four Walls

More notes on PBS and the like (see last Wednesday). I might as well write about TV, since it’s amazingly cold outside for early December, and this inclines me toward inward writing. Inward as in inside the house, where the television is, not into the bright meadows and dark thickets of the psyche, which, paradoxically, is often the stuff of uninspired writing.

I’ve never been inclined to donate to any PBS station because they are, in fact, commercial stations. There are commercials at the end of the shows, have been for years, and while that’s a more civilized way to show commercials, it still represents ad revenue.

And sometimes it represents fatuous sentiment, just like on standard commercial stations. This is the tag line for a brand of “kid-friendly, all-inclusive” resort that buys time on PBS: “Time spent learning today is time spent building a brighter tomorrow.”

Unless you’re learning, say, the techniques of jihad. But even if you’re learning something more benevolent, I’d be hard-pressed to see how the slogan applies to a resort, even one with things for the whelps to do, considering that a resort vacation is pretty much about gratification in the here and now.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that (necessarily), to borrow a catch-phase from a show I’ve seldom watched, now or when it was in primetime. When I do, though, it seems like it’s going to age badly. It’s already beginning to. The history of entertainment is littered with such.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Kringle Terrace

Lilly has discovered the all-Christmas music station in the Chicago area, WLIT. A seasonal thing, though I don’t know when it started exactly. A limited amount is the best amount for something like this, but she’s pushing the limit already. Usually weekend radio around here is for the terrific jazz: “Live from the Landing: Riverwalk Jazz” and “Swing Shift” on Saturdays on WDCB (College of DuPage), and Dick Buckley’s Sunday afternoon “Jazz Treasures” on Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ.

In its Christmas incarnation, WLIT suffers the usual canalization of commercial radio. Of a universe of x Christmas songs -- a very large universe, I’d think -- the station plays 0.01x over and over. How many versions of “The Christmas Song,” “White Christmas,” or “Let it Snow” can there be?

But I will give the station credit for occasionally playing versions you don’t hear often. Just yesterday I heard the Judy Garland version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which she sang in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). In that version, instead of, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” the line is, “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” a much better set of words, since the previous line refers to the Fates, who are known for their unpredictability.

And I have a new appreciation for Elvis’ version of “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I wouldn’t be the first to comment on his remarkable voice, but it does seem hard to hear him clearly, since he’s been encrusted with 50 years’ worth adulation.

As a kid, I thought that song’s opening line was strange but didn’t know why. I still think it’s strange, because of the reference to “Santa Claus Lane.” Santa’s a real estate developer who names things after himself? Is Kringle Terrace -- 140 luxury condos starting at $495,000 for a one bedroom, up to $3.2 million for a penthouse -- also on Santa Claus Lane? And why does he need a lane, anyway? Doesn’t he fly?

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Item from the Past: St. Louis & Points in Between

December 2, 1999

Yuriko and Lilly were in Japan at the time I took this short trip to St. Louis and back.

I spent a pleasant Thanksgiving Day with Kevin’s family, which includes his parents and his older brother Tony. The next day I headed out for St. Louis. Aside from a few hours in the winter of 1990, just ahead of an ice storm that forced me to spend the night in Normal, Ill., I hadn’t spent any time here before.

On Saturday afternoon, after wandering through the art museum in Fair Park, I found myself on the riverfront, near the Arch. It’s an ugly riverfront, populated by riverboat casinos; a defunct riverboat restaurant (the Lt. Robert E. Lee, an ersatz steamboat dating from the ’60s — the 1960s, that is); “the world’s only floating McDonald’s”; and two cheesy tour boats, the Tom Sawyer and the Becky Thatcher.

That said, I like the Arch, and its museums underneath, but I’d been inside the Arch in 1990 and, especially considering the long lines, didn’t feel the need to go again. One of the tour boats was leaving in a few minutes, and I thought: Have I ever been on or in the Mississippi? Being beside it isn’t the same, nor crossing it by bridge, both of which I’d done a lot.

It would be silly, by my completely idiosyncratic way of thinking, to have been in or on a long list of bodies of water — Lake Baikal, the Indian Ocean, Hong Kong Harbor, just to name some of the more far away — and never the Mississippi. So I got on the Tom Sawyer.

It was one of the more drab tours I’ve ever been on. Some of the bridges weren’t bad, and a riverside 1910s-vintage power & light building had its Machine Age charms, but on the whole the Mississippi River near St. Louis is bleak this time of year, especially the Illinois side of the river. Even Hamburg Harbor and the Mouth of the Yangtze had more riverside sites.

On the drive down and on the way back, I also saw a few things. On the way south I stopped in Bloomington, Ill., I saw Justice David Davis’ (US Supreme Court, 1862-77) fine Victorian house. I had read that he organized delegates for Lincoln at the Wigwam in 1860, but not that he weighed 300 lbs. and then some. Most visibly, his size affected his choice of furniture, which tended to be sturdy.

I stopped in Lincoln, Ill., for lunch, and learned that the town was named for A. Lincoln several years before he became president — he did some legal work for the developers, it seems. En route out of town, I chanced by the Postville State House State Historic Site, a replica of the original courthouse for Logan County (Lincoln is the county seat). The actual 1830s courthouse was dismantled in the 1920s by Henry Ford and moved to his museum in Michigan.

The replica was good, however, and the volunteer tour guide, a woman of about 70, was really glad to see me, since I was the first visitor all day. She even showed me a cache of yellow documents hidden in one of the desks that she said the park administrators didn’t know about. (The ones I looked at seemed to be bills of sale from about 100 years ago). There were some even older documents on display, slipped into clear plastic protective covers so you could pick them up and read them. One I saw was an arrest warrant, dated 1847 if I remember correctly.

On the way back to the Chicago area, I stopped at the old capitol building of Illinois in Vandalia, from the 1830s. It was the original. After Vandalia lost out to Springfield as state capital, it was the county courthouse for the better part of a century. Not a bad little building. References to Lincoln were, of course, nearly as thick as in Springfield, but with some reason, since he was in the legislature that met in Vandalia, and in fact a voice for moving the capital.

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Tropical Storm Claudius

Temperatures fell with a thud this week in northern Illinois, colder than even early December ought to be, if you reckon things by comparing averages over the last century or so. Single Fahrenheit digits last night, they say, and not much warmer during the day today. Repeat 90 to 120 times, and that’ll be winter.

Today I talked on the phone with former colleague Angie, who drove with her husband to Baton Rouge, where her mother lives, for Thanksgiving week. She said part of a fence on her mother’s property had been blown down by Katrina, and that labor is so scarce that she hasn’t been able to find anyone to rebuild it.

Also, Angie and her husband drove into New Orleans to see what they could see—something I would have done, too. One telling detail she reported was an open Burger King offering a $6000 signing bonus for workers and $20 per hour after that. Now we know what comes after the deluge: a labor crisis.

Ed, professional traveler and old friend of mine, has just left the Canary Islands for London. A tropical storm with the pedestrian name of Delta whipped into the islands while he was there, knocking things down and killing seven people, six of them in a boat of asylum-seekers from mainland Africa; talk about bad timing. Ed’s a fine writer (see his piece on the subtleties of honey.). I suspect he’s going to get a better-than-usual travel piece out of his experience.

Why Greek letters? That’s erudite, I suppose, but not very interesting. Maybe next time the b-list storms can be named after Roman emperors. Delta, then, would have been Tropical Storm Claudius.

In this country, I suspect—I didn’t follow it closely—that Delta got scant attention in major US media outlets, but I did pull up some articles on the Net. The BBC, and Science Daily all had items. Definitely out of the majors when it comes to American media.

A line from intrigued me: “The famous Finger of God standing stone on Gran Canaria was blown over.” The Finger of God? An image of it before the storm was only a Google image search away. First the Great Stone Face in New Hampshire, now this. Been a bad decade for famous rock formations.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Clown Turns Yegg

Back in the late ’80s, one of the perks of my job at a publishing company was a real-time connection to the AP wire at our workstations. Stories queued up in the order they were published electronically, newer ones pushing older ones down toward the bottom. The interface was simple: green characters, no graphics, no hyperlinks.

Often we would have the chance to read something the day before it was in the papers, and probably a few hours before it was on radio or TV, though we didn’t have those things in the office, so I’m not sure. Actually, a fellow named Al had a small black & white TV under his desk, which he used to watch Cubs games at low volume on company time, but no one else had access to that.

If a really big story developed, you could see it unfold on the wire just by looking at the titles and how often items were updated. One big day was October 19, 1987, when the Dow crashed. Down 200! 300! 400! came the reports one after the other that afternoon (I’m rounding a bit).

It all seems a little quaint now, since everyone with a computer and an Internet connection has much more than the AP used to offer. Still, I thought of that when a friend forwarded the following item to me today, which I noticed was from the AP.

Ronald MacDonald robs Wendy's, loses job

November 29, 2005

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire - A name like Ronald MacDonald might have raised suspicion from the start for a Wendy's employee.

Now the 22-year-old MacDonald has been charged with stealing from a safe at the Wendy's restaurant where he worked.

The man is no relation to the cheerful, red-haired clown who is the face of the McDonald's advertising campaign.
[And who is a relation? First cousin Bozo?]

The restaurant manager said he found MacDonald and another employee taking the money at about 1:30 a.m. Monday.

MacDonald and Steve Lemay, 20, were detained at the store until police arrived.

MacDonald is expected to face a probation violation charge along with theft charges.

Probably Ronald MacDonald of New Hampshire was known to friends and accomplices as Ron. Still, I had to wonder why anyone named MacDonald, ca. 1983, would call their kid Ronald. Family name, or maybe because Ronald Reagan was president then, and people sometimes name (or used to name) their children after sitting presidents. But presidents come and go. We’re stuck with Ronald McDonald. No term limits for him. No wonder Ronald MacDonald turned to a life of crime.