Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Comandante Quetzel

Home all day, much work to do. Chilly outside too.

Daytime cartoons were on a lot today, PBS because we're a non-cable home, but I doubt that they’re bad for Ann, mainly because she doesn’t really pay attention most of the time. She draws, looks at books, plays with dolls, scatters blocks, and does a dozen other things while the TV is on, things that often involve leaving the room. Too many things for her to really be mesmerized by the box.

No, daytime cartoons are bad for me. Distracting, anyway. I find myself inventing sinister backstories for characters. Such as Quetzel, the grandfatherly dragon with a distinct Spanish accent. Sure, he’s kind to child dragons now, but he was reputedly a death squad commander as a young dragon during guerra de los Dragones. A terrible time in Dragonland indeed, spoken of in whispers by older dragons, forgotten by the young.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Rugging Up

Yesterday was warm by late November standards, in the 50s, though very windy. Today the wind died down but the temps fell 20 degrees or more -- so much so that the dusting of snow that fell last night didn’t melt.

So it was good that today the furnace cleaner and inspector, same fellow as last year from the same company, came to clean and inspect the furnace. Just a part of rugging up for winter in these parts. Ann was mystified. Who was this fellow downstairs with the little vacuum and toolbelt? (She wasn’t quite as articulate as that.) He decided that the machine was in good shape, fit for another winter.

Not sure if I’m using “rug up” as it would be used in its native land, Australia. According to the Macquarie Dictionary, it has the literal meaning of wrapping up against the cold. Terms like that have a way of migrating to the figurative, and I can use it that way if I want to, anyway. So I do, occasionally.

I’ve known “rug up” for a long time, ever since I apartment-sat in Manhattan for a few weeks one summer. The woman who lived there had a record collection, including Business as Usual by Men at Work, an Australian band with a few hits in the early ’80s. “Down by the Sea,” a song on side two, wasn’t one of them, but it did contain the lyric:

Yonnies in the wind,
We’re ruggin’ up for winter
Putting out the bins
In cold and windy weather.

I never knew what a “yonnie” was, but “rug up” seemed clear enough. Lately I looked up yonnie, and Macquarie says “a stone, esp. for throwing.” Not sure that makes the lyric any clearer, though throwing rocks into the sea on a windy day is a nice image. But sometimes obscure lyrics should stay obscure.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Ho ho not yet

Lightning at 3 am this morning. Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three, thousand-four… after that, I knew the bolt was somewhere far from my property. Rumble. In the next few minutes, a few bolts were closer, but not really that close, and the sky opened up with rain. More like spring or summer than late fall or early winter.

I don’t usually mind waking up to a thunderstorm in the small hours. Like last night, I’m almost always able to return to sleep after it subsides, or maybe even sooner. In the meantime, there’s something primal about lying still and listening to a storm. At the same time, you can appreciate progress beyond the primal, namely the civilization that allowed your sturdy home to be built, and you to occupy it on stormy nights.

Took a drive this evening, noting the proliferation of Christmas lights over the weekend. The simplest display I saw was two outdoor lights on either side of a garage, one green, the other red. I liked that. Decorate for Christmas in 60 seconds or less! The most elaborate had thousands of lights, animatronic elves, live reindeer tethered to candy-cane poles, and a third-string actor dressed up as Santa (Howard Hesseman, I think).

Well, maybe not quite that elaborate. But at least, and this is purely my observation—the season is young—there don’t seem to be as many inflatables as in the last few years. The only one I ever saw that I liked was an inflatable Homer Simpson dressed as Santa.

We even passed by a tree, all decked up, in a window. It’s still too soon for all this. Merchants do their best to advance the Christmas season into November, but there’s no reason other people need to help them. Christmas is entirely too front-loaded as it is. If the season begins sometime around Thanksgiving (Halloween, if Hallmark et al. had their way), then it’s pretty much out of gas by December 26. Instead of fading away slowly in the languid days between Christmas Day and New Year’s, the holiday shuts off like a tap.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Very cold Thanksgiving this year, with snow the next day – which melted on Saturday, the only day since Thursday with sun. Rain today, but a pleasant 50 or so. Still, I installed our Holmes brand 1500-watt HeatSafe Portable Heater in the downstairs bathroom. But “install” is too complicated a term for what I did. I parked it on top of the toilet tank and plugged it in. The downstairs bathroom is small, with room only for a shower, toilet, and sink with medicine cabinet.

Why didn’t I think of this last winter, or the year before? This heater’s been in storage, in the old house and this one, since after the great furnace failure of 1998. That little bathroom warms up nicely in about 10 minutes, up a few pleasant degrees from the 68 F we keep the house during cold-weather daytimes. And the heater’s toddler-proof. If Ann entered the bathroom and knocked it over, it would switch off. I’ve seen it do that when disturbed.

Couldn’t stick to buying nothing on Buy Nothing Day (Friday), since I went to a nearby hardware store and got a furnace filter and some vacuum cleaner bags. Then, since the kids were along, we visited the spanking-new McDonald’s on Roselle Road, across the parking lot from the hardware store, a redevelopment of an older McDonald’s on the same spot. It was fairly crowded. Maybe McDonald’s is a way to decompress after a previous day of feasting.

Anyway, it was an education for me, since the kids’ meal promotions were figures from a cartoon under the Disney banner called W.I.T.C.H. That was the first I’d ever heard of it. Lilly, on the other hand, knew all about it. She’s in the target demographic, I figure, and Disney used ABC Saturday mornings to get to her.

What do I know? I see witch and I think, “She’s a witch! Burn her! What burns besides witches? More witches!” This line of patter didn’t go over very well with Lilly, who explained that these were good witches -- girls with special powers, really. Looking suspiciously like Sailor Moon and her ilk, I thought. Looking like anime, at least.

Later I looked into the matter a little further, but not to the point of actually watching the cartoon on Saturday. This from a Disney press release: “W.I.T.C.H., an animated action series based on Disney Publishing's comic magazines of the same name that have quickly become an international sensation, will add 26 half-hours in its second season which debuts in fall 2005. Combining epic adventure, magic and comedy through the lives of the five young heroines (Will, Irma, Taranee, Cornelia, and Hay-Lin) designated to maintain the natural order of the universe… at the same time they cope with the daily trials and tribulations of being teenagers, W.I.T.C.H. is a production of SIP Animation.”

SIP Animation? Then to World Animation magazine. According to an article on its web site, “Jetix on Toon Disney and ABC Kids is currently showing W.I.T.C.H., a series from S.I.P. Animation based on the comic (32 editions, 65 countries, a million copies sold a month — ‘the most sold comic in the world’) developed at Disney Italy.”

Disney Italy? No wonder Google pulled up so many of the references to this cartoon in various European languages. It’s Euro-manga. Japanese-inspired Italo-anime, making money for its American masters. Remarkable world we live in, right down to the details on the bags in McDonald’s.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fred, Barney & Alec Guinness

No blogging till Sunday or so. Best to all for Thanksgiving.

Till then, some odds and ends. A local radio news report this morning claimed that today, in fact, is the busiest day of the year at O’Hare International Airport, in terms of the number of human beings who arrive, depart and transfer there. A madding, and probably maddening, crowd. I’ve flown on days like that. No thanks.

At least the skies are clear and the winds light, so there wouldn't have been the standard weather-delay shots on local TV news tonight of people sleeping at O’Hare boarding gates. Or the standard interviews of Families Who Just Want to Get Home for the Holiday, But Can’t. I sympathize, but what’s the news value in that?

Friday is Buy Nothing Day. I’m unpersuaded of some of the creators’ (a group called Adbusters) ecological premises, such as “the Earth could die because of the way Americans live,” or its sociological notions, namely that Americans are uniquely pathological in our consumer acquisitiveness. Just more successful, perhaps. Still, I like the idea of such a day, if only because of personal inclinations. My quixotic dream would be to buy all the nonperishable goods I ever needed at once, and then never have to buy any more of them again. With certain exceptions, of course, mainly books.

Netflix certainly doesn’t promote DVD acquisitiveness, since they go back by return post. Just send back Season 1, Vol. 1 of The Flintstones. I remember it as a Saturday morning cartoon, not a prime-time series. In fact, I think I was in my 20s before I realized that it had originally been in prime time, running longer than any other cartoon of the pre-Simpsons era.

The DVD colors are lush, which made me wonder why Hanna-Barbera bothered with color at all in 1960, when most TV shows were still black and white. Also, either Fred Flintstone mellowed slightly over time, or I misremember his character, but there were moments in these early episodes when he reminded me more of Moe Howard than Ralph Kramden. At one point he clonked Barney on the head despite discovering the he, Fred, had been mistaken about Barney taking something of his. He then told a puzzled Barney, “That’s for the next time you do something wrong.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets also went back recently. One day a few months ago, I decided I hadn’t seen nearly enough Ealing comedies, creations of a British studio of that name in the late 1940s and early ’50s, so I put several in my Netflix queue. Considering all the interruptions around here, it takes three or four sittings at least at work my way through a feature-length movie, but I've seen two so far. The Lavender Hill Mob came first, then Kind Hearts.

Droll comes to mind, though the word hardly does either of them justice, since they’re so much more. They’re comedy for grownups, for moviegoers that the filmmakers assumed were paying attention. It takes a deft touch to make movies about grand larceny and mass murder and yet leave the audience smiling.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

The Birthday Spread

The weekly garbage pickup is tomorrow morning, so that means full cans are hauled to the curb this evening. I was out at about 10 doing so, under a mostly clear sky, temps about 40 F, which didn’t feel too cold after the last few days of subfreezing air.

There he was, off in the southeast corner of the sky: Orion. That’s my own moment, every year for many years now, when I decide that winter has started. The landscape below Orion certainly fits the part. All the trees are bare and the grass has gone dormant.

Lilly had her eighth birthday over the weekend, with festivities: presents, cake, little friends to help her celebrate. Her birthdays will always be at the end of fall, just ahead of Thanksgiving, unless she takes a notion to move to somewhere along the equator or down under. My birthdays are always at the first flush of summer, and Yuriko’s are always at summer’s end, in the slow change into fall. If Ann spends her birthdays in the North Hemisphere, she’ll celebrate (or ignore) them in the coldest period of the year. We’ve got birthday variety as a family.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Item from the Past: Thanksgiving 2001

This Thanksgiving was the first one with the whole immediate family together in many years — since sometime in the mid-70s, I think, when the family was considerably smaller. It took a long drive — a series of drives — to get there, but was worth it.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, we headed out and made it to Rolla, Mo., for the first evening. The next day we drove southward from Springfield, Mo., gateway to Branson. Had lunch in Branson, a Chinese buffet with quantity, not quality on its side, and then took a drive down the main road, the hillbilly equivalent of the Strip in Las Vegas.

From there, southward on Arkansas 7, a fine drive, that is until it gets dark. Eventually we made it to the obscure Mena, Ark., for the next overnight. The only thing memorable about driving on darkened rural roads in Arkansas are the eerie, luminous chicken farms near the road. Rectangular, windowless buildings glow pale amber, with the light that keeps the chickens up and laying eggs all night oozing through the thin walls.

Enjoyed our visit with Jay and Deb from Monday to the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Monday was Lilly's fourth birthday, so we had a cake and candles and some presents for her. Throughout the week, she took up a lot of her cousin Robert’s time, playing with him. He’s the closest in age to her, but not too close — he turns 13 soon.

My mother and Jim came up for Thanksgiving itself. Besides Thanksgiving dinner at Jay's at a long table, other events included outings to the Dallas Zoo, the Dallas Museum of Art (just Y and me), and downtown Dallas, sometimes riding DART, a fine new train system. We ate other meals together, fooled around with Jay’s computer (an iMac), watched some videos (Chicken Run and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a fine Thanksgiving movie), and gabbed a lot about this and that.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we headed home via Ardmore, Okla., spending some time with my aunt and uncle (Sue, my mother’s younger sister, and her husband Ken). It was nice to see them, but it did make for a longer drive that day, much of it into the evening. We made it back to Rolla in time to go to bed at the same motel we stayed at on the way to Dallas, Zeno’s, a non-chain brand if there ever was one.

The only bit of sightseeing we did in Rolla was at the University of Missouri at Rolla, not far off the Interstate. I had read about a half-scale replica of Stonehenge there, so we looked into that. I wasn’t expecting anything as grand as the actual Stonehenge, which I saw in 1983.

This replica was built by the engineering department at the school, and it had the look of engineers about it: concrete and asphalt. According to the signs attached to it, it is aligned with the sky in the same way as the original, correcting for the fact that Missouri is somewhat south of Wiltshire, England. Lilly enjoyed playing around the stones, but Yuriko was completely unimpressed. I wasn’t all together impressed myself. Carhenge, now that’s a replica I need to see.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Le Chewing-Gum

A bag of various Wrigley products has been in the trunk of my car for a couple of months now, ever since I took a press tour of the new Wrigley R&D facility on Goose Island in Chicago in September, which I wrote about professionally, but not here. As a parting gift, the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. gave all us press mice a bag full of its products.

We examined the contents of the bag today, since I told Lilly I would give it to her for her birthday. What a variety it is. I had no idea. My idea of Wrigley gum is the standard three: yellow, white and green packs, the variety that my grandma always had around. But this is the 21st century. Wrigley’s locked toe-to-toe against Cadbury, and each is busy coming up with new products (hence the new R&D facility). In the bag I received, I found:

Juicy Fruit sours (New!), Juicy Fruit grapermelon (sic) (Longer Lasting!), Juicy Fruit strappleberry (sic, I’m beginning to see a pattern here).

Hubba Bubba Triple Treat, 6 feet of bubble gum, artificially flavored strawberry, watermelon and blueberry; Hubba Bubba sour double berry; and Hubba Bubba Max cherry-lemon.

Three kinds of Eclipse gum (powerfully crisp, surprisingly fresh, and uniquely soothing, respectively) and three kinds of Eclipse mints, which don’t have the adverb+adjective combos on the packs.

Eight kinds of Orbit gum, and four species of Extra gum, plus one companion mint variety for each of those two brands.

Big League Chew, “the ballplayers’ bubble gum.” New! Sour Cherry, and Swingin’ Sour Apple (I guess ballplayers like it sour out there on the field).

Big Red, artificially flavored cinnamon that you know is hot, because the package is red and has a little flame head as a mascot.

Winterfresh, “Icy cool breath that lasts,” with snow-covered mountain peaks to prove it.

Some of the gum varieties, made for export, have Chinese characters on them. But my favorite is a gum made in France, Wrigley’s sans sucre Freedent Professional. Avec Microgranules! On the back it says, copied here without proper diacriticals because I’m too lazy to add them, “Le chewing-gum developpe avec des experts en recherché dentaire qui vous procure le plaisir du gout et la sensation dents propres!”

Le Chewing-Gum? Quick, somebody call the Ministry of Culture or the L'Académie française or whoever’s in charge of stamping out anglicisms. We’ve got a violation here.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Solution What Hasn't Side Effect

Still Decemberish. Went downtown for a meeting, and the city streets were in winter mode: heavy coats, visible steam-vent billows, even a patch or two of ice near the curbs.

Haven’t read any funny spam in a while, not even any messages asking me, in fractured English, to retrieve a lost fortune from an African bank. Of course, I don’t actually read most of what I get—who would or could?—but the preview window at the bottom of my e-mail inbox sometimes lets me know something amusing’s come in over the transom.

The following is spam with a comic Slavic accent. At least, that’s what my mind’s ear heard when I read the message. In fact, it was the only thing that made me keep reading it, so I could appreciate English mangled just so (all verbatim):

Sensational revolution in medicine!

Enlarge your penis up to 10 cm or up to 4 inches!

It's herbal solution what hasn't side effect, but has 100% guaranteed results!

Don't loose your chance and but know wihtout doubts, you will be impressed with results!

A Boris Badinoff voice, that’s what I hear. Ever since Pottsylvania’s totalitarian government fell, he and Natasha have had to make their livings in capitalist ways (Fearless Leader is an important figure in the new kleptocracy, I figure). Bulk e-mail is just the thing. Watch for messages that end in “.pot”.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005


A sliver of late December or even early January has broken loose like an icicle and lodged here in mid-November. It’s less than 20 F outside now, and there’s a dusting of unmelted snow on the ground.

Lilly brought About Traffic Safety home from school the other day, a “coloring and activity book,” and at once the rounded characters and thick lines looked familiar. Yep, sure enough, it’s a Scriptographic publication, produced by the Channing L. Bete Co. of Deerfield, Mass.

These kinds of booklets have been used to edify children about safety for a long time now, because I remember seeing them myself in elementary school. I think the drawings were even more rounded in those days than the current versions—the characters had nearly perfect circles for heads, for instance—and I distinctly remember that at least one of those books gave me the willies. Maybe it should have, since it was about what to do in case of nuclear attack.

Lilly’s Scriptographic traffic safety coloring and activity book is fine as far as it goes, but there’s no page that warns kids to watch carefully for morons yakking on their cell phones while barreling through intersections. So I shared that wisdom with her myself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


The annual fall rodent invasion is under way, with four field mice offed by the “Better Mouse Trap” (a brand name) under the kitchen sink in recent weeks. I don’t know if it’s really better than earlier models, but baited with peanut butter it does seem to draw them to their doom. It will have to do unless I can pinpoint their port of entry, but so far no luck.

As I was cleaning up droppings, something in the back of my mind made me think of hantaviruses. As well I should, since further investigation told me that rodent droppings can spread the virus, which causes hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a condition that sounds a lot worse than merely unpleasant. Fortunately, the risk is vanishingly small in Illinois: two cases in the state since 1993, according to the CDC. Even if it were underreported by five times, that would still be only 10 poor bastards who came down with it in 12 years. More people have won the state lottery in the last dozen years, and the odds of that can’t be called good.

I wondered where I’d heard of it, though. One of those things you read about, file away, and recall when the right stimulus comes along. As first, I thought I’d read about it years ago, in one of the genre of scare books published in the early 1970s. We had a few, like The Population Bomb, around the house. But it turns out that the hantavirus was identified only in 1993, so I didn’t read about it 30-odd years ago.

Maybe it was Lassa fever, another rodent-vectored disease, that figured in end-of-humanity scenarios in the bestsellers of doom. Big things were promised for that disease, native to western Africa, but upstarts like AIDS and (maybe) bird flu have moved onto the world stage instead, while Lassa seems to languish in Africa.

None of this means I won’t die from hanta or Lassa or bird flu, or worse, someone else in the house won’t. Remote but always possible. But not worth worrying about after I finish reading the CDC web site.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Missing Numbers

It’s been intensely November-like since Saturday afternoon: cold, overcast, drizzly, windy. On Sunday, it was so windy that I had to remove the big umbrella on the deck, which had been in the folded upright position for some time now, and store it in the garage. A gust of wind knocked it over, despite being folded, and it had taken the cast-iron table with it. Luckily, the whole mess didn’t move that far—not far enough to damage the big window looking out on the deck.

The wind also picked up the top of the plastic kiddie sandbox, which is shaped like a large flat frog, and flung it against the fence. No damage to the frog or fence, but it did look like the frog was trying to escape. Maybe he wanted to go south, but he too ended up in the garage. Been meaning to put the frog there a while.

Today I was at the computer a lot, gathering information in a way not possible when I started writing professionally 20+ years ago. But I’m so used to visiting web sites now for background (at least) that I’m hard pressed to remember what it was like to rely on the piles of paper on your desk for such information.

Not that the piles have gone away. Who would want them to? The paperless office, so loved by futurologists, would be something of a bad dream, I think.

I’m so used to on-line information that it’s annoying when a company or other entity with a web site omits something basic, such as, say, its phone number. I wanted to call a certain real estate company in Wisconsin recently, so I looked up its web site. The best such corporate sites have an address and phone number on the home page somewhere. Others put it in the “contact us” function. I don’t have any problem with that, except when the “contact us” button pulls up a form e-mail. That seems like the entrance to a black hole.

The Wisconsin real estate company's web site had various pages of worthless text about the merits of the company, but no address, no phone number. Don’t call us, please. Maybe six or seven years ago, when no one was sure that nut cases weren’t tolling the Web looking for numbers to call, that might have been understandable. But now? No excuse. I found the number anyway, but it remains a pet peeve.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Item from the Past: New York, 2000

Had a good visit to New York, though I was on the verge of being sick most of the time. I flew in late Saturday the 4th and checked into the Paramount Hotel, which is just off Broadway up at 46th Street, the heart of Broadway. The hotel was clearly an older one that had been renovated with rooms mostly like mine, small but tidy.

It looked like the owners had turned a decorator loose in the hotel with the instructions to make it moderne la a 30s and 40s, but not spend too much on the process. One touch included colored light bulbs in the elevators, a different one in each. One more touch, probably accidental, was that at all times down in the lobby, there seems to be guys dressed completely in black, just hanging out.

That first evening I had a decent but not stellar barbecue dinner at a place called Texas Texas, a few blocks from the hotel, on Broadway at the north end of Times Square, which, even until late, is as crowded as a theme park — which some people compare it to. It’s quite different than in the early 1980s; the city has, famously, cleaned it up. No complaints from me about that. Nearby, 8th Avenue in Midtown hasn’t especially been cleaned up, reminding me, with its dank little shops, crummy sidewalks and throngs of people, of some of the cities of southeast Asia.

On Sunday morning I rode the subway northward to the area of Columbia University. Though not landscaped much, Columbia does indeed have weighty buildings and the feel of an important university. Not far away is the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the Episcopal see for New York, and a massive Gothic edifice besides. I looked around there quite a while, and stayed for a high-church service that included a visit by one of the local bishops and some baptisms.

Afterwards I walked to Grant’s tomb, which is officially known as the General Grant National Memorial, and run by the park service. I understand that it's been renovated recently, and it looks it — the marble skin, for instance, is a stunning white. Inside, the Grants lie downstairs, and there are a handful of exhibits on the ground level, and one park service employee without much to do. The tomb is located in Riverside Park, a long strip of land overlooking the Hudson River.

Then I took a bus southward. We had to detour because of the New York marathon, and eventually I ended up near where I’d thought of going, the Metropolitan Museum. I’d spend the better part of a day in that one in August 1983, but it’s very large and worth another look. But by this time — 3 in the afternoon — I was more than a little tired, and so I opted for something smaller: the Guggenheim Museum.

The building is an eccentric Frank Lloyd Wright design, a spiral with exhibit rooms jutting off in one direction. Makes you wonder if it was a kind of joke on New York by Wright, whom I’ve read didn’t care for the city much. Still, the exhibits were good. The main temporary show was devoted to six female Russian painters active before 1917 — their takes on Impressionism, Cubism, etc.

Monday and Tuesday I was at my NY office most of the time, though Monday night I had a fine dinner of sushi at a place my managing editor recommended. It was very much like being in Japan, except for the customers. After that, I took the subway to Greenwich Village and walked around. I enjoyed a visit to a jam-packed used book store there, the kind I don’t visit much any more, unfortunately.

On Tuesday evening, I caught an evening flight home. Just as I was getting ready to board, the TV at the gate (CNN, I believe) made the first of the now-infamous Florida predictions: Florida for Gore. The crowd was unusually interested in the TV at the gate that night. I thought there would be a winner by the time I got to Chicago, but of course that didn’t happened.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Armistice Day 2005

It may be Veteran's Day, but at 11 am it is Armistice Day.


Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and pictures shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Craiglockhart 1917
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)


Thursday, November 10, 2005

FCC Talk

Almost consistently cold now. Today especially flirted with freezing temps, so it was a good day to stay home, which I did.

Dispatches came in from the four corners of the Earth, however. Here’s a quote from a front-page article in today’s Tribune: “The study validates what parents know intuitively: Well, duh, yes, there is more sex on TV,” said Kathleen Abernathy, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. (Italics added.)

Where are you when we need you, Newton Minow? (Actually, he’s a partner at Sidley & Austin, here in Chicago.)

This is not how a member of the FCC should talk, not for attribution, anyway. This isn’t how anyone in authority should talk. No wonder the commission acquiesced to the foolishness of media consolidation. You can make an argument for international competitiveness in having the auto or steel industries in a few hands, but why do media outlets need to be oligopolized?

She continued: “We need to give parents better tools. With 200 channels, I feel out of control.” Yes, I forgot, cable is mandatory. Can’t live without it.

So far I’ve managed to hold my ground on that one. No cable, no satellite dish here. This summer, a family moved in next door into the house formerly occupied by Chuck, may be rest in peace. One day I was pleased to notice that they’d installed a taller TV antenna on their roof, rather than a south-facing dish to pick up a thousand wasteland channels. Good for them.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Plaque in Situ

Went downtown again today and took a walk from Union Station to the event I was attending, some blocks away. It was clear and windy, and a little chilly – low 50s F., I’d say. I skipped wearing a topcoat, so I was a little chilly myself, and that kept me walking.

I try to keep a lookout for new detail on walks like that. On LaSalle, just north of the Chicago River, there’s a fairly new condo building on the east side of the street, one of many such properties in the area. On the first floor, there’s a 7-11 convenience store, and on the wall outside the entrance to the 7-11, there’s a plaque I’d never noticed before.

I didn’t read all of it, since I wanted to keep walking, but the gist was that this store was the franchise’s 25,000th, opened for business on July 9, 2003. There must be somewhat more now, but whatever the exact number, that’s the same league as McDonald’s.

That stat ought to boggle the mind in some way, but it leaves me indifferent. 7-11 never was our brand of choice growing up—Lone Star Ice & Foods was, a South Texas brand that might not even exist any more. But we didn’t use the name much anyway: we simply went to “the ice house.” 7-11 is no ice house, just a place that sells overpriced processed foods.

I wonder about the plaque, though. Eventually, even the 7-11 brand will disappear. Sic transit gloria mundi. Which will last longer, the brand or this marker commemorating its vastness? Will the workman—workbot—pry the plaque loose in some distant decade because 7-11 became something else or because the store closed or even the building was slated for demolition, and no one at 7-11 cared to save this bit of its history? Or will some hard to predict fad for antique plaques seize the world in the 2150s, and this one fetch a sizable amount of whatever currency is in use, sold at auction at by the successor entity of Sotheby’s?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Berenstein Bothers

I finally figured out the other day what bothers me about the Berenstein Bears. The PBS cartoon version, that is. I had four or five of the books when I was a kid, and I remember liking the drawing style of the backgrounds, especially the landforms and trees and such, more than the bears, though they had their charms.

Ann watches the TV version sometimes. It’s a cartoon, so the fact that the bears are thoroughly anthropomorphic doesn’t bother me. Well, it bothers me a little, because the Bears have virtually no bear nature. The other day a doctor bear educated the cubs about the virtues of the food pyramid—the same one you’d see on a cereal box, a human one in other words. A bear food pyramid wouldn’t look anything like that, but instead might feature salmon at the base, wild honey and berries in the middle, and scavenged food from campsites at the apex.

But what really bothers me is Mama Bear’s voice. It’s a lovely voice, done by a Canadian woman named Camilla Scott. Too lovely. There’s nothing remotely bearish about it. This is true for the other characters, but their voices are more ordinary. If I were casting Mama Bear’s voice, I’d want her to sound more like Marge Simpson. Not exactly, since the two cartoons are and need to be worlds apart, but in that direction, a voice with some edge to it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Internet Jabberwocky

It’s late, and I’m going to cheat. I just took a look at the many hundreds of e-mails still in my delete file, all waiting the time that I punch their ticket to electronic oblivion. Most are spam of one species or another.

Of course, the idea of spam subject-line poetry isn’t new any more – but I figured I’d try my hand at it anyway. I’m not a versifier by inclination, but this makes it easy. I’m ignoring lines like “Photoshop cheap!” or “Enlarge your manroot!” Otherwise, all I’m doing is adding capitalization and punctuation to whip up my own Jabberwocky.

It’s circus, it’s calfskin
Acetylene, not Johann.
Shelf mu
And backlash mustpram.
Mule bitnet!

The arching, it’s Arkansan.
On abstention also begat
Donald for Angelo, but
Goldfish, not sportswriting.

Crow a criss, but
May monologue see cellophane.
Yolanda, your refill is due.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


A few weeks ago, we saw this little notice in the weekly bulletin from Lilly’s elementary school:

“Due to the increased interest in viewing Mars, the Zito Observatory, located at 800 West Hassell Road Hoffman Estates, IL, will be open to the public (weather permitting) on the following evenings: Friday, October 28, 2005 & Friday, November 4, 2005.

“The hours for the viewing will be from 8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. There will be no formal presentation, but Observatory Directors will be on hand to assist and answer questions.”

The Zito Observatory? In Hoffman Estates? We’d penciled in a look-see on the 28th, but the Halloween party that night kept us busy until about 9:30, and we didn’t want to rush on over and look for the place in the dark. In the middle of the next week, during the daylight hours, I had a chance to drive by that address. It turned out that it was Eisenhower Junior High School, Home of the Eagles. There was an observatory dome on top of the building.

So on Friday we drove over to see Mars, but for me the real curiosity was a junior high school with an observatory. Signs at the entrance of a side door said this way to the observatory, and we climbed a couple of stories to reach it. About a dozen other people were around, some student volunteers. Inside the dome, which was illuminated only with red lights, a steep staircase led to the viewing platform. Sure enough, it was a genuine observatory, complete with a slit in the dome.

I looked at Mars. I didn’t take any notes on the make of the telescope, or its size. Enough to say that it’s smaller than you’d find at a larger observatory, but larger than I would consider buying for backyard use. Mars, curiously, was pale yellow that night. The Yellow Planet just doesn’t have that fearsome ring to it, but I chalked it up to local atmospheric conditions. Yuriko looked as well, but we couldn’t persuade Lilly to. She wouldn’t admit it, but I think she was a little scared of the whole place.

I asked the adult who seemed to be in charge why there was an observatory here. “Every junior high school in the district has a theme,” he told me. “Arts or science of some kind. Back in the ’70s when they built this one, they decided that astronomy would be the theme.”

There are a lot of junior high schools in this country. How many, I wonder, feature observatories? One? It’s possible. I might have seen the only one.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


No blogging until next Sunday or so. Not because I’m going anywhere very far, though that would be nice. But there are events to go to and much other writing to do. But one of the events might be worth writing up, since it’s at an interesting setting in the city.

In the meantime, read the Ed’s blog. How many other places can you read about Icelandic elves?

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Halloween Wrap

Halloween was dank this year. Chill and drizzle feel right on Allhallow’s Eve, but it does cut down on the trick-or-treaters. About a dozen of various ages came by our house, not nearly as many as last year or the year before. We gave away cheapo lollipops, Blow Pops by brand name, two bags of which we’d bought at Meijer as almost an afterthought a few days ago. Blow Pops. Sounds like slang for something illicit. “After the cops knocked down the door, crime-scene techs uncovered evidence of a crude blow pop lab.”

The day before I’d gutted the pumpkin and cut a face into it. I’m not very imaginative when it comes to jack-o-lantern design, so it had triangle eyes and nose, and a ragged-tooth mouth. My most imaginative jack-o-lantern concept was in October 2001, when I came up with Osama bin Pumpkin as an entry in my office building’s pumpkin-carving contest, but no one in my office, me included, actually created such a thing.

But I did add a distinctive element to jack this year, unintentionally. I needed a candle to light his inside, so I took a scented one from the lower bathroom, vanilla I think. Four or five people commented on the “marshmallow” smell. It did smell pretty good. Maybe that’s what you get when you mix vanilla and pumpkin. I’ve discovered a new use for scented candles.

Ann had thrown up a couple of times during the day but otherwise didn’t seem ill (and she’s OK now). Still, we decided she wasn’t fit for trolling the block for candy. Just as important, she was too young to protest the decision or feel any disappointment.

So Lilly and I walked around in the light drizzle. For her it was merely the last phase of the holiday. Immediately after school, she’d gone trick-or-treating with her friend Rachel, another second-grader who lives about a half-mile away. Last Friday, Lilly’s school held a Halloween “dance” and I took her and her sister. Lilly wore her blue fairy outfit, Ann a “Cinderella” dress. That’s what we called it, anyway.

On Saturday, the girls didn’t dress up, but we accidentally participated in the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Halloween festivities (see Sunday). We didn’t know it beforehand, but it turned out that the zoo was giving away candy and other items to kids that afternoon -- to long lines of kids, many in costume, waiting for candy, so I guess they’d heard about it.

In fact, there were so many kids there to collect candy that the zoo was a zoo. In some places, the animal exhibits were closed, maybe because the zookeepers didn’t want the animals scared by the commotion. We waited in a few of these lines, equipped with paper bags supplied by zoo staff, and at the end of the lines other staffers gave away candy: second-rate varieties like Swedish Fish that had obviously been donated.

More zoo personnel -- or maybe Halloween temps -- wandered around in full-body costumes, including such characters as Minnie Mouse and Big Bird, which seemed to astonish Ann. Look what just stepped out of the TV!

Each of them walked around with another person as a kind of guide, since peripheral vision might have been limited by the getups. One came along dressed as the PBS cartoon character Arthur, with a female companion dressed something like a nurse. “Arthur and his physical therapist,” I said to Lilly as they passed by. The “physical therapist” heard it and laughed.

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