Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Details, Details

In the outskirts of Memominee, Mich., on the side of the main road through town, there was a hand-painted sign that said JESUS IS LORD OF MEMOMINEE COUNTY. I couldn’t help thinking that that represents quite a demotion for the Lord Almighty, besides being theologically dodgy. But I guess the painter didn’t have room on the sign for AND THE REST OF CREATION.

In Gladstone, Mich., there is – was – a place called the Bombay Motel, which was probably truth in hostelry naming, but not helpful otherwise, since the property was closed and for sale. Along Michigan 28 near Shingleton, the Generic Motel beckons passersby with its white square buildings with black trim. It too looked closed. Just another couple of motel concepts that didn’t fly.

The rest stop on M-28 in the heart of Lake Superior State Forest consists of a nearly new structure made of logs, handsome in its way, that contains restrooms. A closer look at the side of the building revealed dozens of large gray moths idling there. The thought of the larvae they once were is the stuff of nightmares.

Why is Newberry, Mich., so large? It is, perhaps, the largest town between Munising and Sault Ste. Marie. I figured it had once been a major lumber transshipment point, since there’s a rail line through town and a train station, along with a lumber museum. But lumber isn’t what it used to be in the UP, and tourism didn’t seem the answer, since why would tourists stop in Newberry when they can go on to the shores of either Lake Michigan or Superior, or go to the woods considerably east or west of town? But there were a number of motels, more than in most UP towns.

Then we drove by the prison. The Newberry Correctional Facility, the state calls it, and it must house some bad hombres, since the place sports enough barbed wire to fence in the King Ranch, enormous loops of it all silvery and menacing. Incongruously, the buildings inside were tidy brick structures that reminded me of an Eastern prep school. Whatever it looks like, it must be an economic engine for the town, offering an assortment of state jobs, plus a steady flow of visitors to see the cons, mostly from the Lower Peninsula, I figure.

Speaking of crime, I saw a poster at a UP gas station that warned hunters, fishermen and other outdoor visitors to the area to watch out for telltale signs of meth production in the woods, empty vials and the like, up to and including people in the woods making meth (which would be a sure sign of meth production, all right). The poster advised citizens to back away quickly from meth “cookers,” and it took me a minute to realize it meant people making meth. Good advice, no doubt.

And speaking of Newberry, a billboard in town says that it’s the Moose Capital of Michigan. Later I learned that the town has a mascot too, Moe the Mighty Moose, though pictures of him seem to show a man in a moose suit rather than an actual animal. In fact, I didn’t see any moose at all in Newberry, but I was only there a short time. If it is indeed a moose capital, they would do well to also put up some warning signs, such as “Mynd you, møøse bites kan be pretty nastï.”

Not finished with Newberry quite yet. Not far outside of town was Teaspoon Creek, a name I liked immediately. It’s pretty small, all right, but probably holds a lot of teaspoons of water.

Just south of Peshtigo, Wis., a sign tells drivers that a Geographic Marker is next to the road, and en route home I couldn’t resist stopping a moment to look. Off the road is a metal plaque fixed to a boulder, erected in 1938, that tells you that you’re halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. Amazingly, there’s a web site that discusses this plaque and others, and of course the story isn’t quite as simple as being halfway, exactly. I haven’t seen the other sites discussed on the web, but I know someone who grew up near the meeting of 45° N and 90° W, which is central Wisconsin and also marked. I wouldn’t mind seeing that marker someday.

Finally, Wisconsin takes its recycling seriously. Or at least its I-43 rest stops do. Or at least the one south of Green Bay does. All in a row, right next to the parking area, are friendly blue cans, one each for plastic, newspaper, green glass, brown glass, clear glass and tin. Plus one lonely brown can for mere trash.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Had us a fine short trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan over Memorial Day weekend--driving, walking and looking around, and some sleeping on the hard ground, but it was worth it. The theme: It’s Interesting When People Die.

Not really. Our travels don’t have themes. Some people visit ballparks or go birding or concentrate on the literary sights of Saskatoon or some such, but not us, unless a destination counts as a theme. Still, as we were leaving the Peshtigo Fire Museum yesterday, the ghouling aspects of this trip did occur to me. The museum remembers the thousands people who died in a massive firestorm that ate Peshtigo in 1871; and one of our main stops the day before had been at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Part of the south shore of Lake Superior is called the Shipwreck Coast for good reasons, and the museum is about floundering, peril and death in the waters nearby.

Not only that, but as far as deer are concerned, I-43 between Milwaukee and Green Bay is Death’s Corridor. Driving up on Saturday we must have seen a half-dozen freshly dead deer just on our side of the road.

But no dwelling on death, since we had a lively time. Our course was fairly straightforward, on interstates from metro Chicago past Milwaukee to the town of Green Bay, then on smaller roads along the shores of the bay called Green Bay, a large lobe of Lake Michigan. At Hiawatha National Forest, smack in the middle of the UP, we camped at a spot I know called Pete’s Lake, just off National Forest 13, one of my favorite roads.

Besides the fire and shipwreck museums, we managed to catch a glimpse of a submarine in Manitowoc, Wis., take a considerably longer look at Tahquamenon Falls, visit a couple of beaches – one entirely of rock – see the remarkable ghost town of Fayette, Mich., eat some whitefish (as you should near Lake Superior), drive miles and miles through a near-tunnel of greenleafy trees without seeing another car, hear the roar of an enormous thunderstorm one night and see many stars the next, feel the heat of the Sun and the cold wind off Lake Superior at the same time, and fight mosquitoes without taking quarter.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Born in Arizona, Moved to Babylonia

A good Memorial Day weekend to all. I’ll pick up posting again on Tuesday.

In the meantime, various notes on current things, which I usually don’t bother with.

Note to Messrs. Skilling and Lay: Buck up, gents. There’s always seppuku. Not strictly speaking, of course, since you’re of the merchant, not warrior, class. Still, there’s something to be said for captains of industry who go down with their ships. Especially those who sank their own ships.

I read that about 35 million people watched the season finale of American Idol. This would be a little less than 12% of the population of the United States, which certainly is a lot of people, but it makes me think that roughly 265 million Americans didn’t watch it. Even disregarding very small children or the infirm, that might be 250 million or so who ignored it. My headline (worthy of the Onion): “Vast Majority of Americans Ignore Worthless American Idol.” I’m in the majority for once.

The latest King Tut megashow has come to the Field Museum. I’d see that before American Idol any day, and pay some money too, but ancient Egypt just isn’t compelling enough to justify $25 per adult, especially when the whole family can go to the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park for less than that, and not have to put up with a dozen other people crowded around each exhibit all the time.

The closest the original Tut megashow got to San Antonio in 1978 was New Orleans, and I knew a few kids whose parents took them to see it. But I’m not sorry I missed it, because the very next year I got to see a big Pompeii show in Dallas, traveling there with the Latin Club (I was a member of the Texas State Junior Classical League, I was). Rome or Egypt? Not a hard choice for me. SPQR!

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

You’d Think Corn Would Grow Wild in Illinois

Planted corn today. I haven’t had much luck with corn since the late 1980s, when I helped a friend tend his garden in his yard in Warrenville on weekends, in return for produce. But I wasn't really responsible for the fecundity of his garden, he was. And it was very fecund.

Two years ago, constant rains flooded the corn-section of our garden. Last year, we built up the level of the ground with soil and had a drought, but watered it often enough, I thought. The tomatoes and some herbs produced for us, but not the corn. I might have planted it wrong, or maybe the seeds were defective, or maybe I allowed weeds to steal too much nutrients from the corn. I’d chalk it up to experience, but it’s one of those experiences that’s hard to interpret.

The danger of frost is now past, and tomato plants have been put at one end of the garden, so I made a few (potential) short rows of corn. Seeds one inch into the ground, as near as I could estimate. We shall see. Unless we don’t. A few hours after planting, the skies obligingly opened up and watered my corn patch, along with most of the rest of northern Illinois.

Also, the tent came out of storage for the season, and as the sun set, I pitched it in the back yard to air it out. It’s been folded since we broke camp in Yankee Jim Canyon in Montana in early August. It looks no worse for storage in the garage over the winter. Lilly is suspicious that we plan to camp among bears somewhere this summer, so I had to assure her that that’s not the case. Campsite raccoons are more likely, I think.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

It’s a Simple World After All

Lilly’s grandma has given her a subscription to National Geographic Kids, which sounds good to me even though the first issue hasn’t arrived yet. Lilly’s generation will not know, except maybe faintly, the anticipation and occasional thrills involved in receiving magazines in the mail, but it still has to be good for her to get magazines about geography.

Today we got the sign-up gift, an inflatable globe. We used to have an inflatable one that had the place names in Japanese, a cool item indeed, but at some point along the way it was destroyed by little hands. It’s a nice inflatable, this new globe, but not quite cluttered enough for me. It only has country names, ocean names, the Equator, and the tropic and polar circles.

That’s it. No cities, mountains or rivers, and no Prime Meridian or International Date Line. It doesn’t have to be a Replogle, but I’d think the National Geographic Society wouldn’t want to dumb the world down quite that much.

Monday, May 22, 2006

No Real Estate Reporters Welcome

I did an article recently about the new baseball stadium in Minneapolis, and thought for a moment that I should contact a flack at the Twins organization, but even before I could get the name and number of such a person, I had to apply for membership at the “MLB Pressbox” at the MLB web site. So I did, using my affiliation with publishing giant VNU. This is what I got in reply. Bah.

Dear Dees:

We have evaluated your application and determined that you do not meet the necessary criteria for membership in MLB Pressbox. If you believe that you have been denied access in error please contact us at or call 1-866-800-1275


MLB Pressbox

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Mirror, Mirror

While it was in production, I paid scant attention to Enterprise, seeing parts of it a few times but generally shrugging my shoulders at it. Not bad, not worth following. Lately, though, WCIU has been showing it immediately after the Three Stooges on Saturday nights. We don’t watch all of the Stooges any more—it seems like we’ve seen all of them—but they’re on sometimes anyway (Ann has become fond of Curley, for one thing).

So I’ve watched Enterprise a few times now. My conclusion: not bad, not worth following. Lilly didn’t take to it either, maybe because large parts of it mystified her. Once she’d gotten the idea that these people—and other, more heavily made-up people pretending to be from other planets—were travelling in spaceships, she asked me, “But where are they going?” This is a question I would never think to ask, since the answer is looking for trouble. You know, out there. Adventure calls. Wagon train to the stars. New life, new civilizations and all that.

A week ago and on Saturday, however, a two-part Enterprise was shown, “In a Mirror, Darkly,” and I actually enjoyed them. The plot device was a storyline in that well-worn alternate universe in which, among other things, Spock has a beard, the female cast members wear fetching uniforms, and Capt. Archer serves an aggressive, warlike Empire, instead of that UN with teeth known as the Federation.

Archer himself is aggressive and warlike, prone to torturing and murdering enemies. Scott Bakula must have had fun with it. At one point he even makes a speech in front of his crew, like Vespasian might have before his officers, on the need to overthrow the corrupt regime in Rome—I mean, Earth—and become Emperor himself. Star Trek needed more of this kind of thing since day one.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Item From an Old Zip Disk

May 19, 2001

Death Valley Day. Our rental car for the trip was a maroon ’01 Oldsmobile. I figured I would take that one, since they aren’t going make them any more. It served us well. We didn’t leave for Death Valley right away, however, since other matters needed our attention — sleeping late, eating a large breakfast, going to the Aladdin pool.

Breakfast was at an off-Strip casino that I’d read about, Arizona Charlie’s. Now that was a Las Vegas breakfast. Everything on the Strip is a profit center. Elsewhere, loss-leader food is still offered, and the ham & eggs & hash browns & biscuit & tea I had was about $4, and tasty too.

We headed north in the early afternoon, a wise decision as it turned out, since by the time we were in the thick of Death Valley, the sun was going down, and temps were only in the 90s. Even so, that’s hot enough, and the trip was mostly driving, but fine driving, the kind with few cars and scenic mountains and flats.

The best part by far was the “Artist’s Drive,” a few miles of road near the park headquarters at Furnace Creek. Time had colored the cliff walls masterfully, and on that road the cliff walls weren’t far away — it snakes up and down and within a few feet of the rocks. We also spent a few minutes at the side of the road at Badwater, which is reportedly the lowest point to which you can drive in the Western Hemisphere, and only two feet higher than the nadir of the hemisphere, out on the salt flat where only the foolish roam in May. If you look carefully, you can see on a mountainside near Badwater a sign 220 feet up that says “sea level.”

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Morinaga Speaks

We sent this e-mail to Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc. on March 8 of this year:

To Whom It May Concern,

I recently opened a 12 oz. package of Mori-Nu Silken Tofu (soft), and the tofu was slightly gray, smelled bad and was uneatable. I was very disappointed, because Mori-Nu is usually very good.

The number on the bottom of the box is 0503645.

After hearing nothing for quite a while, we figured Morinaga had blown us off. Until today, that is, when we got this message:

It seems likely that the package was damaged during distribution.

We apologize for the problem. Thank you for taking the time to tell us about the incident. I will request a reimbursement check for you immediately. Please expect it in the mail within 10-14 days.

Best Regards,
Erika Krakker
Customer Care Specialist
Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc.

I almost deleted the message, since “Erika Krakker” (that’s a lot of k’s) sounds like a nom de spam. I’ll be interested to see exactly how much we’re going to be reimbursed for our bum tofu.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Please Bear With Us

The urge to anthropomorphize my DSL line is overwhelming these days, since it behaves like kitchen staff who disappear at inconvenient times to smoke joints out by the dumpster. Sometimes it winks out for a minute or less, other times it’s gone so long I switch to dialup for a few minutes, which almost always brings DSL back, as if it’s afraid of being fired. It should be. Cable modem is calling me, though I hear they have their issues too.

A “page” called UHP Diagnostic Test always appears to let me know that DSL is down, and it includes the option of “Click Here to See DSL Statistics.” When you do, you see:

ADSL Connection Down
Downstream Bit Rate 0 Kbps
Upstream Bit Rate 0 Kbps
Downstream Capacity Occupation 0%
Downstream Noise Margin 0 dB
Downstream Attenuation 0 dB
Downstream Output Power 0 dBm
Upstream Capacity Occupation 0%
Upstream Noise Margin 0 dB
Upstream Attenuation 0 dB
Upstream Output Power 0 dBm

Attenuation? Capacity Occupation? Noise Margin? That seems like a lot of zeroes just to say Your Connection is Hosed, Dude. I’d be happier if it simply had “We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties, Please Bear With Us” as TV stations used to do when a technician tripped over the main power line or some such.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Crib, Adieu

With the dismantling of the crib, a twinge of melancholy. Not that Ann has actually used the crib recently, or even that much when she was very small. In recent years, it’s been a repository for bedding and other items. But we’re participating in a garage sale at someone else’s garage this weekend, so we took some things over there this evening, including the dismantled crib, baby clothes, a saucer-exerciser and other baby-oriented items that are merely taking up space these days.

They won’t return. If not sold, they will be donated. We have enough stuff around here, so they need to go.

I didn’t include the mobile formerly attached to the crib in the for-sale bin. It sports three pastel-colored rabbits on strings and plays “Rockabye Baby” – about as standard-issue a mobile as you can imagine, but it has sentimental value beyond associations with girls who are no longer little babies. It was a gift from Flo, a personable, exceedingly competent secretary at the place I worked when Lilly was born. In her mid-60s or so, Flo retired not long after that and passed away not too many years later. So rather than sell the mobile to strangers, sometime I’ll find someone we know with a little baby to give it to.

(I googled “Rockabye Baby” and one of the top entries included this version, meant to inculcate the class struggle at a tender age, I guess:

Rockabye baby, on the tree top,
When you grow up, you'll work in a shop,
When you get married, your wife will work, too
So that the rich will have nothing to do.)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Soap to Go

Got some soap in the mail today. It isn’t too often you can say such a thing, but I can, at least for now. My friend Ed has just returned from parts of the ethnic salmagundi formerly known as Yugoslavia (or more charmingly I think, Jugoslavia – why did English-language maps make that shift?). Upon his return, he sent me a souvenir, a small bar (15g) of soap in a small box marked Hotel Central Zagreb on one side, with the greetings DOBRO DOSLI – WILLKOMMEN – WELCOME – BENVENUTI on the other. The word “soap” is also in the same four languages (I assume) elsewhere on box.

Most surprisingly, there’s an ingredient list on one of the side flaps, in English. At least, the word “ingredients” is in English, but items such as sodium tallowate may be universal.

Ed was right in thinking that this is my kind of souvenir. When I was a kid, I participated in stripping every motel room we ever stayed at of its soap, matches, postcards and stationery. Even as an adult I do this, though it’s harder to find hotel/motel matches, postcards and stationery than it used to be. Souvenir soap endures, however.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006


Spent the weekend doing as little as I could get away with, to balance the intensity of last week, and especially Friday, more about which some other time. This evening I spent some time on the phone talking pleasantly to family and my old friend Tom, who relayed the story of Tito’s Handmade Vodka to me. It made my day.

Not that I drink that much distilled sprits. Years ago a particularly grateful flack sent me a bottle of Jack Daniels at my office, and I kept it in my desk drawer as an homage to journalists of old, and fictional characters like Lou Grant, but I never actually drank any. I was at work, after all, and this was toward the end of the 20th century, not the beginning. In fact, I still have the bottle, and it’s about three-fifths full.

But I’ll look for Tito’s vodka next time I find myself in the liquor aisle, and I might even buy some. That’s because I went to school with Tito, whom we called Bert Beverage back then (Tito is a nickname, Beverage his real last name). I wasn’t a friend of his, but I remember him in junior high and high school and the first year of college, since he went to Vanderbilt that year too, though after that transferred to the University of Texas.

A lot of people who went to Alamo Heights (my high school) and Vanderbilt for that matter went on to become lawyers, doctors, business executives and members of other fine and distinguished professions. But the idea that someone I knew from Alamo Heights class of ’79 owns and operates a notable vodka distillery in Texas, actually the only one, makes me glad. Tito’s not doing something distinguished, he’s doing something distinctive.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Cloudy Day

Back to posting on Saturday or Sunday. Got things, many things, to do in the meantime.

Warmish and it looked like rain almost all day today, but it didn't rain in the daylight hours. The drought is over in northern Illinois, they say. Weeks of rain (not daily, though) has a way of ending droughts, I suppose. The lawn has responded by becoming lush, and since I will be so busy till the weekend comes, I went ahead and mowed today, front and back.

Speaking of clouds, I had a dream this morning in which I left Lilly and Ann in the car to go inside a building. I'm so much a parent that even in my dream, I thought it was OK to do so, because it was cloudy and the car was unlikely to get very hot.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Good, the Bad & the Fall-Down Drunk

Lilly’s school newsletter told me that today, May 9, is National Teacher Day, which I think is something the NEA cooked up for its underpaid profession. A day to honor the good teachers. Like everyone else, I had some good teachers in my school years. Some admirable professionals who imparted wisdom.

But that’s not so much fun to read about. I’d rather take this moment to recognize the bad teachers I’ve had. Such as the spineless junior high school English teacher I had who could not remotely control her class, and I (among others) suffered for it. Or the junior high (again) history teacher who was a mean drunk—downright mean during class sometimes, though usually not to me, but rather to kids he thought were stupid. Also, as a function of his drunkenness, at least once he was reputed to have fallen down drunk in class and struggled to get up. Then there was the high school English teacher who expressed herself mainly through sarcasm, or so it seemed, often enough directed toward me. You, the bad teachers, I salute. You too imparted life lessons, though without trying.

Am I remembering correctly? Or should I have more compassion for these people, understanding as I do now some of the pressures and difficulties adult life poses? No. Sometimes bad is bad.

Monday, May 08, 2006

CBS Presents This Program in Color

My old TV viewing on Netflix has recently extended to Hogan’s Heroes, Season 1, Disk 1. I watched that program after school for a while in early ’70s, and it was sometimes the subject of conversation around the lunchroom table in junior high. It’s an oddity of a show for a number of reasons, and though I’m not the first to point this out, the very idea is mildly astonishing: “Hey, let’s make a sitcom about POWs!” (I believe Mad magazine made that observation fairly early in the show’s run.)

Naturally, the POWs have to have the upper hand on the Germans, and so the complete implausibility of it all completely swamps whatever comedy is involved. Sure, it isn’t supposed to be realistic; no comedy is, especially TV comedies. But the setup is too far beyond my ability to suspend disbelief, at least as a grownup. I wasn’t so particular when I was 12, I guess.

Still, certain things about it are amusing or at least interesting. I understand that all the main German characters, who are played for buffoons, were portrayed by Jewish actors. I’m fond of John Banner’s Sgt. Schultz in particular, and it must be no accident that his catchphrase has long outlived him and the show. I’m also fond of show’s theme, a lively march of a TV theme if there ever was one.

Before every episode on the disk, except for the black & white pilot, there’s a ten-second segment in which the letters C-B-S drop onto the screen individually, and then an announcer says, “CBS presents this program in color!” The CBS eye then moves across the letters C-B-S and they change from gray to green, blue and red. Nice touch for the DVD. Reminds you that they were at the cusp of color TV, back in 1965.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Go Fly a Kite

We went into the city on Saturday, something we don’t do all that often. Not because of Fear of the City (there are such people, I’ve met them). We used to live in the city, after all. Logistics is the real reason suburbanites, or at least those of us with small children, eschew the city. Eventually, the children get older, and the logistics aren’t that hard—we’re not quite there yet—but by that time, you’re out of the habit of visiting.

Still, “Mayor Daley’s Kids and Kites Festival” was over the weekend, and Yuriko suggested we go. Flying a kite on the grounds in front of the Museum of Science & Industry down in Hyde Park appealed to me as well. Luckily, I know the secret (and free) parking places near S&I, so that cut the logistics problem down considerably. Driving in, unfortunately, was the way to go, since the following the Metra schedule and switching trains with a fair walk between stations and then ending up a fair piece from S&I, all in the company of a three-year-old, would have been much more trouble than it’s worth. Metra, Chicagoland’s commuter rail, advertises “think of us as your second car,” but I don’t want a car that only starts every two hours on Saturday and Sunday, and then goes only approximately where I want to go.

Mayor Daley’s minions were giving away cheap paper kite kits with his name on it, which the kids colored and then assembled under some tents set up near S&I. The sky around S&I was alive with kites, lots of Mayor Daley’s simple white kites, plus kites of all colors and shapes. A good stiff wind, steady but not too strong off Lake Michigan, made the grounds a good place to fly them.

A number of people brought their own kites, including some enormous jobs that looked more like floats than kites. One was in the shape of SpongeBob (he’s everywhere, I tell you), others more traditional. A fellow standing near me claimed that one of the most elaborate kites, a blue complex way up in the sky, cost about $7000. I had no way to confirm that, but it’s plausible. Kite-flying wouldn’t be the only pastime formerly relegated to children that now supports an industry whose enthusiasts are willing to spend big for what’s still essentially a pastime.

I couldn’t remember the last time I flew a kite. Maybe at a beach, during college. But mainly I flew them when I was 10 to 12 or so, at the grounds of my elementary school, which had a very large field to go with it. I was pretty good at it. Some of the same sensations came back to me on Saturday, especially the pulling on the string, and its loosening, that are necessary to keep the thing airborne at lower levels and to nudge it up further. When it gets way, way up, the kite finds a perpetual wind zone, and you hardly need to manoeuvre the thing to keep it up. But at that phase of the game, you can feel the power of the wind pulling against you, like the kite is alive and wants to go somewhere away from you.

Lilly didn’t quite get her kite as high as mine, and eventually tangled its string with mine (there wasn’t a lot of room on the field). Ann dragged her kite and was happy when the wind puffed it a few feet away. Still, a good time was had, mostly. We all got something different from our kites.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

New Product Saturday

I probably don’t buy and consume enough new products to do a “new product Saturday” every week or even very often, but I like the sound of it—like a real column in a real publication.

Not long ago I had the opportunity to explore a mid-sized grocery store with pan-ethnic leanings, the sort scattered around not only the city of Chicago, but the suburbs as well. Valley is the best of these, located in Roselle and Arlington Heights, Ill.

I forget the name of the mid-sized, pan-ethnic market, but I was there without children, so could examine at leisure products from around the world, or local products meant for people from around the world. You never know what you’ll run across in such a place—and one of these days I’m going to find those delicious orange-chocolate cookies made in Singapore that we enjoyed so thoroughly in southeast Asia in 1994, which I’ve yet to see for sale in North America.

I bought some Swad brand Aloo Mutter “micro curry,” product of India, with English and French on the box. “Aloo Mutter,” the box tells me, “is the original ‘Mom’s Cooking’ thought. Simple but full on flavor of cumin and cilantro. North Indian homes have best-married wholesome green peas and diced potatoes in a mild onion gravy.” Preparation is the essence of simplicity: inside the box is a plastic bag of aloo mutter that can either be emersed in boiling water for a few minutes or microwaved.

I opted for heating it in boiling water, and then poured it over rice. Results: pretty much what you’d expect, passable. Not the same as you’d get in your neighborhood Indian restaurant, where actual cooks are at work, but edible, especially considering the minimal effort involved.

I also scored a bottle of DG brand “sof drink,” pineapple flavored, at the mid-sized, pan-ethnic market. It was among the food and drink from Jamaica, its label sporting a cartoon cat, gray-green with purple and yellow trim, drinking with a straw from a bottle similar to the one he was on. He was also wearing yellow-tinted shades.

Close inspection of the bottle revealed that the drink was bottled for PC Jamaica Ltd., Kingston, “Product of Canada.” It contains not an iota of pineapple, unless it’s among the “natural and artificial flavors,” which is the ingredient just after gum arabic. I bought it and drank it. A good way to get my daily requirement of gum arabic and then some, I bet. Sweet swill, not awful, but not worth buying again. Probably better on a Jamaican beach than in temperate Illinois.

Not a food item, and not from the mid-sized, pan-ethnic market: a SkyDiamond brand kite featuring the face of Barbie. Got this for Lilly a while ago, and took it out for a test flight recently. Example of a buy cheap, get cheap. In the end, in fact, we (I) couldn’t figure out the best way to attach the string to the kite. You’d think that it would be self-evident, and the makers of the kite might have thought so too, since the exact words in the instructions were “Attach QuikClip™ to bridle loop,” with a small, gray illustration of hands doing something near the kite.

Bridle loop? What on Earth is that, in a kite context? Maybe I don’t know my kite lore, but I shouldn’t have to. We tried attaching it in what seemed to be all the obvious places, but the kite refused to fly, even though the wind was good. Piece of junk. No more SkyDiamonds for us.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Fresh mint is back. Nothing else like it in your tea, but unavailable from late October to April.

I don’t know if the previous occupants of the house were mint-mad and planted it in a large patch near the gate in the back yard, and partly along the fence, and the sidewalk, and back behind the garage, and next to the air conditioner in the side yard I only visit to mow, and in other places I probably haven’t discovered yet. Or whether it’s a benevolent weed and grows wild. In either case, I can have as much as I want in the warm months, so fecund is the plant.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Revengefully Ever After

The Cinderella story has been on my mind today, probably because in the last few days the Disney version on video has been played around here by little girls. The story, of course, has roots a good deal deeper than Disney, and better thinkers than I can interpret the heroine—as well as the wicked stepmother and stepsisters—as some sorts of archetype, or archetypical family, or something. It’s also one of the tales that reflexively attracts scorn, or at least mild mocking, with its “happily ever after” ending.

But whether Cinderella and the Prince end up happily married isn’t the afterstory that interests me. What, I wonder, happens to the wicked stepmother and stepsisters after Cinderella marries into the royal family? Let’s assume that this is a monarchy with some teeth to it, since who ever heard of a fairy-tale constitutional monarchy? For a few years anyway, I’d imagine that nothing would happen to Cinderella’s stepfamily, the new princess being inordinately good natured and all.

But power corrupts. Little things would start to happen. Windows at the stepfamily’s home would be broken in the night, and the house burglarized a few times, but the constable would be curiously uninterested in finding the culprits. The stepsisters’ husbands—they married merchants of some standing—would suddenly find people reluctant to do business with them. Eventually, they’d go bankrupt and be chucked in debtor’s prison, leaving their wives and kids and now elderly mother-in-law to fend for themselves. The royal tax collector would then demand some outrageous back taxes on their townhouse, where Cinderella used to work so hard. Pitiful appeals to the chancellor of the exchequer are ignored and the family is turned into the street.

You get the idea. All the while HRH Cinderella greets them on formal occasions with formal smiles and hollow assurances that the royal family has nothing but their best interests at heart…

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The U.S. Exploring Expedition

Yesterday at Walgreen’s, of all places, I happened across a pile of cut-price books, and among mystery potboilers like The Sesame Street Murders and thrillers such as The Postmaster General’s Mistress and copies of Danielle Steel’s 439th bestseller, there was a hardback copy of Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. Originally published at $27.95, mine for $5 plus tax. It became my impulse purchase for the day.

It’s about the U.S. Exploring Expedition from 1838-1842. “By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary,” the preface says. “After four years at sea... the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts -- some of which were still being used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the icebound Antarctic coast. Just as important would be its contribution to the rise of science in America. The thousands of specimens and artefacts amassed by the Expedition’s scientists would become the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, without [the Expedition], there might never have been a national museum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Botanic Gardens, the U.S. Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence, in varying degrees, to the Expedition.”

And yet the Expedition's largely been forgotten. This is a book for me.

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Monday, May 01, 2006

RIP, Florence Mars

Sunday afternoon I tuned into the radio during a longish discussion of John Kenneth Galbraith, which I knew meant only one thing: he’s dead. Sure enough. Then the announcer said, “Also last week, Florence Mars died…”

I hadn’t heard. Cousin Florence of Philadelphia, Miss. Not a blood cousin, since she was my father’s brother’s wife’s daughter by a previous marriage, but in the South that’s cousin enough. She was just a few weeks older than my father, born on New Year’s Day 1923. I defer to professional obits (here and here, among others) for the reasons she was mentioned on public radio -- they have to do with the civil rights murders in 1964, and the book she wrote about their repercussions, Witness in Philadelphia. I’m fairly sure she was braver under those circumstances that I ever would have been.

Sad to say, the last time I visited Florence was all the way back in 1995, shortly after I returned to the United States. I was by myself on that trip, and since then had considered the idea of visiting her and others in Philadelphia with Yuriko and the kids, but we never made it. I did send her postcards from time to time, and occasional photos of children, and she sent me notes and a few letters. In my files I have 11 items of correspondence from her going back 20 years. Her handwriting was a little hard to read, but I was always glad to hear from her. Requiescat in pace.