Thursday, June 29, 2006


Time for the annual summertime web-log sign off for a few weeks. God willing, as people used to say, I’ll return to it around July 15, the unheralded mid-point of summer.

Till then, a few unconnected notes. Not long ago, I interviewed a nationally renowned authority in a subspecies of real estate finance on the phone. He sounded something like Wally Cox, which made the interview slightly more difficult.

Crickets are back and singing by night here in the North. I enjoy cricketsong a good deal, and used to like falling asleep to it in the old house, because they were just outside open windows. In our present house, however, opening the south-facing windows at night – toward the back yard, where they seem to be – also invites noise in from the expressway about a mile away. It’s one of the few things I don’t like about this house.

I saw a couple of fireflies the other day, too. Lilly caught a couple. High summer is nigh.

The price of doughnuts is up at Country Donuts, two locations in the world, with one in Schaumburg, Ill. Now the regular price of a dozen is $5.15, but only a mug pays that, since Country Donuts publishes coupons weekly in local advertising circulars that knock a dollar off the price. So it’s $4.15. Compare this to the cost of a dozen doughnuts in San Antonio in 1969: 99¢. That I remember clearly, because as youngest member of the family I was often sent into the shop to get them.

But that’s in nominal terms. I go to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis web site, which has a handy inflation calculator, and discover that in today’s dollars, I (or really, my mother) was spending $5.46 back then for after-church doughnuts many Sundays. So the real price of doughnuts, even at full price, is down! Real estate, college tuition, health care – these things outpace inflation. But not doughnuts. Happy news.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Tetra Pak Heresy

It’s been a rainy few weeks lately, and there were terrific heavy rains this morning, just before and after dawn. Was awake for part of it, then drifted to the zone of dreams seamlessly, as happens in the blurry wee hours. An anxiety dream about discovering a roof leak blossomed in those moments, and then went away with a sense of relief, as they do, when you wake and realize that the thing didn’t happen. Or at least not in the tangible, non-dream world in which you’d have to spend money to fix the problem.

The other day Yuriko bought more Calpico brand non-carbonated milk-based soft drink at Mituswa, the Japanese grocery store. Lilly and Ann drink it especially during the summer. “Calpico” is what it’s called in English-speaking countries, and wisely so, because the actual name in Japanese is Calpis, pronounced cal-piss. Which is good for a few yuks when you first come to Japan – “they call it what?”

It comes in concentrate form. According to the directions on the label – for export to gaijin, remember – you need four parts water to one part Calpico. But Yuriko says that the drink is popular because each drinker gets to mix his own drink. Some like it stronger, some like it weaker. This is apparently a fertile source of talk for grade-school kids in Japan.

Until recently, export Calpico came in fine brown bottles cloaked in a distinctive blue-and-white wrapper. But Yuriko discovered that it now comes in Tetra Pak-like boxes. That, she said (I’m paraphrasing here), is heresy. Calpis comes in brown bottles. How could they do that? Both box and bottle contain 500 mL, so that isn’t the issue. I suspect that the Tetra Pak-ish boxes are a good deal cheaper to make, so that must be the reason. But I’m with her – that’s no excuse for dumping the brown bottles.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Ann Constructions & One by Lilly

Ann has a strong liking for tofu, which she will eat in a bowl with soy sauce. She calls it “tow-food” (or I guess that could be “toe-food,” but something’s vaguely gross about that).

She has many opportunities to disdain things. She says, “I can’t want it.”

From her child-seat view in the car a few weeks ago, she described the scenery of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this way: “Trees more, trees more, trees more.”

For a long time now (months is a long time for her), a balloon has been called “balloon-ma.” Not sure where she got that one.

Lilly has lately taken to saying, “I’m going out for some fresh air,” as if the air around metro Chicago were particularly non-particulate. To this I’ve been saying, “Get me some too.” It’s beginning to annoy her.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Worldwide HQ

Today the skilled technicians at Schaumburg Toyota, for a fee, resolved some nagging issues and did some (I assume) necessary maintenance on our main vehicle. This took a little longer than I’m used to spending at this place, and so instead of idling in the waiting room – I’d stupidly forgotten my take-along book, The Bounty, - I took a walk. (Though I did come back later to the waiting room and saw an episode of Two and a Half Men. Speaking of stupid…)

Not many people walk along busy Golf Road, but there is a sidewalk, and a number of strip centers to inspect in the vicinity. Within a few minutes’ walk, I saw a sari shop, Korean grocer, a Mexican video store, and a day-care center that caters to children with Down’s syndrome, among a variety of other establishments. One wonders how people imagine suburbs as homogeneous, but that’s musing for another time.

Tucked away on a side street was the worldwide headquarters of the Saint Germain Foundation. A handsome brick building with lavender trim and false columns out front. Turns out they run the I AM Temple downtown, which I have passed many times, but never really investigated. The words I AM also figured into the décor on the outside of the headquarters. I can’t say that I know much about Saint Germain or his foundation, but chancing across the “worldwide headquarters” of anything made my day.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Buster, Misfiled

Shorts all this week. Many thousands of for-pay words to write, on tight deadlines and of course they get bumped up to the front of the queue here at the word mill.

But I will say that I was in a big box electronic store over the weekend, one that also happens to have long aisles of DVDs for sale. Just as I spied a Buster Keaton box set sitting square under a sign that said DRAMA, a young clerk asked if I need help with anything.

“Well, Buster Keaton should be under comedy,” I said. That should be COMEDY, which was an aisle over. He didn’t respond for a long moment. “You know, Buster Keaton was a comedian.”

I suspect he didn’t know, but I can’t hold that against him. Decades pass. A lot of things get lost or at least dimmed. The fact that Buster Keaton has a box set means he’s survived to some degree, but this lad’s cinema experience might not have included him. At his age I may or may not have known much about him, either. “But it’s a box set,” he answered incongruously.

“Just thought I’d let you know,” I said, and that was that.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Puttin' on the Raue

Somehow, my name and address has ended up in possession of the Raue Center for the Arts, a theater I’ve never been to in Crystal Lake, Ill., and I received a flier in the mail the other day promoting its 2006-07 season. The following acts will be appearing there:

Entertainer-----Ticket Price----How Much I Would Pay

Ed McMahon------$58, $54--------$0
George Carlin---$89, $85--------$10
Pat Boone-------$52, $48--------$2.50
Leonard Nemoy---$58, $54--------$5
Paula P-stone---$39, $35--------$2.50
Jim Brickman----$51, $47--------(who?)
Lily Tomlin-----$89, $85--------$10

That’s only a small selection of acts, selected from among the better-known names. The only one of them I have in fact seen in person was Lily Tomlin, in the late 1980s in Chicago. I don’t remember how much I paid, but it wasn’t remotely near $80.

(About $20 would be my guess, and since I’ve seen her, I don’t really need to again at that price. Still, it was a good show, and one line has stuck with me all these years: she called something “useless as an acid flashback.”)

The season at the Raue also includes presidential impersonators (Jefferson and TR), tribute bands, Celtic stompers, big bands, bluegrass, a handful of plays and a couple of Christmas shows. Almost all overpriced. Some more than others, of course. Fifty-plus dollars for Ed MaMahon? Sheesh.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


An e-mail exchange between Peter, a former co-worker and current football enthusiast, and me. Or at least he’s more of an enthusiast than I am, watching World Cup games on one of the Spanish channels here and ESPN (sometimes at the same time).

I was looking at the Tribune web site's coverage of the World Cup (probably not the best place to read about it, but I was in the virtual neighborhood), and this headline from last week made me smile. An evil smile, but still:

Valiant Poland can't hang on

Couldn't they think of a new headline? This was recycled from late Sept. 1939, I think.


But remember there were two armies invading Poland in 1939. A more accurate score would be Poland 0, Vicious Neighboring Dictator-thugs, 1. Euro sports types alway give the home team first!

When I tune into the World Cup, I have the Spanish channel on 'cause
their feed is about 5 seconds ahead of ESPN. So I have the remote's
"Jump" button set for them and ESPN so I can see each rare score in
these matches twice! Or if I'm not quite paying attention and hear
the Spanish announcer say "¡GOOOOL!", I can still hit the Jump button
and see the goal once on ESPN.


Sure enough, the Soviets did gobble up eastern Poland in '39, never to return it even after they became fraternal socialist nations. Stalin figured, give 'em a piece of Germany instead. So Poland drifted westward (so far west that a lot of it ended up in Chicago).

At the Imperial War Museum in London in 1988, I saw a small map depicting the German invasion of Poland on the wall. The museum had curiously left eastern Poland blank, as if there were no Soviet incursion, but someone had inked in arrows to represent Red Army movements.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Among other things done today, I fixed the vacuum cleaner. There aren’t that many small machines I can repair, but then again only problems were a broken belt, a full bag and brush roll completely encrusted with floor crap. Once all of those problems were resolved, I tried it out on the red carpet in the living room and was prepared to curse Eurkea, our brand, since it still wasn’t working well.

Then I notice that someone – I suspect little hands – had set the thing for a high carpet, instead of the low I was working on. So I reset it. It worked wonderfully. It must have been mis-set for a while, since the red carpet hasn’t been this clean in a while.

It all made me wonder why, in customary and (partly) discredited gender divisions of labor, vacuuming is the woman’s job. It involves pushing around a loud, dirty machine with cool accessory names like HEPA and Micron filters, extension wands, and crevice tools. Something like mowing the lawn, only inside. Surely right for men, customarily speaking. Anyway, I like it better than most household jobs.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Shorts for a while, since I have much to do. Too much for such a fine month, June, but that’s the way it needs to be if the rest of the summer is going to be like I want it to be.

A friend of Lilly’s is over for a sleep-over, the first at which Lilly is the host, if that’s the right word. Much giggling and little-girl mirth, except for the occasional screaming matches with the resident three-year-old, who occasionally runs afoul of eight-year-old sensibilities. Lilly spent the night at her friend’s house last week, so this is a trade, sort of. That was Lilly’s first sleep-over, so I guess you could call it the Big Sleep-Over. The one she'll always remember until it becomes conflated with other remote memories of about the same age. She returned no worse for the experience; mostly smiles it seemed.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Limestone from the Exotic Far East

Got this as part of a spam offering the other day that inspired a Spock-like single-eyebrow rising (or would, if I could do that): “100% Pure Okinawan Coral Calcium as low as $39.31.” Per what unit? Anyway, I guess I’m just not up to snuff on modern-day quack nostrums – I mean the burgeoning nutritional supplement industry – since this is something I’ve never heard of.

This from “Robert R. Barefoot, of Wickenberg, Arizona, would like you to believe that limestone obtained from Okinawa provides ‘the scientific secret of health and youth’ and can cure cancer. His ideas have been promoted through books, lectures, his Web site, an audiotape, two 30-minute infomercials, interviews, and thousands of Web sites that sell ‘coral calcium’ products…. In 2002, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission stopped the broadcasting of his infomercials but coral calcium products are still widely marketed.”

Wow. I suppose I should burn with righteous indignation on learning of this ludicrous cottage industry, but I don’t. I just marvel at human creativity when it comes to picking people’s pockets, and making them glad they’ve been picked.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Marketing Oddities

It’s warm again, or what people who grew up here – or are growing up here, like Lilly – call hot, touching the upper 80s or even 90. In honor of my mother’s visit, it was cool or even downright cold (for June) almost the whole week she was here. Not cold enough for the heater to kick in at night, however. Now it’s more June-like.

Was out and about in the world of big-box retail, and took note of some curious marketing. Or at least the banners hanging inside Meijer that urge us to “Remember Dad June 18.” By itself, not so odd. Father’s Day, perhaps invented with noncommercial sentiment in mind, has long been a commercial occasion, though a weak moon to the sun of Mother’s Day. It was the picture that struck me. It featured a man and a woman, somewhere in their 30s, mostly their faces and heads but enough torso to see they were wearing bathing suits. The woman had on a snorkel mask, propped up on top of her head. He wasn’t wearing one. They had the preternatural smiles common in advertising.

That was it. Remember Dad how? Do what with him or for him? By taking him out for some snorkeling? By wearing that snorkel gear that turns him on so much?

I also noticed that Mr. T is shilling for some grocery item or other, with hair somewhat subdued from his heyday. If you read yesterday’s entry, you know that I didn’t watch The A-Team, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t about Mr. T. But they did miss an opportunity, since nowhere on the display, which features a large pic of Mr. T, did I see anything like, “I pity the fool that doesn’t buy X.” Surely I’m not the first person to think of that – why didn’t they use it? (Or maybe it's been done for another product, or on TV for this one, which are the kind of things I'm likely to miss.)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

My TVs

The TV’s got the weirds again. Maybe it’s about to pass on to the great electronic beyond. We bought it 11 years ago, which might make it a Methuselah among televisions for all I know. Sometimes when we try to turn it on, it does nothing until I jiggle the power cord in back. Other times, it turns on but all you can see is a thin bright line running horizontally across the screen. Turning it on and off a few times fixes that, so far.

If a complete breakdown happens, of course it means that we’d have to run out and buy another box, which would go against my inclination of living without one for a few months or maybe, just maybe, for years. Throughout most of the 1980s, in college and especially after I moved into my first apartment by myself in 1985, I had no TV. Perhaps it was my way of decompressing after watching a lot of television in the ’70s. To this day most ’80s television does nothing for me, even good shows such as Cheers.

In Japan in 1990, I bought a small Goldstar brand box, made in Korea and the cheapest thing (about $200) I could find in the electronics store sidestreet in Osaka, which sported dozens of little shops all selling TVs and stereos and computers, jammed into a characteristically claustrophobic Japanese sidestreet. (Other merchandise cluster/sidestreets around town featured books, appliances, furniture and even one spot with a half-dozen restaurant supply stores that carried plastic models of food.) I sold the Goldstar TV when I left Japan, and bought our current one after returning to the States, making it only my second set. I’d be sorry to see it go, sorrier to have to pay for something new.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006


I don’t check very often to see who’s been reading my writings here, because I have a fairly good idea of who does. But the other day, I took a look, and noticed that in the last few weeks that someone from Chile spent about eight minutes looking at my pages, and someone from Indonesia visited as well, spending about four minutes. This makes me glad, even though I’m sure they came to my site via the “next blog” function on Blogger -- i.e., at random -- and that they’ll never come back.

Still, in case they do, I want to extend the hand of international friendship and hey-nonny-nonny to my readers in Chile and Indonesia, who may only think they know us here in the United States, since they’ve surely seen a lot of our movies. It might be more informative to read more of our blogs instead. But they’re probably busy following the World Cup these days, rather than random web logs.

Like with the Olympics, I’m more interested in the venues of the World Cup, and the circumstances surrounding the events, than the actual sport itself. I looked around at the FIFA web site recently, and discovered that the Olympiastadion in Berlin is not only being used for some of the matches, but that the finals will be played there on July 9. Also, the stadium was renovated recently with the World Cup in mind (from FIFA):

“Reconstruction had to be carried out with the greatest of care due to the listed status of the structure, originally designed by architect Werner March and built between 1934-36 for around 42 million Reichsmark.

“The new stadium incorporates VIP and Sky executive boxes, Business Seats, a Hertha BSC megastore, underground warm-up facility (including a 110m running track and long-jump pit) and an underground car park. The rebuilding project was primarily aimed at optimising functionality and spectator comfort. For example, practically all the 74,200 seats are covered, whereas previously only 27,000 seats were protected from the elements.”

Sure, the Germans can spend 242 million euros putting on a roof and adding VIP and Sky boxes, but it’ll always be the stadium of the Nazi Olympics, though of course the Olympic Committee had originally awarded the games to Weimar Germany, shaky as it was. Or, if you prefer, it was the Olympics in which Jesse Owens seemed to have been the only competitor, considering how often his participation is highlighted in ten-second spots mentioning those games. In any case, I hope the new boxes are nice, full of amenities far beyond the twisted dreams of the Führer.

In July 1983, drawn by the place’s historic associations, I took the U-bahn out to see the stadium and the Olympic pools nearby, famous from Leni Riefenstahl’s Festival of Beauty, which I’d seen in film class a few months earlier. Nothing was going on that day, so the place was almost empty but open anyway, so I wandered around. What I remember most were the large statues here and there on the grounds, a sort of stern German interpretation of the archaic Greek style, probably meant to evoke heroic Aryan youth. They had weathered the war and perhaps caused mild embarrassment to the Germans of the Federal Republic, but they weren’t overtly Nazi, so they stayed. The FIFA site doesn’t mention them, but I assume that since the stadium has “listed status” (it’s on a list!), they’re still around.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Post-Birthday Odds & Odds

The only thing special about birthdays for me is the cake, and I got one on my birthday recently and almost immediately my family lit into it. A nice quarter-sheet vanilla on vanilla it was, since Yuriko reacts adversely to chocolate with rashes and itching.

Within 24 hours, the cake was a shadow of its former self, and after 48, only a memory. The label on the box promised the “moistest cake you ever ate.” Indeed, it was pretty moist, but I haven’t been keeping precise track on cake moistness throughout my life, so that must remain unverified. First ingredient: not sugar, but water. Pretty good cake for a grocery-store bakery cake. It’s all about the icing, anyway.

Note to the truck driver behind me in the center lane of the three-lane highway on the way to the airport last week. No, make that a big middle-finger of a message to the jerk: Honking at me will not make me speed up, especially when there’s someone in front of me, nor move to the right lane, when the left lane was perfectly clear for you to pass me. In other words, his honking – maybe four times over as many minutes – was just him saying, move over, insect.

I was going about 5 mph over speed limit at the time, which is fairly typical for me, and more-or-less in synch with the rest of the traffic. But when someone tailgates so assholically, I go into full passive-aggressive mode, and slowly ease down to the speed limit, or a little lower. I suppose there’s some risk to this, but if you brake ever so gently, probably not that much – no more than you already are in, because of the fool tailgater. And it’s so satisfying. Eventually the trucker went around me to the left, at which time I sped up again. Also satisfying.

Remarkably good show, The Rockford Files. Got Vol. 1, No. 1 on disk not long ago, and watched for the first time in 30-odd years. I could tell, and later I read, that the writers of that show knew their Chandler and Hammett. Jim Rockford isn’t exactly Marlowe or Spade, but he owes something of his character to them, something I wouldn’t have appreciated when I first watched the shows.

The Chandleresque elements of the stories were combined with 1970s updates, which besides certain hair and clothing styles also meant car chases. I’d forgotten how important they were in ’70s detective shows, but they all had them—Cannon, Mannix, Harry-O, maybe even Barnaby Jones, though he might have been the exception.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Repair, Reuse, Make Do

Taking a few days off from posting, on the occasion of my upcoming birthday and my mother’s visit. Back again on Tuesday, or even Monday if I’m inspired.

Just after posting about my busted Birkenstocks, I ran “Birkenstock” and “repair” through Google, and lo, there’s a whole small industry devoted to repairing them. There I was, thinking I’d have to make a funeral pyre—or maybe a burning Viking-boat sort of thing—as the proper way to send off my Birkenstocks, but no. They can be rebuilt. We have the technology.

The flip-flops I bought on Bali, on the other hand, which I paid about 20,000 rupiah for, are shot and unrepairable for sure. Sounds exotic, no? Bali flip-flops. But they were ordinary green rubberish things, the sort Wal-Mart would sell. I just got them closer to the sweatshop that made them. They’ve been unwearable for a while now, but since they’re in the garage, I forget to dispose of them. (Burning would probably be an eco-unfriendly option, or at least a smelly one.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

My Birks

Stereotypes stick to some objects just like they do people. The gum of stereotype is especially sticky on the bottom of Birkenstocks, though I’m hard pressed to say why.

I mention this because I myself own a pair, and the top of my left sandal finally and completely separated from the bottom the other day, and the right sandal’s top is pretty loose too. They are also falling apart in other places. My Birks are kaput as footware.

I’ve have then longer than I’ve been married, had children or owned a house or a computer or even a tuxedo. Longer than I’ve been middle aged, and several jobs ago. I bought them in Cambridge, Mass., on July 6, 1991 at a place called the Tannery IV, at the suggestion of my friend Rich, who swore by his pair. They cost $80 exactly (tax included), which means that it ultimately cost me (rounding up to 15 years and disregarding the fact that I paid in 1991 dollars), $5.33 a year to own my forest-green Birks.

I didn’t wear them every day, but in warm seasons I wore them outside and in cold weather they would ward off cold floors inside. They went on virtually every trip I took, up to and including the UP last month (though I didn’t use them), and including Around the World ’94, so they’ve trod on four continents. Not once did they make me feel the urge to move to Vermont or overregulate business or become a radical feminist or romanticize trees. They were just good, sturdy sandals.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Pig Iron & Morphine

How often do any of us have the chance to stand inside a beehive-shaped brick kiln (about three stories high) and listen to the coo of resident pigeons rustling around at the top? Not often, probably. You can do that at Fayette State Historic Park, right on the shore of a charming and tiny sub-bay of Green Bay with the equally charming name of Snail Shell Harbor. Next to the kiln is a massive husk of a stone building, the former pig iron foundry, long ago stripped of whatever equipment it had, but sporting enormous wooden beams supporting its ceiling. Where a lot of pigeons live.

That’s only a part of the site, since Fayette was a company town for a few decades and left behind a number of buildings. Some, like the former company hotel and the manager’s house, have been restored to pretty good shape, and others are the subject of ongoing restoration. The company store is now a three-story stone shell, the wooden parts long ago burned out, and it reminded me of a couple of the stone-wall church ruins I saw in Germany, make that way in World War II. Other buildings left even less behind: a rectangle of stones, or a sign that said something-or-other was here, but no more.

The kids found a beach make entirely of smooth stones. A limitless supply of rocks to the throw in the water! According to a sign, the site had formerly been a slag pile, and bits of unnatural-looking black rock were still easy to find, though I don’t know enough about pig iron smelting to know why rocks like that are part of the end result.

Their mother rested near where they were throwing rocks, and I wandered off to the manager’s house, up on a hill, and a neighboring middle-class worker’s house, probably one of the company clerks. Exhibits were sparse in that house, but there was one showing what had been discovered a few years ago inside one of the walls of the house: empty bottles and other items that indicated that a morphine addict had lived in the house. Maybe a border, the sign speculated, or maybe the woman of the house, who would have been able to order a discreet supply of the drug by answering ads in the likes of Godies Ladies Book.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Dinner in Paradise, But Someday Going to Hell

I need to say I’ve been to Paradise. Paradise, Mich., that is, which is just south of Whitefish Point. In fact, I ate a whitefish sandwich in Paradise, and it was good, but not paradisiacal. To balance things out, I have to visit Hell sometime. Hell, Mich., that is, which is near Ann Arbor.

Paradise is not tropical. (Who says it is, anyway?) Paradise is temperate, and probably gets a lot of snow in winter. Paradise for cross-country skiers and snowmobilers, then.

Another of the UP’s many sub-peninsulas is Garden Peninsula, which juts southwestward into Lake Michigan and separates the main body of that lake from the wonderfully named Big Bay De Noc. As we were driving down the peninsula—a slight detour on the way home last Monday—I thought it looked familiar. A mix of small towns and small farms, attractively green this time of year. A landscape mix that reminded me of where? I puzzled it over for a few minutes, then remembered our trip to Door County, Wis.

Garden Peninsula is Door County’s opposite number in Michigan. Door County sticks out from Wisconsin like a large splinter and essentially defines Green Bay as a partly separate body of water. Garden Peninsula reaches down toward Door County, but the two don’t touch. If they did, Green Bay would be a sixth Great Lake, or maybe a near-Great Lake, since it would be smaller than even Lake Erie.

Door County’s a pretty place, and easily accessible from Chicago and Milwaukee, and so it has a highly visible tourist industry to go with the small towns and farms. Garden Peninsula is pretty too, but not conveniently located, so it doesn’t have a highly visible tourist industry—it’s Door County without (many) antique shops, artisan colonies, famed cherry pies or heavily promoted Saturday-night fish boils.

It does have Fayette State Historic Park, which, to judge by the dozen or so people wandering its spacious grounds on Memorial Day, not many people know about. It’s a ghost town, but not the sort of tumbleweed ghost town that we all know from Hollywood. It’s an industrial ghost town, the remains of a place that smelted pig iron in the years after the Civil War, but did not last past the end of the 19th century. More about which tomorrow.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Whitefish Point

The Upper Peninsula has a fine shape. A big arching peninsula that sprouts lesser peninsulae in various directions. It even has a handle on top, or a kind of dorsal fin, known as the Keweenaw Peninsula, reaching far into Lake Superior. Keweenaw is the UP’s UP, and a whole other trip I’d like to take someday, if only to see the century-old opera house built with copper-rush money.

But that’s another trip. The UP comes to a number of points, one of which is Whitefish Point, jutting out between Whitefish Bay and the main body of the lake, which we reached last Sunday -- the ultima of this particular trip. State roads peter out before you get that far, but a local road can take you to the point, which features a lighthouse, a museum, a bird watching zone and a sandy beach with a view of Canada and a stiff cold wind blowing in from the lake. The gray-blue water was intensely cold, and the sky peaceful with puffy clouds here and there.

Front and center inside the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, retrieved by divers after nearly 20 years in the drink. It’s hard to imagine the violence necessary to sink a ship big enough to carry 26,000 tons of cargo, but there she lies, in two pieces, on the bottom not far from Whitefish Point.

But it was not an Edmund Fitzgerald museum. Along three walls were other stories of other wrecks, most costing some lives, and most so long ago that there’s no living memory of them—the Comet, Vienna, Myron and Superior City, just to name a few. Among the artifacts from these wrecks were the nautical things you’d expect, such as a ship’s wheel, anchor chains, or steam engine gages. More poignant were bits of flotsam like bottles, dishes, a candelabra and even a bar of soap in its late 19th-century packaging. Some of the museum’s benches were made from wooden planks from wrecked ships, with their name carved in it.

Hanging near the ceiling was a second-order Fresnel lens, formerly the bright eye of a lighthouse elsewhere in Michigan but since retired. I don’t think I’ve seen one before, since I probably haven’t spent enough time in maritime museums -- though maybe I saw one in Greenwich, England, but forgot it. But I’m not sure how I could have forgotten. Meant to magnify light, and representing an important technical advance in the 19th century, a Fresnel lens is also an astonishing piece of glasswork. At first its overall resemblance to a human eye strikes you, but the more you look at it, the more the glassy curves and grooves and nodes emerge into an ensemble of glass pieces, arrayed like soldiers on parade.

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Friday, June 02, 2006


I drink tea almost every day, and it did me good on Sunday to see a tea waterfall—a teafall, you could call it. Imagine thousands of gallons of tea every second making a sharp drop to a frothy tea river below.

Actually, the hues of the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, which I’m describing, were more complicated than that, but stripes of tea brown were the dominant feature, along with pale yellow stripes and ribbons of more standard waterfall white. Turns out that the Tahquamenon River drains UP wetlands that contain vegetation that contributes tannic acid to its waters, so a tea river and a teafall isn’t too far off the mark.

Invariably, tourist literature about Tahquamenon notes that the upper falls are the “second largest after Niagara Falls” “east of the Mississippi” and “in terms of volume,” a contorted grasp at superlatives that does the falls no justice. This is a teafall. Is that not cool enough? Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t impress with its drop, or roaring fall flow, both of which add up to a substantial bit of turbulent water. But it ain’t Niagara, and it doesn’t need to be.

Probably because the falls are toward the northeast corner of the Upper Peninsula, and not really on the way to or from anywhere, they beat Niagara by a mile not in terms of height or flow, but in restrained tourist infrastructure. Located in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, the entire tourist establishment consists of a sizable parking lot—not close to being full when we were there—a gift shop, snack bar and brewpub. I had a glass of the “tannin red” from the pub while the Yuriko and the kids ate ice cream from the snack bar. Not bad at all.

A footpath leads away from these buildings, and toward a handful of wooden observation decks along the Tahquamenon River, including one at the lip of the falls, in the style of the overlook at Niagara. A steady trickle of people came to see that falls, but not hordes. Ann and Lilly romped around and threw rocks into the river (a persistent activity on this trip—where are the rocks? I see water.). Yuriko and I enjoyed at the oddity of the falls, the lushness of the surrounding forest, and the warmth of the UP post-storm afternoon. You don’t need a lot of tourist infrastructure at a place like that.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Pete’s Lake

When we got the Hiawatha National Forest on Saturday, it was fairly late—an hour or so before sunset, about 8:30 EDT—and we were fairly tired, so I was willing to throw over whatever thin sentimental attachment I had for the campgrounds at Pete’s Lake, where I camped in 1989 and 2000, and camp elsewhere. We stopped at a campground south of Pete’s, and it looked all right. From inside the car.

As soon as we were outside and looking around at the nearby lake and the mostly empty other campgrounds, we realized what we'd forgotten on this trip. It’s one of the rules of packing: you always forget something. We’d forgotten mosquito repellant, a pretty serious mistake when an air force of mosquitoes starts maneuvers in your personal space. The place was swarming with them, more than we expected, more than I remembered, but then again this was late spring, compared with early fall. Camping in the age before DEET? No thanks.

I remembered a store up the road further, and discovered that it was open till 10 on Saturdays, mostly to accommodate local families and teens at its small ice cream parlor. I found some Off and off we went, a few more miles to Pete’s Lake, a place so obscure that isn’t marked on either the Rand McNally or Michelin road atlases that I own. That’s one of the reasons I like it.

More people were camping there this Memorial Day weekend than the Labor Day weekends I visited, but it wasn’t at all full, so we picked site #12, set up in the near-darkness, ate sandwiches and other easy food, and went to bed. A light rain started to fall.

Sometime in the dark the storm really got under way. Boom! Boom! Boom! Six years ago, exactly the same kind of storm cut our visit short, since the old tent leaked. I listened to the heavy rain, and thunder, and the swishing of the trees, and dozed. Occasionally I’d move my hand around to see if any water was getting in the new(ish) tent. No. A dry tent. I slept happy.

Against expectation, it was still raining pretty hard after the sun came up. From a dream I woke suddenly to a loud bang of thunder, followed by a long, low growl. Then this sound-pattern must have repeated a half-dozen times: it was like a bowling ball being dropped on an aluminum pan, then rolling down another sheet of metal.

The sky cleared up later on Sunday, and when we returned to camp a little after dark that day, it was a different experience. Instead of thunder, we heard yahoos off in the distance. Not campers, I think, but kids out whooping it up on a long weekend. Yeah! YEAH! WHOO! Awright! WHOO! WHOO! Yeaaaaaaaah!

But they went away before too long. After everyone else in the tent was asleep, I took a walk alone down to the lake itself, a few minutes from the campground. The tree canopy, a lush mix of new-leaf deciduous and pine, is so thick at the campgrounds and admits so little light that I needed a flashlight to find the path to the lake. Near the lakeshore, the trees thin out, and the view of the sky opens up. Next to the lake, benches face a tiny beach. A fine place to sit and see the vault of stars. Flashlight off, it was dark enough to see all the stars of Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, which is really, really dark.

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