Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Summer Wrap

I have a lot of paying articles to write before the end of the month, and I also need to spend time sitting on my deck occasionally while it’s still summer. So I’m doing to give this thing a rest until right after Labor Day—that’s around September 5 for any non-Americans who stumble onto the site. Why we don’t celebrate Labor Day on May 1, I don’t know exactly—it was invented in Chicago, after all—but it’s good to have a holiday early in September anyway.

Then again, we don’t have to celebrate May Day any more than we have to use the metric system or like pro soccer just because other people do. It’s called cultural diversity.

Then there’s the matter of our transition to cable ISP and phone. Indications are that it will go well on Thursday, but on the other hand it involves technical matters that I don’t really understand, so I have a vague dread that I will be cut off from the Internet and e-mail for longer than I’d like to be—gasp, back to 1996! Actually, it would be a bigger crisis with each passing day, since I can’t make my living without them. So I have my fingers crossed.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Cerulean days still, though shorter. Not too hot, cool at night. Peewee football has replaced baseball as the informal sport of choice in the park we can see from our deck, a sure sign of fall ahead.

Strawberry ice cream after dinner this evening. As usual when something like that is being served up, Ann’s face twists into an expression of near panic if the process is delayed even a moment, as if she’s in danger of missing the last train out of Paris ahead of the German army. She’s probably a lot cuter than someone in that situation would be, though.

That thought made me wonder, again, why the Paris train station in the Casablanca flashback was so orderly. It was busy, certainly, but there wasn’t much sense that an invading army was right outside the city, and this was the last train before they showed up.

As I was out on a major road hereabouts, I saw a large white truck with “MEAT SOLUTIONS – Cargill” painted on the side. That phrase made even an unapologetic carnivore such as me a little queasy. Meat solutions? Pig knuckles in brine perhaps?

Of course I know what the food behemoth Cargill, or rather its ad agency, thought they were trying to say. “Solutions” is an annoying example of a solid word used in a hollow way. I see it all the time in real estate and financial services PR. So-and-so company offers “real estate solutions” or “financial solutions” to its clients. Meaning… well, usually it involves selling some sort of service to them. So Cargill can meet your meat needs. All the pig knuckles in brine you could ever want.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Item From the Past: Mrs. Dow’s Recommendation

Haven’t done dusted off any old ’n’ moldies for a while, but the Dog Days are a good time for idle reminiscing.

Aug. 10, 1983 – Gatwick, England

After our afternoon naps, which we sorely needed, Mrs. Dow, middle-aged, fat, cheerful, our landlady for the night, recommended a pub called Six Bells. She gave us detailed directions for walking there, which we promptly forgot, and so we spent some time wandering through town looking for it. But it didn’t bother us much. Eventually we found the church she’d mentioned, and the churchyard, and a walk through the churchyard and its ancient stones takes you to Six Bells. We never did figure out if it was in Gatwick proper, or nearby. There’s been a town of Gatwick a lot longer than an airport of the same name, of course.

First we drank some pints. Then we ate. The food was served upstairs, accessible by a narrow and dark staircase, which was a little hard to negotiate with a full plate of food in hand. The upstairs room itself was claustrophobic, hemmed in by dark brown support beams. But contrary to the reputation of British pubs, the food was very good.

The place was crowded, and we shared our ground-floor table with a couple in their 50s and a gentleman of 76 -- a fact he revealed at one point. Our tablemates sometimes bought rounds, and we did too, and we got drunk in fairly short order. The elderly fellow, who had intensely bushy white eyebrows and blinked a lot, told us about being evacuated from Dunkirk.

Who would believe it? I met a chap who lived through that famous incident. The gist of the story was that “We ran across Belgium and were picked up by a steamer. Most of the time we didn’t know what the hell to do, because it was chaos.” Chaos was a word he used more than once, and who can doubt it?

The other couple owned a B&B -- seems like a common thing in Gatwick town -- and the man at least said he was a jack Mormon. It hadn’t occurred to me that Mormonism was sufficiently developed in the UK for there to be a nonobservant population. But there he was, putting down the pints with the rest of us, so at least in that way he qualifies. Late in the evening we staggered back to Mrs. Dow’s B&B, through the dark church graveyard, which might have been spooky had there been no streetlights or noises from the road. Also, it needed fog and maybe a couple of howling dogs in the distance and some unkempt grass. Life so seldom imitates gothic stereotypes.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

0, 0, 1, 2, 12, 9, 5, 2, 0

Twelve planets in the Solar System? I read that the International Astronomical Union is voting on such a suggestion, for various reasons, one of which is to keep Pluto as a planet. It would also involve promoting asteroid Ceres, giving moon Charon its own planetary papers, and calling an object “nicknamed Xena” out beyond Pluto a planet. Pluto, icy and quiet way out there, likely doesn’t care how we classify it, but in any case 12 all together would take some getting use to.

I’m not sure I’d ever quite be able to. Certain numbers go with certain things. States: 50. (Admittedly, only since just before I was born.) Apostles, Angry Men, Months: 12. Virtues and Deadly Sins: Seven each. Hills of Rome: Seven. Four Marx Brothers (no one counts Gummo.) Three Stooges.

Nine planets. I memorized their names and order from the Sun in second grade. Not long after that, I knew how many moons each had, according to the Junior Encyclopedia Britannica, published more than a decade earlier: 0, 0, 1, 2, 12, 9, 5, 2, 0. And only Saturn had rings. There was no mention of Kuiper Belts or Oort Clouds, though the Asteroid Belt got its due.

But discovery moves forward, or at least it should. Those numbers were outdated when I learned them, with Jupiter and Saturn especially fertile for the discovery of rocks in orbit around them. I suppose it was part of learning that printed material, some kinds faster than others, gets dated.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Groucho Presley Van Allen

When I posted about Elvis yesterday, I’d forgotten that today is the anniversary of his death. Not to worry, I’m not going to recall “where I was when Elvis died,” because I don’t remember exactly when I heard about it. I remember a little about that day, 29 years ago -- it was the second day of band practice in preparation for band class in my junior year of high school, and it was hot as hell. As it tends to be in August in South Texas.

That evening, some fool local anchorman in San Antonio opened the news with the exact words, “The king is dead!” Groucho Marx died that same week, by the way, so he didn’t get the postmortem attention he deserved.

I found out today that James Van Allen died recently. It was one of those deaths for which my reaction was, “He was still alive?” Moreover, he lived in Iowa City, which I didn’t know, so if I’d thought of it in recent years, I could have (theoretically) visited him to ask how it is to have big belts of radioactive particles named after oneself. Mountains, lakes, rivers and other earthly features have been named after people, but to have your name fixed to near-earth feature like that is seriously cool, and while you’re alive no less. Beats being a space scientist with a song written about you by Tom Lehrer, but only just.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Elvis is Everywhere, Even My Computer

Sure, kids do it all the time, and have for years. I mean downloading songs to their computers or iPods, free or purchased. But I’m not a kid. My attitude about keeping up with electronic gizmos and computer whatnots: who cares? Is someone keeping score as to whether you introduce yourself to a technology in 2001 or 2006? Do you get lifetime bonus points for being an early adopter? The only thing you really have to keep up with is the bills, kids.

Anyway, this week I downloaded a song and it stuck to the silicon guts of my computer for the first time, a minor personal milestone. Which song did I choose? “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon, from the iTunes store. Man, is that a fun song. The lyrics don’t begin to do it justice. Download it yourself.

Not that I actually paid for it, though it’s very much worth 99¢. I finally redeemed a premium offer of free songs from a box of Lucky Charms. In fact, when we redeemed for one song, we got some more songs as a bonus, no extra charge. So Yuriko investigated the Japanese selection, and found a couple she wanted, while Lilly got one by “Hannah Montana,” a TV-based confection for her demographic. I got one more myself, and true to my demographic, it was something more than a quarter-century old that I hadn’t heard in 15 years at least: “Popmuzik,” by M. Absurd doesn’t begin to describe it.

Singing in the subway
Shuffle with a shoeshine
Fix me a Molotov
I'm on the headline
Wanna be a gun slinger, don't be a rock singer
Eenie meenie mynie moe, which way you wanna go?
Talk about popmuzik
Talk about popmuzik

Monday, August 14, 2006


I’ve been remiss. I haven’t posted about SpongeBob lately. Time to rectify that omission because, if this site is anything, it’s a chronicle of things seen (note title), and boy do I see a lot of that cheerful yellow bastard.

I don’t mean the cartoons, either, though lately we had a rental disc pass through our DVD player. I mean objects. For instance, we picked up a SpongeBob artifact in Canada. Somewhere we bought a couple of boxes—one for each child—of dipping-crackers-and-cream, an insidious product with crackers and cream each in separate sealed pods of a single container. Don’t know them? They’re marketed at little kids. Fun to open, fun to eat!

In this case, it was little chocolate crackers shaped like SpongeBob characters, paired with vanilla cream. On one side of the box there was an illustration of SpongeBob with text in English; the other side had the same pic, but with French. From the French side, I learned that he’s Bob L’eponge, “Bob the Sponge.” I’m not conversant in French, but my guess would be it might take a half-dozen words to render “SpongeBob SquarePants” in that language and it would still be inelegant, so they dumped the reference to his clothes. Of course, the name isn’t very elegant in English, but elegance isn’t an essential feature of the character anyway.

Our backyard faces Lilly’s elementary school, and so a variety of balls make their way over the fence. Sometimes, especially if there’s kid asking for it, we return the ball over the fence, but at other times there’s no way to know whose it is, so we keep it. Recently, a yellow volleyball-sort of ball (softer than a real volley ball) came to rest in the yard. It was beaten up and all its design except for two eyes rubbed off. And you know whose eyes those were. So did Ann. There it was, a yellow ball with two eyes and nothing else, and she said, “SpongeBob!” Gee.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Prints & Smoothies

The whole family rode a Metra train to downtown Chicago late Friday afternoon to take advantage of the fact that the Art Institute is free from Friday 5 to 9 pm, in the summer anyway. Thursdays during the same hours as well, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the museum is no longer free all day on Tuesdays, as it had been since before I moved to Chicago.

I realize that the Art Institute has every right to change its schedule, but that still didn’t prevent my initial reaction: They can’t do that! Tuesdays are free. But that feeling didn’t last long. (But I’d change it back if it were up to me.)

We walked from Union Station down Adams to the museum. En route I saw a sign I don’t ever remember seeing before, though it’s been a few months since I walked on that particular block. It advertised some of the services within an office building with a retail first floor:


Like that, without punctuation or conjunctions. I suppose the first meant passport pictures, since it wasn’t a post office or other official building, and the second is one of those services that scans fingerprints for various identification purposes (everyone will be forced to do that in the future, even to get a grocery store discount card, and people will nevertheless still try to blow up planes).

Fruit smoothies are pretty much self-explanatory. What amused me was the thought that one place might offer all three. Passport pics and fingerprints go together, but adding fruit smoothies might well be a merchandising coup. “While you’re waiting for the FBI to acknowledge downloading your prints, sir, what flavor would you like?”

Friday, August 11, 2006

Airplanes and a Breadfruit Ship

The major airports of the civilized world were “roiled” yesterday by the prospect of barbarian attacks, as the newspaper headlines put it – roiled that is, since the mainstream media still seem reluctant to use the judgment-laden barbarian. I have to like a verb that usually only shows up in headlines. Here in my quiet little office I spoke with someone affected by the roiling, a woman I’d called in the morning to interview for an article completely unrelated to airline security.

Sometimes people never call back, but she did call me late in the afternoon. She explained that she’d been in the air, flying into Washington DC that morning, and her arrival was delayed—either in the air or on the ground or both, she wasn’t specific. In any case, the delays must have been part of the roiling.

Lately I’ve been reading The Bounty by Caroline Alexander, “the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty.” Alexander is probably better known for her recent telling of Shackleton’s incredible story in The Endurance, but I haven’t read that yet. Bounty is a fine book, full of interesting detail. I’ve known for quite a while that Lt. Bligh (he wasn’t actually a captain until later) wasn’t really the martinet that Charles Laughton played so memorably, certainly no worse than many ship commanders of the time, and yet when I picture Bligh, I think of Laughton. And Mister Christian is of course is Clark Gable. Such is the potency of a good movie.

Interestingly, no one can say why the mutineers did what they did, though the book suggests that Christian suffered from an unexpected bout of paranoia, while some of the others were all too eager to get back to Tahiti. Such uncertainty doesn’t play well in a movie, so Christian has to strike a blow (dramatically) against an inhumane captain. Moreover, the movie(s) didn’t blacken Bligh’s name without precedent, since the families of some of the mutineers took pains to do so in the years after the incident.

All of which might bring up the way movies typically distort history, but that doesn’t concern me all that much. The world is big enough for historic narrative based on documents and other evidence, and narrative myth spawned by history.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Meanwhile, Back at the Bunkhouse

Wasted a little time today looking at who’s reading BTST Vol. 2, and I was glad to see someone from Taiwan had spend a fair amount of time reading my entries on Banff and Jasper. He or she had apparently done a search of blogs for those two terms, and was directed to me. Maybe it was a matter of trip planning, so there’s a Taiwanese tourist out in Jasper right now buying a pastry at the Bear Claw bakery on the strength of my recommendation. Hope so.

Meanwhile, back at the bunkhouse, I make phone calls, do interviews, write articles, read other people’s articles, send and receive e-mail. A 21st-century-type desk job, including a lot of spam, of course, like everyone else who has a computer. I’m sorry to see that spam subject lines are now often snippets of real news stories, instead of dada strings of words. Most days I prefer dada to news. Can’t wait to dump my current e-mail address and see how long it takes for the barnacles of spam to attach themselves to the new one.

“Meanwhile, back at the bunkhouse,” was a catchphrase among my friends in high school in the spring of 1976. For some reason, it made us laugh. I can’t remotely remember why after 30 years. Haven’t thought about it in years, and then today I did, like you might find a shell or rock or some other souvenir that you only vaguely remember collecting. Still, you know it’s yours, and it reminds you of another time and place.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Adios, DSL

Only one more posting to gripe about DSL, since it will soon be getting the boot, the old heave-ho & the bum’s rush from our house. A technician will be out to install a successor system, based on cable access, in a couple of weeks.

The phone line will be bundled with Internet as well, since I haven’t forgotten the incompetence of our current phone company from almost a year and a half ago. “Disconnect one of my two lines, please, I don’t need it any more,” I said (this is a reconstruction of the gist of our talk). “Yes, sir,” they said. “Please make sure just to disconnect the one line I don’t need,” I reiterated. “Yes, sir, of course. We’ll do that.” And what do you know, in a few days my entire service was disconnected.

“Can you restore my service?” I asked, calling from a pay phone since I’d let my cell phone service lapse shortly before this happened (gist again) (soon after we got cell phones, so we’ll always have telephony around here). “Well, yes, but unfortunately we don’t have that plan anymore, so we can’t, but we have other, more expensive plans.” “You can’t restore it, even though I was disconnected in error? Your error?” “’Fraid not.”

Actually the new plan wasn’t that much more expensive—before I started working at home and making a lot of calls all over the country. Now it’s been creeping up, and I don’t like that either. The new service will be flat-fee, instead of flat-fee for x minutes.

Then there’s the issue of setting up a home computer network. Originally, my ISP was supposed to send a networking card or gizmo or something. “Will it work on Macs? I have Macs,” I said (you know, gist again). “Sure, you’ll be fine,” they said. Gizmo comes. “For Windows Only,” it says. Eventually I try a wireless networking gizmo from a computer store, supposedly good for Macs. Installation seems to work, until it refuses to do the last step. Call to support: “It’s not installing.” “Yes, sir. First check to make sure your computer is plugged in…” This discussion goes nowhere, and I wished the gentleman a good day in Bangalore. Return gizmo to store.

Since then, when the DSL actually happens to be working, we have to switch the lines physically. Which gets tiresome pretty quickly. I was almost glad in June when the hard drive on the Green iMac click-click-clicked its way to oblivion over a few weeks. We replaced it a soon after returning from Canada, but now we need a real network, which we’ll get with cable access. Come on over, cable guy.

Monday, August 07, 2006

More on Clocks and Other Matters

I was glad to learn (see the comment on yesterday’s entry) that the “clocks” on Philip Marlowe’s socks refer to “any short embroidered or woven ornament on each side or on the outer side of a stocking,” to cite the definition in my Random House dictionary. Good to learn something everyday, no matter how small. In fact, small is usually better.

So I have blue clock socks now, strictly speaking. But I still prefer to think of Marlowe wearing actual little clock faces in blue. There’s nothing to say he didn’t.

One of my credit card bills was quite large this month, swollen by its frequent use in North Dakota, Alberta and points in between. I mailed the check today for the whole enchilada, a satisfying feeling since I’m sure the check will clear and the enchilada will not come back again coated with a mess o’ gooey interest. I reviewed the list charges to make sure nothing I didn’t buy found its way onto the tally, and nothing did.

I really did buy $40.80 worth of gas/sundries (gum, if I remember right) at Loaf N Jug in Fargo, ND. I was so delighted with that name I picked it over competing gas stations. “Loaf N Jug,” I said. “What a name.” I repeated it a few times just for the enjoyment of saying it. No one else in the car was impressed. I even picked up a Loaf N Jug credit car application, though my intention to actually apply for such a card went from slim to none in short order.

The two-thirds amputated “ands” figured in other gas station names, at least in the United States (perhaps it’s banned in Canada since there may be no French equivalent). In writing them, I refuse to write ’n or ’N, which is how it’s almost always done, but it would be too persnickety even for me to write ’n’ or ’N’ so I omit the apostrophes altogether. There was Grab N Go, Killdeer, ND, which sounds like an invitation to shoplift, and the unfortunately named Kum N Go, Williston, ND, but seen in a number of other places, including last year in South Dakota. Or maybe that was Kum & Go. An invitation to do something besides shoplifting.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Blue Clock Socks and Other Matters

For some years now, I’ve wanted to buy a pair of black socks with blue clocks on them. Last week, I came close. Not that close, but at least I got black socks with something noticeably blue on them: skulls-and-crossbones. About a dozen skulls-and-crossbones, actually (is that the plural for that? It came up so rarely in my professional editing days, never in fact, and probably the AP Style Guide is silent on the question).

Blue clock socks? I didn’t make that one up. It’s in the first paragraph of The Big Sleep. My italics.

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

Normally I don’t go in for imitating the styles of celebrities or other fictional characters. Indeed, those who know me on sight know that I have little interest in clothing style at all. But man, blue clock socks. If Philip Marlowe wore them, they’re good enough for me. But I’ve never found any. I imagine them to be disembodied clock faces of a blue hue, though I suppose they could be something else such as whole mantle clocks, like those on After Eight Mints, only blue.

My former coworker Steve probably would have appreciated the skull-and-crossbones socks, so I wore them to his memorial service on Saturday, together with my all-purpose gray suit and a tie that wasn’t nearly so interesting. It’s an indication of how deeply business casual has penetrated our world that I was one of only about four or five other men who were wearing a coat and tie. Three times that number had no ties at all. But I don’t take that as a mark of disrespect.

I wasn’t exactly a coworker of Steve’s. We worked at the same company in the late ’80s, but in different departments. He was a newspaperman, and by all accounts a good one, while I was in the trade magazine trade. I hadn’t spoken to him for about 10 years before his death last month, aged only 57, but I remember his wry wit and some of the newspaper stories he told. Unfortunately, he was a good person with a terrible problem, and I understand he drank himself to death. Requiescat in pace, Steve.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Damned Slacker Line

Skipped a day, because DSL’s unpredictable yet persistent blinking off, sometimes for seconds, sometimes hours. This adds a great deal of inconvenience to my workday and eats up a lot of time. Connection to the Internet is absolutely vital to my writing. Who would have thought it only 10 years ago?

DSL reminds me of the ne’er-do-well electricity in Saigon in ’94. Whoops, there it goes again. And again. The guesthouse we stayed at had a supply of candles at hand all the time, and for good reason. But at least when the electricity goes off, you quit paying for it. Earthlink seems to want to charge me whether they provide a service or not.

That makes the goal for the month, besides writing a lot of articles, to get a cable connection to the Internet. Sure, cable can have its problems, but I’ve had enough of the devil I know.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Clifford’s Big Idea for the Day: Sit Down & Shut Up

Today I had to wonder about Chef Boyardee. Lilly requested canned ravioli for lunch, and I obliged her with (part of) the contents of a 15 oz. can of his OVERSTUFFED beef ravioli. There he was, same as ever, with the chef’s hat, gray mustache and slightly intoxicated grin, as he has been since time immemorial, or at least since I can remember.

But who was he? I’ve reached age 45 and yet I’ve never considered the question. An invention to sell food like Aunt Jemima, or a human being and chef who gave the world mass-produced mediocre ravioli?

This is just the kind of thing that Wikipedia was invented for, so I looked up the chef in that editorless wonder of a sort of encyclopedia. Which only demonstrated the broadness of my ignorance on things large and small. Not only was he an actual human being, he died only in 1985. Must have missed the obit.

He’s a ConAgra brand now. Wikipedia mentions that, but confirmed it by looking on the can.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

’Ot & Sweaty

Back when I worked in an office, I usually had to spend the hotter parts of a day like today, near 100 F, in air conditioning. Now that I work at home, I get to spend the hotter parts of a day like this in air conditioning that I’m paying for. An essential difference, and I don’t turn it on till it reaches 80 F inside, and then only to cool it down to 77 F or so. ComEd gets enough of my money.

But that’s just an average inside temp. The coldest part of the house (in summer) is downstairs in the multimedia entertainment center room (the TV’s there). For an enhanced viewing experience last Saturday afternoon when I was watching The Bridge on the River Kwai, I should have turned off the a/c and let myself sweat just a little, at least during the Col. Nicholson in a hotbox scenes, but the rest of the family in other parts of the house would have been annoyed, so I sat there under a blanket while tropical heat was simulated on screen, and while tropical-like heat actually happened outside the house.

When I was a kid, Bridge was shown on TV a number of times, and I remember the long wait till the best part: the bridge blowing up and the train tumbling into the Kwai. These days, of course, I’m a grown man who appreciates the subtleties of dramatic pacing and the arc of a narrative, and who understands the greatness of the movie as a whole. So as soon as I got the DVD last week, I used the select scene feature to go right to the end, and I watched the bridge blowing up and the train tumbling into the Kwai. Wow!