Tuesday, January 31, 2006

RIP, Greg Spevok

I knew Greg Spevok, but not very well. He was a professional acquaintance of mine. In recent years he was managing director - corporate and real estate capital markets, to use his professional title at LaSalle Bank, and in that capacity I interviewed him a few times about the (to me) opaque world of commercial mortgage-backed securities. He, along with some other colleagues at LaSalle, was on the cover of my magazine about two years ago.

From Monday’s edition of the Chicago Tribune: “Illinois State Police said Gregory Spevok, 46, of the 500 block of Earlston Road in Kennilworth, died Sunday morning when the Chevy Suburban he was driving hit a stalled box truck on inbound Interstate Highway 90 near the Keeler Avenue exit in Chicago.”

And the Tribune obituary: “Gregory J. Spevok, age 46, beloved husband of Elizabeth A. Pratt; loving father of Katherine, Eleanor and Phillip; dear son of Catherine and Stanley Spevok; loving son-in-law of Audrey and Robert Pratt, M.D.; brother-in-law of Thomas (Kathleen) Pratt and Karen (Michael) Forster; uncle of Avery and Brendan Pratt.”

Monday, January 30, 2006

Ann of a Thousand Days

Actually, Ann is more than a thousand days old. This week marks her third birthday. Wistful sentiment about one’s children: Gee, they grow up fast. Naah. That’s only true in retrospect.

See my very first entry (February 21, 2003) nearly three years ago for more on her earliest days.

Still, those three trips around the Sun are worth noting. On Saturday, Yuriko went to the best bakery for miles around, the suburban home of fine doughnuts, cookies, coffeecakes and birthdays cakes at reasonable prices, the Deerfield Bakery. We knew about this place even before we moved to the northwest suburbs, and would occasionally visit if we were in the area. Now it’s only a couple of miles away, but we don’t go too often – that would spoil the experience.

She selected a white cake with strawberry icing. Ann blew out three candles after being prompted to, one at a time. We ate with great satisfaction. Why make birthdays any more complicated than that?


Sunday, January 29, 2006


I looked around on Saturday for anything I’d written around the Challenger accident, because a handful of anniversary stories reminded me that fully 20 years had passed, but I didn’t find anything.

In my professional writing, there’s almost never been any place for anniversary stories, because the commercial real estate industry has little interest in the past beyond last quarter or “what happened last year” at the end of each year, and even that would sometimes be set aside for “what various people predict for the coming year.”

A small part of the industry does renovation and adaptive reuse, and so in that sense cares about the past, but mostly as raw material. I can’t imagine running a commercial real estate story about the 20th anniversary of anything.

But Challenger explosion was of general interest, and the hook for this weekend’s stories were the present-day memorials. I went to work that day in 1986, like most people old enough to have been in the workforce, and I heard about it there. Someone down the hall somewhere said to someone else (not to me), “The Shuttle blew up.”

We had a rarely used TV in a room somewhere, and people milled in and out of that room to see what was being reported. Not much was, or could be. The TV reporters were in that spot of having to be on the air all the time, but having nothing new to report for long stretches of time. Later, President Reagan said appropriate words. I wondered then, and I wonder now, if such a speech honoring fallen astronauts was already on file somewhere in the White House – a reasonable bit of planning ahead, I’d think.

Curiously, I also remember waking up that morning and turning on the radio, which was close enough to do without getting up, and listening to it in bed for a short while (no kids to rouse or be roused by in those days). There was a short mention of another delay in the launch of the Shuttle, the latest of a number of delays – but only a few hours this time. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, and surely wouldn’t remember it now if the mission had gone well.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Easy Satire

Bad news for various PBS cartoon characters. Or maybe call it least-loved PBS cartoon episodes.

In the last episode of Postcards from Buster, Buster’s airplane – well, I think it’s his dad’s plane – vanishes in bad weather on a flight to Barrow, Alaska. Back in Elwood City, Buster’s friends dejectedly wait for news. One of the kid’s grandparents tells them about the time he met great aviator Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers, and then the kids imagine themselves great aviators. (Every show has to have an educational component, plus the kids demonstrating a lively imagination.) Sadly, only bits and pieces of the wreckage are found, but not the black box, and the kids learn that not everything has closure.

Not only that, the lost episode of Postcards, in which he visits kids with “two moms” in Vermont to learn about the art of making maple syrup, is now lost for good. Eagle-eyed visitors to the show’s web site will notice that the list of Buster’s destinations doesn’t include Vermont.

Bob the Builder has his troubles too, legal troubles. OSHA cited him for various unsafe practices after a workman was injured, and the fines are pretty stiff, though the case is on appeal. Then there was the raid by the INS. Bob lost about half of his crew that day, though he himself got off with a warning. And finally there’s Wendy, that ungrateful… word they don’t use on PBS, who was fired a while ago but now has filed a sexual harassment suit against Bob. In the show’s most recent episode, the lesson was that life is one damn thing after another, especially for shady contractors.

In Jakers, an animated Irish pig, Piggley Winks, tells his American grandsons colorful tales of the bucolic Ireland of his youth. In one episode, his old pal Ferny (an animated bull) comes for a visit from Ireland, where he’s a retired tool-and-die man. Piggley and Ferny start hitting the bottle, singing bawdy old songs, and scaring Piggley’s grandsons with made-up tales from their days with the IRA. But they burst into real tears at the thought of poor old Dannan O’Mallard, their other pal from the old days, blown up while still only a lad of 22 in an accident in his basement, where he was making bombs for the cause.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Batman & Ferro Lad

We should have watched something Australian, you know, for Australia Day (see January 26, 2005 comments on that day) but Batman Begins somehow made it into the Netflix queue, and arrived in the mail in the morning. In the evening, Lilly obliged us by playing girly computer games the entire time the movie was on. Sometimes Ann watched her, sometimes she bothered us.

Batman’s interesting enough in various iterations – I haven’t read or seen them all – but he never was a favorite. Not sure any superheroes count as favorites, though I did read and enjoy a cache of early- to mid-60s superhero comics passed along to me by my brothers. My favorite among them was a two-parter of the Legion of Superheroes that told the story of the death of Ferro Lad while fighting the sun-eater, a mindless space cloud that ate stars -- and was headed right for Sol! (I think that was where I learned that another name for the Sun is Sol. Later, I learned it was Latin.)

Ferro Lad's ability was to be able to turn into iron at will. The biochemistry of that is a little dodgy, but no more so than, say, the physics of Superman. He also always wore a helmet that obscured his face - so he might have been disfigured. This remained a mystery, because he gave his life to save Sol. He might have had a horible face, but he had moxie.

Anyway, if I had more energy I might write more about this latest Batman. Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler was good casting. The movie had lots of explosions and chases. Gotham City was suitably Gothic, and corrupt as Medellin, and occasionally I saw bits of Chicago passing as Gotham. (I’ll check again, but I’m positive I saw 35 E. Wacker, where I used to work.)

It was amusing to imagine where it was that Bruce Wayne went to study “ninja” ways – Japan, you’d think, but it looked more like Tibet. Seemed to be an all-purpose Orient, the place from which mysterious Oriental wisdom can be learned, from that mysterious Oriental, Liam Neeson.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Better day. Just a little slogging. It always helps to see an article toiled over in its more-or-less final form, as a PDF of a Quark layout. Some of the magazines I work for send me copies to inspect. I never did that as an editor, but it’s a good idea because the more people who see something before printing, the fewer mistakes there will be.

On the other hand, the writer’s contribution in that regard can be relatively low. Once you’ve seen something a dozen times, your proofreading slips a bit. On the third hand, in PDF form, with photos and a headline and a sidebar, it looks a lot better than as a Word manuscript, fresher to the eye. Which is why magazines use those graphic elements, rather than unadorned text blocks.

Fairly early in the morning, a fellow came to the door bearing a smallish package—the medicine you ordered from such-and-such pharmacy, he told me. He was of retirement age, this fellow, hair as white as Dick Van Dyke’s in later TV appearances but partly covered by a cowboy hat, a white moustache almost big enough to qualify as handlebar, and a bola peeking out of from under his coat. It would have more fitting if he’d been driving a pickup, but in fact he had a minivan.

Perhaps he wasn’t interested in retirement, or couldn’t afford it, and had a delivery business, or maybe he’d always had a delivery business. I didn’t ask, because I was wondering about that box. Had a moment of disconnect: Now, did I order something from? – no, I’ve never heard of it… but why…?

The address was ours, but I noticed that the name was wrong. It belonged to a previous occupant of the house. “He hasn’t lived here in a few years,” I said. “I don’t know where he lives now, unfortunately.”

He looked a little surprised, and consulted some papers he had. “Well, the pharmacy’s going to have to sort this one out,” he said. “Sorry to trouble you.” I assured him it was no trouble, and off he went.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mud & Snow & Monoclonal Antibodies

Like marching through mud, today was. Had to do some re-writing on a feature, a long feature involving complicated financial arrangements among real estate companies. Describing the complicated arrangements wasn’t the hard part, however. It was describing them in a few paragraphs.

Yep, reminds me of the time, ca. 1985, I spent hours writing a single paragraph describing the potential use of monoclonal antibodies in cancer treatment. Which ended up edited out of the article. True story, except I exaggerate the time involved: it just seemed like hours. Fortunately, I’ve had no reason to keep up with it, or any other news about cancer treatments.

I don't remember why I thought monoclonal antibodies needed to be in an article in a business magazine, or even what the article was about. There must be a term for that kind of memory, one that juts up like an offshore island, a memory missing the context of how it was created.

There was enough snow on the ground over the weekend (it’s slowing melting now) for Lilly to get her wish to go sledding – twice – at the catchment near the Community Recreation Center. Her third year doing so. Ann took a few rides, too, sometimes with her sister, sometimes alone. Only once did it seem to scare her.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Dog Plunge

Here’s a headline, printed on a page that’s been visible in the old newspaper bin for a few days now: “Dog tumbles off overpass onto car; driver dies.” (Chicago Tribune, January 20, Section 1, p. 11.) Talk about wrong place, wrong time.

The victim of this truly freak accident had a curious name, too: Charles Jetchick. Jetchick sounds like the on-line handle of a footloose flight attendant. A quick Google of Mr. Jetchick reveals that the story, which started off in the Detroit papers, is very popular. He might even make News of the Weird.

He was 81, so we know he had a long life. We can hope was an interesting one as well, up until the moment when a canine with momentum crashed through his windshield. But we can’t know that, can we? If he was really unfortunate, his death was the most interesting thing that ever happened to him.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Item from the Past: Jelly Belly

January 20, 2002

Haven’t been to downtown Kenosha lately, but I understand there’s been some retail redevelopment there in the last four years, and well as lakefront beautification.

Today we drove to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to visit the Jelly Belly factory, or rather the Jelly Belly warehouse, a state-of-the-art distribution center that also gives tours. Their candy is overpriced, and the shop attached to the warehouse confirmed it.

The tour consisted of a ride aboard a train of little cars driven by an elderly fellow who narrated at each stop, mostly while we looked at videos that illustrated some step in the manufacture of the billions of jelly beans that the company makes each year. For some reason, the microphones weren’t working very well, and so we could only hear about half of what he said. An impaired virtual tour of sorts, then: seeing representations of an activity that goes on elsewhere, and not quite hearing the narrative. I would have preferred a tour of the actual factory, which is actually in the Chicago area, but Lilly didn’t seem to mind.

At certain other stops, we saw artworks – graphic designs made from Jelly Bellies, usually portraits of people, including the man who did the most for Jelly Belly sales, Ronald Reagan. More enigmatically, the Jelly Belly portrait galley included Elvis Presley, Margaret Thatcher and Amelia Earhart.

We headed to downtown Kenosha for lunch, arriving at 1:30, too late for to eat at a recommended spot called Frank’s. Closed at 1. Sp we went down the street to a place called Three Coins. Not bad. Yuriko had shrimp, I had liver. Downtown Kenosha is a bit tired, suffering Wal-Mart on the Interstate syndrome, but there are still a handful of interesting antique stores around, including one we nosed around in. The nearby lakefront will be lovely come spring and summer. We ought to come back to see.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Bestselling Bunkum

Snow this evening, beginning not long after dark. But for some reason, the usual blast of Arctic air that follows a major snow is expected to be diverted away from northern Illinois. Probably the hapless population of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula will get it instead. But they’re sturdy souls when it comes to winter.

Before the snow I visited a few retail establishments, and at one I thumbed through A Million Little Pieces at the check out line. Since I don’t keep up with bestsellers, or Oprah Winfrey, I’d only heard of it earlier this month, after word broke (via thesmokinggun.com, something else I pay no attention to) that author James Frey followed that well-worn path called “making it up” when it comes to certain key details of his story, or even most of them, especially the narrator’s criminal exploits.

I only had a minute or two with the text, long enough to notice its eccentric capitalization and its aversion to quote marks. I also started scanning pages to see if, in fact, there were obscenities on each and every page. A sampling of about 10 pages found that there were. But none of these things really bothers me. Or even that this work of fiction is masquerading as memoir. True or false, a rehab story doesn’t excite my interest.

And if I ever change my mind, I’ll be able to find it at a thrift store in about a decade at a serious discount. Not long ago I was looking at the books available at a resale store not far from my home – and bought a real memoir, by Lives of a Cell author Lewis Thomas, for a quarter in paperback. I also noticed on the shelves a big-hairy-deal bestseller memoir from the 1980s “by” Lee Iacocca and an even more ridiculous book from the 1990s “by” Dennis Rodman. Fifty cents each in hardback, and not worth it.

Though only barely aware of the flap over Frey’s book last Saturday when I heard part of A Prairie Home Companion, I was fairly sure that Garrison Keillor was mocking Frey when he told one of his shaggy-dog stories about having a criminal past himself (I listened to it again on the web site, and did a little transcribing):

“I spent six years at Stillwater Prison,” Keillor said. “I’ve recently written a memoir about my life [audience laughs a bit], and a lot of really literal-minded people have attacked the details in my memoir [more laughter] such as my statement on page 15 that I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. [Laughter.] A lot of small-minded pedants went after me in a big way, but in a deeper sense it was true, every bit of it.”

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Ol’ VOC

It felt like a pleasant day in March or even April. Wish I’d had more time to go outside, since it looks like winter is going to come back Friday night with big snow.

Finished Devil in the White City (See January 6). Say what you want about capital punishment, hanging H. H. Holmes, who killed dozens of people, was the thing to do. He committed his murders a little too early to go to the electric chair, which I learned from the book was first exhibited at the Columbian Exposition, along with such familiar products as Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat.

Still in the mood for time travel, I then picked up a book called Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash. It takes me even further back, to even rougher times, because late 19th-century Chicago seems like Easy Street when compared to life in the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC, using Dutch initials). The book is about the shipwreck of the VOC East Indiaman Batavia in 1628 off the coast of Australia--then an unknown quantity, including the reef that got the ship. A shipwreck and then a mutiny among the survivors. A harrowing tale, well told so far.

Even in the best of voyages, travel from the Netherlands to the East Indies counted as harrowing. If I remember right from what Dash wrote, the odds of returning were anywhere from 2 in 3 to 50/50, even for the officers. What kind of enterprise, at least in the developed world of today, would be allowed with those odds of survival for its participants? Better then to read about the 17th century than to live it.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Rule of Thumb

Only got up to 32 F or so today, but it’s been so warm for January that it felt very cold. Still, the snow that fell late last week was is long gone, and the ground has returned to natural winter browns and grays.

Called a lot of people today. In my line of work, I call a lot of people to ask for information, some days more than others, but someone almost every workday. I came up with a rule of thumb about that recently. Out of every four people you call for information, one’s going to be there to talk to you, one’s calls back shortly, one calls back well beyond your deadline, and one never calls back at all. On average. As a rule of thumb.

The nice thing about rules of thumb, besides the curious term itself, is that by definition rigorous methodology isn’t involved, so they’re easy enough to create, and easy enough to discard if they prove useless.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Pluto or Bust

My brother Jay sent me a link today about the launch countdown of the mission to Pluto, called New Horizons by NASA. I’d already read about over the weekend, after finding an article about it more-or-less by serendipity, as usual on the Internet. As a kid, I would have already known about it, because I kept up with such things, even without the Internet. These days I’m not the avid space enthusiast I once was.

Still, I’m glad there’s a mission to Pluto. This is a real achievement. People doing what people should be doing—exploring. The US government doing what it should be doing—paying for exploration. I have no objections about paying taxes for that.

The only thing that bothers me is the namby-pamby name. New Horizons? It sounds like a New Age spa. Is this in the tradition of machines that have explored the Solar System—Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Voyager, even the Mars Rover? No. Marketing consultants dreamed that one up.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Item from the Past: January 2002

A holiday's a holiday, even though I will be doing for-pay work on MLK Day, because I must. But I will skip blogging tomorrow.

Last weekend it touched 60° F for a brief moment. We drove out into the exurbs, just beyond the pale of metro Chicago (which is, however, extending its pale ever westward), to a spot called Silver Spring State Park on the map, but known as Silver Spring Fish & Wildlife Area according to the signs on site.

But I would call it a park, in that we saw no wildlife except birds, and only a handful of fishing enthusiasts. But there were park benches, very new playground equipment, muddy walking trails and a view of the Fox River. Heck, there was even a large family barbecuing their lunch to the sounds of Spanish-language radio coming from their van. I could have closed my eyes and imagined I was in Breckenridge Park [in San Antonio]. We had our own lunch at a picnic table, kicked a ball around, and let Lilly wear herself out on the playground equipment.

The evening before Yuriko and I had a night out without Lilly, who was in the care of my co-worker Christina, who actually volunteered for the job, and did so well at it that Lilly didn’t want to leave her apartment when we came to get her. She had building blocks, paint for her nails, paper and crayons, all sorts of fun things.

In the meantime, we went to the Old Town School of Folk Music, a Chicago institution, to see Weavermania!, a fine show if you have any recollect or fondness for the original Weavers. Don’t ask how I developed this fondness, but it began with an old Pete Seeger album I bought in Nashville long ago, in the days before CDs. The four Weavermania musicians do their best — and it is very good — to recreate the music and stage presence of the originals.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Snow Note

Snow! Rain this morning unexpectedly—because I paid no attention to forecasts—turned into snow, loads of wet flakes that partly stuck, partly melted. Later, I drove through it, but it was still so warm that the roads were only wet, not icy. This is good. Every warm day (for January) is another day we don’t have to endure a real winter.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Gompers & Wacker

Downtown yesterday for a luncheon and a number of person-to-person interviews. Don’t do too many of those. Mostly interviews are by phone, meaning a land line, though occasionally I need to use my cell phone for that purpose. I remember brilliant warm day one summer I happened to be on the North Side of Chicago when the time came for an interview, so I stopped at Gompers Park and talked to the interview subject by cell, on a park bench.

Samuel Gompers Park, that is. Probably during his lifetime the labor leader wouldn't have dreamed that the city would name anything after him, but there it is.

Yesterday my time was constricted, so I couldn’t pay as much attention to detail as I like to. But, speaking of naming places after people, I did notice a plaque at the corner of Lake and Wacker, one I’m not sure I’ve seen before, honoring the construction of Wacker Drive, the city’s unique two-level street that edges the Chicago River. And who was chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission at the time of the construction of Wacker Drive in the early 1920s? Charles Wacker.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Salem Cemetery

On Saturday we went a bit further north than our usual orbits, looking for a Pepperidge Farm outlook store known to be up that way. Found it as a tenant in a strip center on Plum Grove Road in Rolling Meadows, which actually starts as Meacham Road in Schaumburg—where Plum Grove parallels it. But the Plum Grove we know ends on the south side of I-90. North of I-90, there’s a road called Old Plum Grove, which merges into Meacham, and then the whole thing becomes Plum Grove again north of that junction.

That's more detail than really necessary on those streets, but if we hadn’t had a map, we wouldn’t have been able to figure that out. Maps are good.

Between Plum Grove and the strip center’s parking lot is a lumpy crescent of land occupied by ten upright tombstones and a few trees. A sign facing the street says, SALEM CEMETERY, PALATINE TOWNSHIP. Other family members went looking for bread and cookies. I took a look at this small burial ground. On a Saturday afternoon, it’s a noisy place, with a lot of cars on Plum Grove passing by. I noticed that the graves were pre-World War II at least, some from the 19th century, and two written in German.

From the Encyclopedia of Chicago: “The community became part of newly formed Palatine Township in 1850 as German immigrants arrived. In 1862 they erected the Salem Evangelical Church, whose 40-foot-square church cemetery at the corner of Kirchoff and Plum Grove Roads still stood in 1998, a bit of history amid bustling traffic and a strip shopping center.”

From the Palatine Township web site: “Salem Cemetery was established as a family cemetery in the 1850’s by Frederick and Dorothea Thies. It was deeded to the Salem Evangelical Church in 1922. Palatine Township was given custody of the cemetery in 1974. The cemetery, located at Plum Grove and Kirchoff Roads, consists mainly of members of the Thies, Normeier and Weseman families.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Tulsa Tower

This is the kind of January I need. Above freezing every day. Rain instead of snow. Gas bills that don’t require home equity loans to pay. Short overcast days, long nights. The Januaries of my childhood in subtropical Texas.

It can’t last.

Busy day, people to talk to, things to write down. If an office building is sold in Tulsa, I’m on it. Reportage by phone and Internet, about a property I’ve never seen in a place I’ve scarcely been (drove past in the dark one time; thought I saw from a distance God’s own "prayer tower" at Oral Roberts U).

It looks like $42 million and change can get you a swell office tower in downtown Tulsa, by the way. But building management is one headache after another, so I’d skip that part and take the “and change.” Enough to live comfortably for years.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Curb Your Tree

Trash pickup – garbage collection – refuse hauling away to the landfill far, far away – is fixed on Tuesday mornings on my street, and we are past January 6, the traditional end of Christmas. So I un-decorated the tree and hauled it out to the curb this evening. Ann helped me in the process, and when I write helped I ought to write “helped,” because as I was removing ornaments, she was taking some back out of the boxes and hanging them again.

But my attention to the task didn’t wander as much as hers, and so I was able to outpace her and get all the holiday gewgaws back in the their storage boxes. One big box for hard-to-break items (plastic, etc.), a few boxes with private compartments for glass. Ornaments off, then lights. Last off was the star on top, which was the last on. Just for continuity’s sake.

The tree will vanish with the bags of garbage and the separate assortment of paper, plastic and glass earmarked for recycling. I doubt that I’m really “saving” the Earth even in any micro-way when I fill that blue bin, but I do it anyway. It’s more of a custom than anything else. Everyone else fills the bins, so I do. If recycling were really important, I’d be paid to do it.

For a day or two, it'll feel like something’s missing from the living room. I guess something is, since the tree stayed a month: one out of every twelve days of the year. Now all that’s left of the seasonal decor is the odd pine needle here and there. I got most of them, but they never all go away until about July.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Item From the Past: Y2-OK

I spent the turn of the year 1999 to 2000 in Japan, and when I got back to the United States, wrote this:

January 12, 2000

Shucks, the world didn’t end. Not even one errant missile taking out a mid-sized city (say, Pusan; who would care?) My favorite Y2K scenario I ran across last year went something like this, with complete disregard to the way the world, and human psychology, works: With the computers down, no one will be able to be paid. In that case, the people who could fix the computers would refuse to work, since they won’t get paid. And in that case, the computers would never be fixed, we would all become savages, and oh yes, don’t forget to buy my post-2000 survival book, only $29.95 while your money is still good.

Even the Daily Yomiuri ran a story, on the 4th, about some mug in Connecticut (a computer engineer, supposedly) who spent $30,000 or so on survival gear. But then again, he sounded like a survivalist anyway, perhaps a member of the Committee of Public Safety Sons of Liberty Free Republic of Connecticut Militia. Ah, well, from now on, Y2K will be something that dates you: “Yeah, I remember all that. It was back when there was more than one media company.”

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dreams of the Expo

Began reading The Devil in the White City just after the new year. Been wanting to since it was published, and I’m not disappointed. It’s a dual story, both riveting, of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and also of the mass murderer H. H. Holmes, who owned a hotel not far from the fair, and took gruesome advantage of the influx of people into the city that year.

I’ve read about the fair before, but as usual in a good book, never in such detail. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to finish assembling that time machine in the garage (from Ikea, easy assembly promised, but I have my doubts) and go. I’d take enough antique banknotes to visit the fair for several days, to get the full experience of the countless exhibits, the carnival on the Midway and the original, first-ever Ferris Wheel. Of course, I’d know enough to stay away from H. H. Holmes “castle” and its horrors.

But as far as world’s fairs go, I’ll to be satisfied with dim memories of the Hemisfair of 1968, which I attended, and its best legacy, the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio, a defining point in that city’s skyline. It’s the only world’s fair I ever went to. Like most of the country, I skipped the ones in Knoxville (’82) and New Orleans (’84). Considering that such events are now, for all practical purposes, things of the past, Hemisfair will be the only one I’ll ever go to.

Too bad. The idea of bringing marvels of the age together so people can see they with their own eyes still seems like a good one to me. We only have the illusion, provided by sophisticated video equipment, that the world is coming into our living rooms.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006


This is how much I pay attention to these things: If you’d asked me yesterday about the Rose Bowl, I would have thought it had been on January 1, when it always is. This morning I picked up the paper and saw the headlines about UT’s remarkable victory—the day before. My first thought was, How can the Rose Bowl be on January 4? Isn't there something in Leviticus that mandates January 1, or January 2 when the 1st falls on the Sabbath? Or maybe it was in the Codex Justinianus, but that wouldn’t have mentioned the Sabbath.

After a moment of that kind of thinking, I was glad that Texas won. It’s Texas, after all. I can’t be a complete UT fan, even if I cared about football, since my grandpa was an Aggie. But I can be a fair-weather fan, and it’s a mighty sunny day down in Austin.

In 1969, when I was 8, we went driving around one evening to see Christmas lights in a neighborhood that decked itself out pretty, and had the advantage of being only a few minutes’ drive from home. This was before the Christmas of ’73, the OPEC embargo Christmas, when so many houses were dark for the season that (I think) people talked about the end of outdoor holiday decoration as middle America knew it.

In ’69, a house on one street had only white and orange lights (UT colors), with a large Longhorn mascot face fixed to the edge of the roof two stories up. On one of Longhorn’s long horns was a #. On the other was a numeral 1. That was the year that UT won the AP sports writers’ poll for #1. True fanatics in that house, I bet.

The Rose Bowl naturally inspired me to spend time looking up other bowls, and before long I was reading about defunct bowls. Some had more entertaining names than others, such as the Bluegrass Bowl, the Gotham Bowl, the Raisin Bowl and the Salad Bowl (were they serious with that one?). Everyone’s favorite defunct bowl, to judge by a scattering of web sites, is the Bacardi Bowl, last played in Havana in the 1930s.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

More New Year Notes

While I was lying around sick last week, I head an announcer on the radio call it “Twenty-Oh-Six,” which is still the less common way to put 2006, after the dominant “Two Thousand Six.” But I fairly sure that 2020 will be called “Twenty Twenty” and every year after that will begin with “Twenty.” That’s already the main usage for those future years.

But when will it kick in? It seems a safe bet that 2009 will use “Two Thousand,” but what about after that? “Twenty Ten” or “Two Thousand Ten”? Etc. Such are the things that come to mind on a sick bed.

At some other point I tried the “Clarence the Angel” thought experiment on my own life. Not all of us get to be George Bailey, I think. Maybe none of us, since sentimental fiction can be a fine thing, but not a guide to real life. Besides, the contingencies of life are such a web of variables that the result of untangling one life can only involve speculation, and dim speculation at that.

Still, if Clarence came to show me the world without me, I suspect that only my wife and children would really be affected—the latter, of course, by not existing themselves. As for most of the other people I’ve known, they might have had slightly less interesting lives in my absence. Or not, since they could have spent the time interacting with me doing something else.

Melancholy thoughts? Maybe. I was on my sickbed. I’m better now, and not especially bothered by the conclusion I came to. The same is true, I suspect, for the vast majority of people, and it’s probably better that way. Image a world populated by George Baileys, in which the web of humanity was so fragile it depended on each person to keep from being torn to pieces.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

New Year Notes

After bitter cold in early December, the hind quarters of the month warmed up, with highs above freezing every day up to and including today. All the snow is gone. The front yard reminds me, and everyone, again that I shirked a complete raking in the fall. I don’t care. This suits me. Still, spring is as distant as a subtropical shore.

My head and throat bothered me almost until New Year’s Eve. I kept to bed as much as I could, reading when I felt up to it, a copy of Brave New World I picked recently for a quarter. Being sick while reading it somehow augmented the malaise of the dystopia. The 30 years that have passed since I last read it added color as well, though I’m not quite sure yet what I think of the book as an adult.

On New Year’s Eve, The Godfather was on TV, edited for language, I noted, but not for what was considered ultraviolence back in 1972, notably the horse’s head. Lilly really wasn’t paying attention, and I managed to distract her at that moment anyway. She did comment, on seeing Brando as Vito Corleone, that she’d seen him before. She had, only it was Belushi as Vito Corleone, a distinction she has no reason to make yet.

It stands as a great movie, of course, but it’s also special for me as the first movie I ever saw on video. In the spring of 1981 I visited my college friend Rich in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and we visited a friend of his one day and went to his basement to watch the tape. They had some expensive equipment: a Beta machine. (They also had a device in another room the likes of which I’d never seen before or since, a machine that played LPs by holding them vertically and running a laser across the groves.)

I’m glad I saw The Godfather then, but I’m also glad that at no point in my time in college did anyone suggest, in a social situation, “Let’s go rent a video.” We missed that by a few years, fortunately.

Obsessive readers—no one, I hope—might remember that I introduced Lilly to the game Monopoly around Christmas of 2004. In the year since then, she’s gotten good. I know this because on New Year’s Day ’06 she held her own playing with my nephew Dees, a college student, and two of his friends, who visited for a few hours. It didn’t seem like they trying to be too easy on her, either.