Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Immortal Knotts

When the time comes to be shed of February, it’s never too soon. Not that February 2006 was an especially hard example of that kidney stone of a month. In fact it wasn’t bad at all, compared to other years that I remember. Little snow or ice, and some days above freezing. But that doesn’t change the month’s essential bleakness.

Lilly recognized the late Don Knotts’ photo in the paper, because we happen to own a couple of Andy Griffith Show DVDs that I got for a small price some time ago. Sure, he was best known as Barney Fife. But how many remember Knotts’ immortal performance in The Reluctant Astronaut?

Not many, probably. Doubt that I could stand watching it now, but when I was eight or nine it kept my attention one Saturday afternoon, and it’s surprising what sticks with you. It’s not mentioned in the imdb description, but I’m pretty sure that Knotts also interacted with another character who was supposed to be his grandfather, “a hero of the Great War.” At one point, perhaps when Knotts is obliged to confess that he’s not a real astronaut, his grandfather confesses that he was not, in fact, a hero of the Great War, but some kind of menial behind the lines.

I’m not sure, but I believe that was the first time I’d ever heard World War I called “the Great War,” a name that had fallen out of fashion by the time that I came along, for obvious reasons. So I learned something from that movie. Just goes to show you that those Saturday afternoons I spent watching old movies weren’t completely wasted youth.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

I’m All Right Jack

Just enough time today to mention I’m All Right Jack, which I finally finished watching on DVD. Had to do it in installments, about six of them. Better to watch it that way than get on the entrance ramp to perdition by buying a second TV.

An entertaining movie, only remembered now because Peter Sellers played one of the leads, and apparently not that well remembered anyway. The only reason I ordered it, in fact, was to see Sellers, who was indeed worth watching. But there was more to it: A deft satire of both management, who are corrupt, and labor, who are eager to work as little as possible, in late ’50s Britain.

You might ask, why the interest in something so removed from my life—by 50 years and an ocean and a workplace setting (and in black and white too). But isn’t that one reason to watch a movie in the first place, to remove yourself from your own place and time?

Besides, how often do you get to see Malcolm Muggeridge in the movies? He had a small part as a TV moderator, and though he wasn’t addressed by name in the script, his actual name appeared on a nameplate in front of him, which is how I knew it was him.

Finally, there was that rockin’ title song, “I’m All Right Jack,” sung by one Al Saxon in rockin’ late ’50s style. My guess would be that it was written for the movie, since it seems to be about taking care of number one at the expense of everyone else. Very brief research doesn’t turn up much about Al Saxon, except that he seems to have had a big band in the 1940s before doing a few early rock songs.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Item From the Past: Whatever Happened to the Infobahn?

Hard to believe now that I ever worked at a desk that had no e-mail or Internet connection, but it was true just nine years ago, though before that, in 1995, I worked at a place at which I had such connections, and regularly used e-mail to communicate with head office in the UK. At the job I held from early 1998 to early 1999, the office had only one terminal with an Internet connection because the owner of the company was worried that the employees might waste too much time with it – we had to make an appointment, more or less, to use it. Not long after I left, however, everyone there was connected.

February 28, 1997

Out of an office of 15, there are two weather buffs working here. Mere coincidence? In any case, today they passed along a bit of weather lore, concerning fast-moving wintertime cold fronts that arc southeastward past high-pressure zones more or less centering on Hudson Bay. Sometimes these are called Alberta Clippers. Those passing a bit to the east of that are Saskachewan Screamers.

Nothing but more winter here, anyway. No big snows now for a couple of weeks, but I’m sure there will be at least one more before “spring” starts. This is the worst season in Chicago, in my view. March should have some warm days, and April should be chock full of ’em. But no.

Today I actually used the Internet for work, of all things. I don’t have a connection myself, here at my desk, but the editor of Midwest Real Estate News (which goes by the ungainly abbreviation, MWREN) does, and occasionally when he can spare his desk, I’ll look up or for something. Today I pulled some articles from recent issues of the Kansas City Star about a trial there of five people recently convicted of setting a fire that led to an explosion that killed six firemen (a trial of some interest to fire chiefs, as you can imagine).

The company is threatening to upgrade us to PowerMacs, with e-mail and Internet connection “this spring.” We shall see, but I would enjoy access to e-mail, certainly.


Friday, February 24, 2006

More on Labels

I made Japanese curry for the family not long ago, during the recent cold snap when temps were actually winterish, which is a fine time for curry. The Japanese call it that – pronounced more like “ka-ree,” but it doesn’t feature the same constellation of spices you might find in Indian curries. It’s a lot milder than most Indian curries, in fact, but does have some kick to it, and satisfies in the winter.

Or even in the summer, if the building is air-conditioned. Curry shops in Japan were usually simple places, like my favorite, a hole-in-the-wall along the underground shopping arcade near the JR Osaka Station in Umeda. The place was curry through and through, starting with the distinct smell as you walked in. You could order curry only about five difference ways there, and the only difference was the kind of meat on top. Otherwise you got a mound of rice overlaid with dark, mildly spicy sauce thick enough not to run around to the edges of the big round plate. A 500- or 600-yen meal, popular with salarymen.

Curry at home is a little different. Salaryman curry doesn't come with a lot of vegetables mixed in, so my techniques tends toward few vegetables, though I add some – onions, broccoli, carrots – out of deference to Yuriko’s style, which includes more. Curry sauce mix comes in an assortment of brands and spice intensities. Most recently, we had S&B Tasty Curry Sauce Mix, 200g, Mild (that so that children will eat it). Sauté some meat and the onions together, boil the other vegetables in a certain amount of water, add the meat and onions to the pot with the other vegetables, then add the curry mix. It comes as six or eight blocks connected together like the blocks in a chocolate bar might be. Simmer all that mess until the blocks melt, and there you have it. Curry for dummies.

The box of S&B that we buy at Mitsuwa market, the Japanese grocery store in the northwest suburbs, is clearly made for export: everything’s labeled in both Japanese and English, and not just the quickie stick-on English labels, either. Naturally, I took a look at the ingredient panel. Health nags recommend this, of course, but I’ve been doing it for years, mostly out of curiosity. Where else can you find delights like gum agar (I wondered about that for years) or lines like palm and/or coconut and/or canola oil – which, as a fellow I once knew pointed out, meant whichever was a penny per gallon cheaper from the wholesaler that day.

S&B brand contains: Edible oils (palm oil, canola oil), wheat flour, sugar, salt, curry powder [meaning, as far as I can tell, whatever spices are handy and reasonably spicy], powdered vegetables (potato, sweet potato, cabbage, Chinese cabbage) [which could be pei tsai, pak choy, green baby pak choy, nabana, sun yat sen or mao tse-tung varieties.], monosodium glutamate (flavor enhancer)… [Oh no, dread MSG! Bet you could serve it to people without their knowing, and record no ill effects. Yes, that’s what happens in a double-blind study, and they seem to have been done. But no! The MSG industrial complex paid for that crooked research! I’m sure it gives me a headache and causes millions of people such ill heath that they can’t get out of bed for months at a time.] … dextrin, caramel color, spices, powdered Worcestershire sauce [a novel concept, that], hydrolyzed vegetable protein (soybean), malic acid, disodium guanylate and disodium insosinate [These last two, also flavor enhancers, are also evil twins in league with MSG, if you believe breathless web sites about the matter. I’ll take my chances.]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Interviews Interrupted

I had an interview this morning with a fellow who was on his cell phone while driving. Nothing really unusual about that, but a few minutes into the conversation, after I asked a very simple question, there was a longish pause. Then, suddenly: “[Expletive]! I’m running out of gas! I have to go!” End of interview. Luckily, I had pretty much what I needed to put in the article. He called back later anyway, to say he’d made it to a gas station and to wrap up the interview.

All sorts of things can happen during phone interviews. These days, I usually tell people I’m interviewing that any noise you hear in the background is my daughter, age three and unpredictable. Often this evokes the phone-voice equivalent of a smile of sympathy – during which they’ll say something like, “Yeah, I have three of my own.” Less often, I’ll hear a slight frostiness in the interviewee’s voice, as if they’re thinking, “You keep a little kid around when you’re working? How unprofessional.”

Last week I made a tape of a longer interview I did. I offered my now-standard warning about background noise, and sure enough, Ann decided to play dog about then, which involves all-fours posture and yip! yip! yip! This week, listening to the tape, I heard her. Remarkable how much she sounded like a real dog. My interview subject might have thought I had one.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cheap Lots

After visiting a Big Lots store for the first time last weekend, I came away wondering who those stores are for, exactly. A lower-income demographic, since the company does very little to tart up its stores. This hews closely to the longstanding prejudice in American retail, namely that if you aren’t able or willing to pay a high markup, you deserve a crummy-looking store with crummy-looking goods. (Ikea in its Scandinavian way takes a more egalitarian tack; everyone deserves some design.)

But how does Big Lots compete with Wal-Mart, which takes no prisoners when it comes to undercutting? Of course, the two aren’t butting head-to-head precisely, but they’re close enough. They both specialize in selling gobs of cheapness.

Still, someone must be buying at Big Lots. The company web site tells me that the company operates more than 1500 stores and has annual revenues of $4 billion and change. I liked it for one thing: obscure, third-string brands. I bought about $10 worth. Including the following, only the first of which have we eaten --

Mexicali Big Dipper Corn Chips. Use By Apr 10 06, 13 oz. for 99¢. Very much like Fritos, though maybe a touch saltier. Even the bag looks like a Frito bag, sort of, with reds and oranges. Made by an entity called PRT in that south-of-the-border town of Marion, Ohio.

Bear Creek “Damn Good” Chili Mix, made by an outfit in Utah. Just add water and tomato paste. American Tasting Institute 2002 Gold Taste Award. Also 99¢.

Taste o’ the West Pears in light syrup. Distributed by the Signature Fruit Co. LLC, Modesto, Calif. 15 oz., weight of pears, 10.6 oz. 59¢.

Luck’s Field Peas with Snaps, seasoned with pork. Authentic Southern Taste! Distributed by ConAgra. 15 oz., 39¢.

Picnic Basket Fruit Preserves – Strawberry. Imported by Purity Foods of Clayton, Ohio. Product of Jordan. 16 oz., $1. I can’t recall ever buying anything from Jordan. Good to see that the strawberry business is alive and well in the Hashemite Kingdom.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dollar Days

It made my day when I saw that the editor didn’t cut out the verb “to Eisenhower” in this article of mine. Keen readers of the article will notice certain similarities with an item published here a week and a half ago – in that case, blogging was a kind of run-up for the Slatin Report article, with the critical difference that I will be paid for the latter.

Maybe the verb “Eisenhower” ought to be reserved for “overseeing an amphibious invasion to break the grip of a murderous tyranny on the western part of a continental landmass,” but really, how often does that come up? It’s much more common to see the bland remodeling efforts of 1950s (or so, it lasted longer than that decade) reflected in buildings even now. An unfair label, maybe, but his administration is popularly remembered as bland as well, so it fits.

So was his dollar. Occasionally I’ve shown one of my handful of Eisenhower dollars to people younger than I am, and they usually had no clue such a thing was made from 1971 to 1978. As well they shouldn’t. It was every bit the failure that the Susan B. Anthony dollar would be later, except that it lasted a little longer, and that it was an attempt to resurrect a silver-dollar-sized coin, the likes of which hadn’t been minted since the Depression. The result was an enormous, heavy disk of copper-nickel clad featuring the least interesting portrait of Eisenhower imaginable on the obverse: a bald fellow in profile. Besides that, by the 1970s, a dollar didn’t have the serious purchasing power that it did before the 1930s, so it was ridiculous in that way too.

The reverse, however, was a good design -- an eagle landing on the Moon (except for the bicentennial coin of ’76, which oddly paired the Liberty Bell with the Moon). The eagle-and-moon carried over onto the SBA dollar reverse, and if it had been up to me they would be on the Sacagawea dollar too.

I’m fond of the idea of a dollar coin, but it’ll never take off as long as we have a paper note worth a dollar. Which, at least until its purchasing power is practically nothing, we should hang on to, because the dollar bill is more than a bit of currency, it’s an icon. Lesser economies can retire their one-whatever notes, but retire the George Washington dollar bill? That's a stand-in for the entire economy. Losing it would be a psychological hit along the lines of making the penny out of aluminum.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Vote Red

As predicted, temps here are sliding toward zero and even subzero, even though we got rain yesterday and not the blast o’ snow that hit Wisconsin and Michigan. When I hear the heater blowing in the wee hours of such nights, I’m sometimes comforted for a moment. It’s warm in here. But then I have a Mr. Krabs moment: That’s me money that’s burning!

Back on Tuesday after a non-blogging federal holiday weekend. Not that I’ll be lolling around much over the “Presidents’ Day” three-day weekend, since I have a few articles finish, and other things are bound to come up in a two-child household too.

In honor of the occasion, however, I might spent a little time with the incomparable reference Presidential Fact Book by Joseph Nathan Kane, even though I need a new edition, since this one only goes up to Bill Clinton’s second term. Picking a page at random in this book while writing this, I learn that the US Communist Party candidate for president in 1932, packinghouse organizer and Stalinist William Z. Foster, was nominated at the “People’s Auditorium” in Chicago on May 28 of that year. Not sure where that would have been.

Foster, though harassed at times by police during the election, did better in ’32 than Gus Hall ever did. The Fact Book tells me this as well. That year Foster polled over 102,000 votes. At his peak in 1976, Hall only got about 59,000, and by then the population of the nation was considerably larger. Then again, of there ever was a time when Communists might have captured more than a minuscule number of votes in this country, it was during the pit of the Depression. Even so, Herbert Hoover polled about 150 times the number of votes as Foster that year.

You might call it trivia. I think of it as drilling down deep.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


Around 10 this morning it grew incredibly dark outside, like a spring thunderstorm coming on, and then thunder and lightning and cold heavy rain cut loose. Mixed with ice pellets. The lightning was so close that I shut the computer down, twice, to prevent stray rivers of electrons from flowing in uninvited. More moderate rain on and off all day after that it, though not much ice.

At times like this, I think of Korg: 70,000 B.C. Well, not really, but my wandering thoughts take me down labyrinthine paths to some musty old memories sometimes. Today was a perfect day to stay home. A day not fit for those of us whose distant ancestors evolved in the tropics (everyone, that is). Supplying air at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, my heater re-creates for me a cool day in the tropics to take the place of a miserable cold day in a temperate zone.

Which made me wonder how prehistoric peoples of the northern climates got through their winters. Probably by wearing warm clothes and being inured to it from day one, as the Inuit are or used to be. Still, nasty, dull, brutish and short must have also included miserably cold sometimes, fire and animal skins notwithstanding.

Which made me think of Korg. It was a Saturday morning TV show, short-lived and now obscure. (But not too obscure for the Internet.) It aired when I was 13, and I watched it regularly for the few months it was on. I don’t remember a lot about it now, except that it was unusual in a number of ways, most importantly that it was a serious attempt to depict the lives of prehistoric people. I also remember Burgess Meredith, whose voice was just right for the part of omniscient narrator.

I can only remember one episode in any detail, but it was a good one. Korg’s eldest son wanted to mate with a certain girl of a neighboring band, and after initially being receptive, the girl’s father suddenly and unreasonably upped the bride price. A argument then followed between the fathers, with the girl and boy both distraught. Not a happy ending. The girl left unwillingly with her father, and that was that. I’m not sure what I would make of this story now, but I suspect it’s a lot better than most of what passes for drama on TV.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Just So Much Gas

A stereotypical February day, today was. Gray, cold and slightly wet. More of this is forecast, with serious subfreezing weather predicted for the weekend. Hasn’t February heard of the human need for variety? Sure, it’s winter. Have a week or two of snow. But throw in strings of 70-degree Fahrenheit days.

February’s not listening. It never does.

But it’s churlish to complain. I only complain so I can use the word “churlish” in a sentence – people are so often churlish, but the word is so little used. January was much warmer than average, and if reports in the papers and on TV didn’t convince me of it, the gas bill that arrived today did. Instead of being extremely expensive, it was only very expensive – less, in fact, than the December bill (actually, it doesn’t quite break out by months, but it’s close).

These days I buy natural gas from a company called Nicor. That’s one of those names born in the marketing department. The Great Northern Gas Behemoth would be a better name, or at least something sober like Northern Illinois Gas. Or even GasCom. But no.

When I lived in the city, gas was provided by People’s Gas (or maybe Peoples Gas, I can’t remember and don’t want to look it up). Now that’s a name with some teeth to it – sounds like a natural gas operation headquartered in the Beijing of yore. Every statement would come with a circular that would begin something like this: “Comrades! People’s Gas is enclosing this message to inform the consuming masses that natural gas production is on track to exceed projections of the current Five Year Plan!…”

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In Old Turin

Lilly is more interested in the winter Olympics than the rest of us. She’s watched some of it every evening since it started. Sometimes I stop by to watch, and as usual it makes me wonder about a few things.

Torino? I don’t care about NBC and IOC usage. I'm sticking with Turin. The “Shroud of Torino” just doesn't have that ring to it. I understand that the city fathers of Turin lobbied for the Italian usage, and I’m sure they had their reasons, but it’s an example of non-English speakers butting into something that isn't their business – place names in English. Should we refer now to the ’72 München games and that recent Spielberg movie, München? Should we use Greek letters for Athens and Hangul for Seoul and Chinese characters for Beijing, since Pinyin isn’t close enough to the original? Different languages often have different place names than what a native would use, but I think grownups can understand that and live with it.

Speaking of spellings, where did Apolo Ohno get that first name? Ohno is of course a transliteration of his father’s Japanese name, sometimes rendered Ono, as in Yoko. But it seems like an ‘l’ went missing out of his first name. In any case, because he’s half Japanese, he’s popular in this house.

Watched some of the men’s half-pipe snowboarding the other day. How is it possible? People are doing it, but it doesn’t seem like physics would allow human beings to move that like, and live. This just means that I don’t understand physics. But even so, how does anyone learn to move like that without breaking his neck? I wonder the same about some of the gymnastics during the summer games.

The mascots of this year’s winter games, Neve, a female ball of snow, and Gliz, a male block of ice, are as underwhelming as Olympic mascots usually are. I suppose this comes of being created by committee, and the end result usually looks like something from a mediocre children’s book. I’ve read that most popular “Olympic” mascot was in fact Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat around the time of the Sydney games in 2000, a completely unofficial mascot. But maybe there’s hope for the Beijing games in terms of mascots. One of them is supposed to be Yingying, a Tibetan antelope. No doubt he’ll be fitted with an appropriate Chinese yoke.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Red Lion

The short press conference last week about the progress of the Biograph Theater redevelopment wasn’t held in the shell of the Biograph, since that’s still a husk of a building without heat. Instead, we met at the Red Lion Pub across the street.

No streamlined blonde woods, black leather chairs, track lighting or enormous mirrors for this place. The Red Lion was one long bar, a nondescript floor, a ceiling with a lot of water stains, and two long walls crammed with whatever might make you think of Britain. Along with the usual large collection of alcohol behind the bar, a top shelf held more toby mugs than I remember ever seeing in one place: Shakespeare, Robin Hood, a bobby, a British judge complete with wig, Sherlock Holmes, one that looked like Field Marshal Montgomery, and others.

Elsewhere, there were fox hunting prints, ads for an assortment of real British pubs (including a Red Lion) and beers, a large map of the Underground, a print of an etching of London in the 1600s, souvenir plates with various British faces—and the Three Stooges, too—a Welch flag, an old Illinois vanity license plate with the letters HRRUMPF, and a pith helmet displayed in a glass box. Back toward the back was a red-and-black British phone booth that looked like the real thing. Off in one corner was a set of the condensed Oxford English Dictionary, an item I’ve never seen in a bar before.

The menu had things you’d expect, such as beans on toast, fish and chips and ploughman’s lunch, along with “American pub snacks.” I didn’t get to try anything, but if I go again, maybe I’ll have the bangers and mash with a pint of something or other. I didn’t get close enough to the draught handles to see what they had, except for Guinness.

The place has a web site, of course. If you click on the page’s History button, the "Beer Prayer" pops up. Not original to the Red Lion, naturally, but it fits in with the mood of the place:

Our lager,
Which art in barrels,
Hallowed be thy drink.
Thy will be drunk,
(I will be drunk),
At home as in the tavern.
Give us this day our foamy head,
And forgive us our spillages,
As we forgive those who spill against us.
And lead us not to incarceration,
But deliver us from hangovers.
For thine is the beer, The bitter and The lager.
Forever and ever,

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Item from the Past: February Meltage

Feb 8, 2001

There was a party yesterday for the new offices of a major interior design company. As you might guess, they designed the daylights out of their own space, with all the touches that are in fashion these days, in your fashionable office. Don’t ask me what they are; that was just the sense I got. But the main party — and the food — was across the hall in some unfinished space. The kind whose concrete floors are naked, and whose ceilings are unpaneled, with ducts for all to see. The next time you see someone crawl through an air duct of an office building in a movie, don’t believe it for a minute. Pygmies couldn’t get through real ductwork.

My train delivered me afterwards to Westmont station at about 8 p.m., and at once I was walking through the thickest fog I’d seen in years. Great billows of it, limiting vision to a few yards or hazy pinpricks of streetlights, or the headlights of cars fool enough to be out driving (there weren’t many). The sidewalks were still icy in patches, but great meltage had occurred during the day, so cold pools stood in all the low spots. My Maine Hunting Shoes served me well.

As soon as I got home, the rain started, with some lightning, and lasted on and off through the night. By the next morning about seven-eighths of the snow cover was gone. This was hardy snow, too, having first fallen in early December. At about 10 p.m. last night I discovered that some of that water was taking a detour on its way to the Mississippi River drainage basin, through my basement. Not a vast amount, just enough to be annoying. Tonight, I will have to use the wet-dry vac to suck it up. At least the rain has stopped, and temps will be falling, they say, to delay further meltage.

Microsoft Word spellcheck doesn’t recognize “meltage.” Odd. My American Heritage New College Dictionary, however, does. That’s a language authority I respect more than Microsoft.

Friday, February 10, 2006

No Nod for Dillinger (Yet)

The Biograph Theater is undergoing what’s called a gut rehab in the real estate business. Standing there inside it, looking at the wall-to-raw-brick-wall empty space and the dusty concrete slab of a floor tapering off into a section of dirt floor with a huge hole in the middle, and “gut rehab” sums it up. The guts that made the Biograph a dowdy, off-brand movie theater long past its prime are long gone. The seats, the screens, the box office, the carpeting, the light fixtures, even the building’s most basic mechanical systems, are gone. All that’s left is the shell, within which the developers will build something new, in this case a legitimate theater.

I was there because even though I’m not a full-timer at any publication these days, I’m well enough known to recent invitations to various press functions. I’d been invited for a hard-hat tour of the theater. Hard-hard tours are a species of publicity function, and they’re usually used to drum up interest in a project that’s far past its initial announcement and even the groundbreaking, but not close to being done either. You get to see raw space.

According to the developers, the project will be finished in time for the 2006-07 theater season that begins in September. After that the place will be known as Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph. Victory Gardens is a regional troupe of some renowned (like Steppenwolf or the Goodman), but note that they’re not jettisoning the Biograph name all together. I looked at the plans, and it seems like an excellent new theater is in the making, complete with amenities for the cast and crew, and a fine ambiance for the audience.

Will there be a nod to Dillinger at the new theater? No. As a movie theater in recent years, management kept a female mannequin in a red dress in the theater’s former box office facing the street. She’s gone, and no animatronic bank robber complete with tommy gun and lady in red on his arm will greet visitors to the theater. No, Dillinger will have no official acknowledgment. Not even a plaque.

“We want to get past that,” Dennis Zacek, artistic director of the Victory Gardens, told me when I asked him about it. “We won’t deny what happened, but we won’t play it up either. Mayor Daley and us are of one mind on this question. We want to move past it.” He was polite with me, but there was an undercurrent of annoyance. I clearly wasn’t the first person to ask about it, and I won’t be the last.

Mr. Zacek is an accomplished director, and I respect that. Mayor Daley certainly has his accomplishments. But not acknowledging history is a kind of denial. I think there’s no “getting past” or “moving on” in this case. The Biograph is famous around the world for exactly one thing, and I suspect that fame is going to outlast me, Mr. Zacek and Mr. Daley too. So someday future management of the Victory Gardens might again decide to acknowledge what the world will not forget. No animatronics necessary; a tasteful plaque on the wall would do.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Biograph

I spent some time thinking about famous places today, because I visited one. Not in the same league as, say, the Eiffel Tower or Ayer’s Rock or even the Alamo, but still it’s known the world over: the Biograph Theater on the North Side of Chicago.

Later I will go into greater detail about how I came to be there, and what I saw -- and it wasn’t a movie, because they aren’t shown there any more. In the future, the Biograph will be a playhouse, a significant regional theater. But whatever else happens there in the future, the world will always know it as the place where, on July 22, 1934, bank robber John Dillinger saw his final movie. The FBI nailed him outside after the show.

This evening when I came home, I read a little about Dillinger to refresh whatever musty bits of information I knew about him, and I came across (among many other sites) a “famous cases” file on the FBI’s web site.

One thing I learned from the FBI site that I didn’t know before was that Dillinger and his female companions that evening might have gone to another Chicago theater, the Marbro. It too was a movie palace, but one long gone physically and becoming more obscure with each passing year. What if they had gone there, and the FBI gunned him down there instead of the Biograph? Would the Marbro now have the fame that the Biograph has? I can only speculate, but it does make me suspect that much fame – places, people or things – depends on chance.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Brokeback Woody

The cowboy doll Woody, the actual, physical thing as opposed to the computer animation in the two Toy Stories, is just a little creepy. I’m not sure what it is. The near-bug eyes that look like they never blink, the pointy triangle of a nose, or the vaguely crooked smile? Or maybe it’s because repeated viewings of Toy Story have conditioned me, slightly and irrationally, to expect the damn thing to come alive when I’m not watching.

We have two in the house. Lilly acquired one in Florida last year with a gift certificate her uncle sent her for Christmas ’04. I got another one for Ann this Christmas, albeit without a hat, at a resale shop for $2, the better to eliminate sibling quarrels over the first Woody. They travel around sometimes – assisted by little hands, I’m sure – but after they’re returned to their perch on a shelf with some other toys, I sometimes see that they’re wrapped around each other. The “brokeback mountain” position, I think of it. (Back when Lilly used to regularly strip her Barbies naked, I used to think of them as “Gentlemen’s Club Barbies.” Ann doesn’t seem to do that as much.)

“Brokeback Woody” isn’t a joke I share with anyone here. Too much explaining to do. I don’t pay attention to recent movies, much, but I’d have to stop reading newspapers, quit listening to the radio and disconnect myself from the Internet to miss comment on that particular one.

In the Tribune’s Sunday travel section a few weeks ago, there was an article about touring parts of the Canadian Rockies that were used as backdrops for the movie. “There is no such place as Brokeback Mountain,” said the lead sentence, “but that doesn’t mean that people won’t pay to see it.” An unusual bit of wit from that section, I thought.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

In Memoriam On Radio

NPR did a nice job of reporting on Coretta Scott King’s memorial service in Atlanta today. A description, excerpts that were short but not too short, both of speeches and music, and a spot of commentary. Vastly superior to sound-bite radio news. I listened to it as I was driving along this evening. Lilly was in the back seat, quiet, and I had to wonder what she made of the whole thing, but I have a feeling if I’d asked her, she wouldn’t have been able to tell me.

Or maybe she would have. The only thing she said was to ask if a voice she had just heard – of one of Mrs. King’s old friends, eulogizing her – was old or sad. “Both,” I said.

Mrs. King gave a speech at the Vanderbilt Divinity School sometime in the early 1980s (I can’t remember if I’d finished school yet) and I went to see her, mostly out of curiosity, to hear an historical figure in person. Unfortunately I don’t remember much about it now, however, just that she spoke from the pulpit of the D School’s chapel.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Long ago I came to believe that you (me, or anyone) can learn something from just about any source, if you’re paying attention. In the press of day-to-day activities, it’s easy to forget that, and all too often there’s no time to follow up on something curious from an unexpected place.

Such as spam. Spam is notorious for many things, including strings of words in the subject line. Occasionally, these are neologisms, which is interesting in its own right, and yesterday I thought I spotted one: the line went blah-blah-blah-mockernut.

Mockernut. Interesting creation, I thought. I almost let it go at that, but instead took a moment to feed the word into Google. This only proved that I’m ignorant of most trees. A web site by a school in Virginia describes the mockernut hickory in some detail.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Demise of Buster the Crab

February 5, 1988

Last weekend my friend Zil told me a story. By day, Zil’s an hourly worker at the Board of Trade, and she lives with her parents in the southwest suburbs.

One evening Zil was up in her room when she heard her father bellowing from downstairs, “Look at it!” he exclaimed. “Have you ever seen anything like it? Don’t worry, I’ll get it.”

He was telling Zil’s mother, in the excited tones he usually reserved for football games on TV, that a tarantula was crawling across the kitchen floor. In short order he mobilized against the threat, rummaging through kitchen cabinets, knocking things over in search of Raid.

Zil’s mother was skeptical. “Tarantulas don’t usually come this far north, do they?” It was also about zero degrees outside, no weather for a spider invasion.

“I read once that they can get into your house by hiding inside a bunch of bananas,” Zil’s father said. “You bought some bananas yesterday, didn’t you?” The Raid can he was holding went psssssssst.

“I only bought four bananas. I think I would have noticed…” Psssssssssssst.

Everything was quiet for a moment. Then Zil’s father gushed, “It’s still moving!” The thrill of battle was in his voice.

Before long he’d given up on chemical warfare and was wielding a cast-iron skillet. “Stand clear! I’ll get him before he crawls behind the refrigerator.”


At this point you need to know that for many years, one of Zil’s hobbies has been maintaining an aquarium. Unfortunately, she’d never quite gotten the knack of keeping her sea creatures alive. Her angelfish died young. Her guppies floated. Even her snails checked out before long.

Lately, though, she’d acquired a small crab that seemed to be doing well. She called him “Buster.”

Soon after her father had dealt the final blow, Zil arrived at the kitchen door to see the ruckus for herself. Her father was now examining the mess stuck to the bottom of the skillet.

“You should have seen him,” he said to his daughter. “He was a monster.”

All at once a horrible feeling came over Zil. Without a word she rushed to her aquarium, and sure enough, Buster was gone. Crabs, it seems, crawl out of their tanks now and then. Back in the kitchen, a quick look at the underside of the skillet—as her dad was scraping it off—told her that Buster had met his maker then and there.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Friday Short

The warmish days since Christmas seem to be ending, at least for now. Back to subfreezing. But no zeros or single-digit Fahrenheit temps predicted for the next week, so maybe we’ve passed the absolute pit of winter—usually late January—without falling in. Maybe.

Lilly has discovered the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen entertainment complex, in the form of New York Minute, which, if I’ve interpreted what I’ve skimmed about their career correctly, was the twins’ first theatrical release, as opposed to straight-to-video. After bombing at the box office, the firm slunk back to video. I watched as much as I could stand. It wasn’t bad, actually. I’ve seen plenty worse, and there’s plenty worse aimed at kids.

But the movie was so completely not for me that it was as if the television were a magnet, and I were a magnet, and we had opposite polarities, and it was constantly pushing, pushing, pushing me away. It didn’t take long before I gave way to its force.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Persimmon Notes

Yuriko brought home a box of persimmons the other day. Been a while since we’d had any, and it occurred to me that persimmons haven't (yet) traveled to mainstream tables of North America. The Japanese call the fruit kaki, and this variety are fuyu, native to Japan. They’re firm and orange on the outside, looking something like small tomatoes, but sweet and not so squishy on the inside. A delightful fruit.

I wondered where, in winter, fuyu kaki would come from, and the answer was no further than the box. Turns out we’d acquired some Sharon persimmons, product of Israel. At first I thought that was a brand name, but the brand is Mor International. Sharon persimmons, it seems, are Japanese persimmons--fuyu kaki--that immigrated to Israel.

From, of all places, the food glossary on Hormel’s web site:

Sharon Fruit

A seedless variety of the fuyu persimmon that was first grown in Israel and now is being raised throughout the world. Persimmons are very similar to a tomato, requiring that they ripen to become less firm, more pulpy and soft. Further, the persimmon can taste very sour especially when not ripe, and the skin is inedable. The Sharon fruit, unlike the Hachiya persimmon, can be eaten while firm, the outer skin does not need to be peeled and discarded, there are no seeds in the crisp flesh, and it is less astringent or sour tasting than the Hachiya.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Sweet Home Copenhagen

Time to go out and buy something Danish. A small act, of course, but small acts can combine and cascade. Perhaps it can be one of the 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Defend Western Civilization.

At first I couldn’t think of anything other than cheese, though I was sure, as an industrial national, Denmark produces a good many things. So I checked my handy World Almanac. Besides food processing (which would include cheese), there’s machinery, chemicals, electronics and furniture. I probably can’t pick up a mess o’ Danish machinery or chemicals even at Costco, but then I remembered Legos. No, we have too many toys with small parts already, including Legos.

I know: Carlsburg beer. I have a soft spot for that brew anyway, ever since I spent an entertaining few hours at the Carlsburg brewery in 1983. (See the first entry of this page.)

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