Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Things To Do, Dead Ahead

As usual, all sorts of tasks have piled up in advance of a deadline -- well, maybe I let them pile up -- and the deadline is approaching fast. After that passes, I'll have yet other things to do, but with any luck some things to write about too. Next posting will be next Thursday or so.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tovarisch Yuri

Ann’s favorite bedtime reading, meaning what I read to her, is from our complete Curious George collection, a hardback we got not long ago. Recently I read a little about H.A. and Margret Rey, learning that they’d escaped from Hitler carrying with them the original Curious George manuscript, which eventually made its way to American publishers.

The other day I found myself wondering, what if they’d gone east instead of west? What if their sympathies had been Stalinist? Probably this odd line of thought occurred to me because on Saturday I listened to a 1951 episode of I Was a Communist for the FBI rebroadcast on WDCB, which plays old-time radio on Saturday afternoons.

Anyway, I re-imagined the output of the Reys as refugees to Soviet Russia. First would have been Comrade George, of course. “This is George. He is a good little monkey and always on the side of the proletariat… He lives with his comrade, the apparatchik with the yellow hat…”

Later books would have included:

Comrade George Fingers a Counterrevolutionary

Comrade George Liquidates a Kulak

Comrade George Gets the Order of Lenin

Comrade George Assists the Five-Year Plan

Comrade George Thwarts U.S. Imperialism

The books were used in Soviet primary education in the ’40s and early ’50s, but alas were banned in 1952 when the Reys vanished into the gulag, only to re-appear in 1992. The books, that is, not the Reys.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Among Other Things, the Bear Was Toilet Trained

On Saturday temps were actually like October, so we took the opportunity to visit the Spring Valley Nature Preserve, jewel of the Schaumburg Park District. As described in the park district web site: “[It] is a refuge of 135 acres of fields, forests, marshes and streams. Spring Valley also features over three miles of handicapped-accessible hiking trails and a museum with natural history displays and information.”

We’ve visited it in every season, and around here October is the season of tall brown grass, falling leaves, birds in V formation. Different from the Octobers of my youth, which had some falling leaves but mostly meant that the heat’s been turned down. We had a find time larking around the trails, and when we got to the farm museum part of the 135 acres, we visited muddy pigs, horses in their barn, and chickens roaming around.

You can pretend, a little, that the preserve actually preserves something, a rendering of the prairie as it might have been 200 years ago (minus big game and Indians) or, in the case of the farm, the land as it was in about 1880. The main problem with the simulation is, unfortunately, the noise from nearby Schaumburg Road, and the airplanes that fly over regularly to and from O’Hare.

On Sunday, we saw another kind of simulation, an animated feature film: Open Season, a Columbia feature-length computer animation. I took Lilly and Ann, and for me it ended up being parental duty, since the movie was fit for kids but not those of us who’ve sat through the formula a few too many times.

The formula: an anthropomorphic animal (in this case, a bear), unsure of himself, acquires an anthropomorphic buddy animal he doesn’t like at first (in this case, an elk), but in the face of adversity (in this case, hunters) finds his inner strength and vanquishes his foes, with the help of other anthropomorphic animals (in this case, in a pitched battle with the hunters in which no one, human or animal, dies). True friendship between the mismatched pair is established, and all is well.

I wouldn’t mind the formula so much if it were leavened with even a few pinches of wit. But no. I can think of only one scene in the movie that was remotely funny for me, namely the one featuring addle-brained, bug-eyed ducks with French accents. If I were a hunter, I think I would also take issue with the depiction of hunters in the movie as psychopathic morons, too. Actually, enough though I’m not a hunter, I object to the characterization as the creation of urbanites who are nevertheless provincial in outlook. All too possible, I suppose, in the LA movie business.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Item From the Past: October 22, 2002.

Various things have happened lately, but I haven’t been much of anywhere, unless you count Elwood, Ill. Elwood is some distance south and a little west of the metro Chicago area, really a small satellite of Joliet. Its distinction is that it’s now home to the largest inland intermodal container facility in North America, so recently developed that the likes of me get to go to the grand opening.

It isn’t what I would call picturesque, consisting as it does of several long strips of concrete with RR tracks running the length, and a number of enormous cranes on parallel tracks to service them. It was fun to drive the length of the concrete, though, to the tent for the festivities. It was like being turned loose on an airport runway in my car -- a most unusual circumstance.

Later that day I visited Peotone, Ill., famous in these parts for exactly one reason, namely that various interests in the state are eager to destroy it by building an airport larger than O’Hare in its vicinity. Other interests are not so eager, so it’s still a toss-up. In any case, it is a plain little town.

Then I went to nearby Governors State University, an institution that unaccountable boasts a major collection of enormous outdoor sculptures, the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park. It was a cool, clear day, just right for walking around the grounds and looking at these objects, mostly dating from the ’60s and ’70s. Better yet I had the place entirely to myself — hundreds of acres of high-grass fields and queer metal behemoths, including one that looked like a black flying saucer, some twisted and tangled steel I-beams, and other thingambob metal constructions.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Might As Well Be November

So far it’s been a cold and Novemberish October, complete with overcast days, drizzle, colder than normal temps. On some trees, leaves hang on, no doubt for biological reasons, but it seems just from a weary sense of duty. Ahead for November: more of the same, but the leaves will give up.

Lilly’s now anticipating her ninth birthday, which falls on November 19, meaning it will always be ahead of Thanksgiving, but never on it, since the fourth Thursday rotates between the 22nd and the 28th. Actually, she’s been anticipating for a while, but her request for presents has been changing as interest in something or other comes and goes. Lately it’s been Pixel Chix light pink two-story house and/or a light blue one-story house (she says “and,” I say “or.”) If you don’t know what that is, you don’t have a girl around the house, so you don’t need to know.

I saw the newly renovated Chicago History Museum this week. Much renovation, $27.5 million worth, had been done since the last time I saw it, about a year ago. The name was renovated, too: it used to be the Chicago Historical Society. Guess the board of directors felt the old name sounded too amateurish, too fuddy-duddy, though I don’t think they’d put it quite that way.

New museum items on display include a metallic blue Monte Carlo low-rider car, donated by a low-rider club in Cicero, Ill., whose population these days is as Hispanic as the south side of San Antonio; a new kids’ area that features a giant hot dog – Chicago is a hot dog town; and what the museum calls the first CTA car, which had to be hoisted into the museum through a wall that had been temporarily knocked out. Built in the 1890s, it looked about as comfortable as a modern CTA car, but a lot more stylish.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Harry and Fidel

I went downtown earlier this week for business, and fortunately had a little time to walk around streets I used to see every day but now only visit every few months. As usual, I noticed that certain shops were gone, others had opened, even that a building or two had vanished, or progress had been made on construction of something new. The Chicago condo boom has just about run out of steam, for now, but the lead time on such a building is so long that construction usually carries on into a slump, a little like the Empire State Building, planned in the late ’20s but not built until the country was actually sliding into the Depression.

Sorry to say that the Harold’s Chicken Shack on Franklin has closed. (Amazingly, there’s a Wikipedia article about the Herold’s chain.) It opened at that location three or four years ago, an easy trip on foot from my office at the time. The chicken was good, but I also went for Harold’s fried chicken livers. One heapin’ box was enough to make two lunches, if you like liver.

I also took a bus to a North Side destination, and shared part of the ride with a bus-riding loony. Been a while since I’d done that, too. Public-transit loonies can be unpleasant for everyone else, but usually not. Though not dressed for the part, the fellow was a dead ringer for the latter-day Fidel Castro: bushy grey beard and eyebrows, but also in the shape of his face.

He pointed out the window and muttered in Spanish, except when we drove by Harry Caray’s restaurant, which has a large banner outside that says Holy Cow!, which was Harry’s signature phrase back when he was among living sportscasters. “Holy Cow, Holy Cow!” Castro said, looking around at everyone else in the bus, maybe to see if the phrase was as important to us as it was to him. It wasn’t.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Geof posted a reply yesterday about the correspondence from me that he has archived, along with many, many other items, at the University@Albany. It got me to thinking exactly what I’ve sent him over the years, and I think the answer is mostly postcards. Beginning in 1983 – perhaps the first was the card from Koblenz, Germany, on August 9 that year; I kept an exact mailing record the summer -- and ebbing and flowing since then. I like postcards.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Go Great Danes!

Today I spent a little while learning about the University at Albany, an institution I previously knew nothing about. For instance, I found out that this state school has about 17,000 students, grad and undergrad, 637 full-time faculty and about 300 part time, and three libraries with two million volumes. Its mascot is the Great Dane. Besides the University at Buffalo, it’s the only domestic institution of higher learning I can find on my World Almanac list that uses “at” instead of “of,” not counting constructions such as the University of Arkansas at Ft. Smith.

Also, there’s a statue of Minerva on campus. According to the UAlbany web site: “Since the University at Albany's beginnings as the New York State Normal College [in 1844], Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, has been the institution's enduring symbol. The figure of Minerva and the Latin motto, Sapientia et sua et docendi causa ("Wisdom both for its own sake and for the sake of teaching") have appeared on the University seal since about 1913. Today, Minerva, wearing her distinctive helmet, continues to symbolize the University's proud past and long-standing reputation for educational excellence.”

Why the sudden interest in a school I previously had no connection with? A postcard from Geof Huth arrived today, including this information: “… my ten boxes of correspondence are going to UAlbany on Sunday [meaning October 15, I think] along w/ all correspondence from you through Sep 2006. Ah, sweet posterity.”

I wouldn’t have thought of donating correspondence to a university, but then again Geof is a professional archivist. I expect the University at Albany to last a lot longer than I will, so with any luck the items Geof has deposited will linger there for a few centuries, probably lasting longer than any other documents I have created or will create, or any other memory of me. Until the massive destruction of the great Quebec-New York war of 2452 or the abandonment of the school after the 23rd century New Black Death or something.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Bridge Not Very Far

This weekend Yuriko was looking at a web site of some Japanese photographer who'd spent time taking pictures of World Heritage Sites, so I looked back at something I'd written on the subject in October 2002 in a letter. A couple of graphs from that letter follow:

Perhaps you've seen the latest issue of National Geographic. In it is a complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 730 in all -- all sorts of things, all over the place. Such lists are necessarily arbitrary, and even I can take issue with some of the places not on the list,but which ought to be.

Still, it's an engaging list, especially for those places I've never heard of. Naturally, I had to tally up all of the places I've been to on the list, and I did -- 52 out of 730, not even one in ten. But in some cases I very nearly went. For instance, if my air tickets back to Japan from Australia hadn't been so inflexible, I would have been able to take up a friend's invitation to go camping in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, back in the summer (that is, January) of '92. Those mountains made the list later, in 2000 it seems.

I also remember that this list is part of the grist for trog-rightist fears about the UN. I once met a man, an elderly gent from Indiana, who told me that the UN was "taking over" the Grand Canyon -- a World Heritage site, of course. His son, who didn't share the old man's opinion, pressed him on what "taking over" might mean, but naturally nothing coherent emerged. This was a few months after we'd visited the canyon (some months before Lilly was born), and it left me with an amusing mental image of blue-helmeted soldiers accosting tourists on the South Rim. "No littering! This is UN property, Yankee scum!"

We did not see any World Heritage sites over the weekend, but at my insistence we did see a few more obscure sites. If you can't marvel at far-away wonders, you have to seek out things closer to home. On Saturday we made it as far as Beloit, Wisconsin, a modest-sized town just north of the state line, and also north of that modest-sized city, Rockford, Illinois (which, incidentally, has a fine Japanese garden, called Anderson Gardens; I don't know if I've ever mentioned it, but it's something unexpected in Rockford).

But back to Beloit. In recent years the town's riverfront has been landscaped, and parts of it are quite nice. There is also a remarkable playground along the river, sporting a variety of wooden structures that kids can crawl around. In recent years, I've taken an interest in finding playgrounds wherever we go, and this ranked as one of the better ones.

Later, we walked around the leafy campus of Beloit College, another example of a seminary planted in 19th-century sod that has become a small, but locally important, institution. I see from looking in my almanac that tuition there runs in excess of $21,000 per annum. My tour was free, and informal. While Yuriko took a nap in the car, Lilly and I took a walkabout.

At my age, and the way I was dressed, I would be a suspicious character on campus, but if you take a small, happy child with you, nobody has any suspicions. Beloit features a number of interesting old buildings, invariably built in the late 1800s. It also is supposed to have a first-rate anthropological museum, free for visitors, but I didn't think we had the time to see it.

Toward the end of the day, we drove a few miles northeast of Beloit, on the advice of the Moon Guide to Wisconsin -- a paragraph about a bridge between Shopiere and Tiffany, Wis., two hamlets near Beloit. It sounded interesting, and so I sought it out. After a short drive on a local road, we came to a one-lane car bridge, and from could see a five-arch limestone railroad bridge crossing Turtle Creek, which is almost river-sized. The bridge, built in 1869, was modeled after a Roman aqueduct in France.

We were able to park the car beside the road and cross a field to get a closer look (the land seemed to belong to the Rock County Boys and Girls Club, and a house at the foot of the bridge, maybe a clubhouse, looked empty). Dandelions were blooming all across the field -- very unusual for October, as was the green grass. Lilly had good sport with the dandelions while her parents admired the bridge. As we were leaving, we wondered if it is still in active use as a RR bridge. Sure enough, a westbound train whistled and blew across the bridge as we watched.

Friday, October 13, 2006

William Claude Dukenfield

I took Lilly to see The Bank Dick (1940) this evening, if nothing else to let her know that new movies aren’t the only things you can see at a movie theater. Of course it wasn’t shown at a commercial theater. For some reason, maybe a Fields fan on the movie selection committee, the Prairie Center for the Performing Arts, a municipal operation here in Schaumburg, decided to screen it along with a Fields short, The Barber Shop, dating from 1933.

To judge from the audience – two dozen people or so, among whom I was one of the youngest -- Fields’ star must be fairly faded by now. Lilly was the only child. Then again, unlike the Three Stooges, Fields probably wasn’t ever considered for children, though Lilly found enough of his antics amusing to avoid being bored. Whatever people originally considered risqué in his patter is either pretty mild now, or incomprehensible to an eight-year-old.

I myself was amused by the movies, sometimes by good lines…

Og Oggilby: Oh, I knew this would happen! I was a perfect idiot to ever listen to you!
Egbert Sousé (Fields): You listen to me, Og! There's nothing in this world that is perfect.

…and sometimes by slapstick, but Fields isn’t ever going to be a favorite. Maybe that’s because most of my exposure to him has been through caricature, rather than anything he did. He didn’t appear often on TV when I was growing up, and the selection committee at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Cinema didn’t seem to contain his fans either, or I just didn’t notice when his movies played. Maybe he wouldn’t have quite been to my taste anyway.

An oddity in The Bank Dick was Shemp Howard, a comic character actor before he became a movie Stooge, who played Fields’ bartender. It was a minor part with few lines and no jokes, unless you count the very end of the movie, when a newly wealthy and supposedly reformed Fields spies his old bartender and decides to follow him off screen, presumably to get a drink. Then again, I suppose there was room in the movie for only one comedian, and it wasn’t Shemp.

I’m not really fond of Roger Ebert’s criticism, except some of his reviews of movies he hates, but I did find something apt about W.C. Fields in his review of The Bank Dick: “All of [Field’s] scenes depend, in one way or another, on sharing his private state: He is unloved, he detests life, he is hung over, he wants a drink, he is startled by sudden movements and loud noises, he has no patience for fools, everyone is a fool, and middle-class morality is a conspiracy against the man who wants to find surcease in alcoholic bliss. These are not the feelings of his characters; they are his own feelings.”

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Songbird of the Kremlin, Live at Fisk

An icy slice of December clipped loose from that month and has lodged here in central October, just to remind us of our latitude. There was even a dusting of snow on everything this morning, enough that I had to take a broom and sweep it off my car before I could drive. Later, of course, the snow melted, so it wasn’t a hard daytime freeze. But it was peculiar seeing the snow coat the still-partly-leafed trees.

My friend Ed wrote to let me know about the virtues of the band Counting Crows, whom I mentioned last posting, and I don’t doubt that he’s right. But in some ways I behave stereotypically middle-aged, and this is one of them: I can’t muster much enthusiasm for music made after about 1990, and even that late date would be pushing it. On the other hand, I’ve had enough of the ’60s and ’70s. What I’m exploring now is popular music from the ’20s to the ’50s. What treasures lie in those decades, getting dimmer all the time.

Counting Crows’ re-make of “Big Yellow Taxi” reminded me of the time in 1985 when I saw Pete Seeger in concert at Fisk University. His songs, naturally, were quite dated, but that’s what you see Pete Seeger for: songs of yore. For some reason, however, he got it in his head that he wanted to sing Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag.”("It’s one, two, three/What are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam.”)

Maybe he was trying to warn us about the dangers of U.S. adventurism in Central America. He didn’t say. Though chronologically newer than anything he did from the ’40s, it seemed a lot more dated. The audience didn’t respond to it at all beyond polite applause.


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Banned by Nixon's EPA

I’d heard part of the remake of “Big Yellow Taxi” before. I was fooling around the car radio and the other day and happened to hear part of it again, and I wondered the same thing. Who needs to remake a bug-in-amber song like that?

“Hey farmer, farmer, put away your DDT” was all current perhaps when Joni Mitchell sang it in 1970, but the world has moved on. Can’t Counting Crows come up with something for this decade? Something about knocking down nice bungalows to put up a McMansion?

Just a thought. I don’t know who Counting Crows (is/are) anyway, and though the information would be the easiest thing in the world to find out, I won’t bother. But if they wanted to remake something with less painfully dated content, something timeless, there’s always “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

How'd You Get So Funky?

Yuriko and Lilly went to the King Tut megashow at the Field Museum today, reporting back this evening that it was as interesting as billed, but (no surprise) crowded. It's probably crowded every day, but today after all is the day we're supposed to reflect on the immortal deeds of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, so it was a no school, no mail sort of holiday.

I didn't dwell much on Tut or Columbus today, having to attend to various tasks, including the care and feeding of little Ann, who wouldn't have appreciated a crowded megashow one bit. (She didn't have pre-school either.) All the companies I called for information were open for business, though one fellow I need to talk to for an article this week left me a message on Friday to say that his office would be closed today, so call Tuesday. He was the only one, I think.

But I need to do something to honor the expansive memory of the boy king today. After posting, I think I'll go dig up Steve Martin singing his King Tut song, which I captured on tape some years ago. That's as close as I'm going to get.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Halloween Lights

A house nearly across the street from us has been decked out for Halloween by its owners. Not inflatable creatures or a quasi-gothic graveyard theme, but Halloween lights, which are still fairly rare in our area, despite what must be a determined effort by merchandisers to make them as common as Christmas lights.

One other neighbor has a short string of glowing electric jack o' lanterns in his yard, but that barely counts compared to the Halloween lights display across the street: orange lights along the roofline, others in the bushes, and hanging icicle-like lights that are orange instead of white or silver. Everything is orange, in fact, except a string around the door, which is green.

Something about Halloween lights doesn't quite sit right. Christmas lights are lighting up the darkness of early winter, and the electric versions are descendants of candles and oil lamps, though I suppose those couldn't have been put along rooflines without disaster. Halloween lights, on the other hand, are what? Orange lights could, maybe, have something to do with the harvest of pumpkins. But if you wanted that, you could display actual pumpkins. No, Halloween ought to embrace the darkness, rather than light a candle against it.

Besides, it's enough that I decorate for Christmas. Halloween too? Beyond pumpkins, that is, four of which we bought recently, one large enough to carve into a jack o' lantern, the others small enough for decoration. Ann took the smallest one and drew a face on it. Then she insisted on sleeping next to it.


Friday, October 06, 2006

For Ann, It Will Be No More Astounding Than Plumbing

Something always seems to eat up Thursday nights lately, and last night was no exception. Spent some time installing new information technologies around here, the details of which I will pass over. Enough to say that new technologies are pains in the butt until they start working. Then you forget about the pain, until they break.

But the new gizmos allowed me to waste some time today tooling around the likes of YouTube and Google Video. Actually I've had access to them for a while, but the improvements make them easy enough to make it worth the trouble. One of the things I found by simply requesting "Apollo 11" was a tape of about 10 minutes before and after the launch, as it was televised in 1969 (or if not, it certainly was artful editing). Astounding, these libraries that sit on our desks. When they're not annoying.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Get Your Ho Ho Ho On Now

Considerably colder today, but I like to think of it as like a warm day in January. As if on cue, yellow & red leaves have appeared this week all along the streets that I frequent. The trees in my front yard produce curly little brown leaves, an effect that isn’t nearly as aesthetic as the golds or reds, but still the fall palette wouldn’t be quite the same without them.

Back in the Realm of Man, a Swiss Colony catalog arrived the other day in my mailbox, the first explicitly Christmas junk mail of the ’06 holiday marketing push. “Here’s the Catalog you’ve been waiting for,” it says on the cover. Well, no. It also has a sticker on the cover that says, “LOW Monthly Payments!”

Meaning that the prices for their luxury petits fours, upscale beef logs, classy hams and Rockefeller-class fruitcakes are high indeed, so high that you might need to pay over time. Reminds me of the time in the late ’80s when movie theaters started taking credit cards. “All that means,” said a colleague of mine at the time, “is that ticket prices are too high.”

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On the Deck in Early October

I sat on my deck for a while after dark this evening, needing nothing more than a t-shirt and shorts to be comfortable. This kind of night will go away soon, not to be experienced again hereabouts for months and months. Our backyard honey locust tree, which still has all its leaves, swished in the wind, and the lesser plants near the deck did their dance too. There’s been no frost yet, but lots of rain, so the foliage is nearly as dense as in high summer.

Gibbous and white, the Moon peaked out only a little from behind the tree. Harvest moon on the way, as if I know anything about harvesting. But I like named full moons. Unlike last night, tonight is clear, and a handful of stars are also visible from the deck through the suburban haze.

The crickets aren’t as loud as they were a few months ago, but they’re still singing. Among the cricketsong is also the click-click-click of a different bug, cicadas I think. Are any among them singing that the doom of winter is nigh? No, I refuse to anthropomorphize insects, though Hollywood animators have discovered box office revenue in it.

I could hear traffic too. Ideally, I’d be a few more miles away from that major suburban thoroughfare, but if I watch the individual vehicles off in the distance (we’re not too close), I can appreciate the noise as more than rumble. Each car and truck, lights glowing, going somewhere for some reason. A couple of times I could even hear a dull thump-thumb-thumb of a bass line coming from a car stereo system whose owner is risking deafness later in life.

Spring Rains in Fall

Had some strong storms last night, with enough lightning and thunder that I decided to shut down the computers and so never got around to posting. This morning I heard that other parts of metro Chicago were hit harder than we were—trees knocked over, electricity out, etc. We just got a lot of rain. Even after a day’s worth of sunshine today, parts of the back lawn were soggy.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

¡Lucha Libre!

Not much time for posting this week, but I’ll serve up tidbits when I can. For example, not long ago I saw a TV commercial that was actually funny. Or at least, I laughed out loud.

A fellow dressed like a Mexican wrestler—bright colors, mask and cape--was walking along a city sidewalk. From various places, people were calling out, “El Moola! El Moola!” The wrestler was waving and acknowledging the crowd, as he might in the ring. Suddenly a man runs up to the wrestler and pushes him down, just in time to save him from being crushed by a large shipping crate falling on the sidewalk. “I saved El Moola!” he man cries.

Cut to screen, which merely says: Save Moolah. It was an ad for a local cable company and its promo deals, but never mind that. It was humor that assumes an English-speaking audience, who would know the slang moolah -- which seems to have been slang a long time, without ever becoming standard (permaslang?) -- would also be a little familiar with the shtick of Mexican wrestlers, even if they (like me) have no interest in actually following Mexican wrestling.