Sunday, December 30, 2007

Recent Years Ending In Seven

Back to posting again in the days after January 1, to honor the beginning of National Soup Month. And there are other special days to look forward to as well in that otherwise cold, forbidding month -- Millard Fillmore's 208th birthday, Ann's fifth birthday and National Gorilla Suit Day. We will also ponder the life and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr., and wonder why he couldn't have been born around August 1, when the nation needs another summer holiday, one between July 4 and Labor Day.

At this end of a 7-numbered year, I recall how warm it was on December 31, 1977, in San Antonio, a high-school era New Year's Eve. I spent part of the afternoon with five or six friends of mine in a place we called Cathedral Park, dipping our feet in a small stream. That night, it was still warm enough to gallivant around nearby neighborhoods, including the papering of a couple of houses of friends of ours who hadn't joined us that night, and passing midnight at the house we often gathered at, about a mile from where I lived. Sometime after 3 or 4 am on the first morning of 1978, a cold front blew in and more winterish weather returned -- 30s and 40s.

I don't remember much about the passage into 1988, except that I had gone to Nashville for the occasion, and that I had buying a new computer on my mind for the new year. Glad I didn't get around to it. If I still had it, the thing would be a formerly expensive paperweight, unlike the electric typewriter -- an XD 8000 Smith Corona -- I bought in 1987, which I can use, and occasionally do use.

As for 1997-98, we were in Chicago in the company of a six-week-old child at that time. The days, including the signpost between the years, are a blur at this distance, though I do remember that it was on Christmas Day 1997 that Lilly learned how to smile.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Doomed Ants

Some Christmas gifts linger in memory, such as the the Wretched Mess calendars I used to get in the early '70s. The were gag calendars, offshoots of the Wretched Mess News, featuring such juvenile jokes as, "European? Hurry up, I gotta used the bathroom!" I'm not sure where we got them or who produced them. The Internet offers only fleeting references. According to Albris, two early '80s Wretched Mess calendars are currently for sale, and I'm not sure if this thing has anything to do with the calendars I remember. Proabably not.

Last year, I put a rubber chicken in Lilly's stocking. Not the full-sized chicken, but a half-pint version I got in the toy aisle at a nearby supermarket. I've said it before, and I say again, no home is complete without a rubber chicken. So far, Lilly doesn't see the wisdom in that, but she's young yet.

This year, I got her an ant farm. Or, to be more precise, a live ant habitat. Uncle Milton's brand, everything included but the ants. Enclosed is a coupon for ants that you mail to Uncle Milt, and the ants will be sent to you, provided it's warm enough (we will order ours in the spring).

Uncle Milt's FAQ tells us that "federal agricultural regulations prohibit us from selling or shipping the queen ant. Since only the queen reproduces, the regional ecological balance is cited as the main concern. The ant farms were also not designed to house the large queen and the thousands of offspring she produces. The ants will work without the queen."

So rather than working for a monarch, the ants will work for the good of the commune -- each according to his ability, each according to his needs. Maybe they're red ants. Haw, haw. But it's a farm of doom for the poor creatures, since they can't reproduce. After a few months, the colony -- I mean, the anarcho-syndicalist commune -- dies out. All for the pleasure of the human masters. Does PETA have a position on ant farms? Probably yes, involving firecrackers to facilitate their liberation.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

He Must Have Missed Mister Magoo in the Part

Big load of snow today, beginning in the morning, continuing into the afternoon. Heavy, wet snow, the sort that inspires death in snow shovelers, and makes snowmen easier to make. Lilly was out in the late afternoon, as I risked death on the driveway, making a three-tiered snow figure. She managed to construct one tall as she is.

Abdomen, thorax, head. It never occurred to me until I lived in Japan that there was any other way to building a snowman -- mostly theoretical knowledge, anyway, growing up in South Texas -- but in Japan, snowmen are typically two balls. Perhaps it is because Japan is a crowded place, with only room enough for two.

Today's snow covered barren ground. Back on the 22nd, what we had before began melting, and was not much replaced on the windy, bitter day that was the 23rd. I took Lilly to the Metropolis Performing Arts Center in Arlington Heights on the 22nd, when it was actually pleasant to walk around a little in that suburban downtown, for a matinee of A Christmas Carol. Time, I figured, to introduce her to that component of modern Christmas. What would 21st-century North American Christmases be with Victorian innovations? Hardly the holiday that we know.

Not quite the caliber of a Goodman Theatre production, but a fine cast all the same. The fellow who played Scrooge had the part down cold, as anyone who plays that part must, lest the show fail completely. Something wrong in the way the sound was handled made it hard to hear the ghosts of Christmas past and present, however, which was odd, since the theater isn't that large.

As we were returning to the parking garage, I overheard a man say to the woman he was with, "It was better this year, now that I know the story." He looked like he was about 10 years older than I am, maybe even 60, but from his voice I'd say that he grew up completely within the realm of the English language, North American variety, and didn't have any particular impairment. Just an ordinary middle-aged fellow. So how could he not know the story, at least in outline? Didn't he at least see the Mister Magoo version as a kid? Maybe A Christmas Carol isn't quite the Christmas standard it seems to me.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Afterimages

What happens to Santa's reindeer when they retire? Santa, it seems, is immortal, but I doubt that his animal companions have that trait. New ones -- taking the same names as their predecessors -- are trained and join the crew periodically. Here's what happens to the older ones:

Well, actually, that can has long been empty. It's a souvenir of our visit to Finland in 1994. Reindeer are pretty tasty on crackers.

Next, this is our Nativity scene, which is on a corner of the dinner table. Note the hamutaro. They are playing the mice at the First Christmas. Tradition has neglected rodents at the scene, but it was a stable, after all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Real Christmas Rush

Quote from Ann today: "It's not Christmas any more. We have to eat the candy." Turned out she meant the Hello Kitty candy canes hanging on the tree. Actually, the canes are pink, yellow, blue and green -- and HK appears only on the wrapper. So I unwrapped one for her, and the sad long wrapper sporting about 10 HK faces now sits in the nearby trash can.

Below is the rush for Christmas presents, caught in mid-moment. This is the first Christmas that Ann, almost five, actually anticipated. It was hard for her to go to sleep on Christmas Eve, asking more than once, "Why is Santa taking so long?" I told her what I was told, more than 40 years ago: he does not, in fact, arrive at midnight, since he has so many places to go. More like 3 a.m. And anyway, he doesn't come when you're awake.

Lilly, of course, knows the truth of the Santa Claus business. Or maybe not "of course." She informs me that she knows fourth graders who still cling to the literalness of Santa Claus. Something's wrong about that.

I didn't have to stay up late Christmas Eve wrapping presents, since I'd done most of the wrapping on the 23rd, but I stayed up late anyway, meaning that I was still fairly tired at about 7:30 Christmas morning, when I was awakened. At that moment, Ann was as giddy as I'd ever seen her, but I guess if you're going to be giddy in the extreme, Christmas morning just before your fifth birthday is the time for it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Invisible Gifts

Time to sign off for Christmas. Back to posting on Boxing Day or so.

My friend Ed let me know the other day that next year he will be visiting the UK and maybe Italy and the Baltics; Mali, Ghana, Namibia and maybe Zambia; possibly Tunisia; Mongolia and maybe South Korea. That's just what he knows about at this point. Other places will likely be squeezed in.

That's what I call an itinerary. I'm expecting postcards. Some years ago, in a letter of his, Ed included a short short story by Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman and many other things I haven't read. I never forgot the story, though it was some time later that I learned that Gaiman had written it. Maybe I should read more by him. So without further ado, as a sign off for Christmas in this year of our Lord 2007, "Nicholas Was."

Nicholas Was…

Older than sin, and his beard could grow no whiter.

He wanted to die.

The dwarfish natives of the Arctic caverns did not speak his language, but conversed in their own, twittering tongue; conducted incomprehensible rituals when they were not actually working in the factories.

Once every year they forced him, sobbing and protesting, into Endless Night. During the journey he would stand near every child in the world, leave one of the dwarves’ invisible gifts by its bedside. The children slept, frozen in time.

He envied Prometheus and Loki, Sisyphus and Judas. His punishment was harsher.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christine the Christmas Tree

Lilly insists on turning on 93.9 WLIT at times, a station that's all Christmas music pro tem, though as a mark of her development into a person that has some sense, she will also turn it off if she hears a song played only a few hours earlier -- which is often, considering the station's unimaginative, heavy-rotation approach. Good for her. Of course, I encourage this behavior with disparaging remarks about the station and its dumbing down of the Christmas music canon.

Just how many versions of "The Little Drummer Boy" are there anyway? I'm hard-pressed to like any of them. The song's always rubbed me a little wrong. A kid wants to beat his drum near a newborn and a presumably exhausted new mother. Sure, kid, they'll like that. Naturally, I'm missing the "Christmas miracle" of the song, in which a newborn and a presumably exhausted new mother appreciate the poor boy's only gift, etc. Call me a cynic.

On the vastly superior 90.9 WDCB on Saturday, I heard a Christmas song I'd never heard before during its old-time radio show Those Were The Days. That's good. I like to do that every Christmas season if I can -- at least one old song previously unfamiliar. Even if it's an awful song like "Christine the Christmas Tree," sung by Jon Arthur fairly late in classic radio, 1955. "Christine the Christmas tree, half as tall as a tree should be," it begins, and tells the story of an anthropomorphic tree who wants to be cut down, but who is bypassed by the woodsmen every year because of her shortness. In its weird way, the song foreshadows Charlie Brown's runty tree, and Charlie the Tuna as well, who is disappointed by missing out on being canned for food. In the end, however, all is well for Christine, because the king and queen come along and decide she would be perfect next to their throne -- that year and ever after (and what kind of preservative are we talking about here?).

I googled "Christine the Christmas Tree" and got six results, three of which have nothing to do with the song. That's not quite the gold standard for obscurity in our time, which would be no results. But it's close. Google "Solar System Simon, Santa's Supersonic Son" -- another song I heard on 90.9 one year -- and you'll get two results, including this one. Seems like it was a real record, perhaps by a fellow hoping that a novelty hit would turn his career around.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Looking for French Bubble Gum Dank in the Republic of Connecticut

Occasionally I check Site Meter to see where hits are coming from and, more entertainingly, what kind of Google searches take people here, usually on a their one-time visits. Recently, for instance, someone at the Texas Department of Assistive & Rehabilitative googled " 'republic of Connecticut' Vermont" and found my January 2006 archive. Republic of Connecticut?

Someone else was looking for "famous house in the bronx decorated for Christmas." An AOL search, and why did it point to me? Maybe because I've mentioned Christmas decorations lately, and mentioned Disney rodent characters with Bronx accents. The ways of search engines are mysterious.

A resident of Amsterdam -- or at least a computer user there -- googled "Been There, Seen It All" and got me. But that's one thing I'd never claim, seeing it all. No mere mortal sees it all.

A Houstonian was looking for " 'bubble gum' 'made in France' " and at least glanced at my entry, long ago, about a French Wrigley brand (le chewing gum). No doubt he had his reasons for investigating French bubble gum; we've all done odd little searches. But someone else, at Northern Arizona University, looked for "berry bubblegum dank" and also got BTST3. What's going on here?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Weekend Snows

I took a picture of the first sunset after the long snowfall this weekend, but I haven't downloaded it yet -- which would be the up-to-date version of film that hasn't been developed yet. Will the next generation know the what it is to take your pictures so as not to waste film? No, of course not. Since we got our new, much larger capacity digital camera a few months ago, Lilly has taken about 2,000 images -- mostly of herself and her sister.

Snow started to fall early Saturday morning and didn't stop till early Sunday morning. But it was a light, constant snowfall, not much wind, so hardly blizzard-like. And it obscured the ice patches still lingering from the last snow-then-melt a little cycle. Slipped a time or two, but no falls yet. But I have to fall at least once every winter, so I'm due.

When I should have been doing something more useful recently, I introduced myself to NewsRadio on DVD. A sitcom that's actually funny. Remarkable. I'm only a few episodes in, but so far it seems as underrated as its '90s contemporaries Seinfeld and Friends were overrated.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Odd Things

Been busy. Next week promises more of the same. Not Christmas activities, but things to write before Christmas week, when it will be hard to call people -- and who wants to work that week anyway?

In the meantime, I will post ways to waste time. And to make people wonder, who thought of doing these things? For instance, does the world need a Japanese singer covering "Moonlight Feels Right"?

And in case you missed it, the Vegetable Orchestra has its bizarre charms, once they start playing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another Perp Walk

A few days ago, I saw someone else being escorted away by police. That makes two perp walks I've seen in less than a month (see November 15) -- if I can dignify the events with that term, which usually applies to high-profile white-collar criminals. It wasn't a frog-march, either, since it was too peaceful for that. In fact, it was such a quiet incident that I almost missed it.

I'd bought a small number of items at a grocery store not too far from home and the system had made a pricing error. I went to the customer service counter to get a small refund. Near the counter is the door to the store's office, and without warning the door opened and out came two cops, someone I took to be store management, and a small woman with dark hair, wearing a sweatsuit of some kind. But I didn't get much more of a look at her, because she was being taken out of the building by the cops, who were close at hand. Her hands were behind her back. In about 20 seconds, they were gone.

I should have known something was going on. A police car was parked outside, but I'd barely given it any thought. Another suburban shoplifting case, no doubt. Someone who couldn't pay? Or who didn't want to? First-timer or experienced thief who ran out of luck? Just the idle musings after seeing a perp walk.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Ice Dragon Passes By

Tonight's weather advisory isn't nearly so URGENT as last night's. Hardly worth quoting, but I will anyway: A FREEZING RAIN ADVISORY MEANS THAT PERIODS OF FREEZING RAIN OR FREEZING DRIZZLE WILL CAUSE TRAVEL DIFFICULTIES. BE PREPARED FOR SLIPPERY ROADS. SLOW DOWN AND USE CAUTION WHILE DRIVING. That's all we get. A freezing rain advisory. Namby-pamby stuff if you asked we. It should be: A LITTLE MORE ICE TONIGHT. DON'T DRIVE LIKE A MORON TOMORROW.

We did not, in fact, feel the full crystal breath of the Ice Dragon here in metro Chicago last night anyway. We got a scattering of the Dragon's scales; not like Oklahoma and Kansas and Missouri, where I heard the trees are groaning under the ice. Our trees got a nice light coating. Very pretty, actually.

Mostly today it was warm enough to rain. Cold, cold rain, but liquid all the same, and it made for an ice slush on the sidewalks and driveways.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Fun Ahead: Posted Just Before Midnight

A current weather advisory for Cook County, among many other places:




If I were writing those warnings, I would add "or you might die!" after the second and third paragraphs.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

O Tannenbaum '07

We were warned about ice from the sky coming on Saturday night and into Sunday morning, so on Saturday afternoon we went to the nearest Christmas tree lot and found a balsam tree to suit us. The fellow attending the lot said he'd grown them up in the Upper Peninsula, and that made my day. "I like the UP," I said. We got along well.

Lilly and Ann did about three-quarters of the decorating. Mostly I strung the lights and topped it off with the star. The star is my job till I take that final ambulance ride or, less dramatically, until we no long put up family Christmas trees.

By the miracle of digital photography, the following is an image of this Upper Peninsula tree whose fate has taken it to a living room near the southern shore of Lake Michigan. When Lilly took the picture, the tree was shaking vigorously and trying to get away. Must have been pinin' for the shores of Lake Superior.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Latest from Christmas Inc.

At the drug store the other day I saw "Grandma's Revenge," a toy truck with a grandma figure driving, plus a reindeer figure tied onto the hood ($19.95). Push a button and it plays a tinny version of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." Not that that song needs full orchestration.

I don't know if this item demonstrates the genius of modern marketing or not. But someone may be making a fortune off this item, which only shows once again that Plutus is blind, and I have to wonder what the Chinese factor workers who made them thought of these curious objects.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Wintertime, and the Livin' is Freezy

A view from our back door, toward the driveway, early December 2007.

Roughly the same view, late June 2007.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Notes from a Former Subscriber

Snow again. A gentle, steady snowfall for a few hours in the evening, with practically no wind. The first full coverage of the season. The girls went out and romped in it under the glow of the nearby streetlight, which is where I look at night to see the intensity of a snowfall.

Garbage collection was today, including a recycle bin, and so in the newly empty bin this evening I tossed out a fair number of back issues of Harper's. Books never leave the house, but sometimes old magazines need to, if only in the interest of space.

I'm not sure when I let my subscription lapse, but lapse it did some years ago, and I barely noticed. I'd been a subscriber most of the time since the mid-80s, except for when I was in Japan, but in the end the sour editorship of Lewis Lapham wore me out, along with some of the nonsense that passed for articles.

I don't remember the particulars any more -- title, author, issue it was published -- but one early-2000s essay especially summed up the magazine's contempt for human beings. The author's point was that the rise of agriculture was a dreadful, evil turn of events for the world, and that the cultivation of wheat in particular was some sort of crime against the biosphere. Better that mankind be hunter-gatherers, but with the right frame of mind. In that context, he detailed his own slaying of an elk. Which was done for food, and with the proper respect for the spirit of the animal.

Unspoken in this romantic moonshine was the cold reality that, perhaps, the Earth could support only a few hundred thousand noble hunter-gatherers. And what about the rest of us? Excess baggage. Taken not even to its logical extreme, but rather just to the next step, he was dreaming of a vast culling of the human race. Meaning me, you and pretty much everyone we've ever known or met. Sure. Sign me up for that, so Gaia can be happy.

I understand that Lapham retired last year. Should I take a fresh look at the magazine? Naah. Who needs it anyway when you have Arts & Letters Daily?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Yule Lights '07

The number of houses decorated with Christmas lights has gone from a scattering in late November -- isn't it bad enough that merchants push the Christmas season too early? -- to about half of the eventual number of lighted houses as of today, I estimate. The prospect of a snowstorm last weekend probably got a lot of people out to decorate ahead of it, which I suppose is rational enough.

Ours isn't one of the decorated ones, but the lights are already on the bush outside. They've been there, unlit and hard to see, since last year -- all I have to do is connect them to via an outdoor-rated extension cord to the exterior outlet.

Not yet. I figure I'll attempt a re-light this weekend, which is about two weeks ahead of Christmas. Lilly is agitating for more strings of lights ("One bush isn't enough, Daddy," to quote her exactly), but so far I've dodged the issue by telling her that too many Chinese-made lights next to the house will cause an explosion or emit toxic fumes or something. She doesn't remotely believe that.

Ann asks just about every day when Christmas will arrive, and I say not yet. Avoiding that kind of questioning from near-five-year-olds is another reason not to front-load Christmas. I'd rather have the holiday -- an important one, after all-- build up for a week and then deflate for a week, edging into New Year's, rather than build up for a month (or more) and deflate on the afternoon of December 25.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


The National Weather Service promised us a winter storm for December 1, in time for meteorological winter, and the sky delivered. But not dramatically. A little snow, then more, then some sleet, or maybe it was just frozen rain, but not big winter winds. Ice formed on tree branches, but not the kind of knotty ice globes that attract newspaper photographers. Any ice on the branches brings power failure to mind, but the juice didn't quit, so a normal winter night passed in the comfort of central heating.

Last year, exactly on December 1, we got buried with snow very early in the morning -- enough to close the schools. This year's Saturday snow just annoyed shoppers, I figure. What Would Jesus Buy? I don't know, but on Saturday afternoon He would have been better off ordering on line.

Sunday was even less dramatic. Most of the snow and ice just sat there and melted. Then again, who wants dramatic weather? To put a twist on the alleged Chinese curse: may you live through interesting weather.

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