Thursday, March 22, 2007

Spring Break

It's nearly spring break time here in our school district, and while not a student myself, Lilly and Ann are. Besides, I'm fond of the concept of time off. I'm not precisely taking next week off, but I am knocking off some of the voluntary activities. Be back again posting on one of the first few days of April.

Till then, one more recent photo. It's a view, taken in July last year, from the side of a mountain in Jaspar National Park in Alberta. Far below, the Athabasca River and Jasper Townsite are visible. Lilly and Ann happen to be visible as well, much closer than the vista.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Turkey Drumstick of Yore

Intense rain with pyrotechnics in the sky this evening. After which the air became warm. Spring has tugged back.

Here's another photographic image, later scanned into a personal computer, now residing on the very big servers at Googleplex, or whatever they call it. It's a snapshot of long ago.

The wee nearly bald child in the middle is me. To my right, my brother Jay. To my left, my brother Jim. It's just after Thanksgiving 1961, my first. The detail I like about the pic is the turkey drumstick that I'm holding.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In Old Ulaanbaatar

This is picture week, for reasons of time and also to do something with some of the images I've taken in various places. Today's image is one of my favorites among those I've taken myself. Time: September 1994. Place: Ulan Bator, Mongolia, or the vowel-intense Ulaanbaatar, if you prefer.

Anyway, it's the capital of Mongolia, and worth returning to if only to fly into Chinggis Khaan International Airport (thus renamed in 2005, I've read). One of the sites to see in town is known as the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan, the "Emperor" of Mongolia in the early 20th century, and the top-ranking lama in the country.

This painted wooden statue, and a companion on the other side, stood in 1994 in front of the entrance to one of the palace buildings -- a small, tumbledown place when compared to the Forbidden City that it seemed to be imitating, but interesting all the same. I was told it was a "guardian demon," though I suspect that translation does the creature little justice. Some years later, I heard -- in conversation over lunch with a banker, of all people -- that such guardian demons had "lost their jobs" at the request of the Dalai Lama.

I have no idea if that is the case, or can be the case. In fact the whole thing is a fog to this North American. But that only adds to the appeal of the image.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Another Thousand Words

This is a scan of a reproduction of an image from (probably) the summer of 1929 in Texas. The girl is my mother. The old woman is my mother's grandmother (they called her Gran), her father's mother - so she's my mother's father's mother, my great-grandmother, born Lucy Vencill.

Lucy Vencill was born in Virginia before the War Between the States, in the mid-1850s. There are conflicting stories about whether they were hillbillies or more prosperous. I favor the hillbilly theory, since too many people try to dandy up their ancestors. Anyway, her father, then in his 40s, went off to war to fight for the Confederacy and died of some disease, as so many did. Some of her brothers fought too. After the war, what was left of the family moved to Kentucky. Family lore has it that carpetbaggers got their land in Virginia.

She and her husband, my great-grandfather, moved to Texas at some point, where my grandfather was born -- in 1893, when Gran would have been nearly 40. His daughter, my mother, was born in 1925, and so four years old at the time of the picture, same age as my youngest daughter now.

Gran died in 1932. My mother was seven then, so she remembers her. She told me that, among other things, Gran always had a Bible with her, and read it every day. Hillbillies, maybe, but not illiterate ones. And clearly someone who took that old-time religion seriously. It wasn't "old-time" to her, it was just religion.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Way Down South

Not much time for writing today, but I will post an image, the very first at this site, and one I just received from Ed, who's lately been to Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falklands, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay (look it up) and other extreme points south. If I had 10 grand and a few weeks to spare, it is a trip I would need no urging to take. Best of all for him, someone else paid for his trip - he is, of course, part of that rare tribe, the professional travel writer.

Ed didn't say, but I assume this is Antarctica. He's interacting with the natives. Also, I received a postcard recently from him with a British Antarctic Territory stamp on it. Wow.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007


YouTube ought to be YouToo, as in you too can waste your time with it. I'm not interesting in posting on it -- I do enough of that here -- but still, it suits my eclectic, sometimes eccentric tastes. Below are more links than usual, ways to waste time this weekend. But I can't promise they'll be around for long. Such is the nature of the site.

I had a science teacher in junior high who once, when a class troublemaker asked to go to get a drink of water, mocked him by singing a few lines of "Cool Water." I had no idea where that came from, but it did stick with me. Now I know: see the Sons of the Pioneers, "Cool Water."

Back in the mid- to late '80s, I acquired perhaps a dozen LPs by Pete Seeger. But I never heard this song or saw this cartoon before. Charming.

Years ago one of my college pals, Dan Monroe, introduced me to the music -- and just as much, the persona -- of Tom Waits. I don't think I've ever seen anyone else on stage with a megaphone and a microphone, as in "Chocolate Jesus."

I probably could have seen Johnny Cash live at some point, if I'd wanted to, back when I lived in Nashville. I'm sorry I didn't. This is him with the Carter sisters on "Wabash Cannonball. Listen to the rumble, listen to the roar.

Who knows how long this will be up. Or this. Couldn't find the intro to Tom Slick, however.

Recently I've been acquainting myself with the first season of the new Battlestar Galactica on DVD. If you've seen it, and are familiar with the original as well, this will be amusing.

And, while I'm in the SF mode, this is The Invaders intro, as well as the Astro Boy intro in Japanese. Yuriko got a nostalgic kick out that.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Yellow Ribbons

Work is now forming into a black hole that sucks in most available free time. The sucking force will be especially strong next week, since I aim to have some kind of spring break to coincide with Lilly and Ann's break the week after next. So it's good, actually, that cold air blew in today, followed by icy drizzle late this evening. An incentive to stay inside.

In yesterday's comments, tied to my apron strings noted that she, too, has had a re-understanding of a well-worn song, in her case "Tie a Yellow Ribbon." I'm some years older than she is, so I remember when the original was on the radio in 1973. It is indeed about an ex-con coming home to his wife or lover or girlfriend, uncertain in his future status with her, etc., till he sees "100" yellow ribbons round the old oak tree.

Later I wondered exactly how the thing morphed into a welcome home for the hostages in Iran in 1981, and then for returning soldiers in later wars, but in fact song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" was the variation, since earlier songs -- and a John Wayne movie, for that matter -- used the symbolism of a yellow ribbon as a mark of affection for a distant soldier. The practice may in fact have roots going back centuries, though as with most folk customs, no one knows. Anyway, the lesson here is that almost nothing is new under the sun, to paraphrase some very old writings.

As far as I know, Tony Orlando and Dawn never did a follow-up of their big hit. You know, the one in which the ex-con violates parole by passing bad checks a few months after that yellow-ribbon incident, and is returned to the hoosegow. But that probably wouldn't be a sentimental favorite.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

It's Also a Restaurant in St. Louis

Today was even warmer than yesterday, so warm that all of us could lounge around on the deck at one time or another during the day, the first time since very early October. Toward the end of the day, the street was alive with kids, including mine, running around or on bicycles or scooters. What are suburbs for, if not for child incubation?

But enough about the weather, since it will turn on us very soon. Instead, the phenomenon of listening to song lyrics of a song you've heard many times, but never, for whatever reason, actually listened to before. I suspect nearly everyone does this. For me, a recent example is Fats Domino's version of "Blueberry Hill."

That's the version that most people remember, though it doesn't take much investigation to know that other versions were done, including the first one by Gene Autry in a 1940 oater called The Singing Hill. Incidentally, one of the song's co-writers was Al Lewis, the Munsters' Grandpa and an unrepentant Castroite till the day he died last year.

Maybe most everyone who knows the song realizes it's a lament. But that didn't occur to me until the other day. The first few lines, of course, have a wink-wink-nudge-nudge flavor:

I found my thrill
On Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill
When I found you.

But that doesn't last.

The wind in the willows played
Love's sweet melody
But all the vows we made
Were never to be
Though we're apart,
You're part of me still
For you were my thrill
On Blueberry Hill

Monday, March 12, 2007

The First Tug of Spring

The ground and sidewalk and driveway ice was nearly all gone by the end of the day today. Made it almost a pleasure to haul the trash cans out to the curb late in the evening: Squishy grass; Orion, way over to the southwest; the cool, not cold, wind. It’s too soon to call it real spring, but I’ll take what I can get until winter tugs the rope again and we swing back into the cold.

The earliness of Daylight Saving Time this year, the result of Congress tinkering with the system yet again in the name of fuel efficiency, was a little disorienting. But it did give me time, since by coincidence the weather was warm, to walk over to Lilly’s friend’s house to bring her home for dinner. I had gotten in the car and started the engine to drive the half-mile or so, which is perfectly rational in colder months, when I thought, why am I driving today?

Nice to get out on the sidewalk and take in the details. I've enjoyed city and rural walks, but suburban walks have their charms too: odd little decorations on the houses, gnarled tree trunks, irregularities in the sidewalk, occasional people out doing this and that. Car washing was especially popular this warm day.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Jelly Beans of the Spring

Proto-spring is here. The weird snow drifts of about two weeks ago are nearly gone, with only a few diehard patches here and there. In the case of our lawn, they're only in the northern exposure zones, which are shaded most of the time by the walls of the house. Enormous puddles have formed way out in the back of the back yard. Yea! for liquid water.

Also, I heard the tatatatatatatatatatatata of a woodpecker the other day, the day that the snow started to melt in earnest. That has to be good. A harbinger of spring. I'd think it was looking for whatever grubs live in the tree, but I only have a vague notion of the lives of woodpeckers. Perhaps such woodpecker food is there throughout the winter, hibernating, and the distinctive tapping is muffled by the cold. Anyway, I've never heard that tapping in the winter.

On Saturday, we decided we had to go somewhere or other in honor of the warmth, so we drove to extreme southeastern Wisconsin and visited the Jelly Belly warehouse, which gives tours. We'd been there in early 2002, when Lilly was just about the same age as Ann is now. When considering the trip this time around, I asked Lilly if she remembered the first time. No, she said. Sigh. That means she doesn't remember Disneyland, either, and will want to go back.

The JB facility is not, I have to say, where Jelly Belly candies are made. That's elsewhere. A lot of JBs are stored in this building in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., so it is a real warehouse. To take the tour, tourists (in the most literal sense) ride in a vehicle dressed up to look like a train, and on the slow drive around the warehouse stop sometimes to watch videos on large screens that detail how the beans are made. Artwork made of Jelly Bellies, or at least large photos of such artwork, are on display. Among others that have had their portraits done in Jelly Bellies are Elvis Presley, James Dean, Ronald Reagan (of course) and Margaret Thatcher (huh?).

While waiting in line for the tour, a wall covered with JB-related photos and press clips is available for viewing. The Jelly Belly candy story goes back into the 19th century, or at least the story of the company does, because the beans are actually a fairly recent invention: 1976. Just another example of sometime simple and cheap (jelly beans) being re-imagined as something more complicated and expensive (Jelly Bellies). Previous to the invention of JBs, the Herman Goelitz Candy Co. had based its success on candy corn.

There was an article from a late 1928 edition of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat about one member of the Goelitz family, a fellow who, at 80, was still on the road as a drummer in the Midwest for the candy company. I didn't have a pen, so I didn't take down the headline exactly, but it was something to the effect that "this octogenarian isn't going to give up being a salesman." What got my attention was the use in the head of the word octogenarian. Would any newspaper do that now? I had to wonder.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Buy Peter Pan Now!

I had been warned about this annoying revisionism earlier, and now it has come to pass. Note the grating use of the term “franchise” to refer to the Pooh series. It all makes a strong case that Disney should be nationalized and all its characters freed from their prisons, into the public domain.

Speaking of Disney, a Peter Pan marketing effort – which seems to be to pushing the movie of the same name on DVD – reached into my life earlier this week. I hadn’t seen any commercials for this latest Pan franchise product, but I did spot the DVD itself at Costco. Ann happened to be with me at that moment, and she decided in an instant that she wanted it. No, no, no overpriced DVDs today featuring characters long ago shanghaied by Disney, kid. Considerable wailing and gnashing of milk teeth followed, but she settled down upon the receipt of pizza at the store snack bar.

By odd coincidence, or maybe even synchronicity, before I knew that an effort was afoot to persuade me to own the Disney version of Peter Pan, I was at the Schaumburg Township Library last week with Lilly, who was looking for Clarice Bean books. I helped her find some, and along the way noticed the book version of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, which I understand was a followup in 1911 to the initial stage version of 1904 – you know, he was expanding his franchise. It occurred to me that I didn’t know the Barrie Peter Pan. So I checked it out for myself.

“Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds,” Barrie writes early in the tale. “It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repackaging into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day… It is quite like tidying up drawers… When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and at the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.”

A damned peculiar idea, tidying up the mind, amusingly curious and vaguely disquieting at the same time. As if Barry were describing the process of Disneyfication, but when Disney was only a lad. It isn’t something that Disney would ever illustrate in his version of the movie, though.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Kids Microwave the Darnedest Things

Came home recently from one of my every-month-or-so excursions downtown, and the fist thing I said was, "What's that smell?"

Some time earlier, Ann of four years had decided that she wanted a heated chicken nugget - a dinosaur-shaped nugget, the kind available in frozen bags. I believe her mother must have heated some previously, but as Ann sometimes does, she'd left some of them on the table to cool. Or simply left them, not interested at that moment in chicken.

While her mother was vacuuming downstairs, she took an interest in re-heating a dinosaur and popped in the microwave, which of course she knows not to touch, and she managed to turn it on. The dinosaur, it seems, was as carbonized as a real dinosaur would have been near the site of the Yucatan meteor impact of 70 million years ago. There's a brown spot still in the microwave, resistant to cleaning, and that faint odor of burned chicken in the air even now.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Some Uses of Google Earth

First order of business: Remember the Alamo

Google Earth and I have a peculiar history. Last year, before I had the equipment to access it, I was assigned to do an article about its uses in a certain segment of the real estate industry. I did the article by reading about Google Earth and talking to people who use it. Not so different than some other articles I've written -- I don't have to be an expert in, for example, the documentation or due diligence that goes into commercial mortgage-backed securities to write about them, after all.

Late in the year, I obtained a machine that plays Google Earth nicely, and, as usual with such things, played with it like the new toy it was by looking up my house and friends' houses and so on. After a while my interest in that petered out.

But last week I actually used Google Earth professionally. I had an assignment to write about a project under development in Las Vegas. Much, in fact, is under development in that town, and in this case it was mid-priced condos "near downtown" at the intersection of such-and-such and so-and-so. I'm not that familiar with the details of Vegas street theory, so I wanted to get an idea of what else is near that location to be more precise in my description. Google Earth was just the thing.

A few days later, I was writing about a commercial property sale in a certain California town, not one of larger ones, and I wanted to add to my story a little information about what part of the state it was in. Previously I would look it up in the index of my road atlas and then look on one of the atlas's pages. This time I called up Google Earth, put in the town's name, and zoom, I'm there. Another marvel of the age.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Physics on Ice

This morning a pack of lads -- two lads and a lass, really -- came from across the street to the sidewalk in front of my house en route to school. Kids in the lower grades; Lilly knows them, and sometimes walks with them, but she'd gone ahead this time. The kids were dressed for winter, of course, since it's still well below freezing in the mornings.

They ran across the street, though taking the time to look for cars (that's something, anyway). But when they got our driveway and sidewalk, they kept running and boom! one of them goes down on his butt. I expect to see weeping, or at least childish consternation if he's already learned that boys don't cry, but no. Up he leaps, thrusting his arms in the air like he's scored a touchdown. And off they go, all amused by it.

Compare that to my experience on the ice the night before, taking out the trash cans to the curb. Slowly, slowly, slowly, I crept along, knowing the my footing could be taken away at any step. I nearly did fall a couple of time: oops! then relief that I didn't quite lose my balance.

Ah, the innocence of youth. Actually, the low body mass in that kid's case, and his short potential fall to the sidewalk. My mass is a lot higher, and the fall somewhat further, so physics isn't on my side.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Snows of March

Intense wind and blowing snow on Friday, March 2, a day that we should be thinking about spring (because it's near and yet far off) and Texas, because it was Texas Independence Day. And Sam Houston's birthday, as it happens. I must have known that at some point, but I'd forgotten it.

The wind made some weird snow drifts, especially in the back yard, and especially on the sidewalk out to the driveway. Little Matterhorns. I would shovel through them and they'd be back in a few hours.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

RIP, Oakley Ray

March is here, looking exactly the same out the window as its predecessor, though the month did start with a rumble in the sky -- distant thunder in the middle of the night, which is certainly belongs to springtime more than winter. On and off throughout the day, it rained, with the puddles in the back yard by the fence growing dramatically. Not all of the snow melted, however.

March also brought news of the death of someone else I knew -- Oakley Ray, a former Vanderbilt professor. Not breaking news, since he's been dead nearly a month, but sometimes news still travels at 19th-century speeds.

Actually I only knew of him, since I might not have recognized him if I'd seen him in recent years on the street, and I'm certain he wouldn't have known me. As a professor of psychology, he taught the popular "Drugs and Human Behavior" class at VU. I think that was the class title, but it's been 25 years so I'm not sure. In in any case everyone called it the "Drugs" class. For it he used a text he'd written, Drugs, Society and Human Behavior, which, I understand, is still in print and quite popular.

I didn't really take his class. On the advice of friends, I audited some of them. ("Let's take Drugs with Oakley Ray!" was the undergraduate witticism.) Dr. Ray did not, in fact, advocate the recreational use of pharmaceutical chemicals, unlike certain notorious ex-Harvard profs, though of course he understood that such goings-on were entirely likely at a private institution of higher learning populated by affluent youngsters. Perhaps he thought he was doing his part to educate consumers.

He was a good lecturer. It's probably outdated information now, but I remember clearly his lecture on nitrous oxide. "Does anyone here know the chemical basis for how laughing gas affects the brain?" (Pause.) "Of course not. Nobody knows. But dentists discovered that it has an affect a long time ago."

An article about him in the Tennessean is here.