Thursday, May 31, 2007

Main Street, Illinois

Stand on Main Street in Arcola, Illinois, in 2007 and you’re going to see the streetscape below, which has probably lingered for 100 and a few more years. On this street are various going concerns, such as Slack Publications Inc. (a likeable name), publisher of the Arcola Record Herald.

Most of the older buildings were made of brick, but at the corner of Main and Water (I think) was the First National Bank building – a bank name among bank names, and carved prominently above the door. The building was built of concrete blocks, as if to announce that this is no ordinary brick building, but a bank built to last. But a newer sign below the carved-in-stone sign tells us that the building is now home to the Arcola Homestead Savings Bank. Maybe that’s just a later name for the original bank, but I suspect that somewhere along the way, say 1933, the old First National Bank gave up the ghost.

I thought the building below was the best-looking structure of the Arcola lot, a little to east of the bank building. I like a building that tells us its birth year: in this case, 1895. It was developed as the nation emerged from the Panic of 1893, and perhaps had been delayed because of that slump. I couldn’t tell if anyone currently occupies the upper stories. The tall windows on the upper floors were boarded up half-way. Tall windows would have been just the thing to let in air and light in the days before air conditioning and fluorescent lights, but later they would have become liabilities. Still, boarding them up gives an otherwise solid building a seedy look.

Just as the downtown commercial street peters out, there’s a Baptist church. A sign near a side door to this building says in English: "Community Storm Shelter." It also says in Spanish: "Albergue para la Comunidad en Caso de un Tormenta." Sure, there’s an Amish population in the surrounding counties. But that detail makes me suspect that there’s a migrant Hispanic population, too. That and the Mexican restaurant I saw off Main Street. The sign is below:

I didn’t take a picture of it, because it isn’t really picturesque, but on the corner across from the bank is the Dutch Kitchen, where we had lunch on Saturday. It offers Amish-style food. Food to go out and work the fields without the benefit of too much modern machinery, such as the chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and corn I had. As a desk worker, this kind of thing might ultimately contribute to my demise. But I was willing to take that chance, and was handsomely rewarded with a delicious experience.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Arcola and Arthur

Of the two towns Arcola and Arthur, Illinois, I thought Arcola was better looking. Its main street was still a Main Street, with three- and four-story buildings at least 100 years old. A streetscape with a certain look for about two blocks. Not only that, it had brick-paved streets -- and each and every brick (almost) had "Poston Block" etched on it. Turns out that's a collectible brick, or at least one billed as historic.

Arthur looked as if the older buildings had never been built, or hadn't survived until our time. The net effect was the same: a hodgepodge from the middle and late 20th century. But both places had fairly busy main streets, in terms of commerce, and a variety of businesses besides those that thrive on tourists, such as a law office, insurance agent, undertaker, and my favorite -- Blaze Investigative Services, a private eye (do the Amish occasionally employ them? Is it an Amish business? Well, why not?)

The two main streets also shared one charming detail I recommend for little towns that want to promote activity in their downtowns or main streets: a lot of benches just outside the business entrances. I spent a few pleasant interludes on these benches while Yuriko investigated shops I had no interest in. While parked on these benches, I noticed that the horse-and-buggy traffic seemed to be more frequent in Arthur than Arcola. Some businesses, such as the IGA grocery store I mentioned, had separate parking spaces for horse-and-buggies.

The Illinois Amish seem to have no quarrel with putting triangular reflectors on the backs of their buggies. I vaguely remember some Amish getting into a dispute with some state years ago about that point, claiming that even the simple triangle amounted to idolatry, but I don't know if I misunderstood that or am misremembering the story. Seeing an idol in a reflective triangle seems a stretch to me -- maybe something they'd worship in Flatland. Anyway, down near Arthur, they use the safety feature, which is surely mandated by the state of Illinois.

Speaking of buggies, between Arthur and Arcola, near Chesterville, was a used buggy lot. They had a selection of about a half-dozen vehicles, both enclosed and open. I had to wonder how much they run, and whether the occupation of a used-buggy salesman falls to an Amish or is relegated to the English.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A One-Tank Weekend Among the Amish

It was a little out of our way, but we had to go to Paris over the long weekend. We ate breakfast at McDonald’s there and put gas in the car at a Speedway gas station and convenience store. At about $3.35 a gallon, it was fully 30¢ a gallon cheaper than near home in metro Chicago.

While we were in the neighborhood, we passed through Oakland, too. And Charleston. And Kansas, for that matter. Which sounds like our car has been equipped with the latest in matter teleportation -- beats the hell out of Onstar -- but actually all of these places are in east-central Illinois, in Coles and Edgar counties.

We were gone two nights and most of three days over Memorial Day weekend. All together, we put about 650 miles behind us, burning roughly one-and-a-quarter tanks of gas, or 26 gallons or so, an important consideration these days. If we’d stuck to our initial destinations without wandering to places such as Paris (county seat of Edgar) or a certain microscopic suburb of Greenup, Illinois (more about which later), we probably could have made it a one-tank trip. But 1.25 is close enough to my goal of one tank.

There’s a small llama ranch just north of Oakland, but that wasn’t the main reason we went down that way, as interesting as such serendipitous details are. Look closely just west of I-57 and about 30 miles south of Champaign-Urbana and you’ll see the towns of Arthur and Arcola, Illinois, which differ from hundreds of other little towns the state in that they’re surrounded by a concentration of Amish.

That’s why we went. To see something Amish. We did. But it left me with more questions than answers about that subset of American society – or maybe sub-subset, possibly with internal divisions as intricate as any clan societies anywhere in the world. I wonder about the little things: do they use postage stamps that depict people? They use paper money, which has portraits, but then again, maybe I didn’t see the plainest of the Plain People participating in the money economy at the IGA grocery store in Arthur. (What do they use all that Cool-Whip for? One sees the oddest things in grocery stores sometimes.)

Do some Plain People take pride in being plainer than others? Probably that would be a sin, and not something they would be apt to share with outsiders, but we are all sinners, given to pride in something.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

So Long, Film

Off till after Memorial Day -- back next Tuesday. Actually, Decoration Day is always the 30th, which is next Wednesday this year, but I'll be back at the word mill by then. If Veterans Day can return to November 11, there's a glimmer of hope for restoring Memorial Day.

Not long ago I discovered two rolls of undeveloped film around the house. Lost treasure? Not really. Upon development, one turned out to be two years old, the other about a year. The oldest one was taken during my visit to St. Louis to attend my nephew's graduation from Washington U. I'd post one or two of them here, but that would mean setting up my scanner again, and teaching one of the newer computers to play nice with it. They're decent pics, some of them, but not worth staying up late for tonight.

It looks like the transition from film to digital camera has been made around here. We took both kinds of cameras on all of our recent trips, but used digital much more -- and it's made much better images. Not only that, developing a 24-exposure roll at Walgreens is about $7, or about 29¢ each, and some of those are indifferent quality. Using my computer, I can order prints from Costco at 19¢ each, only those I like. Not much of a decision, really, especially as the cameras themselves get cheaper and of higher quality.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Toasty Train of Thought

Toasty warm day today, though now concerned weather people are nattering about a rain deficit. I guess I should be worried. If this evolves into a drought, hundreds of thousands in the Midwest might starve to death this winter.

Wait, wrong continent, or wrong century. Though I have read that the last time the West faced a serious food shortfall was 1816 -- the "year without a summer." Much vulcanism around then, it seems -- especially Tamboro in Java, which blowed up real good in the summer of '15. Count on the Java neighborhood to provide some kick-ass volcano blasts. This is an essay by Dan the Weather Man (I like that moniker) about the Year without a Summer.

I remember seeing a comparison chart of volcanic eruptions in historic times when I was a kid, and Tamboro was king -- dwarfing the much more famous Krakatau (Krakatoa), maybe in terms of material ejected by the blast. Yet no more information was available, at least to me, about that intriguing fact. Something bigger than Krakatoa? How come Krakatoa got a movie (which I've never seen) and an episode of The Time Tunnel, which was probably the first time I'd ever heard of the volcano. Fame is like that, even for natural disasters.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Old Poles

There was on a flier left at my door this afternoon, not handwritten but a primitive computer generation: "Attention!!! I am Polish and looking for work. I can clean houses well, and will do a good job. You will be very pleased. I have referances [sic]. Call... please ask for Barbara."

I have to wonder about how much cleaner my house would be with that Polish touch, as opposed to Lithuanian clean or a Bohemian shine. I'm reminded of a place I used to work, a six-story building in the River North district of Chicago (just north of the Loop). In the late '80s, the entire nighttime cleaning crew was Polish -- not from among the many 2nd- or 3rd-generation Poles in Chicago, but older ladies born and raised in the old country. I understand that workers like them were the major source of hard currency for Poland in the Communist era.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Rabbits and Fences

It was cold out there today, except for a moment or two in the early afternoon when the sun emerged. Cold for spring, that is. Would have been a fine warm day in January, above freezing as it was. Maybe I can think of it as Winter's last encore -- and the audience isn't on their feet, stamping for more.

It also rained for a time, which has to be good for the garden. Tomatoes and strawberries and some flowers are in. The old rabbit fence is gone. I spent a tiresome hour or so a couple of weeks ago removing its rusted twists and eye-poking loose ends. As a barrier against small mammals, it also seemed to be a failure, though I suspect squirrels did more damage last year than rabbits.

Marigolds are supposed to ward off rabbits, and back in the late '80s, when I helped out Nate with his garden in suburban Warrenville, we planted those, and they seemed to do the trick. Last year, I planted them, and they withered. Maybe rabbits have devised anti-mairgold technologies. Or maybe I didn't water them enough.

We have a new rabbit fence, still wound up as it came from the factory near Guangzhou or somewhere, and are debating installation. If rabbits seem to attack what we've planted, it'll have to go in. But I can't say I'm looking forward to the job. And it will discourage Lilly from tending the garden, since it would be harder for her access, though not impossible. She's shown more of an interest in gardening than I ever would have as a kid, going to far as to plant most of the tomatoes and strawberries.

Taking out the old rabbit fence also involved digging up a lot of pain-in-the-ass honey locust saplings, which had decided to intertwine themselves with the fence at irregular intervals. But I learned something about the yard in doing so. I'd thought that the saplings came from seeds. Instead they seem to be offshoots of the tree's roots. It made me realize how extensive the tree's root system must be -- king of the yard, it is.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Byron the Bulb

I got a kick out of an article I read the other day in a recent number of Smithsonian, a magazine I've subscribed to on and off over the years. The article was about the rise of the compact fluorescent light bulb and the pending demise of the incandescent bulb, due to energy inefficiency. We are a transitional household in that sense, too, mostly still incandescent but with some fluorescent bulbs.

The article mentioned Byron the Bulb, the immortal light bulb in Gravity's Rainbow. In the spring of 1983, in the dying days of college, I wrote a paper about Byron the Bulb for Donald Ault, then an English professor at Vanderbilt. I don't know if I have a copy of the paper, I don't remember what I said in it, and I can't recall any of his comments, just that I wrote it. I might have been assigned to read Gravity's Rainbow for that class, or parts of it, but I didn't read very much, except for the pages about Byron. How I found out about him, I don't remember either. Nor why I picked that subject at all.

Yet I'm somehow happy that I remember so little about the circumstances of meeting Byron. It seems fitting. Over the years, on rare occasions, I've mentioned this character, and few have heard of him. But there he was, the subject of about a paragraph and a half in an exceedingly mainstream magazine.

Of course, now we have the Internet. Everything is on the Internet. So I spent a little time looking around, and there are surprisingly few mentions of Byron on line. Some band called Byron the Bulb released an EP in 2001 called Ottoman Empire, which is intriguing, but obviously it sank like a stone. Byron the character is mentioned in a few blogs and in an index site to Gravity's Rainbow. Most tellingly, there's no Byron the Bulb entry in Wikipedia. Not yet. Maybe I should create one.

Naah. I have the book on my shelf. It's unlikely that I will ever read it cover to cover. But I can always look up Byron there: pp. 647-655 in my edition. I'd link to the text but it seems to be nowhere linkable, and it's too long to transcribe. But Byron is introduced this way: "Statistically (so Their story goes), every n-thousandth light bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q's piling up just right, so we shouldn't be surprised that this one's still around, burning brightly. But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal!"

Then follows a tale of Byron's time before he was manufactured -- in a place called Baby Bulb Heaven -- his creation and youthful ideas of organizing all the bulbs to torment the human race (for light bulbs seem to have a sentience, but are essentially slaves). "Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as 'Phoebus' the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland."

Phoebus keeps track of the world's bulbs, to make sure none last too long. "The Phoebus Surveillance Room is located under a little-known Alp, a chilly room crammed full of German electro hardware, glass, brass, ebonite, and silver, massive terminal blocks shaggy with copper clips and screws, and a cadre of super-clean white robed watchers who wander meter to meter, light as snow-devils, making sure that nothing's wrong, that through no bulb shall the mean operating life be extended."

Byron, who is in Berlin, burns more than 1,000 hours "and the procedure is now standard: the Committee on Incandescent Anomalies sends a hit man to Berlin. But here something odd happens. Yes, damned odd..." Through a series of improbable events, especially for a glass object, Byron escapes the hit man and burns on.

But for what purpose? "He learns how to make contact with other kinds of electrical appliances, in homes, factories, and out on the street. Each has something to tell him... Someday he will know everything, and still be as impotent as before."


Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Saw The Queen recently and it was as good as expected -- historical fiction of a high order. Verisimilitude and intelligent scripting's a fairly rare combination. And I was amused by the choice of James Cromwell, an American, to play Prince Philip sourly. Cromwell's a character actor with an enormous list of parts, but whenever I see him I think of Stretch Cunningham, Archie Bunker's lazy co-worker (All in the Family); Zefram Cochrane, inventor of the warp drive (a couple of Star Trek movies); and an important character in the little-remembered sitcom Hot L Baltimore.

Though an excellent movie, it was still a little strange to think of The Queen in historical terms. It seems like the events just happened. The main characters are still in office, for crying out loud, though barely in Blair's case, who, I have to add, is a bit younger than my oldest brother. It all seems like old news, not history, not yet. But no point in waiting for a movie like this, not at least when the quality is so high.

Remarkable, too, that the movie ended up so sympathetic to the monarch, if not the monarchy:

Alastair Campbell (Blair's flack): "Well, at least the old bat's finally agreed to visit Diana's coffin."

Tony Blair: "You know, when you get it wrong, you really get it wrong! That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job she never wanted! A job she watched kill her father. She's executed it with honor, dignity, and, as far as I can tell, without a single blemish, and now we're all baying for her blood! All because she's struggling to lead the world in mourning for someone who... who threw everything she offered back in her face. And who, for the last few years, seemed committed 24/7 to destroying everything she holds most dear!"

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Authority

Rain this afternoon, but not the promised thunderstorm, with distinct cooling. But it's spring, at last, and the cooling will be short. Unlike some, say those who move to San Diego for the climate, I wouldn't want it to be warm and sunny all year. That's a desert. But Chicago could use six more weeks of warm weather.

Speaking of deserts, I was doing some research on the Las Vegas hotel market recently, room rates and occupancies and so on, so I dialed up the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority web site. If you look very carefully on that site you can find data about the business underpinnings of that town. "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, especially some of your money."

I wondered about the Convention and Visitors Authority. Most places have a bureau. (Reno-Sparks and Miami Beach are the two other convention/visitor authorities that I can find.) "Authority" is more often reserved for transit entities, ports, airports and the like. But I guess conventioneering and tourism is serious indeed in Vegas, so "authority" it is.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Niagara Falls Syndrome

When we visited Lilacia Park in Lombard, Ill., on Saturday I was reminded of something an old friend put in a letter to me some years ago. In a previous letter I’d described to Stephanie, my old friend and correspondent after I moved away from Nashville, how my students at the time, all Japanese, were familiar with Niagara Falls as a destination. A number of them, in fact, had been there.

Ah, for the long-gone days – the early 1990s in this case -- when I had several regular correspondents on paper. Stephanie wrote back and said:

“You know, it’s sad that half of your students have taken the trouble and spent the money to come to Niagara Falls. All those foreigners wanting just one representatively American sight to remember always – if only someone would tell them they’re about a hundred years too late. I don’t know, maybe I was there on a bad day, but to me it was about as exciting as a municipal water-purification plant. Nothing was attractive or awesome about it, I guess because of the encroaching concrete and cars and because someone had told me the durn thing is artificial now anyhow: The water flows and rushes and falls mechanically. Big hairy deal, Niagara Falls. Now Foster Falls, that’s something. Fall Creek Falls, that’s worth a trip. Maybe they’d be ruined, too, by fame and high traffic.

“That’s the problem with most world travel. Most of it probably a real bad investment and a huge waste of time, because no one knows how to find out where to go. No Japanese person is going to fly to Nashville, rent a car and drive to Chester County, rent a cabin on the lake at Chickasaw State Park, and wake up every morning to gaze from his deck upon the cattails and the glassy lake… I’m convinced that most world travel – and much domestic travel – suffers from the Niagara Falls syndrome.”

I don’t entirely agree with all that, but there’s more than a little truth to it even now, in the Internet age (Stephanie was writing pre-Internet) with all its pots and cans of information available instantly. No one from very far away would seek out Lilacia Park in May, a few amazingly lush acres in the western suburbs of Chicago adorned with not only dozens and dozens of varieties of lilacs, but also many other flowers and bushes in their glory. By the look of things on Saturday afternoon, when the weather was flawlessly warm, not many people from nearby were there either.

When far from home, I still think it’s good to seek out famed places – I was impressed enough by Niagara, though I’ve seen more obscure falls that are impressive, too, including Tennessee’s Fall Creek Falls. But it’s also important to pay attention for the opportunity to run across an obscure gem. Sometimes it’s as easy as a slight variation from the beaten path.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Saturday in the Park

I plan to write a little about the place we visited, not so very far from home, this weekend. But for now, a handful of photos, the refuge of the tired or indolent blogger:

and this:

and this:

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Holiday's Vicissitudes

Francis G. Blair, in the introduction to Memorial Day (1918) -- the booklet that I acquired last Saturday -- wrote about the holiday: "... Bitter as well as sweet memories were recalled and kept alive. To be sure, the lengthening years have softened and sweetened the bitterness and 'rebels' in time became 'confederates' and they in turn have been transformed into 'our brave boys in gray.' But, notwithstanding this growing spirit of generosity, the very flowers we spread helped draw afresh each year that ugly Mason and Dixon's line. Moreover, the fading ranks of the Grand Army of the Republic and the rapid increase of immigration of foreign-born peoples into the northern states abated, somewhat, the general interest and impressiveness of the sacred exercise of the great day. It was feared by some that Memorial Day was destined to become as meaningless and as little observed as the Fourth of July."

Meaningless and as little observed as the Fourth of July? It's hard to know what to make of that -- just a curmudgeonly sentiment? No one celebrates the Fourth the way it should be anymore! Or an astute observation? If so, of what -- that the Fourth of July in the 1910s was just a noisemaking affair with most of the patriotic content drained away? If that's the case, it would make me suspect that, like a lot of things, holidays cycle in importance over the decades, if they last at all.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Eighty-Nine Springs Ago

Besides a paperback of aged predictions, I acquired a couple of other publications during my visit to Coal City recently. For exactly a dollar, I also picked up a booklet put out by the State of Illinois in 1918 simply called Memorial Day. The cover is simple: the Statue of Liberty with an arch-shaped row of flags around it (it looks a little like the statue is in a snow globe). The subtitle is "The Allied Flags of Freedom."

Inside the booklet, you learn that the flags are, in order from left to right -- and positioned so that the US flag is at top, that grand 48-star banner that was actually fairly new in 1918 -- Greece, Brazil, Montenegro, Roumania, Japan, Belgium, Great Britain, United States, France, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, Cuba, Siam, China. (The Russian tricolor was out of the game by then, taken down by bolshies.) Also inside the booklet, there are items such excerpts from President Wilson's speeches on the war, patriotic poems, images of famous American statesmen and soldiers, and some history of Memorial Day or, which even this publications notes, was more popularly called Decoration Day.

Since the state superintendent of public instruction oversaw the production of the booklet (it says so on the title page), it's a safe assumption that it was meant for distribution in the schools of Illinois. That May 89 years ago some kid probably brought it home, it lingered in sight for a while, and when Memorial Day 1918 was over -- or maybe after the First World War was over in November -- it was tucked away somewhere, ending up in a box stored in a series of two or three attics across the decades -- until it was marked for sale in this springtime of AD 2007 and passed to me. A bit of the past for me. With any luck, my daughters will find it among the many other things of mine.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Check Out the Index

I'm having fun with The Book of Predictions (1981), acquired over the weekend for one thin dime. Sometimes I'll skim at random, other times consult the index. When I do the index, I keep in mind some of the things that have actually happened between 1981 and now: the fall of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new 'n' scary infectious diseases, the rise of the Internet, the persistence of jihadism, and the longevity of Captain Canuck, just to name a few.

For instance -- I looked up "Soviet Union":

ceases to be world power (check, sort of);
and China (business partners, these days);
collapse (check);
deploys first powersat (eh?);
as dominant power (ho-ho);
establishes first permanent space community (check, sort of);
rules world (fat chance, Ivan);
satellites of;
and US;
and war with Norway and Sweden. (!) (But not Finland again?)

"Collapse" seems like an intriguing prediction, since few were predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union as late as 1990. So I turn to page 23, and it is a prediction made by Amory and Hunter Lovins, whom the book calls "two of the foremost critics of the nuclear power industry," but who are better known these days as co-founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Anyway, by 1995-2005, they said, there would be "the effective collapse of the Soviet empire from internal political stress."

Not too bad a forecast, if a little vague. Much closer to correct than "by 1993, the US will have ceased to be a great power and will be struggling to hold itself together as a viable nation. The Soviet Union will be approaching hegemony over most of the world." That by a CIA Soviet expert, part of whose job must have been to scare the US government.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Timothy Leary's Dead

As ANK points out in yesterday’s comment, Timothy Leary’s predictive faculties could have been regularly clouded by certain chemicals. Reading his list of predictions from ca. 1981 reminded me of 1981 itself, when Leary spoke at Vanderbilt. He was in predictive mood at that time, I guess, since he told us about some of the wonders ahead. The main burr up his butt was space travel: it was due to change everything in the decades ahead. Everything!

But I also recall a couple of promised pharmaceuticals, and I can only ask now, with hindsight and the experience of decades behind me: where are they? It wouldn’t be long, he thought, before you could take a pill to “become more horny than you’ve ever been!” You might say Viagra, but I don’t think that’s quite what he had in mind.

Then there was “businessman’s acid,” which he thought was going to be quite a hit (no pun intended). He didn’t identify it by name, but I assume he meant the extremely intense hallucinogen DMT, whose effects only last a few minutes. I can only speculate why there has been a crack epidemic or a meth problem or the popularity of ecstasy, instead of a businessman’s acid boom, since I have no first-hand experience with any of those. But it seems that DMT is entirely too strong for a short recreational break. You might take it during lunch, but it sure would be hard to go back to work after meeting your spirit dwarf guide for a quick tour of the nine pastures of Goloka, complete with dancing cows.

Anyway, it just goes to show you how hard making good predictions is. Timothy Leary missed the boat when it came to predicting drug trends, of all things.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Criswell Predicts!

We visited our friends near Coal City, Illinois, on Saturday,and down that way a subdivision was hosting dozens of garage sales at the same time. So naturally we went, and the prize catch was a black ovoid grill for $5. Not new, of course, but in much better shape than the one we’ve been using since we moved here in 2003. A leg fell off of it a few days ago, fortunately when it was cold. Its bottom is partly rusted out, too.

Today Lilly and I gave the new grill a trial by fire (literally) and the entire family enjoyed the grilled meat results of that trial. So the old one will go out on Tuesday morning with the rest of the trash. I predict that the new one will last until at least 2010, longer if I store it in the garage in the winter.

Speaking of predictions, for one dime I also picked up a copy The People’s Almanac Presents the Book of Predictions, published in 1981, in fairly good shape for a paperback of a quarter-century vintage and then some. You don’t know how much this makes me smile. For a number of reasons.

For one thing, once upon a time, there was no Internet, no Google, no Wikipedia. Hard to remember, but it’s so. We had reference books in those days, varying from dry to juicy, and few had more juice than the Wallechinsky, Wallace & Wallace series that began with The Book of Lists in the mid-70s and included a run of enormously fat volumes called People’s Almanacs. Invariably interesting reading, though after a while you’d notice that its editorial policy was pretty much “shovel it in, we don’t have time to check facts too closely.” Just one example: in the PA, the legend of Pope Joan was presented as fact, covered up by a duplicitous church (ah, the spirit of Watergate).

I never had a copy of The Book of Predictions. This is gold. Hundreds of achingly old predictions from experts, futurists and psychics, and if my thumbing through it today is any indication, 95 percent nonsense, and mostly not the kind of nonsense you need hindsight to see. Such as this gem from Timothy Leary: [By 1992], “in North America, science will have produced a utopian civilization of aesthetic tolerance, intelligence and sophistication.” It’s hard to know just how seriously the late Dr. Leary took his prognostication, but that smells like “what outrageous thing can I write today?”

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Multichannel Distribution Upselling: Cheese Wheels

Cool at nights, warm during the days. The house's heater is still on, technically, but I set it at 62, which was our indoor overnight temp throughout the winter. At that temp, I don't hear it come on most nights. The house is able to retain some of the heat it absorbed during the day, and so we wake up to 64 or 66 or even higher, and I don't bother to move the thermostat up to 68, as I would in the winter, or even early April, since the house will heat up again during the day. This is good. I think of it as God heating and cooling the house, who doesn't bill me like Nicor Gas.

The convention I attended earlier this week was about operations and fulfillment, that is, how to take care of a customer once you've sold her something by catalog, phone or Internet ("multichannel distribution," that is), and it included a fair amount of information about call centers. As I was walking among the booths, I was asked, "Do you have a call center?" three or four times. Never been asked that before.

I'd never covered the fulfillment industry before, so I picked up a handful of new terms. My favorite was "upselling." Which is what a customer service rep does when he or she says, "By the way, we have a special 40-lb. Danish cheese wheels, would you like to include one with your order?" Like anything else, some people are really good at this kind of sales, so watch out.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I'd Rather Be Gallivanting

Sometimes you have to take a real dictionary off the shelf to look up a word, and sometimes it's a word that's been kicking around in your head for a few days. Even though you know it, and think you know it fairly well, you want to look it up. Well, that's what I do sometimes. Maybe that's why I'm in the word-racket.

Not long ago in the Tribune's advice column, the one overseen by Amy Dickinson (who succeeded Ann Landers), a letter-writer used the word gallivant. His old friend, he said, spent his retirement gallivanting around the world, while he, sober fellow that he was, remained working.

Actually, his friend's gallivanting wasn't the focus of his complaint, that was merely mentioned in passing. But the word stood out, and it did signal his disapproval of "roaming about, seeking pleasure; traipsing; gadding." My, what a terrible thing, out traveling around after (presumably) decades of work, when you could be working till you drop dead. Sounds like the letter-writer could use a little gallivanting himself.

The word is fading away, I think, as words do. It's one that I associate with a generation older than myself, and I'm not so young any more. "Traipse" and "gad about" have that faded feeling too. According to my handy American Heritage Dictionary, the origin of gallivant isn't entirely clear: "Perhaps an alteration of 'gallant' " it says -- which has its negative connotations, as in "showy" and positive ones well, as in "courageous." As well as notable usage in "Gallant and Goofus."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


I've driven by it a good many times since its completion last summer, but until Monday never visited the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel and Convention Center. I contracted to attend a convention at this venue for a magazine and write up a select number of the presentations. Which I'm in the process of doing, so blogging will necessarily get shorted.

I was too busy to make many notes about the place, though I did wander around a bit. I understand it's doing well, this mid-sized convention center some 30 miles from the granddaddy of convention centers, not only of Chicago but of the world: the sprawling McCormack Place. If you don't need that much space, and don't necessarily want to be in a downtown hotel meeting space, the RSH&CC is indeed a good option. For out-of-towners, access to O'Hare isn't too complicated. For me, access was as simple as driving to Costco -- which is just on the other side of I-90.

I like to find something distinctive everywhere I go, but somehow this place didn't offer up that much. The hotel is certainly expensive-looking; Marriott didn't try to get the place on the cheap. It's new and white and posh, with all sorts of interior-designer amenities, and no doubt it's a prime example of mid-2000s hotel design. Still, it could have been a posh hotel in London or Singapore or Walla Walla. These are pics, judge for yourself.

Some of the carpet designs were cool. Looked like exploding snowflakes. And those meeting room names, metioned yesterday, amused me mightily. The meeting rooms were precisely like every hotel meeting room everywhere, but with names such as Nirvana, Euphoria, Utopia, Serenity etc., a mix of exotic religious terms and terms for happiness or the like. I also considered the possible names they'd left out: the generic Happiness; Bliss; Felicity; Ecstasy, which might have unwanted associations with MDMA; Dzogchen, but that hasn't been popularized in the West enough; Gladness; Giddiness; Giggles.