Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hot Springs Rubber Bands

And what will a long lone dollar buy you in 2007 America? A pound of domestic rubber bands. I use rubber bands to tie up garbage bags, mostly, and for quite a while had a bag from an office supply store that lately ran out. All those rubber bands were alike in color and strength. Made in China I think. No surprise there.

Today I bought a bag of "assorted sizes," as it says on the bag, and assorted colors, as I can see: brown, while, blue and a lot of purple. Stretch one and it feels old, and cheap. Like it was made some years ago and is aging in the way rubber bands do, with decreasing elasticity and increasing fragility. But they only have to last long enough to be thrown away, so I don't feel too bad.

There on the back of the bag it says, "Made in Hot Springs, AR." Now that's a surprise. When visiting Hot Springs this year, if you'd asked me to guess about locally made products, rubber bands wouldn't have come to mind.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The iRazor

iPhone, whoop-dee-do. It's bad enough that I've gotten inured to carrying around a cell phone -- a simple one, a cell phone classic, you might call it -- something I never did in the last century, and survived. The iPhone just seems like gizmo overload. Of course, in another sense, I hope Apple does well with it, since I want them to continue to make computers.

Often, I set my cell to "silent," even though it's not quite silent when it rings -- it sounds like a less noisy version of my electric razor. Which made me say one day, when Lilly asked if I could take pictures with it (I can't), that I wanted a cell phone that doubled as an electric razor. I held it up to my face, set it to buzz, and made the motions of shaving. Lilly mocked the idea.

Still, can't you see it? On the way to the office, talking about very important things while weaving through traffic, and shaving too! The buzz wouldn't be much of a problem. It's not like cell phone conversations have to be clear. "Yes, I hear the buzz," you could say. "Must be sunspots."

For some reason, the system wouldn't let me upload the photo below yesterday. It's also of the backyard jungle, looking southward from my back door. I like June.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Backyard Jungle

I go on about the things I see away from home, and that isn't likely to stop, but I'm also going to showcase some images from just outside the back door, because that's as far as I can go this week. Good thing it's lush out there. For example:

Careful observers will note that the gate is a little askew. There's a hinge issue -- a mishang, you might say. But it's the view from my deck to the gate to the driveway, and the flush of June is a pleasure.

Tilt the view about 45 degrees and you see this:

The decorative wooden bridge is nearly obscured by foliage.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dead Frogs & Missing Bees

I’ll be happy when I can turn both of the girls loose at a movie theater and send them off to see confections that might stick with them long after their childhood evaporates. Lilly is there already. When I was her age, I remember seeing a triple feature: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Frogs and The Incredible Two-Headed Monster without a bit of parental accompaniment, and I’m glad, since my mother -- same age then as I am now, more or less -- probably wouldn’t have cared for it.

Ann’s still too little for that. So on Saturday I saw Shrek the Third with my daughters. It wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t much to recommend it, either. Mostly empty of the charms of the first, such as they were. I remember laughing once, maybe twice. You know what? I don’t care who’s the king of Far Away Land. They can set it up along the lines of Anarchist Barcelona in 1937 for all I care.

Incidentally, John Cleese, probably motivated by a large amount of money for very little work, voiced the dying old king of Far Away Land, who happened to be a frog. We see him croak (haw, haw), which touches off the succession crisis, and the joke is that he seems to die a couple of times, but comes back. But not once does he say, “I’m not dead yet!” A missed opportunity for an homage that I would have laughed at. But my daughters wouldn’t have laughed, and since the movie was for them, no need for lines like that.

One of the trailers advertised another upcoming animated animal movie, one with Jerry Seinfeld as the voice of a bee who leaves the hive to become… let’s see, a sardonic Manhattanite in an overrated sitcom? Something like that. I wonder if the movie’s going to dramatize the problem of honey-bee colony collapse.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Got Carcinogen?

“All that milk for the kids?”

A fellow with about 10 years on me asked me that the other day. We were both at the same warehouse store, in line to check out, and both of us had put packages of six bagels in our carts. A passing employee of the store had noticed the bagels in our carts, and informed us that the store didn’t sell six bagels at a time – you have to buy 12, even though packages of six are on display, and not linked in any way. The employee then said he would go to the bagel display at the other end of the store and get each of us six more. So we agreed to that.

By the time we’d both checked out, we were still waiting for the man to return with the additional bagels. That’s when the fellow took note of the four gallon-jugs of milk in my cart. We were nearly out of milk, and we can nearly run through that much by the time we return to the warehouse store for more. It is skim milk, and by far the cheapest available on a regular basis. This time it was $2.15 a gallon, up from just below $2 not long ago. I hear that the price of milk is going up.

“Yes, it is,” I answered. That’s simpler than saying, “Yes, a lot of it is, but a fair amount of it will go down my gullet, sometimes with cereal, but sometimes because it refreshes. My wife will sometimes eat cereal too, and sometimes put some in her coffee. So we have our various uses for it.”

“Well, it causes cancer,” he said.

“You think so?”

“It’s indisputable.”

At that moment the man arrived with our bagels, and we all parted. As I was leaving, I noticed the fellow with the helpful health advice on diary products in line at the warehouse loss-leader food court ordering a hot dog for (I assume) his grandson, who had joined him at some point.

Indisputable? Actually, a statement like that is an example of something that should be disputable. I thought about it on the way home, how passionately people bite into an idea like that, which sounds suspiciously like another in the long train of correlation-equals-causation fallacies. That train seems to leave the station full of passengers every day of the week.

Then again, I’m willing to entertain the notion that milk will eventually be outed as a health menace, as tobacco has been. Entertain the notion –- buy it a beer and have a chat -- but send it packing afterwards. I can speculate about how our great-great-grandchildren will be astonished that you could buy cow’s milk in our time in any store, and that it was regularly given to kids (and how, by then, forms of morphine are legal again, and put on teething rings), but that isn’t going to make me switch from milk on Lucky Charms to rainwater on Weetabix.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

...And You're Not

Recently Vol. 1, Disc 1 of Saturday Night Live came in the mail for my entertainment. Wish I had time to watch it all the way through at once, but in any case I've been watching the first episode at length. It's a bit rough, as you might expect, but you can also see why the show caught on after it was polished a little. For instance, this this is the first joke ever told on Weekend Update, Chevy Chase hosting:

"Our top story tonight: dedication ceremonies for the new Teamsters Union Headquarters building took place today in Detroit, where Union President Fitzsimmons was reported to have said that former President Jimmy Hoffa will always be a cornerstone in the organization."

Nice delivery by Chase, though of course it helps to remember that Jimmy Hoffa's whereabouts was a constant source of speculation in the summer of '75. The same sort of long, dragged out news coverage would make the "Francisco Franco is still dead" joke funny a little later that year.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Finally, the Atwood Sphere

I might be 46 and prone to the middle-aged illusion that I've fully acquainted myself with the world, and it might take effort to resist the feeling that I know everything I need to know, and that the world is now just one damn thing after another till check-out time. But fortunately, I still see things that remind me that the marvels of the world, natural and manmade, are inexhaustible; I'm the exhaustible one. Such as this manmade-item.

There's surprisingly little on the web about the Atwood Sphere: one of those increasingly rare creatures that has no Wikipedia entry of its own, though it would certainly qualify for one. This is all that the Adler web site itself says: "Atwood Sphere, Chicago's oldest planetarium, was constructed in 1913. The sphere is 15 feet in diameter with 692 holes drilled through its metal surface, allowing light to enter and show the positions of the brightest stars in the night sky. School groups may not participate in presentations made inside the Atwood Sphere due to capacity limitations. However, museum services staff provide ongoing presentations about the Atwood Sphere in the gallery."

Indeed, there's no room inside for a whole school group, though you could cram about 10 kids inside. I was inside with five other adults and one child (Lilly). It was an unexpected treat. After the medicore planetarium show, Lilly and I were taking in some of the exhibits when we turned a corner and came face-to-face, if it had a face, with an enormous steel ball mounted in its own alcove. The steel was wash-tub gray. On one side at the bottom was a hatch large enough to allow a small car, like a mining car or a special elevator for the handicapped, to enter the sphere via a small, diagonal set of tracks. Visitors entered the car -- a maximum of eight, the sign said -- and an operator pushed a button that took the car into the sphere.

Once inside, the hatch closed most of the way, so that it was dark in there, except that you could see the pinpoints of light that represented stars. The brighter stars had bigger holes. Some, but not all, of the constellations were drawn in a luminous ink. According to the guide, there were once small holes that could be opened and closed to represent planets at various positions, but they were gone. An electric motor turned the sphere while you sat in the car watching, to similar the sky as the Earth rotates. I can't say it was an absolutely realistic depiction of the sky, but it was a fine simulation, and in 1913 there were no Zeiss planetariums. According to nearby signs, the Atwood was very popular until the Adler itself opened with a Zeiss in 1930, a new marvel. During WWII, the sphere was used to teach pilots about celestial navigation, and later was painted to look like an Earth globe. Presumably people weren't going inside during the last decades of the 20th century.

The web site of the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium gives a little context: "A breakthrough in three-dimensional representations of the sky came in 1664 with the construction of devices such as the Gottorp Globe. This was a hollow sphere, 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter, inside which images of the constellations and gilded stars were placed. Accommodating up to 10 people inside, this globe could rotate and thus demonstrate the daily motion of the constellations. In 1758, Charles Long improved on this idea by building a rotatable sphere 18 feet (5.5 meters) in diameter, accommodating 30 persons. Instead of painted constellations, Long's sphere, called the "Uranium" ("place of the heavens"), had tiny holes through which light from outside could shine, making it look to viewers inside as if they were actually looking at stars in the dark.

"A similar rotatable sphere, built by Charles Atwood in 1913, was until recently on permanent display at the Chicago Academy of Sciences. Called the Atwood Sphere - and later re-christened the Globe Planetarium - it was the first sky simulator of any kind in the United States."

The Adler acquired the Atwood less than 10 years ago, and restored it, more or less, to its original state. Is that not cool? Going inside a ball made of wash-tub steel while it rotates and you see stars?

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Monday, June 18, 2007


My boyhood interest in astronomy and space travel must have had several roots. One would have been my brothers, who told me what they knew about the stars and planets, and who were happy to point out the bad astronomy in movies and TV, of which there's always been a lot. Then there were the books we had, some illustrated titles about stars, planets and space travel, including an amazingly beat-up copy of The Conquest of Space (1949), featuring many fine illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. Then there was the US and even the Soviet space programs. What eight-year-old has a soul so dead that he wouldn't be thrilled by true stories of flying into orbit and then to the Moon? And seeing the rockets take off and the men bouncing around the grey dust of the lunar surface on your TV?

My mother must have noticed my interest. In the second grade, I got an assignment to write a report about the planet Jupiter. I expanded it into an entire "book," Dees's Book of the Solar System. Of course, I copied almost everything from the Junior Britannica entry on the Solar System, but I suppose it was impressive for a second grader. Anyway, from about 1970 to 1974 she took me to the planetarium at San Antonio College nearly once a month (these days, it's the Scobee Planetarium, named after the commander of the last flight of Challenger). Instead of a taped presentation, those shows were narrated live — all sorts of space subjects, including annual favorites like “What Was the Star of Bethlehem?” and shows with local color, “The Sky on the Night the Alamo Fell.” It was where I learned many astronomical concepts, including the Big Bang, which was illustrated by darkening the planetarium completely and then flashing on a bright light together with a boom; and quasars, which in the 1970s were exceedingly mysterious deep-space objects; and pulsars, neutron stars and black holes, which were (and are) even weirder.

I've retained these interests into adulthood, though not as avidly. So it was with that background that I turned a corner on Sunday at the Adler Planetarium and Space Museum and saw the Atwood Sphere -- more about which tomorrow.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Return to the Adler

We had full summer weekend here, including taking children to a municipal pool, re-arranging the garage (re-organizing is too strong a word, but there are now three bags of castoff items waiting for the garbageman), blowing bubbles in the back yard with Ann, setting up the big tent in the same yard to dry it out, catching A Thousand Clowns on TV by chance -- a swell movie, a lot more nuanced than I remember -- and, on Sunday, visiting the Adler Planetarium there on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Haven't been there in a long time, maybe 10 years. Lilly has been there more recently, taken by her mother, but I wanted to walk the museum with her this time and take her to one of the sky shows. Unfortunately, the Adler's "Egyptian Nights: Secrets of the Sky Gods," didn't rise above mediocre. Sure, the Egyptians watched the sky really, really closely, and built a Stonehenge-like structure that predated Stonehenge. They identified certain constellations with certain of their gods, and they told an elaborate story about how the Sun god spent his nights. But the show could have included much more, such as some historic and geograhic context. It also could have at least mentioned the fact that the constellations would have looked different then, because of the slow drift of the stars, and why Thuban (Alpha Draconis) was the pole star in those days, instead of merely stating that it was.

But Lilly probably got more out of it than I did. Later, we walked around the museum, and happened across something I'd never heard of or seen before, since it's only been at the Adler less than 10 years. It made up for the mediocre star show: the Atwood Sphere. More about which tomorrow.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007


Hot days at last. The way summer ought to be.

Lilly and Ann and I were at one of the municipal pools recently, in a shallow area in which Ann can stand up, and Lilly approached us humming the notes from Jaws that indicate a nearby shark. Ba-dump. Ba-dump. Ba-dump... She had an attack of sorts in mind, a splash attack on the both of us.

After the splashing, it occurred to me to ask her, "Where did you hear that?" Meaning the Jaws signature. I'm fairly sure she hasn't seen the movie. "I don't know," she said. She just knows it. That's the mark of an amazingly successful movie soundtrack, I'd say.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I'm currently writing an article that references the recent subprime mortgage meltdown, and I got a kick out of some of the formal language used to describe companies that specialize in originating subprime mortgages: "The company offers a range of mortgage loan products to borrowers, commonly referred to as nonconforming borrowers, who generally do not satisfy the credit, collateral, documentation or other underwriting standards prescribed by conventional mortgage lenders and loan buyers..."

That is, we make risky loans to deadbeats. That is, people with a history of not paying their creditors. That practice accelerated after about 2002, and I figured it was a game of averages. Sure, a lot of people are going to default, but the high rates paid by those who do not would make up for it. Someone's keeping track to make sure it works out that way, right?

Well, no. The subprime lenders walked off a cliff.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cicada Treats

After some weeks of wondering where the cicadas were, I heard their distinctive buzz today. Just a little. A beginning of an onslaught or not? My friend Kevin came to visit us on Sunday, and we sat on the deck and ate grilled meat and other fine things. "If we were at my house," he said, "we couldn't sit outside like this. The cicadas are too loud."

We told Lilly that if there were cicadas around our back yard -- we hadn't heard any yet -- we could grill them too. Ah, a crunchy treat in a number of countries. She refused to entertain the idea.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Yoga of the Afternoon

Things you see from your window: a woman wearing a hat and a very long dark visor completely covering her face. In fact, the visor must have extended six inches beyond her chin -- as long as a bee-keeper's veil, but looking more like the visor on a motorcycle helmut. Weird, in other words. Sinister. Instantly I thought of the fully veiled Death-like character with the mirror face in Meshes of the Afternoon, though this woman was wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

She was delivering leaflets promoting Dahn Yoga. Who? What? It only took a few minutes to unearth its reputation. Of course, they say they aren't a cult. No, of course they aren't. Perhaps the woman outside my window was just keeping the sun off her face, too. On the other hand, a mask is a mask: it hides something.

The leaflet promises "yoga, tai-chi, meditation, breath work, energy training and brain education." This is different from regular education how? When I send my kids to school, I expect some brain education; their hearts, livers, lungs, etc. already know what to do. Elsewhere the leaflet uses the term brain respiration. Call me squeamish, but the idea, the image, of "brain respiration" doesn't set well with me.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Leftover Amish Country Details

No posting till Monday. Special weekend ahead, though we're not going anywhere. But I'm already scheming to go somewhere else, now that it's summer. This year, for various reasons, it isn't likely that we'll go as far as last year. Still, somewhere is better than nowhere. I can come away with a collection of details even from a short trip like you might leave a beach with shells. The following are the last odd lot of details from our trip to east-central Illinois.

I'm not sure what use the Plain People might have for football, but most of Arcola, Illinois, must take its high school football seriously. I understand. I grew up in Texas. Along Illinois 133, which is the main road into town, the telephone poles have been painted with likenesses of members the high school football team -- the Purple Riders. Amateur portraits, but they got heart.

Turns out it's a team with a rich history. According to the town's web site, "Since the first Arcola football team took the field in 1894, Arcola has become the third-winningest high school program in state history, as well as one of the most recognized programs in the state.

"...the nickname “Purple Riders” did not come along until [over] 30 years later. In the mid 1930s, the football team was in the midst of a 33-game winning streak, at the time the longest in the nation, when a reporter for the News-Gazette in Champaign wrote an article with the headline, 'The Purple and White Rides Again,' giving the team the nickname 'Purple Riders.' ”

Walnut Point State Park, where we camped for two nights, had a concession shack with a pretty good short-order service. We had dinner there one day. A shelf's worth of paperback books were also for sale at the concession, 25¢ each, near the order window. Maybe these were books that people had brought with them to the park, but had decided to leave. Most of them were what you'd expect -- heavy on bodice-rippers etc. But one title was Reading Lolita in Teheran, which I'd heard of, but never bought or read. So I bought it for a quarter. Randomness ought to be a factor in one's reading diet. I finished two chapters while at the campsite, and will pick it up again before long. It's a good book, the memoir of a civilized woman who had to put up with the theocrats who run Iran.

Oakland, Illinois, can be traversed in about five minutes. It has a town square tucked away among its other structures. Maybe that square has seen good times; certainly it has; but the early 21st century aren't those times. The place was gloomy. Maybe it was just the overcast skies. But the run-down buildings along the square, plus a large old house that had been damaged by fire recently, didn't help. Still, I wanted to see the monument in the middle of the square. It was Memorial Day, after all. Someone had decorated the edges of sidewalk leading to the monument with small flags, forming a spot of color in the square, so that was something. The monument consisted of two statues sharing one plinth, one of a soldier and the other sailor, clearly World War I vintage, with the names of locals who had participated in that war carved in the plinth. All of it was weathered and dark.

As usual, after I leave a place, I discover something I should have seen, and so it was in Oakland. But now I wonder: was that burned house near the square the historic Hiram Rutherford house? I may have to find out. In any case, there's a story I didn't know hiding in Oakland.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Visiting Dees

The August 6, 2004, entry in the original BTST mentions some idle vanity of mine that led me to the US Geological Survey web site, National Mapping Information. I searched the nation for places named "Dees" and, to quote myself, came up with "...39 hits for 'Dees' as a place name... It included two towns, or 'populated places,' to use USGS parlance: Dees, Alabama; and Dees, Illinois, (!) which is a hamlet in Cumberland County, near the burg of Effingham, which puts it in the south-central part of the state, a little far for a casual drive."

A little far for a casual drive from metro Chicago, but not if you happen to be in the neighborhood anyway, as we were over Memorial Day weekend. While out looking at Amish buggies and inspecting quasi-Lincoln sites in east central Illinois, I wasn't about to let the change to see Dees, Illinois, elude me.

The map that I consulted for the task was the DeLorme Illinois Atlas & Gazetteer, and Dees is on page 72, in Greenup Township just south of the town of Greenup (Effingham is to the west, but Greenup is the biggest thing in the vicinity). From the town of Greenup, you go southward on Illinois 130 -- which has a junction with I-70 in Greenup -- until you reach 350N, an east-west road through the township. Turn right. At the intersection of 350N and 1650E -- it's a T intersection, actually -- DeLorme's map says DEES.

So we followed that route exactly. I was amused by the water tower in Greenup, which said, "Try Greenup First." It's a small town, and it petered out by the time we got to 350N. I was fully planning to take a picture of the place named Dees, if there were a sign there with that name on it. So we got to the T intersection, and there was a house. And another structure, possibly a school, under construction not far away. That was it. Dees, Illinois. Did the residents of the house know that name, or was a Geological Survey fiction, maybe a relic name from decades and decades ago? I didn't stop to ask.

Still, I've been to Dees, and not many people can say that. A small bonus of this little side trip came during our return to our campground at Walnut Point State Park. We drove back to Greenup, and then to Casey, Illinois, by way of US 40. That's part of the National Road. Route 66, big deal. The National Road, now that's cool.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Shiloh Cemetery, Coles County, Illinois

A couple of miles away from the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site is the Shiloh Cemetery, also known as the Tom Lincoln Cemetery. It's a pleasant place, if you like cemeteries -- Yuriko and the kids stayed in the car -- rural and quiet, ringed by a brace of pines and other trees but otherwise surrounded by farmland. Tom and Sarah Lincoln repose there, behind an small iron fence. A largish stone says LINCOLN, while they each have smaller stones that also say that a local Kiwanis Club provided the stores in 1922.

To judge by the number of headstones, a few hundred souls repose along with the Lincolns, some in a 19th-century section, others in a 20th-century one. Most of the stones are upright, but I noticed a handful flush with the ground, a position I don't usually associate with older headstones. A closer look revealed that some well-worn small stones, formerly upright, had been set horizontally in newer cement, presumably as a way of preserving them.

I walked around only for a few minutes, and neglected to take notes (or take photos), so the names of a few obscure people and their lifespans will have to stay down here in Coles County. But I did notice a marker for a mass grave for 30-odd "Asiatic cholera" victims in the 1830s and '40s. Also, some of the individual stones had carved in them a hand in relief, index finger pointing up, along with the words GO HOME.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

Visiting Tom and Sarah

No domestic trip of more than a few days is really complete without a visit to a presidential site and a cemetery, if you ask me. So it was a bit of good luck that the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site is in Coles County, Illinois, not far south of the Amish country that we visited over Memorial Day weekend. As soon as I found that out, I knew I had to drop by.

Strictly speaking, it isn't a presidential site. No president, including Lincoln, was born, lived, died or did anything significant there. The land in Coles County belonged to Lincoln's father and stepmother, Tom and Sarah Lincoln, which they farmed while Abe was off in Springfield making a name as a lawyer and politician. The future president did visit as often as he could, though.

The log cabin that you see today is not theirs, but a Civilian Conservation Corps replica. It seems that the original Lincoln Log Cabin was packed off to the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and after that -- oops, now where did it go? The furnishing and other farm buildings are also of the period, the 1840s, but not of the Lincoln's.

But was a good enough facsimile, and included other farming structures. The surrounding territory was freshly green, and it was warm but not too warm. There were also short trails to walk around and, elsewhere in the site, shelters with picnic tables. Ultimately we had lunch at one of these, made on our camp stove: beans and bacon, mostly. Something 1840s about that choice, but not the propane used to cook it.

Below are a few pictures. More about the cemetery tomorrow.

The cabin itself.

A current resident of the nearby barn.

A trail leading away from the cabin. The reproduction of an 1840s farm includes a fence of the period off in the distance, but doesn't go so far as to include crops.

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Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Bugs of Summer

It's supposed to be 17-year cicada time here in northern Illinois -- been a big deal in the papers and in local news reports -- but I haven't seen nor heard them yet very much. We did find one shell while taking a walk on Saturday at the Spring Valley Nature Reserve. Not that the bugs are such a big deal to me anyway. We had the annual variety in South Texas, and as a very small child I was afraid of the empty shells.

But there are plenty of other insects around. There's been a population explosion of tiny green bugs on and around our deck. Don't know what they are, exactly, micro-beetles, maybe, not much bigger than a pinhead. They haven't been so numerous in past years, but whenever we've sat around outside lately, the bright green bugs make their way onto our chairs, clothes, and other objects, including the books I take outside. They don't bite, or cause harm that I know about, but who wants small crawling bugs that close? You either smash them or brush them off.

Also on Saturday, around dusk, I saw a single firefly lighting up. He was early. Usually they're markers of high summer, not rising summer. He flashed a couple of times. I imagined he was wondering, Where Is Everyone?

On Sunday, Lilly and I took a walk to a park that includes a small creek, whose banks are lush with tall grass and a few flowers. We saw a kind of dragonfly we'd never seen before -- about a inch long, very slender, with green on its head, a body of black segments, and a blue tip at the very end. They flitted around quickly and noiselessly like a glider.


Friday, June 01, 2007

Raggedy Ann & Beloved Belindy

Main Street in Arcola, Illinois, has one distinction that no main street anywhere else has, namely the Johnny Gruelle Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum. I'd probably read about the place sometime before we got to Arcola, but Raggedy Ann and Andy had made such a slight impression on me throughout my 45+ years that I anything I knew previously about the museum must have evaporated. So I was surprised to see it.

Not only that, I went in with some trepidation. Here's another rinky-dink museum that wants to gouge me for admission. I was fully expecting them to ask $5 or more -- museum admission inflation has gotten pretty bad in recent years. If it had been that much, I would have sent Yuriko and the kids in to look around, while I took a walk around Arcola.

Admission was only $1 each -- and nothing for Ann. At that price, I decided to look around. It turned out to be a small, thoughtfully designed museum not only about the dolls, but about their creator, the cartoonist John Gruelle, who grew up in Arcola. Previously I knew nothing about him and his creations, and now I know something. I'd say the museum did its job.

As you'd expect, it had a large collection of Raggedy Anns, but it had other, more interesting (to me) items, including an astonishing array of Raggedy Ann merchandise from across the decades. Gruelle drew political cartoons, and there were some of those; he illustrated children's books not his own, and there were some of those as well; and there were other characters he'd created, both as drawings and dolls that never achieved the level of fame that Raggedy Ann did. The most intriguing of these was Beloved Belindy, Raggedy Ann and Andy's mammy. I figure most people wouldn't know there was ever such a character. I certainly didn't.

Then again, as a former boy, Raggedy and her kin had little appeal for me. But wall of a magazine covers and various illustrations from the 1920s to the 2000s showed just how enduring the doll's appeal is -- hanging there were dozens of uses of Raggedy Ann in illustrations and photographs, mainly using the doll as a shorthand for the innocence of childhood or girlhood. In one, a Christmastime 1961 or '62 magazine cover by Norman Rockwell, a traditional Santa -- as you'd imagine he'd be in a Rockwell painting -- is wearing a Mercury astronaut space helmet. One of the toys he's carrying is a Raggedy Ann.

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