Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Summertime, and the Living is Busy

Time for summer break around here. Back to posting in about two weeks -- August 7 or 8. Much to do until then, both work and play. Summer recommendations until then:

Hairspray. A major delight. That coming from someone who isn't completely taken with movie musicals. I took the girls, at Lilly's request, to see it on its opening day last Friday. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie on opening day. I didn't even do that as a teenager, though of course opening days were localized in those days. For example, Star Wars opened in San Antonio on July 1, 1977, some weeks after it had in larger cities (I went with friends to see it on July 2, and waited in a fairly long line).

Cicadas. They've finally come in some numbers to my part of the world. When I hear them, I like summer even more. They make the sound of high, hot summer. Summers of yore. That's a strong association to get from a noisy insect.

This video, Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show, made for YouTube some months ago. Especially entertaining to those of us with significant exposure to Japanese TV. It must be fun for other people, too, what with about 1.6 million views.

All these suggestions are noisy. For something quiet, read "The Quietest Place in the World," an article by my friend Ed. The complete text is here. As a travel writer, Ed's at the top of his game. I'd like to recommend longer reading material, but among the handful of books I've pursued recently in the few moments I have time to read them, nothing stands out. For now, high-quality short articles, such as anything on Ed's web site, will do.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Sex Ed at Hogwarts?

A friend of mine who has no children e-mailed the other day and noted that, in his childless state, he was able to skip the lines last weekend to buy the latest Harry Potter book. I missed that line myself, even though juveniles dwell with us. Lilly, who is old enough to read the books, has shown little interest in the copy of the first volume we have sitting around the house. In the fullness of time, she’ll either read it or she won’t.

Come to think of it, even if she had read all of the books, and was eager to acquire the latest one, I wouldn’t have waited in line at midnight to buy one. Or waited in line any time. Despite news reports about enthusiasts waiting around the block at certain bookstores, I think I represent majority opinion on the subject of waiting for Harry. It isn’t as if all of the Harry Potter books will be bought and later traded at a premium for being rare. They won’t be the 1916-D dimes of our time.

Harry’s practically grown up now, as I understand it. Does it behoove him to practice safe sex? Or do they teach certain spells at Hogwarts that obviate the need? Just wondering.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mary Lois Harless, RIP

This obituary appeared recently in the Houston Chronicle.

MARY LOIS STEVENSON HARLESS, age 81, was born June 1, 1926 in Mary Neal, TX, to Robbie Barbee and Louis Stroud Stevenson. Preceded in death by parents, two brothers, Louis Stroud Stevenson Jr. and Robert Lloyd Stevenson, and husband Raymond Leo Harless. Survivors are son Louis Raymond Harless, Dallas; daughter Sharon A. Daniel and Dale of Arlington; two grandchildren, Robin Marie Daniel and Brad Stevenson Daniel; and niece Marcia Marcantonio of San Antonio. She was raised in Lovelady,TX. And attended Texas Women's College, Sam Houston University and University of Houston. She began her career in teaching in La Porte, Bay City and Pasadena and retired after 31 years of teaching. She was a member of Ashbury United Methodist Church, member of United Methodist Women, Pasadena Retired Teachers, Host volunteer in reading for ten years, La Porte Alumni Association, Jane Long Chapter of DAR, grandmothers club and S.P.J.C. Family will receive friends on Sunday, July 22, 2007, from 5 P.M. to 8 P.M. at Grand View Funeral Home. Funeral services will be held on Monday, July 23, 2007, at 10 A.M. in the chapel of Grand View Funeral Home with a graveside service at 4:00 P.M. in Lovelady Cemetery, in Lovelady, TX.

Mary Lois and my mother went to college together in the mid-1940s, and had stayed in touch ever since. I remember her visiting, or us visiting her, a number of times as I was growing up. The last time I saw her was in early 1995, when she and her husband Ray did me a good turn by letting my stay overnight at their home in Pasadena, Texas, while I was on my way to San Antonio.


Thursday, July 19, 2007


Here we are practically at the anniversary of the first Moon landing – July 20, not the 21st as it is in some reference works, because the Eagle landed on that day as reckoned at Mission Control in Houston, Central Daylight Time. Who cares what the GMT was at landing or when Neil Armstrong descended that ladder?

Not long ago I looked for some Apollo 11 clips on YouTube, and sure enough found a good many. As has been noted elsewhere, the YouTube comment section is often a moron magnet, and the Moon landing clips bring out that very special breed of moron, those who deny that men ever achieved such a thing.

The idea is so disconnected from reality that it’s hardly worth criticizing, and sites such as Bad Astronomy do it so much better anyway. I figure if you’re going to start denying events with many thousands of witnesses and literal tons of documentary evidence (the Apollo program, the Holocaust), you might as well deny anything and everything beyond your immediate experience. Those pyramids that impress everybody so much in Egypt? Built in the 1950s as tourist attractions (Nasser covered it all up). The Roman Empire? Never happened: no country could have been that big without telephones. That whole deal with Magellan sailing around the world? You really believe little wooden boats could do that?

But why stop with musty old history? I’m not sure New York City is a real place, you know. Sure, I’ve been there, or at least that that’s what the people called it when I got there, but it was all mighty suspicious. Fake-like. It must have all been a big set, built just for people sucker enough to buy an airplane ticket to “LaGuardia,” where the deception begins. Otherwise New York exists only on falsified reports by TV- and moviemakers, collaborating with the government. You can’t prove I’m wrong.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Google Me Now

Way back in the early 2000s, I remember telling an old friend about feeding names of people I'd lost touch with into Google to see what I could come up with. I got a number of interesting hits that way, letting me know what a handful of people were up to. "I never thought of putting someone's name into Google," my friend said.

The world has come a long way since then. Somewhat later, I read somewhere or other that "vain" people Google themselves. If that's so, I'm vain, because I Google my name every few months to see what will turn up. Googled with quote marks around both names, I get several hundred listings, though many of those Google calls similar, and so they are. That's no surprise, really, considering that I write for on-line magazines frequently. What surprises is that not all the articles I've written on line turn up.

Second-order uses of my name also turn up, such as this. If only I had a nickel for every such use. Why, I'd have maybe $20.

The other day I did a bit of self-Googling and I ran across a pdf in Chinese that includes my name -- in a footnote. Two footnotes, actually, citing a story I'd written about a real estate investment vehicle. The pdf was product of Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, a consultant and outsourcing specialist.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Cakes I've Known

Forgot to mention my birthday last month. Here's the evidence: a quarter sheet of cake I got at a warehouse retailer. I priced a cake at a small bakery that we like, but sad to say their much smaller cake cost more than the quarter-sheet, and I couldn't see myself paying nearly $20 for an ordinary-sized cake.

You can order the quarter-sheets with special words on it, but at my age I didn't bother with it. I just picked up a cake with "Happy Birthday" on it, which also happened to be decorated with sugar balloons. I would have taken one with "Happy Graduation" or an "Splendid Solstice" on it without any decoration. Man, it was tasty -- I hate to say it, but as good as our friendly neighborhood bakery.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Last Thing You See

Busy writing days. This is the opposite of what summer should be -- indolent. So it goes in our time and place; money must be made.

But there are always photos. I was musing on near-death experiences the other day, for no special reason (fortunately), and I remembered that survivors of such experiences are said to report moving toward a light, a welcoming, friendly light. So much so that they don't want to go back. Makes me wonder just what you'd see in that light, if anything or anybody. But I suppose if you get that far, you aren't coming back.

What if this is what you saw, emerging from the light?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Exceptionally Large People

One thing to do while you're waiting around for your kid to finish with a carnival ride, besides wave when she goes by, is to read the safety warnings. Not because anyone will be any safer, but because they're there, like the labels on the condiments at your table while waiting for your food, or the small print on sweepstakes entry forms.

We visited the Taste of Westmont this weekend -- the town's summer festival on the main street -- and I noted a bit of verbage I'd never seen before posted at each of the rides, even the ones for wee small children. Namely: "Due to the design of the seating safety device on this ride, exceptionally large people may not be able to ride."

Just a sign of our times, I figure. And I'm deeply concerned about the "exceptionally large people" public health crisis, with some people now topping out at seven and a half or eight feet tall, with hands the size of elephant ears and feet as long as snowboards.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Frig Magnets

At a garage sale a few weeks ago, I bought some souvenir magnets, the state-shaped magnets for refrigerators. Ten cents each, a lot cheaper than at a tourist junk shop, so I bought most of them -- but only those places that I'd been to at one time or another (otherwise it would be cheating).

Most of them are what you'd expect, trading on a state's iconography, or less charitably, state cliches. Kentucky has a racehorse on it, Indiana has a couple of racetrack flags, and Wyoming has room for a cowboy, Old Faithful and Devil's Tower. There are the standard nicknames too: Land of 10,000 Lakes of Minnesota and the Hoosier State for Indiana, for instance.

The oddest of the lot is Arizona, though the images aren't that strange. It has a cowboy, too, plus some Indian pottery and some mountains. But then there's the motto -- ARIZONA If You Knew It. If you knew it what? If you knew it, you'd stay the hell away, especially when it's 110 in the shade?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Judo Master

All in all, a pretty good day. I shook hands with an Olympic medal winner. Not just any medal winner, but Bob Berland, silver medalist in judo in the '84 Los Angeles Games -- the first American to win a medal in that sport. He could have thrown me on the floor in a blink of an eye but, of course, he didn't. We exchanged a few civilized pleasantries, and I'm certain he's already forgotten the moment.

These days, he's the president of a printing company in Chicago, but he was also important in the effort to get the US IOC's blessing for the city's bid for the 2016 Games. I was covering a panel discussion about the prospect of Chicago winning the Games, and he was one of the panelists. Besides being a former judo champ, he was also an articulate spokesman for the cause of holding the Olympics here.

I'm for it myself. I've already written a couple of short articles on the subject, so I know enough about it to have some half-baked opinions. Namely that mere economic impact isn't enough to justify the trouble of holding an Olympics, though that is a consideration. Emotional reasons have to factor in. The city should hold the Games because it's one of humanity's great events, and Chicago is one of the great cities of the Earth.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Faraway and Nearby Lights

Last Saturday just after sunset was clear and moonless, so we went to the Spring Valley Nature Reserve to look through the telescopes that amateur astronomers set up there 10 times a year or so. About a dozen other people were there. First we saw Jupiter, which was a bright white disk in the eyepiece, with a hint of the banding so well known in photos using much larger telescopes. All four of the Galilean Moons were just hanging there, to the left of the great planet.

Then the astronomer turned the scope to M-94. I don't remember the last time I looked at a Messier object through a telescope; been a while, and I'm sure I've never seen this particular galaxy before. I explained to Lilly the concept of a light year, though I'm sure it didn't quite sink in. It doesn't quite sink in with me. The glob of light we saw had been traveling this way since before there were any people to see it.

Much closer were the constant flicker of fireflies in the tall grass of the reserve. Several flashes every second, in all directions. Worth seeing as much as the deep-space objects, and one reason we come out in July to the reserve.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Tiny & Dick

I borrowed a CD of novelty songs from the library a while ago, and it became part of the soundtrack of our drive through Kankakee and Grundy counties last week. Lilly took an unexpected liking to Tiny Tim's version of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," and I have to say I gave it another listen myself. I don't think I really appreciated his preternatural falsetto before, or that he was trying to keep some fine old songs alive. Good for him.

Listening to just that song, Lilly was unpersuaded that Tiny Tim was a man. So I looked for something on YouTube. I'm happy to report that there's a lot of Tiny Tim on YouTube, including his breakthrough performance on Laugh-In, which I possibly saw in 1968, but have no memory of seeing.

So we watched it. Gender wasn't much of an issue by this point, but Lilly clearly thought he was a weirdo. Not so surprising an opinion for a nine-year-old. I enjoyed Dick Martin's reactions just as much as the song itself, whether they were contrived or real befuddlement at an act like Tiny Tim.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The 'Works

Over the Independence quasi-holiday week (now over, unfortunately), we enjoyed two kinds of fireworks: private and public, the former outlawed, the latter allowed by the state of Illinois. Both involved watching colorful explosions at safe distances.

On the last day of June, we were in Grundy Country, camping on some land owned by friends of ours. The good citizens of Grundy County shot off a lot of fireworks that night, till about 11 -- they weren’t about to let the fact that it was five days ahead of the Fourth, or that nannyish legislators in Springfield some decades ago thought the people shouldn’t make their own colorful explosions, spoil their fun.

It wasn’t just kids with firecrackers and bottle rockets. South of us, across a small lake, someone was putting on a show that rivaled some of the municipal shows that I’ve seen. There was no municipality nearby, so we knew that it was private. Someone shot off a few thousand dollars’ worth of professional-looking ’works, and we were lucky enough to be around to see it.

Less expensive fireworks were going off all around, too. I’ll say this for modern roman candles: they’ve got a lot more bang, very literally, that the roman candles of my youth. In those days, they just shot off colorful fireballs. Now the fireballs whiz and bang into mini-displays. That’s progress, and I’m for it.

Hoffman Estates, Illinois, put on a display on the Fourth. In 2004 and ’05, we’d gone all the way to Wheeling, Illinois, quite a few miles away, the first time because we’d heard it was a good show, the second time because it had indeed been a good show. Last year, our presence in Canada on July 4 prevented us seeing any fireworks that day, public or private, since the Canadians never did shake George III or his descendents. We also missed the July 1 festivities of Canada Day by being in Fargo, ND, that day. Close but no cigar.

In Hoffman Estates, we walked a long way from parking on a side street to the grounds of city hall to see a fireworks show. The place was crowded, but at least the show was good. I would have made some changes to the soundtrack, though.

Too much patriotic country music – a little goes a long way – and not enough Sousa. Not only that, they played the Celine Dion’s version of “God Bless America.” Sure, Canadians can love America. It isn’t about nationality. She isn’t Kate Smith.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fox River Trolleys

After the Arlington Heights parade on the morning of Independence Day, which we abandoned after about an hour – that’s enough standing-around time for most parades – we returned home for lunch but soon headed west, to near the banks of the Fox River. That's because the Fox River Trolley Museum has its home there, in South Elgin on Illinois 31 on the west side of the river.

We’d driven by it a number of times, but like most train museums it has limited hours (I’m using “train” museum loosely, because in fact the cars on the Fox River are trolleys, powered by overhead electric wires). So we’d never managed to visit before. But according to our sources, the place was not only open on the Fourth, but discounting its rides to a dollar each. Who could pass that up? A lot of people, apparently. I was worried about crowds and waiting around for the next trolley in the now-hot sun, but only about a dozen other people were around, so we got to ride as soon as the trolley was ready. I barely had time to support the museum by buying some postcards.

It’s a small operation, most of whose cars are beat up, rusted and closed to the public, but I’m sure the all-volunteer staff is doing its best. One car that was open was a caboose, showing visitors state-of-the-art comfort for trainmen in the early 20th century. Two trolleys were actually running on the Fourth, including a former Chicago Transit Authority car dating, according to the conductor, from 1924 and that saw service for about 50 years. That’s the one we rode. It squeaks, needs paint, and is otherwise in need of cosmetic restoration, but it runs all right. Not air conditioned (which would be wrong), but it was surprisingly cool with the breeze coming in the partly opened windows, which might be stuck in their positions.

The right-of-way follows the river and then into a forest preserve, and is the last vestige of an interurban trolley network that used to connect the towns in eastern Kane County. Towns then, suburbs now. The conductor noted that the road we came on killed off passenger service on the interurban once it was paved, but that the museum’s line survived into the 1960s because it was used to haul coal to the State Mental Hospital upriver a few miles in Elgin.

He was a little younger than I am, this burly and mustachioed volunteer conductor, but clearly into the part, busting out with “Alllllllll aboard!” at the right time, dressed in dark-blue conductor finery of a older time -- the cap, the white collar, the brass buttons – and perhaps living a boyhood-train dream just a little, though he might be a CPA or a bathroom contractor most of the time. Just speculating here, but the love of trolleys was there in his voice as he detailed the history of the car, the tracks and interurban transit in this corner of Illinois.

The four-mile ride itself was pretty, rolling along lush green territory, sometime glimpsing the Fox, other times crossing grassy fields. The driver had to stop and blow the whistle a couple of times at one point to clear the tracks of joggers. Bet that wasn’t a problem during the line’s regular passenger runs 80 years ago.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I Like a Parade

July 4 on a Wednesday has the happy effect of lightening up the whole week. Even if you go to an office or elsewhere to work on July 2, 3, 5 & 6, it's like a week with two Thursdays and Fridays with a festive Saturday smack in the middle.

We did our best to festivize this year, maybe because we were in Canada last year at this time. At around 10 in the morning, Lilly and Ann and I found ourselves in Arlington Heights, Illinois (because I'd driven to the vicinity), a town about two squares north and one east of where we live -- a knight's move on the suburban board. One of the smaller streets has been designated a Fourth of July parade route and this year, by gar, I wanted to see a parade. Skies were overcast, so it was warm but the Sun wasn't oppressive.

It had everything a suburban parade ought to. High school marching bands, a couple of simple floats, patriotic trappings, club members out marching and in cars, politicos, a grand marshal I'd never heard of, clowns, ads for local businesses, hot rods, flags and candy distribution. The parade route was lined with people, but not vastly crowded like a city parade might be.

Regarding a couple of the members of Illinois legislature who were in the parade: we've sent those guys to Springfield? Can't they at least dress up for an occasion like this, maybe just a little? At least Mark Kirk, the US Rep from the 10th District of Illinois, was more presentable in his coat and tie, and his wife -- probably, female companion at least -- was also dressed for a public event, not a backyard barbecue, though those highish heels couldn't have been too comfortable after a while.

The high school bands brought back some pleasant memories of the parades I was in, namely the San Antonio Fiesta parades from 1976 to 1978. Which were in April, not only because Texas won its independence in April, but also because it would be the height of lunacy to march a few mid-day miles in July in San Antonio. The parade in 1979, which was cancelled because of a sniper, is another story, one I won't dwell on today but which I see isn't referenced in many places on line.

Another high school memory emerged because each of the bands had flag girls with them. People are inclined to gush about high school cheerleaders, who might have their charms, but I recall liking to watch the flag girls a lot more.

There were no Shriners that I noticed. Shriners driving little cars, that is. Years ago in Nashville I watched a parade (I forget what occasion) from my office window, and marveled at the driving skills of the Shriner little-car squad. But the Knights of Columbus had a squad on hand, about a dozen marchers complete with capes and chapeaux, and I noted how none of them looked younger than me, with most considerably older. Maybe the appeal of chapeaux isn't what it used to be among the suburban Catholic.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Islands in the Kankakee

Kankakee River State Park hugs the banks of the river of that name, which is a tributary of the Illinois River. To judge by what we saw over the weekend, most people visit there to fish. We visited to take a walk, and so we did for about a mile, more or less, each way along the north bank. Sometimes the path -- paved, and meant for bicycles too -- winds out of sight of the river. But there are also some fine views, such as this:

Downriver at Wilmington, there are long wooded islands in the river, and there were some at the park, too. Such as this one:

As we stood here looking at the river, a man came up from the bank carrying about a half-dozen fish dangling from a line, including an enormous catfish. "Nice catch," I said. He agreed that the fish were good that day.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Gemini Giant

Before we got to Grundy County on Saturday, we first went to Kankakee River State Park in neighboring Kankakee County, which is pretty much due south of Chicago, hard by the border with Indiana. I went camping at Kankakee River SP about 20 years ago, but wanted to re-examine the place, since I didn't remember much about it.

But first, of course, I knew we needed lunch. Unless we leave really early, that's going to happen a short time into any trip ("I'm hungry, Daddy!"). I thought ahead and realized that the Launching Pad in Wilmington, Illinois, was just the place.

If you enter Wilmington via Illinois 53, the Launching Pad is impossible to miss, because it's guarded by the Gemini Giant, who looks like this (that's actually the neighboring house in the background, but it does give a sense of scale):

I took this photo of the Gemini Giant, a variant of a muffler man, when I first saw him in 2002. I asked a fellow in the parking lot at the time about it, and he said he was surprised that I wasn't a German. It seems that the Gemini Giant is (was) highlighted in some German guidebook on Route 66.

So I'd seen the giant before, but never eaten at his restaurant, and I thought it was time. They make a pretty good hamburger, even better onion rings, and a jim-dandy banana shake.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Out Grundy Way

Gastro-intestinal upset struck on Friday morning, so it was all I could do to file the small bit of professional writing I had to do that day, much less post here. Things were better by Friday night, but I was in no mood to sit in front of a computer. I let the kids do that.

On Saturday, I felt well enough to proceed, as planned, with the rest of the family for an overnight visit to Grundy County, Illinois, just southwest of metro Chicago. By some reckonings, it's part of metro Chicago already, though mostly exurban. But the signs are all there -- sometimes literally, in the form of FOR SALE signs on property -- that in a decade or two, full-blown suburbs will exist in Grundy County as surely as they do now in DuPage or Lake or Will counties.

This isn't idle speculation on my part. I actually looked up some facts, and it turns out that Grundy County's population has grown from about 37,500 in 2000 to 45,800 last year, according to the US Census Bureau, a change of some 22.1 percent. DuPage County, by contrast, the growth spot in Illinois in the 1980s, grew only 3.1 percent over the same period, though of course it has a much larger population (932,000 in 2006).

Hands will be wrung. People who moved to the countryside will gripe of people who moved to the countryside some years later than they did. Sprawl will ruin Grundy County. Shocking how all those extra people will have places to live and work and shop and entertain themselves.

Anyway, the prospect of a more populous Grundy County didn't concern us a bit when we were there. Among other things, we were too busy camping in a back yard, warding off ticks, listening to the illegal fireworks, and attending the Grundy County Fair, with its cattle and goats and chickens and amusements for small children.