Thursday, June 26, 2008

High Summer of Aught-Eight

Fireflies! They've appeared suddenly, in great numbers, dancing their glowing dance. They mark the beginning of high summer; rising summer is complete. Not sure what the harbinger of the end of that singular period, high summer, might be around here -- maybe it's marked by intense cricketsong, at least in Illinois.

So I don't get too goofy in praise of this time of year, I have to add that mosquitoes are out in great numbers now as well. Lately some have made their way into the house. That means the end of the line for them, and a nuisance for us.

Time for summer break. Signing off until about July 6. I ought to have a few new observations to report by then. Regards to all American readers for Independence Day (amazingly, people from all over the world visit this site, usually just once). If possible, go out and do your patriotic bit by eating meat, drinking beer and shooting off fireworks.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

RIP, Noelle His

I didn't know Noelle His, but I knew who she was. As a member of the Alamo Heights High School Class of 1978, she was a year ahead of me. On June 1, 1978, she was very likely with her class at their graduation ceremonies in an auditorium at Trinity University -- an event marked by silly string, confetti, and other very visible items of youthful celebration, all of which I saw as a member of the audience. Early in the morning of June 25, 1978, Noelle and a young man named Kevin (I think), who was recently a freshman at (I think) Texas A&M, died in a car accident.

On the evening of Saturday the 24th, I went to a back yard party at the Olmos Park house of another Kevin -- not the fellow who died -- a Kevin who was also a member of the Class of '78, and who until recently had been first chair baritone horn player in band, and thus my section leader. We didn't socialize all that much, actually, and it was the only time I ever recall being at his house.

At this distance, I remember very little about what went on, but it was a sedate event, the kind of party that mostly involves sitting around someone's back yard and talking about nothing in particular. The novelty of that yard was the device, hanging from a post or tree, that zapped mosquitoes: a glowing, electrified no-pest strip, new to the market at the time. I was probably home by midnight that night.

I don't know the details of the accident, but I know that it was in the wee hours of Sunday; at a railroad crossing on the North Side of San Antonio that I knew well, and had crossed many times myself, both as a passenger and a driver; and that it wasn't far from where I had been earlier in the evening.

On Monday, Jamison mentioned the accident. That summer, I took Government as a summer school class in the mornings, and the teacher was a man named Ted Jamison. Dr. Ted Jamison. What a PhD was doing teaching a summer high school class, I do not know, but he did. He was, in fact, one of the best teachers I ever had, for all of about five weeks in '78, but that could well be another posting someday.

Jamison, about as old then as I am now, was visibly moved by the news. "So young," was one of the things he said. I appreciate that sentiment a lot more now than at the time, of course, and doubly so as the father of daughters.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Urban Woods

Besides the Daniel Chester French statue in Jackson Park, we also were able to examine Wooded Island in some detail on Sunday. The only other time I had been there was in the early 2000s, during a festival in Jackson Park that included activities at its Japanese garden, which is toward to north end of the island. This time we parked at a lot near Hayes and Cornell, crossed a small bridge and walked northward along one of island's two main paths toward the Museum of Science & Industry -- which is across another bridge. Wooded Island really is an island, between the two lagoons of the park, which are distant echoes of the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Jackson Park.

Alas, the bridges to and from Wooded Island are only functional in our time -- nothing like this.

There's also very little sense that anything like a world's fair ever happened here as one walks along the forested pathways in June. In fact, except for the ubiquitous sounds of traffic, there's very little sense that you're in a metro area of about nine million people. In the thick of things, no buildings are visible, not even at a distance. The trees are enormous and varied -- oaks, maples, willows, just to name those I recognized -- the underbrush intensely thick, and everything is lush this wet June. Mosquitoes weren't quite the nuisance I expected, and the place was a flutter with butterflies and dragonflies. Only a few people were around, many of them fishing in the lagoon.

South of Wooded Island, but still in Jackson Park, is an 18-hole golf course. We don't visit many golf courses, but were advised it had the closest public restrooms when, after quitting Science & Industry and returning to the car, Lilly expressed the need for one. According to a plaque in the club house, the first course on the site, opened in 1899, was the "the first public golf course west of the Alleghenies," which I suppose counts for something in golf course lore.

Though much different from Wooded Island, it was also hard to imagine the rest of the city from certain vantage points near the course. Such as this one:

The course, it turns out, is a design of the Olmsted Brothers, the son and adopted son of Fredrick Law Olmsted. The old man and his partner Calvert Vaux are best remembered for designing Central Park, as well as the grounds of the Columbian Exposition, while the brothers are best known for designing the parks of Seattle.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Daniel Chester French Left This For All to See

We went to the Museum of Science & Industry on Sunday, to take advantage of a free day. I wasn't particularly planning to see anything new, maybe just a few items on exhibit that I'd missed before. In the last three or four years, we've been to S&I five or six times, plus the time I went to see the unnerving BodyWorlds exhibit three years ago.

But it's not a good idea to assume you won't see anything new, even on a short excursion. It means you'll be less open to the serendipity that's always possible, even on a short excursion.

South of the museum, I saw by chance this monumental statue, The Republic -- nicknamed the Golden Lady -- and despite the threat of lightning (see the clouds boiling in the background), and her isolation in a traffic circle, took this photo.

I don't have the energy to import a lot of information about the statue, a Daniel Chester French creation that echoes back to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, but its story is here in great detail, with a lot of pictures, for the curious.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Items From Junes Past

June 22, 1982

Did I mention the postcard I got from Jay [my brother] yesterday? On it he said: "It appears increasingly likely the your estimable sister-in-law is with child, as they say. Medical examination will provide final confirmation, a week from Monday. More news when there is more news."

Later (June 28), I got another postcard from Jay: "The doctor confirmed that Deb is 8 or 9 weeks pregnant. If things go according to plan, this will promote you to the status of uncle about the 25th of January 1983, give or take a couple of weeks.

PS Amigdolo is not being seriously considered as a name."

June 9, 1993

Today Yuriko and I did lunch at Mos Burger... The editors cut my description of Mos Burger's rice burgers out of the final version of [my recent article in Kansai Time Out], probably for space. It went like this: "Truly unique are the rice burgers, a fine example of Japan's cultural ability to recast an import into something Japanese. Instead of bread, the rice burger uses two disks of lightly toasted rice to hold its contents together. There are three varieties: yakiniku, kinpiru (julienned carrot and burdock root in soy sauce), and best of all, tsukune rice burger, a chicken patty topped with vegetables. All of the varieties are delicious. All of them fall apart in your fingers."

June 17, 2000

On Wednesday (the 14th) I went to Dominck's [a supermarket] on Ogden just before sunset. Evil-looking clouds were moving from west to east, but not enough to cover the sky. When Lilly & I emerged from the store, we had a view of a perfect rainbow, a total arc, from point to point south of the parking lot. We watched it for a few minutes, and soon it was gone.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

George Fabyan, Eccentric

Fortune magazine, in an on-line list of 10 American wealthy eccentrics, has this to say about George Fabyan: "Fabyan made a fortune as a cloth dealer and then retired to his estate, Riverbank, in Geneva, Illinois. The house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There, Fabyan devoted himself to his varied interests. He became convinced, using cryptological analysis, that Francis Bacon was the author of many Shakespeare plays, and persuaded a court to rule to this effect in 1916. He spent almost two years and $75,000 transplanting a windmill to his estate. And he spent years trying to build an acoustically-operated levitation device.

"But Fabyan was more than just a crank - or at least he left more of a legacy. At Riverbank he brought in world-class researchers in architectural acoustics, and it was Riverbank-trained cipher analysts who helped crack German and Mexican codes during World War I."

Actually, Fayban's house was re-designed by Wright. It's near the west bank of the Fox River, through remnants of a formal garden and up a slope. Fayban and his wife found it as a farm house in the early 1900s, and commissioned Wright -- then still an architect in Oak Park with an eye for clients' wives -- to redevelop it. It certainly looks like it has the stamp of Wright on it, and it's also fairly easy to distinguish some of the original rooms from those that Wright added. Wright didn't believe in particularly tall ceilings, for one thing.

Fabyan apparently liked to collect things, including stuffed animals and Japanese items, many of which are still on display in his house, now called the Fabyan Villa Museum. You (I) have to like any little museum that has both a glass case full of bird eggs, including that all-important ostrich egg, as well as a full suit of samurai armor, and a mummy (discovered many years later to be a fake).

In his lifetime, we were told, Fabyan also keep a small menagerie on the grounds of his estate. Among others were two bears, Tom and Jerry, and a small troupe of monkeys. On the second floor of the house, we saw a room with a tin floor where the monkeys stayed in the winter. It might have been hard to sleep on certain winter nights in the Fabyan household.

More astonishingly, Fabyan, through his daft interest in breaking a code that he supposed existed in the works of Shakespeare, inadvertently created a nucleus of cryptographers that proved to be invaluable to the United States in both World Wars. F.N. D'Alessio of the AP wrote about it in 2001: "[Fabyan's] cryptology project might have dissolved had the United States not entered World War I in April 1917. The federal government had virtually no cryptographers, and Fabyan had plenty, so Riverbank became the NSA of its day. Newlyweds William and Elizebeth Friedman were soon cracking German and Mexican codes for the US military and helping Scotland Yard expose anti-British agents in North America.

"When the US Army finally established its own Cipher Bureau, its first 88 officers were trained by Fabyan and the Friedmans at Riverbank. When they graduated, William Friedman took a commission himself and went to France...

"William Friedman became the nation's top code breaker and led the successful effort to crack the Japanese codes before World War II. Elizebeth Friedman did her code breaking for the Coast Guard and the Treasury Department, and later established a secure communications system for the International Monetary Fund.

"In 1955 [long after Fabyan had died], the Friedmans returned to the Shakespeare question in their book, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. Although they thanked Fabyan for encouraging code studies, they concluded that they began their careers seeking something that did not exist."

The entire article is here.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Testy Fox River

Angry Midwest rivers are in the news these days. At least, that's how rivers overflowing their usual banks and ravaging nearby towns and farms have been described -- "angry."

On Sunday, the Fox River near Geneva wasn't angry, but it seemed a mite testy. After touring the inside of the Fabyan Windmill and marveling at its intricate wood and cast-iron works -- and best of all, seeing the blades and cap from the second-floor balcony -- we went downhill to the river's edge, and then crossed a series of pedestrian bridges to the other side, to visit the rest of the Fabyan estate.

Either the river was high, or somehow the trees and bushes along its edge had moved down toward the river. The current was also quite swift, the product of countless tributaries still draining rainwater into the Fox at countless points, moderated in various ways by dams along the way.

The first footbridge from the east bank actually crosses to a long peninsula, narrowly attached to the west bank. Another foot or so of river, and the peninsula would have been underwater. As it was, large pools of water had collected there, and the river was lapping at the edge of a sizable ornamental lighthouse (or did it have a function?) that George Fabyan had installed. The bottom of this structure is in this photo, with the rest obscured by leaves.

The peninsula -- which was either an island in the days of Mr. Fabyan, or fancifully described as one -- was also home to his "Roman" swimming pool. I stood at the south point of the peninsula and tried to imagine it; the pictures I saw reminded me not of Bath or any actual Roman bathing structures, but rather pictures I've seen of the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle, though not nearly as grand. (Fabyan was merely a millionaire, while Hearst was Hearst.) Unfortunately, Fabyan's Roman pool didn't withstand the ravages of time, and only a small sign erected by the Forest Preserve District marks the spot.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Nearest Dutch Windmill to My House Isn't Far

There's a Dutch windmill at the Fabyan Forest Preserve along Illinois 25 in Kane County. It's impossible to miss from the road, but in all the years I've driven this route -- one or two times a year, probably -- I've never stopped for a good look. That was my ambition on Sunday. We were planning to go the Sunday before, but persistent thunderstorms changed our minds.

Actually, there was a thunderstorm early in the morning this Sunday, too, but things cleared up before long. By around noon, we arrived at the site. This is the windmill. It only looks crooked in this photo. It's evenly placed on the ground, but from down the hillside, it looks like it's leaning:

It's as if you were teleported to Holland, standing in front of the thing. But Dutch style is the more correct way to describe it, since in fact the structure was built in DuPage County, Illinois, in the 1850s. It stood in a rural spot then, destined to be the western suburbs of Chicago 100 years later. Different sources say that Dutch or German immigrant craftsmen originally built the thing, but whatever the case, it's got that Netherlander vibe.

One George Fabyan, more about whom later, fancied the windmill in the early 1910s and had the wherewithal to have it moved, piece by piece, and reconstructed at its present location on a rise overlooking the east bank of the Fox River. During his lifetime in the early 20th century, it remained the same working windmill, a grain-grinding location, that it had been in DuPage; now it's a cool little museum. The kind of museum I consider cool, anyway, and as a bonus to us contemporary visitors, restored to fine shape by Dutch windmill craftsmen in the early 2000s.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Sunday Drive in Kane County

Illinois 25 more or less follows the Fox River in Kane County, sometimes hugging it closely, other times not. It's a drive of considerable variety. Yesterday, for example, south of Elgin and north of St. Charles, along a section of the road that's still semi-rural, I saw a dwarf coming out of the gentlemen's club.

But that's not what this posting is about. It can't be, because it was only a glimpse. I was driving and couldn't really turn my head. As I said, that section of route 25 is semi-rural, but not so rural that at one point it doesn't sport a gentlemen's club whose name I didn't catch. On Sunday afternoon at about 5, there weren't many cars in the parking lot, but there was a dwarf. I'm certain of that. He might have been wearing a tux. I'm not certain of that it. I imagined that he worked there, for no good reason except the seeming formality of his clothes. Even more irrationally, I thought, "Their bouncer is a dwarf." Immediately I re-considered the notion. How useful would a dwarf be as a bouncer, unless he was packing heat?

There I go again, making erroneous assumptions based on irrelevant aspects of another human being. Let's say, then, he wasn't there for a dwarf toss, or anything else so demeaning. Not that I thought about dwarf tossing while driving by, though I am now. Anyway, let's say he owned the place. I don't want to belittle -- I mean, demean -- short people.

We didn't go looking for dwarfs on Sunday. We went to see a windmill. We saw that, and more -- the Fox River nearly out of its banks, the estate of a millionaire who had Frank Lloyd Wright work for him before he was called Genius, a run down formal garden, a moderately pleasant Japanese garden, a collection of bird eggs and samurai armor, and displays about Francis Bacon and cryptology. And a room with a tin floor that housed monkeys at one time. More on these things as the week unfurls.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Knock It Out of the Park, Peanut!

After the fact, that is after I spent the money and the experience had come and gone, I did some comparisons. A ticket to a Chicago Cubs game in mid-June -- and every home game in June counts as a "prime" game, that is, more expensive compared with "regular" and "value" games -- at a middle distance behind home plate will run you $66. (All summer games are in fact, prime; the value games are mostly in April, and a few in May, when there's some chance you'll freeze your kippers off watching a baseball game.)

Compare: a ticket behind home plate in mid-June at a Schaumburg Flyers game costs $11. I was able to buy tickets to the Flyers game last Friday, with a fine view of home plate, for my entire family plus an old family friend, for $55, less than going alone to Wrigley would have cost. Not counting extras.

Of course, there are $20 tickets at Wrigley on a prime game days. These are called Upper Deck Reserved, which might be ideal for people with enhanced bionic vision. And, amazingly, the bleachers at Wrigley aren't the least expensive tickets -- the bleachers, where you don't even get a reserved seat, and the risk of being thrown up on is very real. They go for $45 on prime dates.

So, to editorialize, and I'm hardly the first to notice: MLB = a pack of gouging bastards. Certain counter-arguments can be made -- the players are better in MLB; a place like Wrigley Field is very special indeed; and MLB is only charging what the market will bear. All those things are true, but not so true that I'm going to pay $66 for an experience when I can pay $11 for one that's just as pleasing, and vastly more convenient. The MLB experience at Wrigley Field is not six times better than the Northern League experience at Flyers Stadium -- which, by the way, took Wrigley Field as its inspiration.

On Friday the 13th the Flyers played the Gary Southshore Railcats. After skies that threatened rain most of the day, the warm evening sported puffy clouds, colored by the waning Sun, ideal for baseball and sitting around outside. We arrived in about the third inning, after not hurrying through our dinner of hamburgers and chips at home. From not far behind home plate, we got a good look at not only the pitching, catching, swinging and hitting, but also the crowds on either side of home, the cheerleaders (officially the Flyers Dance Team) who came out several times, the brief contests between select fans -- hitting a golf ball, tossing tennis balls -- and the Flyers mascot, a man-sized teddy bear with aviator goggles. He didn't actually run around on the field that much, but instead waved a lot. Must be hot in that suit. Happily, the cheerleaders were in little risk of overheating in their uniforms.

Naturally, MLB players are going to be technically more proficient. One of the Flyers pitchers -- let's be charitable here -- was still working on that strike zone concept, for example. But on the whole, the Flyers and the Railcats played some good ball. The crack of the bat sent balls both fair and foul, infielders and outfields caught some and missed others, and men were safe or out. The crowd made noise, people were in more or less constant motion up and down the stairs, a few vendors came by, and food and drink was sold and consumed. The place smelled of beer and nachos. There were plenty of sound effects, but few fancy electronic scoreboard displays. The batter's name, number and a few other details were posted electronically, and lights tracked strikes, balls and outs. But the score itself was posted manually. Nice retro touch, that.

The Railcats took an early lead, the Flyers nearly caught up -- Flyer Peanut Williams, the designated hitter, clearly the crowd's favorite all evening, hit a homer early on -- but a little later the Railcats got more runs and at one point led 6-1. Then the Flyers rallied in a quick, exciting way, having a couple of very good innings, and toward the end of the game it was Railcats-Flyers 9-8.

All this time, the boys in the seats behind us kept up a constant patter. Lads of 12 or 13, they were obviously good friends. It could have been awful, moronic chatter, but it wasn't -- they were bright lads, occasionally funny. Mostly they wanted to talk to each other about rock and punk music. For boys that age, they had an astonishingly broad, if not particularly deep knowledge of bands popular 30 or 40 years ago. And strong opinions: Ozzy Osbourne = Megalegend! The Sex Pistols = Never Mind the Bollocks! If You Don't Know KISS = You Don't Know Rock 'n' Roll! They disparaged hip-hop, country music and emo. "I'm gonna lock myself in my room, eat ice cream, listen to emo, and cut myself," one of them said. Ice cream?

They were also eager to see foul balls come their direction, despite the netting behind home plate, and excitedly made up stories about what happened to various fouls. "It hit the owner, man. He's unconscious! His tooth went that way!" We could have had a lot worse chattering neighbors.

The end of the game could have come straight out of a baseball movie. In the top of the ninth, the Flyers didn't allow any Railcat hits, so the game entered the bottom of the ninth still Railcats-Flyers 9-8. Before long it was two outs, with men on third and second. Peanut Williams came to bat. Yeah! Hit it, Peanut! Ball, strike... then he hit a bouncing ball to one of the infielders, who didn't quite have control of it for a moment, but tossed it to first just as Peanut arrived at the base.

Peanut was out. Game over. The crowded booed loudly. "Kill the umpire!" someone said. Wait, that was me. Of course I didn't really want to harm the fellow. It just seemed like part of hallowed baseball tradition to say it. The stadium was so loud at that moment that no one heard my contribution anyway, and pretty soon the crowd moved passed its brief anger (Schaumburg 2008 isn't San Salvador 1969). We had fireworks to look forward to.

We'd picked June 13 because it was one of the half-dozen fireworks nights at Flyers stadium. A few minutes after the final out, we were treated to about 20 minutes of fireworks, shot off from behind the center field fence. What's a summer without some fireworks?

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Help Keep Ludington Beautiful

My brother and sister-in-law passed along my recent post about Ludington to a friend of theirs, Margery, who grew up there. She replied:

Thanks for passing this on. Talking about the
Badger made me remember the day it came in on its maiden voyage, ­late October 1953. I was in the fourth grade, and we all went down to the channel, at the foot of Ferry Street, to watch it. Every whistle and horn in town went off. It was just so slick and so elegant."

The ship, I should add, still sails right into the slip. From where I was watching, a few blocks away, it looked like it was sailing through real estate. The slip, it seems, has been a popular place to develop condos in recent years.

"The Armistice Day storm was horrible, but there were many like that," Margery continued. "My dad worked his way through Michigan State, by working summers and vacations on the boats out of Frankfort. It was the Depression, he had no money and no job, and when the struggle got to be too much, he quit school and went to work as a coal passer on the boats.

"When the worst storm in living memory hit, they were en route from Kewanee to Frankfort. The waves crashed over the sea gate, and down into the engine room, putting out the fires, and slowing the ship, which became more and more difficult to steer. Several times it breached, and almost capsized.

"Hour after hour they struggled, exhausted and sea sick, but they kept the fires going and crept across the lake. When the breakwaters at Frankfort finally came in sight, they were too tired to cheer, and you can imagine what they must have felt. I forget the number of ships that sank on the lake that day ­ but there were several. Daddy had had enough, packed his things and drove back to East Lansing."

Peter, a Wisconsinite and former coworker of mine, also had something to say, regarding the definition of the Midwest from yesterday: "I was just reading your blog about the Midwest and I must object that the Dakotas should be included in the Midwest. Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore in SD may be equated with the West, but so is Dodge City, KS. Jerry France didn't include these states when he launched his real estate magazine mainly because there relatively little money to be made from advertisers in the Dakotas."

I'm open to discussion about the Midwestern-ness of the Dakotas, but I have to say I'm ambivalent. Certainly the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, is about as Midwestern as it comes:

But by the time you get to Wall, SD, you see this sort of thing on the walls:

North Dakota has a similar split. This could be any suburban park in the Midwest, but it happens to be in Fargo:

This happens to be west of there, at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Not too many scenes like this in the Midwest:

Then again, adding the Dakotas would increase the sheer size of the Midwest by a considerable 147,000 square miles, bringing the total to an impressive 755,000 square miles (1.95 million square kilometers), or about the size of Mexico.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

There Goes the Lake

It's hard to imagine something as large as a lake disappearing, though of course it happens. News reports say Lake Delton, a manmade lake in Wisconsin, was itching to escape its banks in the wake of intense rains recently -- which came on top of weeks of rain in Wisconsin. So it dug itself a new channel, and emptied into the Wisconsin River on Monday.

When I heard about the draining of Lake Delton I thought about the short time we spent tooling around on it last summer on a Wisconsin Duck (see August 20, 2007, though I didn't provide a lot of details then). It seemed like a stable enough lake then. Not the largest I've ever been on, but the thought of 600 million gallons of water draining away is a little unsettling. I suppose the state of Wisconsin will refill it. After all, it's a manmade lake, and presumably can be re-made.

Other news reports are detailing the floods in the Midwest and the misery they're causing. The rains have been heavy around here, and seemingly come every other day, but fortunately there's been no nearby flooding yet.

The reports also got me to thinking about that journalistic shorthand, "the Midwest." Back when I edited a magazine called Midwest Real Estate News, we defined the region as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin. Seems like a reasonable definition, considering historic and common usage. Using my handy Almanac -- still better than the Internet, sometimes -- I added up the total square milage of those 10 states, and it comes out to about 608,000 square miles, or 1.57 million square kilometers.

Some comparisons? Put together, the UK, France and Germany total about 439,000 square miles (1.13 million square kilometers); and the Midwest total is only a shade smaller than Algeria, or a little larger than Greenland. Geographic size might not be that important, strictly speaking. Still, there's some comfort in knowing that while the darts of bad weather may have been hitting the Midwest lately, it's a pretty large dart board.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Melons & Spuds

Things come unexpectedly. Last month, for unclear reasons, I got a press release from the National Watermelon Promotion Board. It began: "Chevys Fresh Mex® has helped watermelon growers, shippers and importers probably without even realizing it. As a result, the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB) is saying 'thank you' by awarding the company the third annual 'Wild About Watermelon' award."

I have to wonder what kind of plaque goes with the Wild About Watermelon Award, and which Chevys exec is going to receive it for his awards wall. Or maybe it's a bronze mini-watermelon, suitable for a desktop.

Today, the Idaho Potato Commission also sent me a release: "This summer, turn snack time into playtime by getting your kids involved in the cooking. Every parent knows French fries top the list of kid-approved food. This healthy, fun recipe for Baked Idaho Pommes Frites and Simple Dipping Sauces will have parents, too, putting the stamp of approval on this snack."

Are members of the Idaho Potato Commission called commissioners? Is there an enforcement arm -- the Spud Police? Is one of their jobs to make sure that no one else trades on the good name of Idaho potatoes -- that all "Idaho potatoes" are actually from Idaho (like EU rules about champagne being from Champagne)?

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Hello Boys, I Am Carl Jung

It's been about 15 years since I saw "Aurora Borealis, A Fairy Tale for Adults," the last episode of the first season of Northern Exposure. Back when I lived in Japan, video entertainment didn't move around the world with the liquidity it does now. Not that that bothered me. With certain exceptions (such as NE), I missed everything shown on American television from 1990 to 1995, and all this time later I can't think of any downside to that.

However, a friend sent me VHS tapes from time to time that would include some then-current TV. "Aurora Borealis" was on one such tape, and it was the third episode of the series I ever saw. My reaction to the first episode of NE I ever saw was, "That's odd." The second: "Odd, but interesting." But it was "Aurora Borealis" that convinced me that something wonderfully strange was being shown on network television -- and not strange in some stereotypically gothic way, but one that showed some imagination on someone's part.

Last week, a rental DVD including the episode came in the mail and I watched it again. I never knew its full title before, but it fits. In fact, the entire series is pretty much a fairy tale for adults. All sorts of interesting things happen in "Aurora Borealis," but the scene that captured my full attention -- a moment that sold me on the whole series -- is toward the end. The guest star character Bernard is bunking down at Chris's place a short while after showing up in town on a motorcycle, having driven to Alaska from Oregon for a reason he can't quite pin down.

At first, it seems like Chris is having the dream. Chris, as a boy, is told by his mother that his father has "forgotten his balls," and is sent after him carrying a bag containing two orbs (colored yellow, fortunately). He climbs into a truck, which starts to move, and now Chris is an adult. Neither he nor Bernard, who is also in the cab, are driving it.

Chris: Bernard!

Bernard: Chris, what are you doing here?

Chris: Dad forget his balls again. Mom's tough, what can I say?


Chris: What'd you do to your hair?

Bernard: I look like a thin Barry White, don't I?

Chris: Yeah, you do.

Bernard: That's why I don't care much for dreams. You never can control the way you look, people wander in and out and foul up the continuity.

Chris: Excuse me, Bernard, but I didn't wander into your dream. This is my basic, come-as-you-are recurring dream where I chase after my father for attention.

Bernard: Then what are you doing in my Daddy's truck?

Chris: Good point. Maybe we should ask him who's got first dibs on the dream.

Bernard: [to the unseen driver]: Excuse me, you seen my father?

Driver [still off camera]: No.

Bernard: Guess you win.

Chris: He's not my Daddy.


Chris and Bernard in unison: Who are you?!?

We see the driver for the first time.

Driver: Hello boys, I am Carl Jung, und vile I know much about zie collective unconscious, I don't know how to drive!

All scream, tires screech, dream ends.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Purple Prose

Not long ago, I wrote professionally about the Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood, Illinois. Lincolnwood is a small inner suburb north of Chicago, barely distinguishable to the untrained eye from, say, Skokie.

The Purple Hotel itself is in fact purple on the outside. On the inside, it's a realm of mold, mice and other tenants of a vacant building, and it will soon be demolished for new development. As far as I know, few mourn its loss, though people who grew up in the northern suburbs reportedly feel a touch nostalgic for the property, which reportedly had a heyday in the 1960s and '70s.

Not long after I filed the Purple Hotel story, I happened to go to a park in Skokie to attend an outdoor festival, and figured out that the Purple Hotel wasn't far away. So I went by foot the half mile or so to the site and took pictures. Here's the main entrance:

And other views.

It looks more gray than purple in these photos, but there's no doubt of the color when you're standing right next to it. Purple. Maybe it was the next big thing in 1960: hued hotels. But the concept never caught on, except for the Hotel Indigo, a small boutique chain that's part of the much larger InterContinental Hotel Group, and apparently doing a lot better than purple. There's even one near me. (The web site will talk to you, though in a pleasant voice.)

Here's the backside of the Purple Hotel. It's a little hard to see, but there are a couple of tennis courts in the picture, behind the fence. Weedy, unkempt tennis courts for post-apocalyptic games. Zombie tennis, anyone?

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Little More Michigan

Ludington, Michigan, has a pleasant main street, sporting a mix of shops, many catering to out-of-towners. Maude's Garage, where we bought a couple of small items, is an interesting adaptive reuse. Their line of antiques and bric-a-brac was fine, but I was more interested in the old newspaper articles and magazine ads plastered to the walls.

Not far away is a town park, long and narrow, near the town beach, which is also long and narrow. The park features the one and only monument to the little-remembered Armistice Day Storm of 1940 that I've ever seen. It may be the only one anywhere. This isn't an especially good image, but here it is.

This particular monument recalls the men who died when their ships sank in Lake Michigan as a result of the unexpectedly strong winds that began that day. Elsewhere, especially in Minnesota, the extreme temperature drop caught a number of hunters unprepared, and they froze to death. Such was life before satellites, radar and the Weather Channel.

Can't visit the edge of Lake Michigan without seeing a lighthouse, and Ludington provided that as well. You have to walk along a long breakwater to get there, but once you do, you see this:

And a fine view of the lake to the west and the shore to the east. The wind was brisk and cool, but a shade above uncomfortably cold. A lot of people were out on the breakwater, but only one sailboat was within sight, and so were two guys on jet skis. They buzzed around, and seemed to consider the people on the breakwater as a kind of audience.

Near both the breakwater and the park were two other points of interest: a municipal shuffleboard court that was fully occupied -- mostly by people younger than me. It's always nice when life defies stereotypes. A nearby playground also caught our attention, actually the attention of the girls. Its distinction was that it was built on sand, rather than grass or soil of some kind. While the girls played there, we heard the SS Badger carferry blow its horn as it approached Ludington, ending its journey across Lake Michigan from Manitowac, Wisconsin, and watched it sail toward its slip.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


North of Ludington, Mich., there's a Manistee National Forest campground whose main draw is its location very near Lake Michigan. Unlike Bear Track, this campground was pretty much full on Memorial Day weekend, so we gave up on the idea of moving our tent there for the second and third nights of the trip.

But nearby was a shady spot to prepare lunch, and some playground equipment, all at some distance from the actual campsite, so it wasn't crowded. After lunch, we followed a path through a mix of trees and increasingly sandy soil into dunes anchored by varieties of beachgrass and shrubs, and then down a hill to a wide beach along Lake Michigan. We were at the northern edge of the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.

The remarkably focused Get Off the Couch website has this to say about it: "Nordhouse Dunes is a National Wilderness Area within the Manistee National Forest. Although only 3450 acres, it is a unique ecosystem, and is the only designated Wilderness in the Lower Peninsula. The trails are minimally signed if at all, in keeping with the ambience of wilderness."

In other words, you just wander around. The lake is to the east at all times, and it would be hard to get lost. So did we have a wilderness experience? No. Lilly and Ann were taken with the beach, an enormous stretch that featured only a few people at any particular time, including a cluster of beach volleyball enthusiasts (every jack one of them male, alas). So we parked ourselves there.

It wasn't a classic beach, but a likable one. A handful of sand reveals colors all the way from off-white to flat black, making it overall less than the bright white of prestigious beaches. There were no shells lying around, though Ann was happy to collect a lot of small rocks. The water was intensely cold, so no one was swimming, and while the sun was high and warm, the wind off the lake was cool. The girls ran around a lot, stuck their feet in the water, and buried various parts of themselves, or their parents, in the sand. Yuriko and I found a convenient driftwood log to prop ourselves up against and read (1688: A Global History by John E. Wills Jr. in my case). So it was either sit around in a place like this:

Or go climbing the sandy hills, which looked like this:

I walked around the hills behind our stretch of beach for a few minutes, but sand is hard to hike. Not only that, I wasn't going to pry the rest of my family away from a likable beach for a walk away from the cool lake breeze -- a walk in which every step was half again as much effort as normal because of sinking into the sand. So I returned to the driftwood log. Sometimes travel is just a day at the beach.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Mariners vs. The Echoes: Come One, Come All

I have a press release I picked up at Historic White Pine Village: Old Time Base Ball This Sunday.

Some years ago, I wrote about a real estate executive whose hobby was vintage base ball, but I'd never seen it played. Now I have. "The Ludington Mariners Old Time Base Ball Team will start its 2008 season at Historic White Pine Village this Sunday [May 25] with a match against the House of David Echoes from Benton Harbor," the release says. It would be hard to think of a better name for a sports organization than the House of David Echoes if I sat down for days and tried.

Other team names of member clubs of the Vintage Base Ball Assn. include the Dark Blues, the Taverneers, the Crackers, the Regulators, the Ground Squirrels, the Grinders, the Pondfeilders, the Cherry Pits, the Mighty River Hogs, the Perfectos, the Reapers, the Clod Busters, the Black Swamp Frogs and the Frosty Sons of Thunder.

The release continues: "The match will start at 2 pm and visitors will see the game played by 1860 rules and enjoy the variation of rules as compared to today's games." And we did. One of the main differences is that a ball caught on a first bounce is still an out. That and underhanded pitching, and the lack of gloves. Which are for sissies anyway. But it was the uniforms that stood out. The Mariners, in Navy Blue, came complete with an anchor on their chests.

The game was for the players, of course, who seemed to be having a good ol' time, which I figure is true to the spirit of 1860 base ball. In fact there were more players than spectators, who mostly huddled just behind the first base line. We stood there ourselves for a while, watching the refreshingly nonprofessional play.

I don't want to play myself, but if someone would lend me some period clothing, I'd go as an 1860 spectator. The whole thing could be a re-creation of an afternoon in the summer of '60, including not only a base ball game, but a juggler and sword-swallower, a patent medicine salesman and his wagon, a small troupe doing excerpts from the Scottish Play, a primitive brass band, popcorn vendors, an improvised whiskey bar, speechmakers (nobody famous) stumping for the Republicans and the Douglas Democrats, and maybe a Sons of Temperance procession.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Juicy, Plump, Red Tomatoes

I'd never seen a typewriter quite like this before. But that's why I go to places like Historic White Pine Village in Ludington, Mich., to examine its trove. Whether in Dallas or West Fargo or rural Iowa or urban Osaka, just to name some of the places I've visited such museums, interesting objects are always lying around open-air museums. Occasionally you see astonishing ones.

The typewriter, with its odd wings holding the keys, was merely interesting. I found it on the desk in the museum's reformulated doctor's office -- always good places to visit, to remind you that the tools of medicine have improved over the decades. An early 20th-century medical office isn't quite as scary as, say, a mid-19th century office and its objects. Still, the glass-and-brass anaesthetic machine at White Pine's medical office, probably the pride of some Michigan doctor ca. 1910, looked like something Edison tinkered together as a lesser invention, and maybe something that would lend itself to unfortunate mishaps if not used exactly right (oops, forgot to mix in the oxygen).

Across the street -- so to speak -- was the clock room, with its weird non-synchronous tick-tocking coming from dozens of clocks lining three-and-a-half walls. Among other things, I learned the name of a whole genre of clocks I'd never heard before, though I recognize the shape: the Ogee, or the Og Clock. And, for that matter, that there are such things as grandmother and granddaughter clocks. (UK clockmonger John Shone writes about them here.)

What North American open-air museum doesn't have a one-room school? The White Pine Village one-room school had all the accouterments, too: uncomfortable desks (we could sit in them), slates for writing, a potbellied stove that would probably have warmed only the teacher, a portrait of Washington, a 44-star flag -- current to 1890-96, between the admissions of Wyoming and Utah -- lunch pails, a yellowed poster picturing "Our 22 Presidents" (current to Cleveland's first term), and a dunce cap. Come the day when the self-esteem movement has fizzled, such gear will make a comeback, mark my words.

Pretty much every open-air museum has a general store as well, complete with various shelves, barrels and other old-time merchandising devices, and White Pine did not fail in that regard either. Naturally some old-time merchandise was also on display, including a handful of deathless brands such Clabber Girl and Morton Salt. Others on the shelves weren't quite as familiar: Steamship Brand Molasses Candy, Union Leader Smoking/Chewing Tobacco, Dexo cooking grease. And then there was White Star Brand Tomatoes, pictured below.

This is a closer look.

What on Earth is that hammer and sickle doing on the label? The label adds that the tomatoes were distributed by the Cooperative Central Exchange of Superior, Wisconsin, a Finnish-American organization. Remarkably, you can read all about the cooperative here, including the fact that "... during the split within the Socialist Party of the United States in the early 1920s, key members of the CCE staff supported the left-wing faction, which favored recognition of the Third International and which was to become the Workers' (Communist) Party of America."

So that's it. Bolshie tomatoes, and not afraid to put it on the label.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

From May to June: Items from the Past

The May-June junction came on a weekend this year, and both days were pleasantly clear and warm (unlike the bizarre chill of last Tuesday). It was also a pleasant weekend in other ways, mostly in the company of my family, at home or within a few miles of it. But some years have found me further away. I never thought about it before, but they all involved heavy rain:

June 1, 1983.

We woke fairly earlier and assembled in the common area for a breakfast of egg, ham, toast, canned spaghetti and tea. I sat next to an old German and a young one, and near the English schoolboys, but the Australian was missing. Soon I headed into town and spent the rest of the day by myself, wandering around Cambridge.

Early in the day, I visited a sizable bookstore, then King’s College Chapel and its magnificent ceilings & intricate stonework & stained glass. It was partly cloudy and cool, so I walked a long way along the banks of the River Cam, eying the famous flatboats on the river and the ducks on the shore, which seemed to be everywhere, feeding on a harvest of earthworms that washed up in last night’s tremendous thunderstorm.

June 1, 1994.

Yesterday we were supposed to leave early from Bangkok, but Olivi Travel made a mistake, booking us to leave for Ko Samet this morning. We pointed this out, and they arranged for us to take a bus leaving in mid-morning. Along the highway SE of Bangkok there seemed to be an endless variety of warehouse space, but then we turned onto a smaller road, passing agricultural land, but also a surprising amount of unused land – bumpy green hilly tracts.

So today we are on Ko Samet, a smallish island in the Gulf of Thailand, not to be confused with Ko Samui, which I’ve read sports a much larger tourist infrastructure. Our bungalow is partway up a hill from the beach, a little wooden shack, really, but the bed is fairly comfortable and has its own mosquito net, an essential item in these parts. Last night a large storm blew through, rattling the walls, tapping heavily on the roof and whooshing the trees around the shack in various directions.

At the moment, I’m sitting under the trees at the shore of Ao Phai, one of the island’s beaches. The sand is very fine and very white. Yuriko is bobbing up and down out in the surf. There’s a wind from the sea strong enough to cool me & drive away most of the biting insects while I read short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

May 31, 2002

Our last full day in Montreal was punctuated by thunderstorms. We sought shelter in various places around the Quartier Latin that morning, including Café Croissant de Lune on Rue St. Denis, for a fine breakfast, and various parts of the University of Montreal.

By afternoon, we went to St. Joseph’s Oratory, which includes a large basilica and some other religious buildings set on a hill some miles from Old Montreal. Its founder, one Brother Andre, was reputed to be a healer, a circumstance attested by piles of crutches near his tomb. The view of Montreal from the steps of the basilica was grand, but the interior (completed in 1960) was not — it was austere enough to pass for some kind of Protestant church. My favorite part of the complex was a small museum devoted to nativity scenes, displaying scores of them from dozens of countries, made from an amazing variety of materials, including a chocolate one.

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