Thursday, May 29, 2008

Maple Grove Cemetery, Mason County, Michigan

It isn't very likely that Georgie A. Theis has had his name posted on the World Wide Web very often, if ever. Here it is. The name is carved on a worn white headstone in the Maple Grove Cemetery, a mile or so west of Free Soil, Mich. The stone has been worn so much by rain and snow and wind and sunshine, in fact, that I couldn't tell whether the year of death was 1873, 1878 or 1879.

Still, it's a heartbreaker of a stone because Georgie's birth year is clear: 1869. A lamb, a common choice for children's headstones of the time, rests atop his stone, and is just as worn (see "Lamb" under the Animals section of this page). Georgie's parents are nearby, as we hope they were when he was alive.

Maple Grove Cemetery is a long and narrow parcel of land, featuring perhaps a few hundred graves. A single road runs through it, beginning at Free Soil Road, curving sharply at the other end of the cemetery, and then doubling back to Free Soil Road. Mature trees provide some shade. The stones are a mix of 19th and 20th century, with few monumentally large ones, as you might find in older urban cemeteries. On the Saturday before Memorial Day, a handful of graves sported fresh American flags.

A leisurely trip isn't a complete trip without a visit to a cemetery, and Maple Grove satisfied that eccentric requirement of mine, but it wasn't the only burial site I managed to visit in western Michigan last weekend. There was also this place:

The cross is a monument to Jacques Marquette, SJ., missionary and North American explorer extraordinaire, on a hill on the outskirts of Ludington, Mich. Tradition has it that he died near the site of this cross. A downhill boulder with a plaque marks that spot, using language you aren't going to find on newer plaques: This boulder/ marks the traditional location/ of the death of Pere Marquette/ revered and loved by the red men/ James Marquette, S.J. ... the first white man/ to reach these shores/ 1637-1675/ Tribute of/ the Ludington Chapter/ Daughters of the American Revolution/ 1921.

Actually, Pere Marquette's bones aren't there. A few years after his death, his Indian friends removed them to St. Ignace.

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Obscure But Not Remote

To reach this point --

-- from greater Chicago, you first have to leave greater Chicago. The quickest way to do that (barring bad congestion, which is not a safe bet) is east via I-80, then I-94, then north on I-196 to Holland, Mich. That stretch of I-80 is crowded and unpleasant, except for items such as the Krazy Kaplans [sic] fireworks warehouse billboards.

North beyond Holland, US 31 is the road to take, a limited-access, four-land highway until the town of Ludington, where becomes a two lanes. Roughly between Ludington and Manistee, both of which are sizable towns on Lake Michigan, there's an intersection of US 31 with a road so minor that it doesn't have a federal, state or even county number, but a name: Free Soil Road.

East a few miles from that intersection, past small orchards and Christmas tree plantings and a couple of horse farms, is the small town of Free Soil, Mich. According to the USGS Geographic Names Information System, it's the only populated place of that name in the all the states and territories. Someone at the Mason County Historical Society knows the story of of its naming, but since I'm merely blogging, I'm free to speculate that the town was founded in the 1850s by men who had strong feelings against the expansion of slavery into the western territories. This seems like a reasonable guess, at least for those of us who remember the Free Soil Party.

These days, Free Soil has a gas station/convenience store, a handful of good-looking churches, a post office, a few other businesses, a small park with a small (presumably) war monument, and a scattering of houses on a few side streets. It is a two-stop sign town, and one of those stops marks the railroad tracks that cut through the place.

Beyond Free Soil is more of Free Soil Road, into Manistee National Forest, crossing the Big Sable River and then into Lake County which, oddly enough, doesn't border Lake Michigan at any point, or even have many more small lakes than you'd expect for that part of the state. The first time we drove this stretch of road, we spotted two men hitchhiking east of Free Soil. "I've seen signs near prisons not to pick up hitchhikers," I said idly. A few minutes later we unexpectedly passed Camp Sauble, a unit of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Could those guys have been escapees? Probably not. Not with those fishing poles. Later, I looked up Camp Sauble, and I can say definitely not, since the minimum-security boot camp-prison has actually been closed for about three years, according to the MDC web site. It still looks active, though, with its barbwire and barracks there among the pines and deciduous trees.

Manistee National Forest, like all national forests, is a mix of public and private land, and driving westward on Free Soil Road, the private land is very evident, noted by many signs, both printed and hand-lettered, warning against trespassing -- more than I seem to remember in any national forest. The land isn't flat, with some pleasant low hills to cross, nor is it all ordinary woods -- one place east of Free Soil is a swamp.

Just into Lake County, the route to our campground -- Bear Track -- turned onto Bass Lake Road, then another road whose name I never caught, which devolved along the way from a macadamized route the size of a city street to a winding dirt road barely large enough for vehicles to pass each other. We drove along, kicking up dust and some gravel, passing one campsite -- Driftwood Valley -- and pressing on to Bear Track, some miles further. The route wasn't particularly remote, however. Besides no trespassing signs, there were houses here and there, plus other sites occupied more-or-less permanently by trailers. The woods did feel close, though, bright green but also curiously green-yellow, almost like a fall color, in places. I'm not sure which species contribute that color, but I noticed elsewhere as well, including near Lake Michigan.

We arrived at Bear Track fairly late in the day on Friday -- we almost always arrive late in the day when camping -- and I had it in my head that the campground might be full, this being Memorial Day weekend. The Upper Peninsula campgrounds never have been, but that's the UP. But it turned out that only about six of the 16 sites at Bear Track were taken. Maybe not remote, but certainly obscure.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Back to Michigan

Barely a mile from our house, we stopped for doughnuts to take with us to western Michigan. I waited in the car, face-to-face with a couple of newspaper boxes. An above-the-fold headline of USA Today last Friday, May 23, 2008: Gas Costs Cut Into Vacation Travel.

Just down the street, at the gas station we patronize fairly often, the cheapest gallon was some cents more than $4, about a full dollar more than the last time we drove to western Michigan, only two months ago. Should we take this as proof of the peak oil theory, or an oil bubble the size of Texas? I'll leave that for the months and years ahead to sort out.

In the meantime, I grit my teeth, and pay. The high cost isn't enough, yet, to forgo a trip that offered glimpses of the grassy hills and wooded slopes of the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, the winding dirt roads of the Manistee National Forest, or all the faint stars of the Little Dipper. The birdsong around here is nice, but it really fills the tent early in the morning in a place miles from any town. In the nearest town, a ship that plies Lake Michigan announced its presence loudly as it docked, and we had the chance that same day to hear and see a game of vintage base ball and note its subtle differences from ordinary baseball, even the sandlot variety we can hear and see played from our back yard.

I watched the gas gauge a little more closely than before, but only a little. Without burning some gas, we couldn't have repeatedly driven through the little town of Free Soil, Mich., or past the rural cemetery down the road; reached a lakeshore beach just like one in Chicago but without the people; or seen the lighthouse off Ludington. It was a good way to spend four days and three nights. At $8/gallon, maybe not. But for now, hang the cost of gas.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

This Way to the Labyrinth

A fine Memorial Day to all, or at least everyone for whom it's a day off. For everyone else, have a tolerable Monday. Back on Tuesday.

Here's how to joke about death. Years ago, I remember Johnny Carson mentioning in his monologue that, statistically speaking, there were going to be x-hundred traffic fatalities nationwide over the upcoming holiday weekend. He asked Doc Severinsen or Tommy Newsom whether he knew that, and they bantered a little, and then Johnny turned to the camera and said, "Goodbye."

Today was Ann's last day of preschool. Come September, she'll be on that long toboggan ride known as K-12. I picked her up, and felt a small twinge of melancholy. For me, because when this child is grown, I'll be old. For her, because you can't be six on Sugar Mountain. Well, maybe seven. It passed quickly, this twinge. The kid needs to grow up over the normal span of a couple of decades; the world needs grownups.

A few more Canada notes. Squeezed in between a mall called Toronto Eaton Centre and a hotel -- the one I stayed in -- is the Church of the Holy Trinity, part of the Anglican Church of Canada and a fine Gothic structure. It was there long before the mall or hotel, of course, and most of downtown Toronto for that matter, dating from 1847. I saw this plaque. The other photo featured at that link is of the front entrance. Off to the right and behind the entrance is the mall, and also -- in its own little space -- the church's labyrinth. A sign I saw elsewhere said, This Way to the Labyrinth.

Inside the church sported hard pews ready for kneeling (no folding kneelers), some excellent stained glass, various social activism banners ("Compassion for Cameroon") and a couple of bums -- homeless men, I mean -- parked on benches at the side of the building. The outdoor labyrinth was interesting, but looked better from about 20 stories up.

I attended a meeting in a nearby skyscraper, and was able to take a picture of the old city hall (until the mid-60s) from about 20 stories up:

And the new city hall. Newer than the old one, anyway. Compare and contrast:

Transit to and from Toronto was amazingly smooth. No delays either way, not much in the way of rough air, and customs was fairly straightforward on either end. Canada didn't stamp my passport, though. I like passport stamps.

The Air Canada flight to Toronto was on an Air Canada Embraer 135, small but not the smallest regional jet I've been on. While waiting at the gate in Chicago, I actually witnessed my bag go into the plane. A first.

Approaching Chicago on the return flight, I saw the arc of the North Shore, all the way from the Bahai Temple in Wilmette to the familiar shapes of downtown, and then we headed west over other familiar territory – such as Ned Brown Forest Preserve, an enormous track of undeveloped land roughly east of where I live. The plane then went further west, turned, and headed east in such a way that I could see Lilly’s elementary school. The sight of it guided my gaze to a fuzzy spot nearby: my house. I’d never seen it from the air before.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wild Boar Bacon & Hudson Bay Pickerel

The Everest Cafe might have been mediocre (see yesterday), but when I ate with other members of the tour, at places picked by people who know more than I do about Toronto, the meals were much better. So much better than I didn't feel like taking notes, which dampens the urge to write in detail later. At Chiado on West College St., I ate fish caught off the coast of Portugal, drank Portuguese wine and noticed that even the sugar packets on the table were imported from Portugal. The art on the walls, I was told, borrowed themes from the old country. Even the name was a Portuguese detail: Chiado is a square in Lisbon. The restaurant of the same name in Toronto is in a Portuguese neighborhood.

I haven't spent nearly enough time in Portugal. None, in fact, unless you count Macao under nominal Portuguese administration. None of the places I've lived have large diaspora populations, either, so my exposure to Portuguese cuisine is fairly limited -- a couple of places in Massachusetts, and that pigeon I ate in Macao. So it was good to go to Canada to experience something Portuguese. Chiado is as excellent as its web site would have you believe.

The next night, all of us ate at Perigee, a place tucked away at The Distillery. And I mean tucked away: the signage might be deliberately meager as part of the restaurant's cachet. Read about it here in more detail than I can muster, but I agree with the reviewer that it's a jim-dandy place. Shoot, it even has a name chef, even though this is his first big gig.

I picked my meal based on how unusual the description sounded. Langoustine as the appetizer: "Seared langoustine topped with wild boar bacon over roasted blue foot chanterelle mushrooms with butter poached asparagus, rhubarb purée and tatsoi greens tossed with preserved Meyer lemon." It had me at wild boar bacon, and my only complaint is that there was only one slice of it.

For the entree, Hudson Bay pickerel: "Roast fillet of pickerel with a salad of Dungeness crab and celery spaghetti over an artichoke purée in a crab bisque." Pickerel isn't something I see much, or ever, on menus, though I understand it isn't a rare fish in certain North American waters. In terms of taste, persentation, etc., it was a fine choice. What got me, though, was its Hudson Bay origin. Remote, enormous, essential to giving Canada -- and North America, for that matter -- its distinctive two-lobe shape.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Not the Roof of the World

On the menu at a place called Everest Cafe on West Queen St. in Toronto, there's a dish called the "Free Tibet Platter," described as Tibetan momos (dumplings) surrounded by chow mien. I didn't order that, but I did have a thing called phing sha (or maybe phing sho or shu, since my notes on it are a little garbled).

I went in hoping for a Tibetan food experience along the lines of Tsampa in New York City (see Oct. 7 & 8, 2004, BTST the Original Blog), but no such luck. The place wasn't bad, but it was terrifically good either. For one thing, the decor was sleek and dark, more like a shot bar in Roppongi than an outpost of Tibet. There were no distinctive Tibetan art or figurines or prayer wheels, and not a single picture of the Dalai Lama, though there might have been one around the corner that I didn't see. In fairness, I don't think the place was supposed to be Tibetan, since only part of its menu was. But still, a nod or two to the Roof of the World would have been nice.

Phing sha is sliced beef or chicken, sauteed with beanthread noodles, sliced potatoes, green peas and moru (muru?) (dried mushrooms), flavored with ginger and emma -- which I understand is a peppercorn-like spice -- and served with basmati rice. Sounded good, from that description, but the noodles were soggy, putting a damper on the rest of the dish. Not bad, as I said, but not worth walking around Toronto to find.

"That was the most politically correct kind of food you could have eaten," joked one of the other people on the tour, when I told him about the place later. Whatever that means. I'm all for a free Tibet, myself. Anything to annoy the tyrants of Beijing. But I also wonder at the selectivity of causes célèbres. I don't know that I've ever seen any "Free Western Sahara" bumper stickers.

On a different note, I didn't know Will Elder, but I will note his passing here. I've known his son Martin for some time. At one time, Martin was the managing editor (in New York) of a magazine I was editor of (in Chicago -- such are the possibilities of e-mail and phone connections). I did know that Martin was the son of the cartoonist back when we were working together, because one time he mentioned that his dad had created "Little Annie Fanny." I wasn't a big fan of that strip, but I knew about it. Until I read some of his obituaries this week, I knew a lot less about the elder Elder's involvement in the early days of Mad magazine, which is detailed in this NYT obit. RIP, Mr. Elder.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Under Construction

Though I didn't take my camera on my walkabout in Toronto, I did take it on the green tech bus tour the next day, and got some shots of the Toronto skyline that few visitors are going to see. But note the CN Tower, which is a constant in the skyline, regardless of the foreground.

And a closer shot of the skyline.

Not to disparage Toronto. These are actually views of a construction site near downtown, part of a large redevelopment that someday will feature a large amount residential and commercial property near Lake Ontario. The marvel is that it's taken so long for something to happen on the site.

The redevelopment also includes a new zeppelin shed, now under construction.

Well, I made that up. I've forgotten what this is. But I like the idea of Toronto becoming the new zeppelin mecca of North America.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Don't Hit the Mailman

The other day Ann and I were driving along, and she spotted a mail truck by the side of the road. I spotted it too, which was much more important, since I was the driver. On the side of the truck next to the curb, a USPS employee was emptying some mailboxes -- picking up the mail, in other words.

"Don't hit the mailman," Ann said.

"I won't," I answered. I would have had to go pretty far out of my way to do so, both in terms of steering the car, and in having some kind of psychotic episode.

"Don't hit the mailman," she said again. "If you kill the mailman, we won't get any mail."


"Why are you laughing, Daddy?"

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Tallest Thing in Toronto, Anyway

Unlike my walkabout in parts of Toronto this time around, the first time -- July 2, 1991 -- I actually took a camera along. On that day, I made it to one of the city's top tourist destinations, of course:

At about 1,815 feet, the CN Tower is frequently billed as the tallest something-or-other in the world, though since it doesn't feature habitable floors all the way up, it isn't a building along the lines of the Sears Tower or Taipei 101. Still, it's a fine structure and has a remarkable knack for being in the skyline from a lot of different angles. As I walked around town last week, and later rode our small green tech tour bus, I kept seeing the thing, regardless of where I found myself. There it is again.

I passed on the opportunity to ride up to the top again. It's a fine view, but twice isn't necessary. Also, I read that merely going up and looking around costs C$21.99. I don't remember what I paid in 1991, but I'm fairly certain it wasn't remotely that much, even adjusted for inflation. Just another case of a tourist attraction unconscionably jacking up its prices.

I revisited Chinatown, where I had lunch that summer day in the early '90s. I think this pic is on Spadina Ave., one of the main drags through the neighborhood.

I didn't note the Pearl Theatre this around, but wasn't looking for it anyway. The brown area at the left edge of the photo is a telephone pole covered with staples and torn bits of old posters. Finally, I have to wonder: what's that guy walking toward the camera up to now?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Clean Water for Mississauga

I'll bet the city of Mississauga got its name on the theory that Canadians can have fun place-names, too. It's one of the three places that form the Region of Peel, along with Brampton and Caledon, and they're all part of the Greater Toronto Area. One of the functions of a region, it seems, is water treatment, and on Thursday we saw a state-of-the-art water treatment facility that serves the Region of Peel, actually the expansion of a more standard facility that relies on chlorination.

My grasp of the technicalities in this case is fairly weak. The plant sits near Lake Ontario and large underground pipes suck water from that body into the facility. Ozone is an important additive early in the process, but rather than remembering what it does to the water, I noted the ubiquitous warning signs -- If You Detect an Ozone Leak, Get the Hell Out NOW (I'm paraphrasing). Further along in the process, there were enormous square tanks full of mildly bubbling water.

Then we went to the forest-of-pipes room, a forest planted on a big concrete floor marked with little puddles here and there. Color-coded green and red and blue pipes, sporting various kinds of knobs and values and stenciled letters, bent this way and made their arcs. The room gurgled and hissed, but in a friendly way. This is where water goes to be cleaned, after all.

Actually, filters were the essential part of the process near this room, and they came arrayed in columns and rows, or maybe it was racks, but anyway there were a lot of them in vats; they're expensive; and they represented the state-of-the-art part of the equipment -- a greener alternative to chlorine. I believe it, but I'm taking it on faith. The guide obviously knew what he was talking about. And I'm really glad someone knows how to clean water on an industrial scale.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Largest Distillery in the British Empire?

What do you do with the following description: "The largest distillery in the British Empire"? I don't know about other people, but I turn it over in mind. It's an historical description, of course, since everyone except Lyndon LaRouche knows that the British Empire is a thing of the past. Still, distilling more whiskey and spirits than anybody else in that 19th-century world-spanning polity, the one-fifth of the globe that was pink, would have been a fairly impressive activity, if that's what the phrase means. I heard it used more than once to describe The Distillery district in downtown Toronto, a pedestrian-only mainly retail redevelopment of a massive former distillery.

Is it accurate? I didn't hear how being the largest was measured, but I did find out that by 1871, the Gooderham & Worts Distillery, which is what the establishment used to be called -- at other times it was Worts & Gooderham, apparently -- was producing 2.1 million gallons annually, and throughout the decade of the 1870s exported a million gallons a year to other parts of the Empire and the world. High Victorians, indeed.

Or maybe "largest" was measured in physical size. The site has 44 buildings totaling over 300,000 square feet on 13 acres. We arrived for a look at the complex late in the afternoon last Wednesday, just in time for a serious rainstorm, which added a touch of noir atmosphere to the brick streets and looming brick structures. But from under an umbrella, it was a little hard to appreciate their style, which I've read is called industrial Gothic. Impressively solid, I'd say. Something important was made here, the otherwise mute bricks say: Whiskey to get through those long Canadian winters, and to put Canada on the map among the whiskey-drinking nations of the Empire.

Either there's a serious monograph out there somewhere that quantifies how Gooderham & Worts was the "largest distillery in the British Empire," or that's the claim of a Victorian copywriter handed down through the decades unquestioned. Either way, Google the phrase in our time, and you'll see that it's still repeated often.

No whiskey has been made at the Distillery since 1990, but between then and the time it became a retail property in the mid 2000s, a number of movies were made there, more than 800. Famously (infamously, in Chicago), Chicago was filmed in Toronto, at the former Gooderham & Worts Distillery.

These days, no chain stores are allowed to lease space at the Distillery, so we visited some one-of-a-kinds, such as a clothing store named after Galileo and a coffee shop named after Balzac. I didn't quite understand the reasoning behind the choice of Galileo, but I do remember that Balzac's coffee-drinking marathons are part of literary lore.

Much, much more about the history and architecture of the place is here.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

The Brick Works, Then and Now

Amanda Castleman's short article, quoting me, has been published (See April 13). For now, it's the first article of five at this MSN site. Fortunately, there's an option to turn off the chatter that introduces the site.

Someday soon, Toronto's former Don Valley Brick Works, which includes 15 husks of old factory buildings on about 250,000 square feet of land, will be a redevelopment site sporting various cultural uses, with an emphasis on environmental activities and education. But for now it's a collection of spooky derelict structures, though I was told they've been stabilized. Presumably that meant things wouldn't fall on us as we toured the structures last week, and nothing did. But the floors were dusty and punctuated with irregular holes and outcroppings of former rail lines, and there was always the risk of tripping over pieces of bricks, bits of metal, trash or unrecognizable industrial debris.

Step inside and it's like one of the places where Alex and his droogs took unfortunates for a little ultraviolence, or maybe where Clarence and Robocop had it out in the first movie of that series. According to our guide, however, the former brick works has mostly been overlooked as a movie set, even as Toronto became a location of choice for directors looking to dodge high costs in California.

Musty and dark, even in the middle of the day, the largest of the buildings is very large indeed, and includes a several enormous kilns. I expected the kilns to be big and squat, but they were as long as a football field and only a few feet wide. In its heyday in the early 20th century, the Don Valley Brick Works made 100,000 bricks a day or so, most passing through one of the long kilns. I couldn't do any of these kilns justice with photography, but I did get a few shots of the graffiti that was most everywhere. Some of them were more artful than others, if you can use that term.

According to our guide, the old factory is sometimes still used to hold raves. None of us were really young enough to fully appreciate that -- I know I don't really know what one involves -- but the old brick factory does look like a place, there only about 10 minutes' drive from the Apollonian downtown Toronto, to get your Dionysus on.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Toronto II, or Canada V

I’m happy to report that in the roughly 17 years since I was last in Toronto, the city hasn’t gone missing. I flew there on Tuesday last week and returned on Thursday. Someone more familiar with the city probably would be able to compare the differences between then and now in detail, because there must be some.

Not me. Large downtown with a variety of interesting buildings? Check. Busy streets? Still busy. A multiethnic population, including an extensive Chinatown that reminds me of Hong Kong? Got it.

I was a guest of the province of Ontario – thanks, Ontario! – on a “green technology” press tour. But actually it could have been the “really cool industrial sites, past and present” press tour, because among other things we saw an abandoned brick works, a fully redeveloped Victorian distillery, a plant that recycles solvents, a spanking-new green-tech water treatment plant, and some of the upper levels of a geothermal well field east of Toronto proper, among other places.

Those aren’t ordinary sorts of tourist destinations, except for the redeveloped distillery, since it’s mostly retail now. Looking for real off-the-beaten-path places? Nothing like standing among a forest of enormous color-coded water pipes or taking in the sight of hundreds of industrial-solvent waste barrels to satisfy that urge.

I did have a little time to myself, and managed to take a walkabout through non-industrial parts of Toronto, visiting West Queen Street and re-visiting Chinatown. A fine meal was had in the Portuguese part of town, and I was able to sit for a few quiet moments in an old Anglican church and examine its nearby labyrinth. And of course I ate some doughnuts at Tim Horton’s. But I didn’t have nearly enough time in the city, just like 17 years ago. With any luck, I'll make it back before 2025.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Loyalty Day in Louisiana?

The rest of the this week and next will be well occupied for me by things to do, so I will return to posting around May 11. Many things will be seen between now and then as well, with any luck.

"Loyalty Day," formerly known as "Americanization Day," has passed without much to-do here in the United States. Rather than go along with a commie International Workers Day on May 1, these other labels have been floated across the decades in this country, to resounding apathy. Which is as it should be. "Loyalty" Day? Sounds like an occasion for totalitarian states. Then again, every day is loyalty day in, say, North Korea. Or else.

Speaking of infamous totalitarian states, I was glad to find this the other day:

Lilly has some big fourth-grade-type report/project or other about one of the states to complete before she passes out of that grade. She picked Louisiana, and since then I've been regaling her with tales of gigging alligators on the bayou. Maybe not, but I could, if I made them up. But I have encouraged her to interview her grandmother about the visits she and Lilly's grandfather made to New Orleans back in time of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois. Katrina or no Katrina, that New Orleans is gone.

At 10, she's not particularly familiar with Louisiana lore. She said she picked that state because she likes the shape. That's my girl.