Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unplanned Communication With the Future

A few weeks ago, I noticed a box of postcards for sale at a nearby resale shop. Vintage cards, you might call them, but probably not much that would interest a serious postcard collector. Serious collectors probably covet unused, new-looking cards, but for the most part I don't understand serious collectors' obsession with mint condition. My own fascination with a coin, for instance, is increased with a little wear. Think of all the hands, and pockets, and cash registers, and jars a nicely worn bit of copper or silver has seen. Mint condition may be more beautiful, but used is more interesting.

Postcards don't wear quite the way coins do, of course, and are unlikely to have passed through as many hands. Mostly I buy them for their subject image, and mainly to send to someone else. But occasionally I pick up one that I can't really send to anyone else (unless I put it in an envelope), a used card that's all the more intriguing for the one-time original message, waiting there for me on the reverse like an insect in amber. The other day I got 20 cards for $5, which is about the right price for any set of cards, including this one:

It's a "C.T. Art-Colortone" postcard of the Kansas City, Mo., skyline from Penn Valley Park. C.T. stands for Curt Teich Co., a Chicago printer that was the largest maker of postcards in the country once upon a time. The card's serial number tells me (amazingly, via simple Google search) that this particular card was made in 1932 -- so even in the pit of the Depression, people were still buying cards.

But maybe not sending them: a penny was a penny, after all (indeed, domestic postcard rates didn't rise to 2¢ until the remarkably late date of January 1, 1952). Or maybe Curt Teich had it in its inventory for quite a while. But for whatever reason, this 1932 card wasn't mailed until July 19, 1940. The postmark on the reverse tells me that.

Here's the message:

Greetings from #336.

What is your hobby? When is your birthday? My birthday is October 22.

My hobby is collecting handkerchiefs with scenes or maps on them. I prefer post cards of industries especially flour mills. I like historic and geographic views too. Any card appreciated.

Mrs. P.H. Lawson
3724 Broadway
Kansas City, Mo.

The message is neatly typewritten, with no typing errors, and only one time does the text flow into the address side of the card. Mrs. Lawson had a strong typing style and probably a new ribbon, since the letters are -- 68 years later -- still fairly dark, though the paper has yellowed a bit. She was also an even typist, mostly, since the only key she seems to have hit harder than the others is the "m" key, which would be pressed with the right index finger. It all leads me to speculate that Mrs. Lawson was a professional typist of some kind, or at least that typing was an important part of her job. Or perhaps she just trained for it diligently, as many women of her time did.

Why "Greetings from #336"? A correspondence club, perhaps -- adults writing to children, from the tone of the message, which was addressed to a Miss Dorothy M. Hudson. The idea of collecting handkerchiefs seems odd now, and maybe it was a little even then. I especially like how specific she was about the kind of card she preferred (presumably in return from Miss Hudson): "industries, especially flour mills." Flour mills?

Mrs. Lawson (and I supposed Mr. Lawson) lived here in 1940:

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It certainly looks like this apartment building would have been there then. Maybe she was a young bride, in her early 20s, which could very well mean that she's out there somewhere even now. And maybe she's still enjoying her handkerchief and postcard collections at her assisted living home in Fort Lauderdale. Or maybe not. "Throw away all this junk," her daughter might have said to her husband about the box of handkerchiefs they found while going through her late mother's possessions.

As for Dorothy Hudson, if she was (say) 10 at the time, there's a very good chance she's still among the living. In 1940, she lived in this neighborhood in Windsor, Conn.:

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Dorothy, what was your card doing in Schaumburg, Illinois, in 2008?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Jake the Peg & Lamb Chop

This is a spot of entertainment from our Commonwealth friends, in the form of Rolf Harris. We here in the United States remember Harris, if we remember him at all, for "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport." But just watching him do "Jake the Peg" makes me think he's tapping a vein of nostalgia for it among the British audience -- a pretty large vein, considering he's performing at the Royal Albert Hall.

About a day after seeing this, Ann asked me, "How does the guy with three legs buy shoes?" I suggested that he had to buy two pair, and keep one as a spare.

Speaking of nostalgia, I can't say I was ever a fan of Lamp Chop -- who's still around -- but whenever the national conventions roll around, I give a passing thought for Lamp Chop. Why? Shari Lewis and Lamp Chop did televised appeals for donations to the Democratic National Committee during the 1972 national convention. I'm sure I saw them then; I was visiting my uncle and aunt in Oklahoma that summer during the week of the convention, and they watched some of the coverage.

Maybe Lamb Chop would have been a better choice that year than Tom Eagleton for veep. As far as I know, there's nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a sock puppet from holding high office.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Senator Ted

I made a point of watching Ted Kennedy's speech at the Democratic National Convention, not live, but later, which is easy enough in the age of YouTube. It's also easy enough to be ambivalent about him and the rest of the Kennedys, but he is a presidential brother, and a doyen of the US Senate. He's also near the end of the line, though he looked well enough considering his condition.

Naturally, it was little more than a pep talk -- which is all you're going to get from the televised parts of a convention. But I was glad to see him cite the Moon landings as a prime example of American determination (and by implication, Kennedy moxie): "Today an American flag still marks the surface of the Moon."

Alas, he didn't suggest accelerating the manned mission to Mars. I'd get behind that. I'd even pay a little more in taxes to see it happen.

I saw Ted Kennedy make a speech in the spring of 1980, during his effort to dislodge President Carter. Why his campaign thought speaking at Vanderbilt was a good idea, I couldn't say. But he did draw a crowd to the largest auditorium on campus. I remember that because crowd control outside the venue was spotty that evening, and it was so jammed outside the entrance that it was impossible to move around before the doors were opened. But fortunately he wasn't enough of a draw to cause a Cincinnati-style Who concert stampede (an incident fresh in everyone's mind at that moment).

Pete 'n' Bob, roommates who lived on my hall, had strong opinions about Ted Kennedy, and planned to heckle him. They even talked of making signs that said, "Where'd You Go, Mary Jo?" and "A Blonde in Every Pond," but since I didn't end up sitting near them, I don't know if they actually made them or got into the auditorium with them. As for Kennedy, I don't remember a thing he said.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Nor Any Drop to Drink?

Village workmen came recently and dug up parts of the water main, or maybe more than one big pipe, under our street. A fellow from the village had come by earlier to warn us that the water would be off for most, if not all, of the morning. So I told everyone to go to the bathroom right away, and I filled a couple of empty milk jugs, while imagining a much worse situation.

Hours stretch into days without water, and the workmen have mysteriously disappeared: and no one from the village calls back. Dirty dishes and clothes accumulate, expensive bottled water is used to flush the toilets occasionally, and we begin to smell: and still the village ignores the problem.

I only imagined that scenario in passing, without really thinking it would happen that way. And it didn't. Whatever they were doing, they did it with dispatch, and the water was flowing again at about noon. We were also treated to a fire hydrant discharge across the street, which is so novel around here that I took a picture.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Item from the Past: The Bronx, 1983

August 29, 1983

Last full day in New York. In the early morn I decided to see the Bronx Zoo and the NY Botanical Gardens. Eventually I did so, but it took me a while to get out of 17D [the apartment where I was staying]. On the way, I took the wrong subway, but the detour wasn't without its rewards. At one of the stations, I saw part of the filming of a music video, complete with stereotypical punk costumes, a camera and cameraman, and a woman squatting near a boombox, operating the tunes. Extras were standing around, and a makeup woman with a box of paints powder-puffed the musicians every now and then. I didn't recognize anyone involved, or any of the songs.

Before long I was on the #5 IRT, which after leaving Manhattan becomes an elevated train and gave me a full look at the wasteland that is the south Bronx. Blocks of rundown buildings are one thing, but what's astonishing is how few buildings stand on many blocks, and how much rubble there is. I've never seen the aftermath of a city shelled by an enemy, but I'd think it would look like this place.

Arrived at 180th Street and found the zoo without any trouble. I was expecting a more cage-oriented zoo, but was pleasantly surprised -- it's mostly fields and few cages, with a river running through it too. It also had a fine collection of animals, as zoos should, with only one annoying habit: it seemed like each and every sign describing the animals also waxed tendentious about how MAN as the vile enemy of all that is good and natural (I exaggerate, but only a little). I see what they're getting at, but if you ask the zebra being chased by the lioness, he might cite a more immediate threat.

The Botanic Gardens was less given to lecturing its visitors, with simple name plates to describe its many plants. After a walk through the gardens, I rode back to Manhattan and bought half-price theater tickets at TIKT in Times Square for 'night, Mother at the John Golden Theater on 45th near 8th Ave. (There's also an Army recruiting station at Times Square; a nearby graffito says "Fight War, Not Wars.")

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

My New Calendar

The school district thoughtfully provided us today, as it does each school year, with a workaday calendar -- one you can write on, spanning August to the next July, and including a lot of information about the district and its policies. For instance, the "Homework Policy" takes up fully half a page, beginning with these weighty words: "The District... establishes policy and guidelines that govern homework in its 27 schools." Which is followed by a fair number of other words. My own policy would use two words: Do it.

Certain days are specially marked, which of course is one of the functions of any calendar. From this new school calendar, we learn (for instance) that Ramadan's first full day this year is September 2, with that lunar-calendar drift moving it earlier in the solar calendar every year. The Columbus Day Monday holiday is still a day off this year, and Sukkot also happens to begin that day. October 25 is "Make a Difference Day," which is the first I've heard of it. I have a feeling I will make no difference that day.

November 19 is "Educational Support Professionals Day." Wonder if Hallmark has a line of cards for that. School janitors -- that is, custodians, a pointless euphemism in use even when I was in school -- ought to get the cards, too. The day before Thanksgiving is simply "Non-attendance Day." Odd. "Bonus Day Off" would have been a better way to put it, but that doesn't sound pedagogical enough, I guess.

All the important January days are omitted: Millard Fillmore's Birthday (7th), Australia Day (26th), and National Gorilla Suit Day (31st), but a little later in the year such non-events as Groundhog Day and St. Patrick's Day are included. What is it about Groundhog Day that calendar-makers like so much? And as for St. Patrick, fine. But I want St. David (March 1), St. George (April 23) and St. Andrew (November 30) on the calendar, too, just to round out the British Isles.

March 2 -- Texas Independence Day, by the way -- is "Read Across America Day." Time to form really large letters so that astronauts can read them, maybe. April 22 is both "Administrative Professionals Day," in case you wondered what happened to "Secretaries Day," and Earth Day, so buy your admin assistant a nice bouquet of carbon-offset credits. April 23 is the famed Take Your Daughter + Son = Child to Work Day. I don't need to take them to work. They come into my office all the time. April 24 is Arbor Day, which has more history to it than Earth Day, but why just trees? What about herbs, bushes, grasses, vines, ferns, mosses and green algae?

May 4 is National Teacher Day and May 5 is National School Nurse Day; why the education support professionals are stuck in November and not in May is unclear, since there are still plenty of uncommitted days in Teacher Appreciation Week (May 3-9).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shards of Ancient Suns

Summer is winding down. Peewee football practice has started in the park, though baseball will continue sporadically for a while. Lilly starts school tomorrow, and yesterday we got a recorded message by phone from the school superintendent, reminding students to show up. That isn't quite how he put it, but anyway it was a first. Finally, there's that business of shorter days, which is very noticeable now.

Ann starts kindergarten soon, too, but not tomorrow. On the whole, kindergarten must be a few days shorter than the rest of the elementary school year; she starts early next week. We got a letter from her teacher, welcoming her new students, and including a picture of her. She looks young enough to be my grown niece, if I had any. This is now happening with some regularity.

For a popular astronomy book published in the late '80s, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris, 1989) holds up pretty well, mostly because it's about the history of figuring out just how far away celestial objects are. When I have a few moments, I go to the deck and read it in still-warm August air.

I'll never look at my iron deck table quite the same again after reading the following digression, at the end of a discussion of Capt. Cook's 1769 voyage to observe the Transit of Venus, which was an important step in accurately measuring the Astronomical Unit.

"At iron the building stops; a normal, first-generation star lacks the energy required to make any heavier nuclei. The Sumerian name for iron, which means 'metal from heaven,' is literally true: Iron is a working star's proudest product.

"When a star runs out of fuel, it can become unstable and explode, spewing much of its substance, now rich in iron and other heavy elements, into space... Time passed, human beings appeared, miners in the north of England dug the iron from the Earth, and [smiths] pounded it into nails that longshoremen loaded in barrels into the holds of the HMS Endeavour. Off the nails went to Tahiti, continuing a journey that had begun in the bowels of stars that died before the Sun was born. The nails that Cook's men traded with the Tahitian dancing girls, while on an expedition to measure the distance of the Sun, were, themselves, the shards of ancient suns."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Medal Map

One more posting about the Olympics; but it's really about interactive maps. Mostly I still prefer static maps over the interactive kind, maybe the same reason that reading from paper is more nourishing than off of a screen. Still -- this is a hell of an interactive map.

I hope the New York Times maintains it for a while. Under the "geographic view," run it backward from this year -- when the US and Chinese bubbles are vying for the honor of biggest-ness, and a nest of European bubbles sit next to a nest of Asian bubbles. For one thing, it's interest to compare the 2008 and 2004 maps. It looks like China's sucking medals not from its other big rivals such as the US and Russia, but smaller European and Asian competitors, though we'll have to wait until Sunday to get a full picture.

Run the map backwards in time and watch the Chinese bubble shrink across the decades to nothing; the Australian bubble peaks in 2000, then shrink, but then gets bigger in during and after the Melbourne Games in '56; the South African bubble disappears in 1988 and reappear in 1960 (all of the tiny African bubbles vanished in '76 -- I forget why they were boycotting); and the behemoth Soviet bubbles of yore, except for 1984. Then there's the case of the insanely large East German medal totals, well reflected in the bubbles during the '70s and '80s, except for '84. The golden age of undetected doping, it was.

Except for 1980, the US bubble has always been pretty large, but not always the largest. But check out the 1904 Games in St. Louis -- it's as if the US is the Sun, and everyone else are planets. Then again, transit was more difficult in those days, and the Olympics wasn't the big hairy deal it would become later, so most of the Europeans skipped it. If the Games come to Chicago in eight years, it won't be the same kind of US medal sweep.

Sure, the Games should be in Chicago in 2016: the Daley Olympics. But looking at the map, I can't help but think awarding them to Rio would encourage South American Olympians, who have won so few medals over the years.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

More Olympic Folderol

Focus groups must have told NBC that some all-important consumer sub-psychographic wants to see gymnastics and more gymnastics, followed by another round of gymnastics. Not me. I'm glad the Olympic gymnastics are nearly over. It's a little too amazing watching people do motions in the air that should be physically impossible, or at least result in crippling injuries. Not only that, pondering the scoring methodology, which seems as arcane as calculating Nestorian Easter, causes headaches.

By contrast, swimming and running are refreshingly straightforward. Whoever gets there the fastest, wins. Not only that, most people can run, and many can swim, and what distinguishes an Olympian is a matter of degree -- it's still fundamental locomotion.

The network is using "Bugler's Dream," but only a few seconds at a time, and obscured by voiceovers. This is no good. It's a full-bodied theme, and deserves better. Even NBC ought to realize that. If I remember right, the network didn't use the theme at all in 1988, the first time it aired the Games, and probably millions of Americans reacted like I did: Where's the Olympic music? So it was back in '92. This is from '96, and a better treatment than the current one.

Much ado is being made about totting up the medals. China's running away with the golds, of course. Nothing like that home-team authoritarian-state advantage. But as usual, the Australians are really remarkable when it comes to gold medals, a fact probably stressed only by Oz media: 11 so far, out of a total of 33 medals. This by a free nation of about 21 million.

Baseball and softball are out next time around, I hear. Can't muster much indignation about that. A few other sports could be trimmed, too, such as "beach volleyball," without impairing the dignity of the Games. And here's one that should be revived: Tug of War, last played in the 1920 Games. Why was it discontinued? Anyway, it's perfect for the Games of the 21st century. Think of the fine television such matchups would make.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Carping About NBC

When the Olympics are on, I probably watch more sports than the entire rest of the year, or maybe the rest of the Olympic Cycle, though even so I'm a fairly casual watcher. But why bother with the Olympics at all? It really isn't that different than other pro sports. There's genuine competition and sometimes amazing physical feats, certainly, but at heart the event is about making money, with the added twist of stoking national pride.

That said, the Games are pretty much the only sporting event that captures my imagination. Maybe it's a function of growing up during certain decades. Ed Martin, a writer at, says this about watching the Games in the olden days: "...the Olympics truly were something special that only came along every four years (the Winter and Summer Games weren't separated by two years back then). They offered sights and sounds that weren't commonly available on pre-cable (and especially pre-ESPN) television: Live programming from other countries; taped coverage of athletic competitions that were not compromised by advance spoilers; sports that were usually only available on ABC's Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons."

Some of the sentiment lingers on. But my fondness for the Games doesn't have anything to do with NBC's current coverage. Memory's a trickster, but I can't shake the feeling that ABC knew how to televise the Games much better than NBC, which of course is offering up its usual dopey coverage this time around.

"We at NBC have heard about a Jamaican who ran really fast not long ago in these Games. As many of you in the audience who've been there on vacation might know, Jamaica's an island south of the USA. We'll see if we can get a tape of that run, but right now we're going live with an interview of Michael Phelps' chiropractor, to get more insight on his god-like performance in these Beijing Games."

I will give NBC a small amount of credit -- a micro-amount of credit -- for admitting that another country, namely China, is an important competitor in the Games. As usual the network is doing its best to characterize the Games as a "Team USA" event, with some other people also competing to make it more interesting. China's too big to ignore, however, so this time around of "gosh, golly, look at those Chinese athletes. It's a new China!"

Naturally, I'm not the only one to complain about NBC's style of coverage. But it could be worse.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Go Togo!

The opening pageantry of the Beijing Games was one thing, but I preferred watching the Parade of Nations, which came right after. This time it was particularly interesting, since the teams appeared -- except for Greece first and host China last, per Olympic custom -- in order according to how many strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese, and then by stroke order. In effect, at random, as far as anyone unfamiliar with Chinese is concerned.

I insisted that Lilly watch some of the Parade too, as an impromptu geography lesson. I will raise no geographic illiterates if I can help it.

Later I wondered why subnational places like French Guyana and Greenland compete with the French and Danish teams respectively, but places like Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda (for example) have their own teams. So I looked into it. Teams are fielded by National Olympic Committees, not nations, and those places have their own committees, for whatever historical reasons. But it's good to have some geographic oddities.

I also looked up the nations represented by one person in the Parade of Nations -- one-man or -woman teams in this year's Olympics. They are Grenada, Guinea, Haiti, Micronesia, Nauru, and Togo. Go Togo! I'm happy to report that as of August 14, Togo won a bronze. The event was Canoe/Kayak-Slalom, the winner Benjamin Boukpeti. According to the Olympic web site, he was born in France and lives in France, but paddles for Togo. Which is part of Francophone Africa, so I guess that's close enough. This post gives Mr. Boukpeti his due. Togo too. It's their first medal.

Speaking of Africa, I was much taken with the hats worn by the Lesotho team, among other colorful African garb that caught the eye during the Parade. Later I turned to Google, which knows all, and sure enough, they are called Basotho hats (after the main tribe of Lesotho), or Mokorotlo. Which are for sale on the Internet, if you really, really want one: $175. (And how much would it cost to buy one in Lesotho?).

This article's abstract claims that the Basotho hats were, in fact, relatively modern creations that have retroactively been attributed great cultural significance. This portrait of Moshoeshoe, everyone's favorite southern Africa king (or paramount chief) (except for fans of the Zulu Shaka), shows him wearing a top hat, though that image might have been for use by foreign newspapers. Hard to say.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bird's Nest Soup

Like a lot of other people, I watched part of the elaborate opening ceremonies of the XXIX Olympiad, as it is called, or perhaps the Third Despotic Olympics, late last week. Take note, tyrants of Beijing: roughly a decade after the Nazi Olympics and the Soviet Olympics respectively, both of those totalitarian states were gone, though I have to add that the Russian Federation seems eager to return to authoritarianism and Soviet-style imperialism, if not the full trappings of the workers' state.

"An extraordinary 15,000 performers were included in the opening ceremony, and almost two-thirds were members of the armed police and the People's Liberation Army, according to reports in the Chinese media," noted the Globe and Mail a few days ago. That only seems appropriate. A police state is putting on a show; why wouldn't police be involved?

Early on, I saw most of the "let 2,008 drummers drum" extravaganza, but went outside to mow the lawn ahead of the part that was supposed to illustrate Chinese history. Were there going to be 888 gymnasts doing a Long March on balance beams? What about 88 dancing intellectuals in dunce caps, prodded along by 888 Red Guard dancers, to warmly recall those spirited days of the Cultural Revolution? I had a feeling I wasn't going to miss anything like that, so I attended to yard work ahead of sundown.

Afterwards, I returned in time to see the dancing on the huge luminous globe, a tribute to the '08 slogan, "One World, One Dream, No Interfering in China's Internal Affairs," and the lighting of the torch, both of which drew heavily on the "flying Chinese" motif established so well by martial arts movies. Despotism or not, I have to give the Chinese their due: it all seemed like a spectacle and a half. For all my disparaging remarks, if I could have teleported to the Bird's Nest to see it myself, I would have, instantly.

Still, the London Games would do well not to ape this show, but instead try for something simpler, more focused on individuals, rather than masses. China's got masses, that's for sure. Western Civilization is about something else.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Bean & I

It's been about a whole year since I spent any time in Millennium Park downtown, so after my spicy lunch last Friday I walked on over. It was a flawless day for a little walk like that -- warm, not hot, with some clouds now and then to cover up the Sun now and then.

It's a popular park on such a summer's day, with no place more popular than the Bean.

The sculpture's formal name is "Cloud Gate," given to it by its creator Anish Kapoor. On a partly cloudy day, you can see how apt that name might be, with the clouds of the sky reflecting on the surface of the sculpture as well, but its legume shape captures the eye even at a distance, and retains its shape in any light or weather, so it is the Bean. I'd seen it before, of course, but maybe not on such a day, because it seemed different somehow last week, with an extra sheen on its already sheeny surface.

The reflections fascinate. They're the key to the piece. I imaged it painted white, or black, or even some festive piñata colors. If so, passersby would pass by, perhaps thinking, "interesting." But few would linger; or stare into it; or touch it; or take pictures; or talk about it; or remember it. Add the sky, the Chicago skyline, the passersby, and every other reflection to its silver surface, and people do all those things.

From the north of the sculpture, I was struck by how faithfully, yet how distortedly, the Bean captured the buildings along Michigan Ave. That row has its place in my own little history, since in the summer of 1986 I marveled at the row of buildings just after sunset, while attending the Blues Festival (the Bean was still in the distant future). I was a visitor to Chicago at that moment, but thought, "I'd like to live here." The next winter, I moved to Chicago.

The Bean is worth your attention at pretty much any angle, though.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Heaven on Seven

Last Friday, I had lunch downtown at Heaven on Seven with a couple of old friends. Rather, a couple of middle-aged people of long-standing friendship -- so long that there are job-holding, voting-aged married men, my oldest nephew for example, who did not exist when I first met at least one of these people. What did we discuss over lunch? Old times? Not so much: one of my friends was eager to share her recent experience with Facebook.

Heaven on Seven specializes in New Orleans cooking, and does a fine job of it too. It also looks the part, with green and purple tinsel and balloons, and bottles all around the place representing every conceivable hot sauce, many of which are at your table. But the really remarkable thing is its location on the seventh floor of the old Garland Building, at Wabash and Washington. A doyen among Loop office buildings, it dates from 1914 and currently has a tenant base mostly of doctors and dentists. In fact, if I remember right (I've written about the building professionally, but not the restaurant), the Garland has always had such a tenant base.

Heaven on Seven as a New Orleans-style eatery apparently evolved in the 1980s from a coffee shop that had occupied the room for many years. There's a sign on street level that indicates the presence of the restaurant, but it isn't much of a sign, so you have to know about Heaven on Seven. And people do. I've never been there when I didn't have to wait a few minutes to get a table.

Interestingly, the web site of the Garland Building has a good pic of the restaurant, but without the tinsel and balloons. I considered ordering the jambalaya, thinking of the recent passing of Jo Stafford, but ultimately went with the crawfish etouffee, with a jalapeño corn muffin on the side, and did not regret it.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Few of the 90,000 Bolts

The evening of Monday, August 4, started off pleasantly enough, with some gathering clouds, but not enough to discourage me from going out on a few errands. By the time I got to the post office, it was raining some. It was raining more when I returned some library books. By the time I got to my bank -- inside a grocery store -- it was darker than it should have been and raining a lot.

The air conditioner in my old car hasn't worked in some years, and correcting the problem would probably cost more than the car is worth. Most of the time, even in summer, it doesn't bother me. Early in my round of errands, I had my windows up to keep the rain out, but soon that caused a fogging problem. I cracked the windows, which helped some, but it was still difficult to see as I headed home, first on a main street with many streetlights, then on an side street with a lot fewer lights.

I was getting wet. The fog was returning to the windshield. Then, suddenly, lightning that had seemed distant became close lightning: rumble, boom, boom boom rumble, boom BOOM!

It was like a garden hose had cut loose on my already-blurry windshield, while at the same time some photo-happy imp set off flashbulbs in my back seat. I pulled over to the curb and turned on my blinkers. I rolled my window all the way down; in came water and wind. Lightning hit so close a few times that there was virtually no lag between light and sound. So I rolled the windows back up, since I remembered reading long ago that a car is a relatively safe place during a lightning storm, if the windows are up. The National Lightning Safety Institute (there's an institute for everything) offers similar advice, though I looked that up after the event.

The really close strikes probably lasted only a minute -- a long minute, for sure -- and with some attention to wiping off the inside of the windshield, I was on my way soon after it passed. The storm was still pretty vigorous when I got home, so I cooled my heels in the car for a while in the driveway. From that vantage, I could see a lot of cloud-to-cloud lightning. It was all part of the storm's lightning bombardment, as described in the Tribune the next day:

"Over four hours, about a half-year's worth of lightning bolts bombarded the Chicago area, electrifying the night sky as trees were split, transformers were zapped and houses were set ablaze... Nearly 90,000 thunderbolts had hit northern Illinois, according to the National Lightning Detection Network. At the storms' peak, it was firing off more than 800 bolts per minute; and that only counts those that hit the ground...

"The electrical storms raked the city and suburbs, bringing the Cubs game to a halt, sending residents into their basements and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of customers. Remarkably, no injuries from the lightning were reported.

"The awesome display originated in the unstable humidity that built up Monday afternoon, filling the area with potential energy, meteorologists said. When unusually high clouds rolled into the region, an electrical tension began to build between positively charged ice crystals at their top and negatively charged water droplets at their bottom, creating a volatile mix."

Or as the ancients might have said, Zeus was feeling especially wrathful -- except that he didn't actually hit anyone. Maybe it was just to show that he could, if he wanted to. He just didn't want to.

An account of lightning appeared here only a few days after my latest experience.