Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Let There Be Pyrotechnics

From the Australian, dateline Sydney, where it's already 2009: "More than a million revellers have ushered in 2009 in Sydney, watching in wonder as spectacular bursts of fireworks lit up the night sky, culminating in a giant glowing sun on the iconic Harbour Bridge.

"With the theme of Creation, the event was 15 months in the making, with a dazzling array of more than 100,000 individual pyrotechnics firing from the bridge, six barges around the harbour and the top of several skyscrapers."

Damn. I would like to have seen that. Why 2009 gets to be the Creation year, I couldn't say, but who cares. Fiat lux.

Then again, New Year's is a summer holiday in Oz, so they might as well shoot off 100,000 individual pyrotechnics. That's lighting a lot of candles against the darkness. Roman candles against the darkness.

Around here, I expect to hear a scattering of private pyrotechnics around midnight. It happens every year. Maybe not as many this year as last, not because of the economy or anything so abstract, but because it's biting cold out there.

Feliĉan Novan Jaron, everyone. Back on Sunday.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More Holiday Debris

Exactly how a gingerbread house kit ended up in our house during the week before Christmas, I don't know. Early last week, Lilly and Ann were eager to build it, so eager that they couldn't wait for me to finish an article I had to file, and they went ahead without me. I'm not sure my participation would have produced a better structural outcome. The last time I tried to build a gingerbread house, it ended up exactly the same as Lilly and Ann's house this time around -- more like a post-tornado gingerbread trailer park.

Lilly and Ann's was a Willy Wonka brand "gingerbread cottage kit," and since I didn't oversee their doomed efforts, I don't know whether the kit was the problem, or childish construction methods. But I have a larger issue with the Willy Wonka brand. Namely, it's just candy. Instead you should get confections that provide comeuppance, in strange and colorful (and somewhat disturbing) ways, to people with obvious moral defects.

Slinkies (Slinkys?) also entered the house as part of Christmas. Actually, I got two Slinky Jrs., a smaller version of the standard toy, one for each child. Other Slinkies have come and gone over the years, as they've tangled in seemingly impossible ways, so I figured it was time for new ones. A wonderful, wonderful toy, fun for a girl and a boy. I didn't know until recently that the namer of the toy had died this year.

One of Ann's presents was a new non-motorized scooter. She'd asked for it, having outgrown her old scooter. Santa got the credit for bringing it. I told her that she'd have to wait for a warm day to play with it, outside. If she played with it inside, I further told her that elves would come and take it back.

Later, in talking about it with my brother Jay, he suggested that Repo Elves might be a good concept for a bad movie comedy. Something with Adam Sandler in it, maybe.

Those busy elves. They live far away, speak a language incomprehensible to us, and work constantly to supply us toys. Sure, their workshop is supposed to be at the North Pole. But if I didn't know better, I'd guess it was in Guangdong Province.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Big Melt

Outside my window today are brown lawns and clear streets and bare rooftops. Only a few bumps and rims of snow and a couple of patches of ice remain from the deep white blanket I saw from the same vantage exactly a week earlier. The change seemed spring-like, but I'm under no illusions that winter has somehow softened. Plenty more of it lies ahead. Still, it's remarkable that a couple of rainy days above freezing can erase about three weeks of snowy buildup.

Christmas Eve was quite cold, single digits, but Christmas itself and then Boxing Day saw rising temperatures and a lot of meltage. The evening of the 26th was as foggy a night as I've seen in years, with temps above freezing, and the drip of melting snow from every direction. At times like that, a house is mainly a system for keeping its occupants and their stuff dry.

Soon after midnight on the 27th, a thunderstorm rolled through. At about 4 a.m., during a drizzly lull, I woke up and took the opportunity to check two critical drains located near the house to make sure they were actually draining. More than once during my occupancy of this house, I've had to clear away debris from one or the other of these drains, and the job is at its worst in winter. Luckily, they were handling all the rain and melting snow as they should, keeping water away from the house. Even at that early hour, I was amazed at how much snow was gone. Continued rains on Saturday, a day just like March or April, polished off most of the rest of it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holiday Wrap

We are a family that opens presents on Christmas morning. I don't ever remember doing it any other way.

Note the bedding in the background. The girls wanted to be really close to the action, so they slept on the floor next to the couch in the living room, not far from the tree.

They were up late, so I was up later being Santa Claus (figuratively for Lilly, literally for Ann), being extra careful not to wake them. They were up early Christmas morning, but fortunately not before the dawn or anything that ridiculous, and the first thing I heard was, "Santa came! Santa came! Santa came!" That was Ann, explaining the presence of the presents.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Have a Cup of Cheer Already

Joyeux Noël. Posting will return again after the long Boxing Day weekend ahead.

Too bad that early December is so overloaded with Christmas, especially Christmas music. I'd rather have the songs of the season crescendo a week before and then decrescendo in the week after Christmas. But no. That doesn't meet the needs of commerce.

The American Society of Composers and Publishers has published its annual list of the 25 holiday songs with the most airplay on American radio, which provides the context for this article.

Burl Ives' version of "Holly Jolly Christmas" (#17) does indeed play fairly often around this time of year, and though overplayed it still has that jolly sound. But I can't help thinking of Big Daddy when I hear it. That's what we need, a Christmas play by Tennessee Williams: "St. Nick on an Icy Tin Roof." In it, Santa would be the dying patriarch of a dysfunctional North Pole clan.

It wouldn't be Christmas without hearing "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" once (and only once), but until today the sporadic attention I've paid to the radio hasn't satisfied that small Christmas wish. Then I realized, as I often do, that my way of going about things is hopelessly outdated. All anyone has to do is look on YouTube, and sure enough, there it is, along with unnecessary videos of various kinds.

But maybe the most intriguing Christmas songs are the one that were never recorded. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Wendy O. Williams, say, or a hip-hop version of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" or the Art of Noise rendition of "Adeste Fideles." Then again, their non-existence might be just as well. There are plenty of Christmas songs the world could do without, and the top of my list lately has been the maudlin "The Christmas Shoes," which I never heard until this year, though it's been kicking around a while.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Monochrome Landscape

When I look out a window into my back yard, if I squint I can imagine a bleak high arctic landscape, complete with drifts of snow butting up against each other at odd angles. It's just imagination, since I've never seen the high arctic, but it's more interesting than acknowledging it as a patch of northern Illinois temporarily buried by snow.

The snow drifts aren't imaginary, however. After Saturday's thundersnow -- during which I thought I heard some low rumblings, but those could have been distant snow blowers -- winds and subzero air come to town on Sunday. Little new snow accumulated on the driveway, which made me glad. But a lot accumulated on the other side of the fence, in the back yard, probably driven there by the sharp winds. I had to do some excavating to uncover the sidewalk between the deck and the driveway, and if that spot was typical, there were two-foot drifts in some places.

More snow is due tomorrow. We won't have to worry about not having a white ground cover for the 25th of December, as famed in song and yuletide lore.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Item From the Past: Saturday Night Live, December 11, 1976

What's a day without a new fact, preferably obscure? Here's one. It's good to know that off in the cold reaches of the Asteroid Belt, 3834 Zappafrank quietly orbits the Sun.

My interest in Frank Zappa has waxed and waned at unpredictable intervals ever since there was a "Phi Zappa Krappa" poster on the wall of a bathroom that I often visited. It waxed briefly today when I watched the December 11, 1976, episode of Saturday Night Live, which is on the fourth disk of the Season 2 DVD set.

Zappa was the musical guest that night and did "I'm the Slime," "The Purple Lagoon," and "Peaches & Regalia." All very interesting, but not the reason I wanted to see that episode, and in particular see it before Christmas. I wanted to see the "Killer Christmas Trees" sketch, actually called "The Killer Trees."

I missed the entire episode when it was broadcast. I had a social life in those days, the beginnings of one anyway, and had other things to do. But I heard about it later; SNL was often discussed at school the Monday after, and people who'd seen it seemed most impressed by the Killer Christmas Trees. Later, the show was repeated, but I missed that too. In the days before VCRs, that was that. But what I'd heard about it -- Christmas trees sneaking up on people who were singing "O Tannenbaum" and spearing them to death with their branches -- stuck in my memory, vaguely. You never know what damn thing is going to stick in there.

Turns out the sketch was only OK, and not the best one of the show, at least according to my opinion 32 years later. "Let's Kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas," though intensely topical, was a lot funnier.

There's a little guy in Utah with a single Christmas wish
For one special thing that can't be substituted
Doesn't want to get electric trains, get toys or get pet fish
All he really wants to get is executed.

So let's kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas
Let's hang him from atop the Christmas tree
Let's give to him the only gift that money can't buy
Put poison in his egg nog, let him drink it, watch him die

Let's throw another yule log on the fire
And then let's throw Gary Gilmore on there too
With a ribbon so gay and a card that will say,
"Dear Gary, Merry Christmas to you"

Jane, Laraine, Gilda:
In the meadow, we can build a snowman
One with Gary Gilmore packed inside

John, Garrett, Dan:
We'll say, "Are you dead yet?" He'll say, "No, man"

But we'll wait out the frostbite till he dies

I've one Christmas wish

Jane, Laraine, John, Garrett, Dan:
Just ask it

Please put Gary in a casket

So let's toll the silver bells for him
While he can still hear what they say
Ding dong ding dong
You're dead, so long
We can thrill Gary Gilmore
If we kill Gary Gilmore
On this Christmas Day

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bring on the Thunder Snow

Clear all day, but the weather types were atwitter all day about the next big storm. As of ca. 11 pm, still no snow yet. But it's on the way. Good thing my commute is only a few feet down the stairs, and that Yuriko is off tomorrow. With a NWS winter storm warning like this (for Cook County), there's also some chance that there will be no school tomorrow:


Thunder snow. I can only remember hearing it once, a few years ago in December. I wouldn't mind waking up to the sound of thunder a week before Christmas.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Freak Aerodynamics

Lilly is doing a how-to demonstration in school tomorrow. Technically, it's a how-to about origami, but in fact it's about making a good paper airplane. She made one this evening, a nice construction with a number of fancy folds under the wing, and threw it at the ceiling fan in the room off the kitchen. The fan was rotating. Her paper airplane slid onto one of the blades of the fan, and stayed there for a few minutes as it continued to rotate.

One of the folds was apparently exactly the right size to catch the blade, and it entered the fan's airspace at exactly the right angle, at exactly the right moment. I was astonished. I told Lilly she could throw that airplane at the fan every day for a year, maybe several times a day, and probably not have the same outcome again. Unless there's something I don't know about the aerodynamic interaction of ceiling fans and paper airplanes.

My paper airplanes were never very sophisticated. Many imaginary test pilots died in them. As for origami proper, the father of a friend of mine in elementary school was pretty good at it, the only person I ever met before I lived in Japan who had the knack. I never put the necessary effort into mastering origami myself, though I'm good enough at origami boulders -- but who isn't?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Speculation About the Tunguska Event

One good thing about this intrusion of arctic air that I feel when I go outside: most everyone else north of Mexico is feeling it, too. Sometimes the deep blue bulge of cold air only covers the Great Lakes and environs, plus other places where state law mandates subfreezing temps for months at a time, such as North Dakota. Sunday was rainy but in the 40s; yesterday was clear and down close to zero; today was a little warmer, but snow fell from noon till evening.

Lilly has taken to playing WLIT, the pro tem Christmas music station, from time to time again this year. At least they're playing Jimmy Durante's version of "Frosty the Snowman." Lilly asked who he was, with such a distinctive voice, and I told her.

During someone-or-other's version of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," I suggested to her that Santa was so touchy about flying blind because one year his sleigh had crashed with great force, like a meteor. After all, he's going pretty fast.

If I'd thought of it, I would a suggested it as an explanation for the Tunguska Event in 1908. That happened in summer, but maybe Kris was out on a test run. He managed to eject, but the sleigh went down in Siberia, taking out all his reindeer, millions of trees, and an unknown number of residents of the Russian Empire.

Monday, December 15, 2008

O Christmas Tree

Yesterday, while temps were well above freezing, Lilly and I went to the nearest Christmas tree lot, which purveys trees harvested in the UP. What better place for a Christmas tree plantation? Lilly picked one, a thick balsam fir, I agreed with her choice, and the thing was netted and jammed into the back of the Sienna, which is just large enough for such jobs.

Now it stands in the living room, carrying Victorian custom into the 21st century. If it was good enough for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, it's good enough for me. But it isn't too likely that they had on their tree a blue-green Alamo-National rental company foam bus, about four inches long and two inches wide, which is one of our decorations. I might have picked it up as a tchotchke at a convention sometime or other, and it was probably intended to be a stress-ball-like thing for office desks. How it ended up in the ornament box, I don't know. But it's been there for a few years, and the green and blue go fairly well with evergreen branches.

The other ad-originated item on the tree is a Michelin Man, but he was designed to be a tree ornament, complete with red Christmas coat and hat, plus a loop for a hook. Where he came from -- besides France -- I don't know either. There are a few minor mysteries on this tree of ours, and I like it that way.

No elves, though. My parents acquired a half-dozen elves in Germany in the 1950s, made from pine cones, three inches tall or so, each with a different instrument. An elfin band. By the time I took over decorating the tree in the early '70s, these elves' customary place was near the base of the tree, in the lower branches. Why? Just because, that's why. The same reason we had a star, not an angel, on top.

But it proved to be their undoing. In the spring of 1976, we got a dog, Katie. In December 1976, Katie destroyed most of the elves. Maybe she didn't like their looks. I think one or two survived, and in later years hung higher in the tree.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Item From the Past: They Might Be Giants, 1988

My packratish ways provide my plenty of debris from the past. Somewhere, several somewheres really, I have most of the ticket stubs from most of the concerts I've ever been to. Such as They Might Be Giants at the Cabaret Metro in Wrigleyville on December 16, 1988. I'm happy to say that the venue is still around, though called simply Metro these days.

By coincidence my youngest nephew, Robert, was born the next day. He turns 20 this week.

I don't remember at all how I heard about the show -- WXRT, which I used to listen to, perhaps, or The Reader, which I used to read, or my friend Dave, who used to tell me about eccentric acts. I've fairly sure Dave introduced me to The Bobs and Jonathan Richman, both of whom I eventually saw live, and Pianosaurus and the Young Nashvillians, tapes by which repose somewhere in my collection of obsolescent cassettes.

Everything lives on on YouTube, even the Young Nashvillians. And here's an article about them by a fellow I went to college with.

I remember being pleased by TMBG in 1988, in those days simply a duo with guitars and a boom box on stage, with the audience standing around watching, since there were no seats. Lincoln would have been their new album in those days, so I expect "Ana Ng" and "Shoehorn With Teeth," among others, were on the evening's playlist. I thought they were at their funniest singing "Why Does the Sun Shine?" It wasn't until years later that I heard of Singing Science Records.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Winter Parfait

In the furthest reaches of our back yard, water collects in quality after a serious rain (see September 15, 2008), and a cold December rain is no exception. But unlike September, there's a strong potential now for creating an ice puddle after a rain. Which is what has happened this week. Almost.

Ann and I checked out the puddle-area today around noon, when the wind was gone and the Sun actually a little warm on my face. The snow from Tuesday still blanketed the spot, but when I put my foot down, ice under the snow cracked with a satisfying crunch, exposing liquid. Then the spot, footprint shaped, turned dirt down, to contrast with the snow white around it. So we had a winter parfait underfoot: layers of snow, ice, water and mud.

This is something to watch in honor of Gaudete Sunday, which is this Sunday, the third of Advent. Then there's Steeleye Span's version, which I was amazed to discover was something of a hit, at least in the UK.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Downtown for the Kristkindlmarkt &c

Today downtown greeted me with clear skies, cold air and buildings that were spitting ice at me as I walked by. I had some business to attend to in the Aon Center, formerly the Amoco Building, and before that the Standard Oil Building. But at least that building didn't drop anything heavier than a pellet of ice in my vicinity (though bigger chunks of ice from other buildings have occasionally killed passersby).

On the way home, I wandered briefly through the city's Kristkindlmarkt in Daley Plaza, sprawling underneath the giant municipal Christmas tree, which is really an assembly of regular-sized trees on circular platforms. The tree is lighted this year with energy-efficient LED bulbs, which have a flat sort of appearance up close, but otherwise do their job. The market seemed little different than in previous years -- shiny handmade goods, high Euro-zone prices.

Somewhere on the plaza is a menorah for Judaism and a crescent moon for Islam, if previous years are any guide, but I didn't see them. I also missed the special auction block set up recently to sell off Illinois' vacant U.S. Senate seat; but I've heard that event might be off.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fremantle, Home of Bon Scott & Dogbolter

Cold rain + snow cover = slush, with an extra good helping of black ice and otherwise treacherous walking conditions. Black Ice. Wasn't that the '80s rapper shot to death by rival Blu Sno?

Nope. Apparently, besides describing nearly invisible frozen water underfoot, it's also the name of a studio album by AC/DC, released only this October. Which makes me ask another question: AC/DC is still making records?

So it would seem. And fans are still buying them, in quantity, like in the good old days (good old days if you're a record company), except that they're buying them at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club this time around.

Such news naturally makes me wander around the Net a bit, and for my trouble I'm usually rewarded with nuggets of information. Sure enough, I discovered that in Fremantle, Western Australia, there's a statue of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, who died a rock 'n' roll death. Few from Fremantle found such fame.

The memorial was erected only this year, so I missed it by nearly two decades. My main memory of Fremantle -- or maybe it was West Fremantle -- is lunch: steak, baked potato, and a big bottle of Dogbolter beer, a local lager. That remains one of my favorite beer names.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Get Your Santa On

I wouldn't call it a warm day, but at least some of the snow has melted. Taking garbage cans to the curb was risky business tonight, at least in terms of slip-and-fall potential. But I made it.

On Saturday we visited a real estate agent that I know to see Santa Claus. Every year, even this most dire of years in his industry, the agent and his partners hire a Santa Claus and a photographer, and invite former or potential clients with small children by. Ann was thrilled, Lilly didn't particularly care for it, but I asked her to pose one more time. So she did. She got some punch and cookies out of the deal.

This is a completely conventional way to engage with the Santa Claus character. Other people have other ways of doing it.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

You Can't Get Much for 12.5¢ In This World

I hit the postcard jackpot on Saturday, during a stop at a resale shop we visit sometimes. They have a couple of shoe boxes of postcards for sale at a quarter each, which isn't bad. But when we dropped by, everything in the shop was half price. So each card was only a bit. What else can you get for a bit? Even a shave and a haircut is six bits. Or two bits, sources vary.

So I got $10 worth. A few cards are written on, but most are virgins. A handful are pre-World War I, most mid-20th century. Nothing looks in shape to be collectible, but all of them are mailable, which is what I will eventually do with most of them. The images include hotels and motels, natural wonders, Euro-churches and palaces, streetscapes, monuments, paintings, college campuses, a hospital or two, and other oddities.

This is a motel card, the kind motels used to offer as bits of marketing. The place looks forlorn.

Note that the name of the motel is blacked out. That wasn't an accident. On the other side of the card "MIKE'S" was handwritten to replace [Blotted Out Name] MOTEL and TRAILER PARK. A new phone number was added by hand, and it was done long enough ago that the seven-digit number has no area code. In fact, the seven-digit number seems to be replacing a four digit phone number.

So it could be that Mike bought an old motel (in Detroit, Oregon) and a lot of old cards came with it. Rather than creating new cards, he just changed the old ones. What was the old name? Bates, maybe.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jethro Bodine Cold

No new snow today, plenty of sun in fact, but cold. Mindless cold. Stupid cold, Jethro Bodine cold. A February sort of day. To think, only a month ago, election night in fact, was during a period of Indian summer, so the celebrants in Grant Park didn't have to huddle around cans of Sterno to stay warm.

Good thing there isn't going to be a rally when the Electoral College votes -- the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, which is December 15 this time around. Or when Congress certifies the electoral votes in early January. These would be bad times for a mass rally near Lake Michigan.

On the way home from Kohler, Wisconsin, in October, I visited the Basilica of Holy Hill, which isn't far northwest of Milwaukee, but still far enough to be in a rural setting. On a hill, unsurprisingly. A fine church in a fine scenic setting, particularly in October.

As I was leaving, I passed by the grotto on the side of the hill, which of course includes Mary, who greets the faithful. Hooligans and other vandalism-minded miscreants, on the other hand, are greeted by a sign that says NOTICE ALL ACTIVITIES MONITORED BY VIDEO CAMERA. The Lord watches over us, but just in case, we have closed-circuit TV.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Snow Dalek

We were promised more snow this morning, but somehow the front was delayed -- Wisconsin blocked it, maybe -- and nothing started falling until mid-afternoon, and even then it wasn't a vast amount. There was still snow on the ground from Monday, though some of it had melted. But it was enough for us (Ann and I) to have a walking snowball fight as she came home from kindergarten this morning.

"Fight" is too strong a word for it. I made some big snowballs, but always missed her on purpose. She made her own snowballs, but had to stand right next to me to hit me with elements of her snow arsenal.

We also spent some time in the back yard working on a snowman. My snowmen almost never resemble the rounded, three-tiered figures of winter illustrations, and this was no exception. It was more like a snow Dalek, at least in shape. I capped it off with a red toy bucket to add to that robotic feel.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Black Friday Birthday Party

The day after Thanksgiving has been stuck with the unfortunate label Black Friday, something I never heard until fairly recently, even though I've written about retail for a good many years. It certainly was an unfortunate day for the fellow who died by shopper stampede at a Long Island Wal-Mart; and for the two men who shot each other to death at a Palm Desert, Calif., Toys R Us. That latter incident got less attention, but in some ways was the stranger of the two. Imagine the conversation beforehand.

"C'mon, we're going to Toys R Us."

"OK, but be sure to pack some heat."

I didn't participate in any retail activity during the day, though Yuriko and Lilly did, including picking up the birthday cake that I'd ordered the week before.

Lilly actually turned 11 earlier in November, but wanted her party to begin on the day after Thanksgiving, and involve a sleepover until the next day. I wasn't sure anyone would come that day, but as it turned out, everyone she wanted to invite could come that day. Six girls in all, Lilly made seven, and Ann hung out with them as much as she could. It was loud most of the time, until very late, but no one was injured and no household items were destroyed, so I count it as a success.

At one point some of them were planning to carve an apple in the upstairs bathroom, which has the most mirrors of any room, at midnight. This is supposed to summon the image of a future husband in the mirror, or something like that. Apparently the idea has been kicking around for quite a while (see "Apple Paring.") But the girls missed the midnight deadline, and abandoned the idea.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Snows of Yesteryear Keep Coming Back

"After supper we went up-stairs and smoked and read in bed to keep warm. Once in the night I woke and heard the wind blowing. It felt good to be warm and in bed."
-- The Sun Also Rises

I didn't hear the wind last night, and I didn't smoke, but otherwise it felt good to be warm and in bed during the wee hours of the first day of December. Light snow fell all night. In the morning, we woke to the first substantial snow cover of the season.

In December, snow still has some charms. A lot depends on what you have to do and where you need to go. As the winter grinds on, the charms gradually vanish, even if you can stay indoors.

Tree- and bush-branches collected a lot of snow, and because the cloud cover persisted all day, they kept most of it. The skies were still overcast in the evening, which was too bad, because clouds obscured the conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter. I've been watching Venus and Jupiter draw closer together for a while now in the early evening sky, occasionally even pointing it out to Lilly and Ann, who weren't convinced that it was all that special.