Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pumpkin Eyebrows

Our Halloween decor is pretty spare this year. In fact, a lone pumpkin doesn't really signify All Hallows Eve, just fall or harvest season. Ann drew a face on it and we put it outside near the front door not long ago. But the weather has been wet lately, so most of the ink disappeared. When I brought it in for picture-taking, only the eyebrows were visible.

Or maybe those were the eyes, not to the eyebrows. Not sure what Ann intended. Still, I like to imagine that my pumpkin has distinctive, John L. Lewis eyebrows, if nothing else.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Something for Boys to Read About

It was a small assignment for Boys' Life -- I've had larger since, ones that are still awaiting publication -- but it was my first one, and the result of an idea I pitched to the editors last year. The other day I got a couple of copies of the November issue, in which the article appears, in the mail. An old-fashioned way to first see your work, since many articles aren't even put on paper these days. As far as I can tell, however, this article will only appear on paper.

"Article" is stretching things. As you can see, it's really a squib. Somewhat shorter than I actually wrote, but the editors did a nice job of making it a full-pager nevertheless.

It's also a lesson in how, in my business at least, it's good to remember the odd things you learn along the way. I first heard about the Firefighters Combat Challenge, the subject of the squib, when on staff at Fire Chief magazine back in the '90s. It seemed like a perfect thing for boys to read about, and the editors agreed.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Burning Bush Next Door

Much is made of peak coloration of foliage. There are even online maps that purport to guide foliage enthusiasts as to the timing of the peak in different parts of the country. But as far as I know, there's no measuring the concept -- it's only an impression. Last week I had the impression that my neighbor's bush, at least, was at its peak red, so I took a picture of it from my driveway.

Is it a burning bush (Euonymus alatus)? Certainly looks similar to other images on line thus labeled, but I can't quite tell. But no need to worry about exact names. It's just the bush next door that turns bright red this time of year, and catches snow at other times.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Things Ooze into Your Home When You Leave the TV On

Much drizzle these last few days, sometimes turning into outright rain, so much so that I was discouraged from raking and bagging leaves. It doesn’t take that much to discourage me from that job, though I did make some piles of leaves in the front yard Sunday afternoon. By Monday morning, more leaves had fallen so that the raked areas looked unraked.

Saw about 30 seconds of Happy Feet on TV the other day, a movie I managed to avoid in its entirety three years ago or so when it was in the theaters. But I knew it to be about anthropomorphic penguins and other creatures of the Antipodes. Still, I was startled to see the happy little penguin tapping his happy feet and singing a line from “The Message.” The line being, “Don’t push me/ ’cause I’m close to the edge.”

I had to wonder just how much of that particular song the happy penguin sang. Probably not much, and very likely none of the lyrics about growing up poor, committing crime, going to prison, being raped there and committing suicide (or being murdered) -- “It was plain to see that your life was lost/you was cold and your body swung back and forth.” That part of the song isn’t suitable for happy feet, I figure.

The long marketing arm of Disney finally caught up with me recently -- also through TV -- regarding its new version of A Christmas Carol. I saw a few seconds of a commercial for it. There’s only one reasonable reaction to that kind of information: Why, God?

Brooks Barnes, writing about the movie yesterday in the New York Times, quoted Mark Zoradi, president of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group: “ ‘[The story] has never been done with modern technology and with the acting talent of Jim Carrey,’ Mr. Zoradi said, adding that the visual style was ‘very new and very hip. It’s a 3-D thrill ride from start to finish.’ ”

I stand corrected. The only reasonable reaction is, “Dear God, no!”

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Item From the Past: Oświęcim, Poland

October 24, 1994. Auschwitz II-Birkenau, with the main gate off in the distance.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Poplar Creek Forest Preserve

In the six years or so that I've lived in northwest Cook County, Illinois, I've driven a lot of miles and spent a fair amount of time seeking out novel territory, much of it in far-away states and Canadian provinces. Yet I've never done anything more than drive past the Poplar Creek Forest Preserve, a unit of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Poplar Creek is an enormous piece of undeveloped land, 4200 acres, only about a ten-minute drive from my house, and features about nine miles of trails -- something I hadn't realized either until I took a close look at a map of the place recently.

With the weather fine, I decided on Wednesday to finally get around to taking a walk at Poplar Creek, even though I had plenty else to do. I started just shy of the Mile 4 marker off Bode Road and walked to the Mile 3 marker at the edge of Bode Lake South, and then back. I actually remembered to take a camera.

A steady trickle of leaves dropped from trees along the walkway, but large parts of the terrain were browning grasses. Late-season grasshoppers and crickets made noise and sluggishly crossed my path. For minutes at a time, the only other reminders of people were the pavement of the path itself and the low background din of traffic, impossible to escape at any time in this part of the world, though a handful bicyclists, joggers and walkers passed me by as well.

A hulking willow tree grows near the Mile 3 marker, along the shore of South Bode Lake. This is it, a mix of yellow and green at this exact moment in the year.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bumper Fish

Today was a fine fall day -- warm enough to leave all coats and jackets on their pegs, mostly clear but with enough clouds to make the sky interesting, and just enough wind to send leaves scattering from their trees occasionally. I was even able to drink artisanal root beer (see Monday) on the deck.

Though not Halloween related, I saw another thing for the first time in my neighborhood recently: a bumper sporting a fish with the words N'Chips inside. This made me laugh. I don't see very many bumper fish in my part of the world, either the originals with ΙΧΘΥΣ or JESUS, or the Darwinfish with legs, or TRUTH eating Darwin, though I've seen all of these at one time or another. Maybe bumper fish aren't something Midwesterners care for all that much.

It turns out, of course, that there's a whole cottage industry devoted to variations, mostly parody or secular, of the bumper fish. My own favorite of these is emblematic of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.

I see that the FSM web site has expanded considerably since I last visited a few years ago. All the movement needs now is a mendacious bastard along the lines of L. Ron and it could be a real cult (with real, dues-paying cultists) in short order. Here's my own little contribution: it's clear that among the many early prophets of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was the Flying Purple People Eater, who appeared in the late 1950s.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Down the Block, A Minion of Beelzebub

It's just an impression, but it looks like neighborhood Halloween decorations are scarcer this year than even last. Maybe people have less taste for contrived frights among the real economic frights of our time. Inflatables seem very scarce. They're ridiculous, but that didn't stop people before. But it does cost money to operate the things, which might have inspired some second thoughts about them.

The family about four houses down has decorated more than most. Last week a straw-stuffed dummy with a pumpkin head appeared in a lawn chair on their front lawn. Then a mock giant spider and its web were erected on a small window. This afternoon as Ann and I were walking by, the father of the household, a fellow I know slightly, was standing outside smoking a cigarette and looking into his picture window.

"You want to see it move?" he said to us.

Then I noticed a black-draped, mostly faceless figure in the window. Supposed to be witch-like, I figured. It had glowing blue eyes, so it was already plugged in. That or in communication with Beelzebub.

He must have just finished setting it up. He ducked inside the front door and soon the figure started a slow gyration. Not bad. Better than any inflatable. Ann wasn't scared, but she might have felt differently about it at night.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Product Endorsement Monday: Caruso's Legacy Robusto Root Beer

Finally, a couple of classic October days. Cool but not cold, blue skies, yellow leaves. There seem to be more green-leaf hangers-on than usual this time of year. Maybe that has something to do with the rain surplus we've seen in 2009, but I'm not enough of a botanist to know.

We've all heard that the FTC is going to crack down on unacknowledged compensation for product endorsements among bloggers. If only I received that kind of largess. I'd settle for smallgess, for that matter. But no one has ever given me anything free in exchange for my endorsements, since my readership would be a rounding error for, say, Celebrity Baby Blog. I have pay for everything I mention fondly here.

I happened to be at Aldi on Saturday, home of temporarily stocked items you've never heard of, and so it was with Caruso's Legacy Robusto Root Beer. Marked down from $3.49 for six bottles to $1.25, I couldn't pass that up, especially with the promise Made From Cane Sugar. As the real deal among sweeteners, sugar has been mugged in recent decades by corn syrup, at least in North America. It's good to see that "sugar," cast in marketing limbo sometime ago -- Corn Pops were once Sugar Pops, and Honey Bear was Sugar Bear, for instance -- might be making a small comeback.

Even more intriguing was that name, Caruso's Legacy. Does that mean wax cylinders and scratchy 78s? No. The label on the bottle explains that the name is a tribute to Mr. & Mrs. Peter Caruso, soda makers of a bygone age whose descendants carry on the business in the form of Black Bear Bottling LLC of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which is just south of Milwaukee.

It's a fine root bear, one of several that come from Wisconsin, such as Point Root Beer and Sprecher's, which I've tired, and the more amusingly named Torpedo Juice Root Beer, which I haven't. I slowly sipped my bottle of Caruso's Legacy. Lilly and her friend Rachel, who was visiting, split a bottle, and soon came back demanding a full bottle each, they liked it so much. Ann then decided she had to have one, and actually finished it, rather than leaving it sitting around half empty.

That leaves one more, which I'm hoarding in a hard-to-see nook of the refrigerator. Yuriko as a rule doesn't care for root beer, so it's mine. If it gets warm enough one day this week to each lunch on the deck (and it might), I'm drinking it then.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Item From the Past: New England Ramble

October 18, 1989

I set out early and headed north on Vermont 100, which turned into a valley road of exceptional charm. A lot of the color was already gone, but the remaining reds and yellows went well with the browns and grays in the background. Fog clung to the slopes and bushes like cotton. I arrived in Waterbury just after noon and after lunch went to the nearby Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory and took the tour -- essentially a slide show of the process, bragging about how socially conscious the company is, and an overlook of the ice cream-making room, which isn't really that large. Free samples after that, and I bought a milkshake ("reverse chocolate").

Later in the afternoon, I drove to Montpelier down I-89, one of the best-looking stretches of Interstate I’ve ever seen, hilly and colorful. The capital of Vermont is a small place, as if the capitol were flung into the sky and happened to land in this spot, so that a town had to be built around it. I’m sure there are actual historical reasons for its location, but I like my idea better than looking up those reasons. Spent some time in the elegant capitol (state house, it’s called, like in Massachusetts) and the attached museum.

Found the hostel before dark and was given an empty room filled with six or seven folding beds, though I remained the only occupant. In summer, things are probably more crowded. The place was cluttered, so it reminded me of home. The fat, bearded, goofy proprietor didn't remind me of home. For a while I was in the common room with a few of the other lodgers, and the proprietor would come in periodically and make lewd comments about the movie on TV, Gorillas in the Mist, and then laugh at himself. "So you're watching Gorillas in My Pants?" was one of the cleaner ones. Cost of the room, plus the low-grade entertainment, $10.

October 19

Left early without a word. Spent a few minutes in a graveyard along US 2 down the hill from the hostel. Mostly 19th-century graves, very austere. It was cold, so I moved on into New Hampshire. Drove into nice views of the Presidential Range.

At the foot of Mt. Washington, I looked into taking the cog railway up to the top. They wanted $32. No. So I drove away and along a little road and came to Jefferson Notch, elevation 3009 feet. Ice crystals hung from the trees. I got out of the car, walked around, then ate lunch.

October 20

Long driving day into Maine, through driving rain sometimes. It was pouring in Gorham, NH, when I had breakfast at McDonald's, just ahead of a busload of French Canadians.

"A bus is coming," said one of the McDonald's workers to another one.

"Hear that?" the second one said, calling back to the food prep area. "There's a bus on the way!"

"A bus of what?" asked yet another worker behind the counter, a gawky teen. [Actually, they probably were all teens.]

"A bus of people!" the first one said, and most of the workers laughed, but not the guy who'd asked.

It was indeed a bus of people -- elderly Québécois on tour, it seemed. I finished my sausage egg biscuit, read the Manchester Union-Leader and listened to their familiar yet unfamiliar tongue.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

SETI Without All That Fancy Equipment

Man, am I in the wrong profession. From an AP kid-in-the-balloon-not-in-the-balloon-no-really-it's-not-a-hoax-six-year-olds-do-
the-darnedest-things item on Thursday: "When the Heene family aren't chasing storms, they devote their time to scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer to send into the eye of the storm."

Scientific experiments that include looking for extraterrestrials? DIY SETI? I think I saw a SETI kit at Costco once, and a cheaper one at Sam's Club, but I might have been imagining things. I have a better idea anyway. Put up a sign that say "UFO Landing Site" or "ETs Welcome" or something similar in my back yard, facing upward of course, and every day at (say) 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. check to see whether any spaceships have been attracted to the landing site. Make a note of the results each time.

I think there's some bits of scientific method to that -- testing a hypothesis, careful observation, reproducibility. Maybe there's some grant money out there for such studies. Wasn't that one of the phrases at the beginning of The X Files? -- "The Grant is Out There."

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The One Appointment Everyone Must Keep

Bruce Wasserstein has died. I never met the man. I've met millionaires, but no billionaires, as he was. Some years ago, he controlled an entity that controlled the entity that published the magazine I edited. Or something like that. The exact lines of control and ownership were opaque to me, as these things sometimes are, but I knew he was the prime cheese in some way or other.

The magazine had a kick-off party and a lot of people came, but not Mr. Wasserstein. Instead, he sent a right-hand man whom I spoke to briefly. I suspect we didn't rate highly enough among his properties to fit into his schedule. Other publishing ventures that he eventually bought were more important, at least to judge by what's mentioned in his obits -- New York magazine, for instance.

Later, after I no longer worked for the publishing company he controlled, he sold it. Why he wanted to own publications after being a M&A mogul, I couldn't say, though he had been a student newspaper editor at the University of Michigan once upon a time. Mostly he'll be remembered as the architect of some of the whopping big mergers of the 1980s. Notable activity, certainly, but I have a simple mind about that kind of thing. Besides enriching those involved, the point of all that frenzy was... what?

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Red Faux Fur Cape and Loincloth

Got a press release recently that falls in the "I can't make this up" category. Where would we be without entertaining press releases? Actually, only a handful ever count as entertaining, but they do show up over the transom sometimes.

Since I don't want to actually provide the man any publicity -- even at the low level of a few Blogger and Facebook readers -- unless he gives me something in return, I'm changing his name, and the name of his book (though with the information I'm giving, Google will provide his name, if that's what you really want). I will say that he's a developer of expensive houses in an expensive part of the country who apparently chalks his success up to God.

Anyway, it's a long release, but this was my favorite graph: "Capt. Geoffrey T. Spaulding’s second book is the spiritual/inspirational The Thump -- a book that shows how to act on life’s great 'thump moments' -- embracing the rewards and responsibilities of a blessed life. He believes that responsible stewardship of his resources has been the key reason he has experienced such astronomical success and he has a deep belief that God presents life-changing opportunities, and it is up to us to share our time, talent and treasure with others less fortunate. Known for his flamboyant style, whether it be posing in a red faux fur cape and loincloth or dressed as an angel coming out of a coffin, it all comes down at the end to helping others. The Thump offers an inspiring yet practical guide for those who want to succeed at a higher level in the most important business of all -- the business of life!"

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Unit 3D, Imaginal Lofts

It's been an odd amalgam of September and November here during the first few weeks of this October. It seems that the leaves are still a lot greener than they should be -- and yet it's chilly just about every day, near freezing at night, with a lot of gray, drizzly days. We've mostly been lacking those crisp, bright October days.

I toured an unfinished condo project recently. Mostly finished, it seemed, and it was a handsome development on the inside -- blond woods, stainless steel in the kitchen, a more complex layout than you usually see in a condo. The person who had planned to buy it (actually an old friend) showed it to me, explaining that he was glad that he couldn't get a loan after all. I saw some leaky plumbing, but my guide explained it had been damaged during cleaning.

Then the developer spoke, via loudspeaker, about the property. He asked me if I liked it. All the units were connect via loudspeaker, and I wanted to leave. It turned out, you see, that I was dreaming. Literally. Has real estate has seeped into my unconscious? I'm not sure that's a good thing.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Item from the Past: Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park

Some years ago I posted about visiting the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in the southern exurbs of Chicago in October 2002, but I hardly did the place justice. After all, you can find works such as Flying Saucer there, impressive in its sheer weird bulk.

It's hard to tell from a picture, but the thing is a few feet taller than an adult human being. The park's web site says of the piece, by Jene Highstein: "Flying Saucer grew out of a group of works created between 1976–77. Large spherical sculptures were made by hand-troweling concrete over an armature of wood or steel. All were painted black. An untitled example of these works remains in front of the student union at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park."

Then there's Phoenix, by the late Edvins Strautmanis, better known for painting with brooms.

"Originally commissioned in 1967 for a Hyde Park apartment complex, the work was rejected by the apartment building inhabitants," notes the Nathan Manilow web site. "They found its monumental size and abstract design inappropriate. Lewis Manilow, owner of the building, called Bill Engbretson [then GSU president] and let him know that the sculpture was available. United States Steel supplied the flatbed used to ship Phoenix to its new home in the southern suburbs."

This piece, about three stories high, is the curiously named Yes! For Lady Day by the prolific Mark di Suvero. Again from the Manilow web site: "Yes! For Lady Day was created over a period of two summers while diSuvero lived in a farmhouse on what was to become the GSU campus... Yes! For Lady Day was constructed of salvaged steel I-beams and a railroad tank car that was cut at a diagonal ellipse by the artist. DiSuvero’s distinctive approach has created an object of brutal beauty that dances in the prairie breeze."

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Chamber Blues '09

Since so many musicians supposedly defy and blur and transcend genre labels, preconceptions and pigeonholes -- there's a whole arsenal of clichés available to critics about genre-busting -- you'd think that there wouldn't be musical genres at all. Yet the descriptions have their uses. As Corky Siegel writes on his Chamber Blues web site: "My greatest inspiration in my life has been the blues. What an amazing opportunity in 1966 at Pepper's Show Lounge on the South Side of Chicago as a young musician blues lover to be part of the house band that hosted Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog Taylor, Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and all the great blues masters you can think of...

"And then this Japanese fellow shows up in 1966 and wants my band -- Siegel-Schwall -- to jam with his band. His band was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he was Seiji Ozawa. He explained that blues was the very spark that classical music needed. Traditionally classical music forms borrowed from the folk forms of the day. And what more important folk form is there then the blues?"

Besides Corky Siegel and Howard Levy on harmonica and piano, the rest of Chamber Blues at the Prairie Center for the Arts last Saturday were the West End String Quartet and percussionist Frank Donaldson. With his toothy smile and talent with anything he touched, hit, shook, rubbed or scraped -- bongos, tabla, tambourine, triangle, cymbals and other items I can't put a name to -- Donaldson was a hit with the audience. Early on, he donned a metal vest and played that for a few minutes, sounding unlike anything I'd ever heard.

Sometimes the quartet had their own moments in the spotlight, either all together (as you'd expect), or during duets or solos. The young violinists Chihsuan Yang and Aurelien Fort-Pederzoll did their ensemble parts expertly, but at one point broke into what I can only describe as a friendly fiddle contest. The fetching Yang also had the opportunity to play the erhu, the Chinese two-stringed fiddle, for one piece. Rounding out things were violist Doyle Armburst and cellist Jill Kaeding.

All together, or sometimes separately, Chamber Blues played for about two hours. For the encore, Corky Siegel came out by himself and said that he asked everyone else to leave, because they couldn't sit around and not play. He then started in at the piano, and sang a song about how he couldn't be a vegetarian (or a potato man, as the song had it). One by one, the other members of Chamber Blues came back on stage, with Corky pretending not to notice until they surrounded the piano. At that point, at least four of them -- I couldn't quite see how many -- played with him on piano, each contributing a hand. I don't know how that can sound good, but it did. A rousing finish for a joyous concert.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Mysteries of the Harmonica

The harmonica is a mystery to me. Blow into it, get vaguely musical noise. Move air up and down the slots in the harmonica, get a cascade of noise. At least that’s what happens when I noodle on one, including cheapo models and a couple of expensive, polished metal harmonicas complete with their own cases that I’ve had the chance to handle over the years. The quality of the instrument doesn’t matter. The noise I make is a distance cousin of music, and they’re not on speaking terms.

So how does Corky Siegel do it? The mystery deepens. From off stage, all I could see were his hands cupped together, moving rapidly, with a microphone wire emerging from them. Or, during the moments when he left the stage and played for a few minutes in one of the aisles, just his hands cupped over the instrument, moving rapidly, blowing fine without benefit of an amp. Somehow, he produced wa-was and wails and lonesome blue notes.

Even if I’d been standing next to him, his exact technique would be elusively hard to see, since besides his hands, much of the rest of Corky Siegel is in motion when he plays. Body motion during harmonica jams, and a stomping foot during his piano numbers. He's got an impressive amount of energy for a man in his mid-60s at least, but I guess that’s a natural extension of his enthusiasm for performance.

Corky wasn’t the only harmonica player on the bill. Howard Levy, a tall fellow of roughly my age dressed all in black, played in duet with Corky, or sometimes with the other musicians or solo, when Corky was off resting. Energetic he may be, but no spring chicken.

The handoffs to Mark Levy were seamless, and as far as I could hear, he has every bit as much talent as Corky Siegel. He opened the second set under a spotlight doing an arrestingly beautiful harmonica version of “Amazing Grace,” did a couple of adapted Romanian Folk Dances (Bartók), and at one point accompanied himself by playing the piano with his left hand and the harmonica with his right.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Corky Siegel, Ecstatic Bluesman

Years ago I saw Keith Jerrett perform an open-air concert at the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. It was standing room only in the most literal sense – no seating, only standing – and I had a fairly good, but not up-close view of the man as he persuaded the piano to do his remarkable bidding. But even at some distance, I could tell it was an angry performance. Maybe the audience was too noisy, or unappreciative, for Jerrett. Supposedly he’s touchy that way.

In any case, at one point Jerrett stopped playing, stood up, glowered at the audience, and left. That was the end of the concert. We stood around for a while, wondering if he would come back, but no.

Corky Seigel’s artistic temperament could not have been any different. He’s an amazing blues harmonica virtuoso, of course, and a hell of a piano man, and all those talents were on display during the concert. But from beginning to end, the unassuming-looking Corky seemed purely happy to be in this modest auditorium, playing to this modest crowd. I don’t think the music he offered up, an unusual, distinctive amalgam of blues and classical, would have worked nearly as well if his attitude had been, “I’m an artist, dammit, listen here.” Instead it was a wide-eyed, “Wow, listen to this! You won’t believe it!”

Who knows how many places he’s played in 40-plus years, venues famous and obscure? He probably doesn’t know, and he wasn’t entirely sure where he was on Saturday, though we didn’t hold that against him. Toward the end of the second set, he gushed, “You’re the best audience I’ve ever had.” Everyone laughed, taking it as a joke about the kind of things musicians say to all their audiences.

“No really, this place is great,” he added. He leaned over a moment to Jill Kaeding, the cellist, and she said something to him. He didn’t hear her, so she repeated in a stage whisper everyone could hear, “Schaumburg.”

“Right, Schaumburg! What a great place!” he enthused. The audience roared with laughter. Corky didn’t need to know exactly where he was, he would be the same ecstatic bluesman anywhere and everywhere, for any audience who would listen.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

An Evening at the Prairie Center for the Arts

The web site Chicago Traveler has this to say about the closest live theater to where I live: "The Prairie Center for the Arts is located northwest of Chicago, in the suburb of Schaumburg. The Center, which first opened in 1986, features performances in music, dance, theatre, film, and storytelling... With just 442 seats, the theatre at the Prairie Center is intimate, comfortable, and offers every patron an exceptional view -- no seat is farther than 15 rows from the front of the stage. Also, there is ample free parking at the Center."

Almost accurate. Free parking, yes indeed. And the venue itself is what small theaters are called -- "intimate." For Yuriko and I on Saturday night, sitting in the sixth row, the view was excellent. So too were the acoustics, something Chicago Traveler doesn't bother with.

"Comfortable," on the other hand, isn't a word I'd use to describe the seating. The seats are hard and narrow, with little leg room. If you're tall and fat, then, it's a lot like sitting in an airplane. Only about two decades have passed since the theater was built, yet the patrons have already outgrown the seats.

But if the show's any good, that's just a quibble. You forget about the seating arrangements and get lost in the musical arrangements. So it was Saturday. We don't go out for music very much, but when we do it's good to hit the nail on the head.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Item From the Past: The Tiffany Railroad Bridge

October 5, 2002

If you can’t marvel at far-away wonders, you have to seek out things closer to home. Today we made it as far as Beloit, Wisconsin, a modest-sized town just north of the state line, and also north of that modest-sized city, Rockford, Illinois. In recent years Beloit’s riverfront has been landscaped, and now includes various amenities [such as the sculpture to the left]. There's also a remarkable playground along the river, sporting a variety of wooden structures that kids can crawl around. In recent years, I’ve taken an interest in finding playgrounds wherever we go, and this ranked as one of the better ones.

Later, we walked around the leafy campus of Beloit College, another example of a seminary planted in 19th-century sod that has evolved into a small but locally important institution of higher education. I see from looking in my almanac that tuition there runs in excess of $21,000 per annum. My tour was free, and informal. While Yuriko took a nap in the car, Lilly and I took a walkabout. At my age, and the way I was dressed, I might be a suspicious character on campus, but if you take a small, happy child with you, nobody has any suspicions. Beloit College features a number of interesting old buildings, invariably built in the late 1800s. It's also supposed to have a first-rate anthropological museum, free for casual visitors, but I didn’t think we had the time to see it.

Toward the end of the day, we drove a few miles northeast of Beloit, on the advice of the Moon Guide to Wisconsin, which contains a paragraph about a bridge between Shopiere and Tiffany, Wis., two hamlets near Beloit. After a short drive on a local road, we came to a one-lane car bridge crossing Turtle Creek, which is almost river-sized. Though rural, it wasn’t a desolate spot. We saw a fisherman in the creek, complete with waders, and some canoe enthusiasts drifted by as well.

Across an open field, we could see a five-arch limestone railroad bridge crossing Turtle Creek. The bridge, built in 1869, was modeled after a Roman aqueduct in France. We were able to park the car beside the road and traverse an open field to get a closer look.

The land around it seemed to belong to the Rock County Boys and Girls Club, and a nearby structure, maybe a clubhouse, looked empty. Dandelions were blooming all across the field — very unusual for October, as was the green grass. Lilly had good sport with the dandelions while her parents admired the bridge. As we were leaving, we wondered if the structure were still in active use as a RR bridge. It looked sturdy. Sure enough, a westbound train whistled and blew across the bridge as we watched.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle

A cold, rainy start for October. This time of year I’m reminded of October the First is Too Late, an obscure work of science fiction by Sir Fred Hoyle, who is better remembered as the cosmologist who didn’t care for the Big Bang. I read the book about 30 years ago, and naturally only remember bits and pieces. But the main idea, that the Earth suddenly divided into temporally distinct regions that could nevertheless interact with each other, sticks with me.

That is, suddenly it was 1966 in the UK (the present day, at the beginning of the book), but 1917 across the Channel and various other centuries in further away places; and the 1966 British government spent considerable effort trying to get the 1917 combatants to stop fighting. Why October 1 was too late, I’ve forgotten.

I read last month that the doomed ship Morro Castle now has a memorial in Asbury Park, NJ, unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the disaster. That news prompted me to take Shipwreck: the Strange Fate of the Morro Castle (1972), a paperback I bought for pennies last year, down from the shelf. It’s well written, and appeals to my interest in events that have all the right stuff to be part of our collective memory -- twists of fate, negligence, panic, drama, heroism, innocent victims -- but which are mostly forgotten.

The authors, Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, who seem to have a talent for writing about bad things happening to large numbers of people at the same time, note in the book’s bibliography that “only the sinking of the Titanic came near to matching the intense press interest that surrounded the Morro Castle disaster. Like the sinking of the White Star liner, the disaster involving the flagship of the Ward Line led to a great deal of sensational and inaccurate reporting.” (Newspapers being the cable news of the day.)

Then again, a lot of ships have gone down over the years, and human memory, collective or otherwise, only has so much capacity.

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