Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Memo to 2009: So Long, Don't Bother Us Anymore

Another New Year again? Didn't that just happen about a year ago? So many New Years have piled up in the warehouses of memory that some of them are as lost as the Ark in an FDR-era federal surplus property facility. Anyway, no more posting until 2010 is under way in every time zone.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Sock Monkey in Town

The sock monkey takes many forms. Many strange forms that seem to be distant cousins of the original folk art.

I bring this up because a sock monkey appeared in Lilly's stocking this year. In fact, it practically filled the thing up. Somehow I realized that she wanted one -- one or another of her friends has one -- when I saw a display of them at a major drug store chain in the days before Christmas. Unlike those examples above, hers hews a little closer to the conventional form, at least as far as I understand the sock monkey archetype.

But my understanding is limited. Wasn't one of the 1,000 faces of the hero a sock monkey? I can't remember. Lilly's specimen, according to the label, is "All new materials, surface washable, 100% polyester fiber." And of course, Made in China. It has the distinctive red mouth that sock monkeys have, but more interestingly there's a distinctive red anus pretty much where you'd expect it to be, though the tail is in a curious position that seems to sprout from the monkey's lower opening.

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Monday, December 28, 2009


I'm not familiar enough with the iconography of Homer Simpson to know exactly what each of the three Homer poses on my new sleeping pants might mean. One looks like he's dreaming of doughnuts, another has him posed arms akimbo, and the third has him doing a monkey dance, maybe. Also written on the pants: I AM SO SMRT. Which turns out to be a Homer quote, more or less.

The Homer pants were one of my Christmas gifts this year, one I'm glad to wear when unconscious on these long winter nights. It also reminds me that the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons premiere passed not long ago. Whatever I was doing on December 17, 1989, it didn't involve wasn't watching Fox. A few months later, I left the country without ever hearing of the show.

During the summer of 1990 in Osaka, I sometimes hung out with two Kiwis and a Californian, and one evening we visited a Frenchman we knew at his flat somewhere in the city. He had a VHS tape with an episode of The Simpsons on it. By this time I think we'd all heard of the show, so we watched it. Our little multicultural audience, even the Frenchman (whose English was well developed), enjoyed it immensely. Fittingly, the episode was "The Crepes of Wrath," in which Bart is sent to France in exchange for an Albanian student.

We knew it was something different from the usual run of cartoons. How could it not be, with dialogue like this, when Principal Skinner tells Homer and Marge that he's all too eager to get rid of Bart for a while by sending him to France:

Homer: Wait a minute, Skinner! How do we know some French principal over there isn't playing the same stunt you are?

Principal Skinner: Well, for one thing you wouldn't be getting a French boy. You'd be getting an Albanian.

Homer: You mean all-white with pink eyes?

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Xmas Day '09

Ann is usually not the first person to wake up in the morning, but Christmas morning was another matter. She wasn't up at first light -- considering the overcast skies, there was barely any first light -- but it was early enough for me to ask her to go "check the presents" while the rest of us lolled in bed a few more minutes.

She came back to report that the pastry we'd left for Santa was gone! We had no cookies around when Ann had suggested, late in the evening on the 24th, that we leave something edible for the supernatural gift-giver in red. So I put a small slice of Costco pastry on a plate for St. Nick. Its absence the next morning was proof of his existence for the six-year-old mind. She knows I'm a skeptic, and mocks me for it. (A few weeks ago, she asked if I believed and I answered obliquely, "Santa's for kids to believe in.")

By the time Ann found the plate empty, the pastry had long since entered my digestive system, but I let Santa take credit for the deed. She didn't suggest DNA testing of the pastry remains, but I thought of it. How conclusive that would be anyway? Exactly what would you compare Claus DNA to, to establish identity? After all, it isn't quite like figuring out what happened to Anastasia.

After that, Christmas passed pleasantly. Wrapping was unwrapped. We tested new toys and games. We enjoyed food, including a variety of sweets. Televised entertainment came and went. We read and napped and talked of this and that. Going outside in the cold wasn't necessary. What more can you ask for from Christmas Day?

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Icy Christmas Eve

It's a winter wonderland out there, says the National Weather Service on the eve of Christmas Eve:



I can hear the light tapping of ice dropping on the ground even now. A tenth of an inch doesn't sound like much, but I figure that can cause even the strongest grip on the road to slip-slide away.

No driving for a while, then. No posting either, till Christmas '09 is only a memory. Happy Christmas to all.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter

More snow today, snow on snow. It's been piling up inch by inch lately, but that doesn't necessarily make for a contemplative experience. Maybe it does for a short while, as the snow comes down, but then the snow blowers rev up. Bleak midwinters aren't what they used to be, in other words.

I might be wrong, but the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter," based on the poem by Christina Rossetti, doesn't seem to get as much attention on this side of the Atlantic as it should. Maybe we don't like carols with "bleak" in their titles.

(Link for Facebook readers.)

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Cap'n Christmas Ahoy!

We got a taste of the big snowstorm here in northern Illinois as it blustered its way east a few days ago, but it only left behind a new few inches of powder. Just enough to liven up the landscape in time for a white Solstice. You know, like in the lesser-known version of the Irving Berlin song.

The outdoor lights that I strung around one of the small bushes in the front yard look pretty under the snow on the branches. It's a modest way to light up the long, long winter nights. On the next block over from us, there's an inflatable Christmastime Homer Simpson to light up their nights. It's the only holiday inflatable worth having in your yard.

We have most of our indoor decorations up too, as well as other important reminders of Christmas in all its glory around the house. Such as:

I didn't buy this. For some reason, Yuriko did. I don't think she quite realizes that Cap'n Crunch is essentially sugar cubes over which to pour milk. Fond as I am of sugar, even I gave up eating them long ago. But I did laugh at the sight of "Christmas Crunch," and especially the modified Cap'n. I thought this seasonal variation was new, but no. It's been around for about 20 years.

Even funnier is this report about a court case involving
Can this be so? Or is it an Internet hoax?

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Item From the Past: Band Concert

It seems like I participated in a high school band concert 31 years ago. I have no memory of that particular concert, the Christmas concert of '78, probably because nothing unusual happened -- nothing funny (strange) or funny (ha-ha). But because of my essential pack-rat nature, I have documentary evidence that points to me being there. I would have remembered skipping a concert more than going to one, so I must have been there. And my mother paid $2 to sit through it.

The program actually has four pages. Besides the cover and the Symphonic Band member list, there's a Concert Band member list and a list of the music performed that evening, ordinary items such as "Old St. Nick Rock," a medley called "Noel," "Sleigh Ride," and "Christmas Music for Winds." No early versions of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" or anything remarkable (if I remember right, that song didn't exist in 1978).

Looking at the Symphonic Band member list, I'm struck by how little I know about the people on it. I'm currently in contact, more or less, with one person in that band, and occasionally hear from or about a few others. A handful of others are Facebook friends only since this year. I know that at least three people on the list are dead -- one cancer, one suicide, one cause unknown. On the whole, I don't know what the people on the list are up to now; probably some are mathematicians and some are carpenters' wives, but mostly I don't know what they're doing with their lives.

Which is as it should be. Cleaving too closely to high school, more than 30 years later, would be pathetic.

I also took a look at what else might have happened on that particular day, besides a high school band concert no one remembers. Wiki tells us that one Patrick Casey was born on December 19, 1978. And what did the newborn baby Patrick have to look forward to (thus far)? A career in le bad cinema, as a writer and director worthy of commentary by Leonard Pinth-Garnell.

Among others, he has worked on such deathless films as I Was A Teenage Frankenstein's Roommate; Hey, Stop Stabbing Me!; National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze; Sledgehammers at Dawn; and his latest, Transylmania, "the story of a group of not-too-bright American college kids on a semester abroad at the only college that would accept them: The Razvan University," notes the free encyclopedia.

It continues: "The film has been universally panned by critics, with overwhelmingly negative reviews. The film currently holds a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, receiving not one positive review. It received an 8 out 100 on website metacritic, which assigns a normalized score to a film based on reviews, which makes it fall into the category of 'Overwhelming dislike.'

"[It] opened extremely poorly, at #21 with only $263,941 from 1,007 theaters, making it the 3rd worst movie opening since 1982 for films which opened in more than 600 theaters, and the worst for films opening in over 1,000 theaters."

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Was That Again?

Received a press release recently with the title, "DÉJÀ VU: Home Raffle Drawings are Gaining in Popularity." It began: "Home raffle drawings [are] popping up across the country, in the trough of a global recession. The contests were last popular in the early 1980s, when the U.S. economy was similarly suffering -- high unemployment, a credit crunch and a bottomed-out real estate market."

How is this déjà vu? Déjà vu is an individual experience, for one thing, not the collective experience of the housing market. More importantly, the term refers to a situation that seems strangely familiar, yet which you know is not. Home raffles might last have been popular at an earlier time, but merely recalling that fact seems like accessing a straightforward memory, not experiencing an eerie false sense of familiarity.

Most of us have language pet peeves, and this is one of mine: the misuse of déjà vu simply to refer to "something that has happened before." English has plenty of ways to say that, but none to describe the real sensation of déjà vu. The borrowing from French has the added bonus of sounding slightly mysterious. It would be too bad to lose its genuine meaning.

You don't have to look very hard to find other examples of the misuse. I googled the term and on the first page was directed to a squib about the weather in Oregon: "[On Saturday], the National Weather Service predicts a repeat of Friday's conditions, with rain likely in the evening and a low around 40 degrees. Sunday is the same again, with the chance of precipitation pegged at 90% and overnight temperatures that will feel like deja vu."

Interestingly, there's a related term that's not being misused, probably because it isn't widely known yet: jamais vu. Called the "opposite" of déjà vu, it refers to not recognizing a familiar situation.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Doughnuts & Wi-Fi

Most of last week's snow is still around, but there's been some meltage and refreezing, making large patches crunchy underfoot. More like stepping on peanut brittle than divinity, and there's no crunch quite like it.

Sign of the times -- or rather, coupon of the times. The December issue of Moneysaver, a coupon-oriented local ad circular, somehow landed on my desk today, open to the page that features County Donuts coupons. Maybe someone is trying to tell me that it's been too long since doughnuts formed the linchpin of a Saturday or Sunday breakfast. The County Donuts ad has the usual dollar-off-a-dozen and discount for a half-dozen offers, and so on. Bold lettering also says: Now Offering Free Wi-Fi.

On the next page is an ad for the Huge Gold Buying Event at Pyramid Restaurant and Sports Bar. No coupon here, but there is a pic of Santa Claus holding up a wad of paper money.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mere Coincidences? Yes, Indeed

A couple of Lilly's friends were over recently, and as they sat around our dining table I overheard them discussing various U.S. presidents. The talk was probably inspired by a one-dollar place mat I bought earlier this year -- a Wipe Off SmartMat, distributed by Creative Edge LLC of Franklin, Tenn., that features a likeness of each chief executive, in order of service, along with their years in office.

It has educational pretensions, this mat, and since the girls were actually talking about presidents spontaneously, I guess there's some merit in the claim. I bought it on impulse along with another mat illustrating the oceans and continents. After all, the girls don't have the benefit of having The Golden Book of Facts and Figures, with its maps and table of presidents, as I did.

The mat was likely produced in time to take advantage of a spike in interest in the presidency around President Obama's inauguration, and is current enough to include him. It also boasts of using "Official White House Portraits." Meaning that they are public domain artwork, each and every one of them, and what publisher doesn't like that?

The portrait that got the kids' attention was the unusual painting of President Kennedy, which I understand was painted posthumously (what, he didn't get around to sitting for it in 1000 days?). Unusual, at least compared with the other portraits; Kennedy is the only one with his head down.

Then the subject of the "Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences" came up. They've been kicking around since the days of purple mimeographs -- I remember seeing one such page, passed around at school.

Since the girls weren't looking at a web site devoted to the "coincidences," they couldn't actually remember very many of them, but they did recall that the two men were elected president 100 years apart and that, "Booth ran from a theater and was caught in a warehouse, while Oswald ran from a warehouse and was caught in a theater." I've always wondered about that one -- a tobacco barn counts as a warehouse?

Pretty soon, the conversation moved on to other things, but I was impressed by the staying power of the "coincidences," though ultimately they themselves are unimpressive. The really astonishing presidential coincidence remains the famed deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the same day, July 4, 1826.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

'Tis the Season for Pho

Bahn Flan from the Hong Xuong Bakery on Argyle Street in Uptown on Chicago's North Side, sold in a handy clear plastic container holding six ounces, is lightly sweet, lightly smooth, and a pleasure to eat. How is such a simple list of ingredients -- flour, eggs, milk, sugar -- whipped into such delight? I don't know. It's enough that it does. Even better, it goes for less than a dollar for each six ounces. We brought 24 ounces home recently and they're all gone already.

Yuriko and I made a rare trip to Argyle Street on Friday, as part of a longer trip into the city, to eat pho for lunch at a place that used to be called Pho Hoa. There's a closer suburban pho shop a few miles south of us, and while it's good enough, the Argyle Street shop (actually in a small strip center about a half block south of Argyle) is special. We used to eat there fairly often in the late '90s, and took Lilly there when she was precisely a month old -- her first visit to a restaurant. She slept in her car seat through most of the visit.

Pho is Vietnamese beef and rice noodle soup, seasoned with the likes of ginger, garlic, star anise, peppercorn and other mysterious flavors. Comes in enormous bowls, makes quite a meal. Smells like heaven. You add additional spices at the table -- mint and lime, for instance, or squeeze in chile or hoisin sauce -- and go at it with long chopsticks and a Chinese-style soup spoon. The variety I usually get includes bible tripe.

Pho Hoa is now called Le's Pho. I don't know when the change was made, since we haven't been there in a couple of years. The menu is now larger than it used to be as well. It used to be pho and pho only, in about two dozen variations. Now the menu includes a number of other Vietnamese dishes. Sometimes changes like that don't bode well for a place, but I'm glad to say that Le's Pho served pho like the old place did: a tasty, steaming blend that fills you right up, is good for what ails you, that kind thing. A valentine to pho can be found here.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Super Bright Lights in Motion

On Saturday I brought a Douglas fir into the house and turned the job of decorating it to younger hands than mine, except for light installation, though Lilly is in fact old enough. When I was 12, I put the lights on the tree, including the task of finding just the right branches for the two surviving bubble lights in a string that was older than I was, and delicately screwing them into their sockets once the string was in place.

This year we have a new string that I don't remember acquiring, which means that Yuriko either got it in the days after Christmas last year, when such things are vastly marked down, or at a yard sale in the summer, when few thoughts are given over to Christmas decoration.

Anyway, we have them: 150 Super Bright Lights in Motion. "You have purchased the most unique Christmas light set available," the box tells me. Maybe so. The lights are controlled by a "digital memory switch" that "holds previously selected function until changed." The string, which is made up of 3.5V twinkle lights, has eight functions; that is, you can set it to light in eight different ways. Cool.

The eight ways are -- in order, written on the digital memory switch -- 1. All Functions; 2. Slow Chasing; 3. Random Twinkle; 4. Colors Fade; 5. Chasing Twinkle; 6. All Fade OFF/ON; 7. Dancing Lights; 8. Steady Burn. I haven't sat and stared at all of the functions just yet, so I'm a little short on descriptions for them. But so far Dancing Lights (I think), which go on and off in patches up and down the string, seem to be everyone's favorite.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Edging Closer to Christmas

We had a full-fledged late January day here in mid-December today, complete with all the deep-winter trappings: snow, snow drifts, blowing snow, single-digit Fahrenheit temps, wind that blows only in one direction (toward your face), bright sunshine whose heat you can't feel, ice underfoot that you can't see.

But I'm inching toward a Christmas mood, or at least as much as I get every year. I heard "Little St. Nick" on a non-Christmas music station the other day while driving along and spinning the dial, and I didn't change it. Time to listen to a little Christmas music when it comes my way -- but not time to seek it out just yet. Lilly's been singing "Ding Fries Are Done" at unpredictable moments lately, but I don't count that as Christmas music. Apparently that's been kicking around for a few years, but this is the first I've heard of it. Where would I be without kids to introduce me to bits of pop culture?

She's also been infatuated with the new singing/dancing/pan-winter holiday Gap commercials, instantly visible on YouTube and rumored to be on regular TV as well. They seem to be the company's mocking answer to those who wanted the word "Christmas" explicitly used in Gap commercials because not using the term in your marketing efforts subverts the true meaning of Christmas. Or something along those lines. That might be an example of pretzel logic, but I'm too tired to puzzle it out.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bean Boots

Heart-attack snow came down all through the night and into the morning: wet, heavy stuff. In fact, just before sunrise -- I had reason to be up then -- the precipitation was as much rain as snow. I did my first serious shoveling today, and I'm glad to report that I survived. Tomorrow promises nothing but bitter cold. I don't plan to be up so early to greet it.

There was enough slush here in the suburbs for me to break out my Bean Boots, which have served me for 20 winters now. Fine, durable boots, they are. The only problem with them is that the strap on the back of one of them, useful for pulling the things on, broke a few years ago. Still, once I get them on, over a double pair of socks, I slog through slush and cold puddles without risking the feeling of ice water on my feet.

I wrote an article about L.L. Bean's expansion plans a few years ago. There were a few other stores besides the flagship then, but now there are more than 20 locations in this country, including outlets, plus nine in Japan. I try to be objective about these things; if the company wants to open more stores, it should open more stores. Still, I prefer the idea of one big 24/7 store in Freeport, Maine, complete with a giant boot out front, and mail order for everybody else. But at least the boots are still made in Maine.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009


But for an aggravating event this morning, I might never have known the meaning of grawlixes, unless my old friend Geof Huth told me, because it’s the kind of thing he would know. Last night snow fell in earnest, filling in some of the lawn’s bare patches. Also last night, air leaked out of one of our tires in earnest, presenting a sad sight on the snowy driveway in the morning. A sight that had to be dealt with. I put on the spare, in the snow.

Later, I wrote this: “Those @#$%&* tires have been nothing but trouble since I bought them about two years ago.” That isn’t entirely true, since it’s an example of how product failure lingers in memory much more vividly than months and even years of reliable use. But it's partly true, since I’ve had more than one problem with them in two years, which seems like too many problems.

Never mind. Since I prefer not to include any profanity at this site stronger than ‘sblood or maybe gorblimey, I used the string of symbols above – grawlixes, they're called. Wiki offers the following definition, taken from The Lexicon of Comicana by cartoonist Mort Walker: "Typographical symbols standing for profanities, which appear in dialogue balloons in the place of actual dialogue."

If you want to split hairs, grawlixes used in standard text like this, as opposed to word balloons, might not really be grawlixes. But I'm not going to put that fine a point on it.

Apparently Walker coined the term about 45 years ago. Fun to know, and as usual that bit of information led to other information, namely that Mort Walker is still alive and is still drawing Beetle Bailey after nearly 60 years. I don't think I've seen it in about 20 years, but I'm fairly certain that if I did, it would be about the same as it ever was. It isn't something that's going to be updated. So it's unlikely that there will be a story arc about Beetle in Afganistan (poor Lt. Fuzz, taken out by an IED).

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Monday, December 07, 2009

DeadTree ThinkGeek

The first sticking snow of the winter arrived quietly in the night, just barely covering the grass and prettifying the bushes. Maybe an inch at its thickest. No shoveling necessary, so it's all right by me. Light, fluffy powder that doesn't make good snowballs. I know this because Ann did her best to pelt me with snowballs this afternoon, but mostly the snow scattered before it reached its target.

Recently we received a ThinkGeek catalog. Of course there's a web site, but it's good to know that they produce paper catalogs too. At least I think it's good. It may annoy them that they need to produce anything on paper. You'd think, though, that if a thing achieves its function (marketing, in this case), the geeks of the world would accord it some respect, no matter how enamored they are by electronic media.

"ThinkGeek started as an idea," the web site proclaims. "A simple idea to create and sell stuff that would appeal to the thousands of people out there who were on the front line and in the trenches as the Internet was forged. ThinkGeek started as a way to serve a market that was passionate about technology, from programmers, engineers, students, lovers of open source, to the masses that helped create the behind-the-scenes Internet culture."

That was in the '90s. They must have gone more mainstream since then or I would have never heard of them. I can't count myself as a creator of "Internet culture." Does this count as Internet culture? Hard to say.

Lilly spent some time with the catalog, and I'm glad to say that she appreciated some of its humor. Right on the inside front cover, marketed as stocking stuffers, are Plush Microbes. "Infectiously cute microbes expanded 1,000,000 times and then transformed into cuddly plush," the description notes. "Swine flu now available." Lilly got a laugh out of that last line. So did I.

My own favorite item is a black t-shirt decorated only with the image of a red-and-white Hello My Name Is nametag sticker, as you might see at a corporate event. "Written" on the sticker "HELLO MY NAME IS Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."


Sunday, December 06, 2009

Item From the Past: Bensons MapGuide

Early in our stay in London in December '94, I lucked into a Bensons MapGuide London Street Map. Or maybe it wasn't strictly luck. I wasn't going to stay a month in London without a decent map, so I spent some time at a bookstore looking at the options. The Bensons MapGuide must have impressed me enough that I bought it, but it really impressed me as we used it to navigate the famously convoluted streets of the city. It's one of the best practical maps I've ever used.

I'm glad to report that the map is still in print, even in our time when GPS threatens to foster map illiteracy. The British map seller (mapmonger?) Stanfords says it well: "This map is simply streets ahead of all its competitors, as anyone who has explored central London on foot will testify: great overall clarity of presentation, excellent placing of names, exceptional presentation of small passages and shortcuts between buildings, etc...

"Excellent use of colours and symbols enables the publishers to indicate parks and green spaces; markets, prime shopping areas, and selected shops; pedestrian zones, elevated walkways, and access to streets and passages by steps; places of interest including tourist information centres, theatres, cinemas, and selected well-known pubs: transport network including streets with bus routes, Underground stations, overground railway lines with local and main line stations, and coach stations; for drivers, car parks and streets with restricted access or no entry, although one way streets are not marked; selected hotels, places of worship, post offices, police stations, viewpoints, etc., and last but certainly not least, public toilets!"

For some reason, I scanned the map's cover some years ago. That's good, because I can't find the thing now, not at least where I keep most of my other leftover maps (someday, I should gush at length about the greatness of Nelles Maps, many of which I used in Asia). I want to consult the Bensons MapGuide to see if I can pinpoint the location of this picture, taken in London that December.

Then again, it's probably Little Venice. London isn't generally known for its canals, not at least by casual North American and Japanese travelers, but they have a long history in the British capital and of course there are modern-day, web-site making enthusiasts. Even in December, the walk along the tow paths of Little Venice was a pleasant one.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

No Go Snow

Snow! Around noon today, it started snowing in earnest. Then it stopped. At about 3, it looked like it was going to do more than flurry. But it didn't. The ground is still bare of the season's first white coating.

Actually, the reaction to the first snow of the season around here is more like, hm, snow. Slush and then ice can't be far behind.

After more than a decade of householding here in the North, I've at least worked out a way to deal with ice on my sidewalks, namely tube sand. A tube of it is handy near the door and I scatter it on when ice forms for that all-important traction. You never really appreciate foot-to-ground traction till you don't have it suddenly. I actually have a new tube of sand ready this year, acquired last week, instead of waiting for ice to appear as I usually do.

Even without snow, Orion tipped me off that it is now in fact winter. Just after 11 pm on Monday, the last hour of November, I remembered to take out the trash. The air was crisp and clear, and there he was to the south-southwest, lording over his slice of the sky.

One more pic from Phillips Park in Aurora, last week.

At the base of a large flagpole near the park's ornamental waterfall, which is dry, was this plaque, dedicated to Daniel Wedge, a Civil War veteran who died in 1947. Every plaque tells a story, don't it?

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Phillips Park and Zoo, Aurora, Illinois

Last Saturday had the distinction of being warm, or at least not cold, so we planned an outdoor expedition. By “planned” I mean “why don’t we go somewhere?” and by “expedition” I mean a short drive involving minimal logistics. But where?

Phillips Park and the Phillips Park Zoo in Aurora, Illinois. Remarkably, we’d never been there before. The last time we were in Aurora, we went without children to see Max Raabe. This time, we went with children to see birds, mammals and reptiles. It’s a small, free zoo, one you can walk through in about 30 minutes, with a collection of mostly North American creatures – river otters, elk, eagles, a mountain lion, peafowl (well, introduced to North America and now wild in Florida), a turkey and others. Some of the reptiles were from far away, though. I’m pretty sure we don’t have any wild pythons on this continent, unless released pets have taken up residence in Florida.

The reptile house also sported some alligators, and in the next tank over, some crocodiles, for an exercise in compare and contrast for those of us who can’t distinguish them by sight. That would include me. But then again I haven’t had that much interface with either species, which is a good thing since I don't aspire to be another Steve Irwin.

The zoo is part of a large, well-wooded park created in 1915. Various improvements to the park have been made over the years, some by the WPA, and in the 1930s workers started turning up mastodon bones in the park. These are on exhibit at the visitors center. Cool, but not that photogenic, at least with my camera. More photogenic is the sculpture outside the visitor, depicting a mastodon rambling across Pleistocene Illinois.

On the other side of the building there’s a sculpture of a WPA worker digging up the bones.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Law & Order: Kristkindlmarkt Chicago

"Whoa! Whoa! WHOA!" I heard that and when I turned around, caught a glimpse of a Chicago cop running by. I'm pretty sure he had said it. A moment before that I'd entered the German Christmas ornament shop at Kristkindlmarkt Chicago in Daley Plaza to take a look at the large selection of pretty, and pretty expensive, ornaments. Someone else in the shop said something about chasing a shoplifter, so I left the shop to do a little rubbernecking. Cops chasing a guy beats piles of German Christmas ornaments any day.

Somehow or other I usually find myself at Kristkindlmarkt Chicago each December. It isn't a cherished personal tradition or anything, and the last thing I bought there might have been in 2001 or '02 or so, when I split a potato pancake with a co-worker. But if I'm around and have the time, I'll stroll past the numerous booths and eye the ornaments and handcrafted whatnots for sale, and take a whiff of the German food. That's what I did today. A lot of people were out in the early afternoon temps of around 50° F. doing the same.

Most of the vendors are from Germany, but such places as Peru, Ecuador, Russia and Evanston, Illinois, are also represented. Prices are high, but so is the quality. If I thought there was no risk of breaking a $5 or $10 Christmas-tree bauble, I might buy a few.

A vendor from St. Petersburg, Russia, offered my favorite oddity this year: Windup dolls that actually aren't windup, and have no batteries. Somehow they move around because of the tension between the two parts of the doll. A sign assured buyers, NO BATTERIES NECESSARY. Some of the dolls looked like Santa Claus, or maybe Father Frost. Perhaps this particular doll was invented during the Soviet era, when batteries weren't predictably available.

The German Christmas ornament shop is more than a booth, it's an enclosed temporary shop larger than any of the booths. By the time I'd emerged from that shop and walked a few steps in the direction of the police action, about four cops had a guy surrounded. By the time I could see what was going on, they'd already put handcuffs on him. He was a nondescript fellow in his 20s and said nothing as one of the cops frisked him with remarkable thoroughness. Maybe the suspect had been through this before and knew that nothing was the best thing to say under the circumstances. I didn't stick around to see them take him away.

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