Thursday, April 30, 2009

Quiz Day

Rain pretty much all day today, the sort of day when taking Facebook quizzes seems to be a good way to pass the time. Rather than posting them separately on that social media site, however, I'm putting them here.

What Kind of Shoe Polish Are You?

You are Kiwi brand. Your waxy colloidal emulsion would be welcome on just about any dress shoe, and you have one cute little bird as your mascot.

What Kind of Scary New Disease Are You?

You are SARS. You come from the bird swamps of the mysterious Orient and leave 'em gasping for air. You consider swine flu just a déclassé social climber.

Which Vice President Are You?

You are Thomas Marshall, chosen to balance your ticket because you have a sense of humor while the top guy does not.

I also picked my five favorites from these important categories. If I didn't have other things to do, I'd collect a thumbnail pic of each one.

Five Favorite Second-Tier Nazis

Martin Bormann, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Albert Speer, Alfred Rosenberg, Walther Funk

Five Favorite Food Additives of All Time

E260, polyethylene glycol, gum arabic, glycerin triacetate, FD&C Red No. 2 (a classic!)

Five Favorite Renaissance Instruments

Dulcian, sackbutt, crumhorn, kortholt, shawm

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Eat Them Piggies

Think I'll fry me up some bacon tomorrow morning and see if anyone in the house comes down with swine flu. It's not good to be too cynical about human intelligence, but it's all too easy when people avoid eating pork to avoid an airborne disease. What's next? Probably some Islamist doorknob will start claiming the flu is divine retribution for the sin of eating pork.

Bacon may not be the most healthful of foods, but as Garrison Keillor pointed out on the radio many years ago, the smell is so good that trucks should roam around neighborhoods spraying it, for the benefit of those who don't actually want to eat bacon. But there's a lot to be said for eating it, too.

The likes of Jimmy Dean and Tennessee Pride pork sausage offer more than satisfaction for the nose and tongue. Their preparation demands molding the patties, a hands-on experience with the tactile sensation of pork fat. Roll the meat, press it with you hands, place it in the pan. A thick residue clings to each finger, slick as a high-class con man.

And what would life be without ham and cheese sandwiches? I've had my share of mediocre ones, but one above average means warm thin meat, partly but not completely melted cheese, bread toasted just so. We can make such a creation even in our two-seater White-Westinghouse sandwich maker. The girls around here usually ask for a simple cheese sandwiches, but they don't know what they're missing.

But they know about pulled pork barbecue. Tasty pulled pork barbecue can be found in the North, such as at Uncle Bub's in Westmont, Ill., though my very best experiences with pork barbecue were in Memphis and Nashville. Tangy, aromatic satisfaction there on your bun.

Finally, though there's really no end to praise for pig flesh (such as paeans for pork chops), I conclude with memories of the pig knuckles at Gerst House, a German restaurant in Nashville. I only had them a few times, but I can close my eyes and recreate their heft and brown-sauced tenderness and distinct, robust flavor. Sauerkraut and beer complement. Sehr gut geschmeckt.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

One Quiet City

More rain yesterday night and into the morning. I opened a window just a little, to listen to the rhythms of the rain while falling asleep. Even better is rain on a weekend night, when you can drift off to rain with less concern about the day to come. Even working for myself, I find that I have a workweek, though it might be different if there were no one in the house getting up daily for school.

I interviewed a man whose office is in Mexico City today, and besides the business at hand, he said about the city: "It's very, very quiet. It's very unusual, just like holiday season, you know."

Which might have been something of a relief, though I only know what I've read about the congested capital of Mexico in more normal times. All in all, he was optimistic: "Every couple of hours, we have an update, and things are looking better than on the weekend."

Sounds reasonable to me. In any case, this is the perfect time not to watch U.S. cable TV news.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Pigs! Run! Run!

Intensely rainy weekend following Friday's clear warmth. Somewhere along the way last week, the Sienna's left rear tire found a nail, and tried to be one with it. The tire started a slow deflation, unable to keep the air I put into it. So this morning grease monkeys -- that is, automotive maintenance professionals -- removed the mail and then repaired the hole. I was practically first in line at the shop as it opened, the result of waking early for no special reason, but the kind of waking that you know isn't going to go away.

Remarkably, the tires are still under road-hazard warranty, which was no extra charge back when I bought them in late 2007. How often does that happen? The joke being that the tire would normally wait until just after the warranty expires to make trouble. I guess the tire couldn't wait that long to find its nail, so I escaped an auto repair shop without paying anything, which is as rare as rocking-horse dung.

As part of my daily scanning of Google News, I noticed today that the swine flu scare had the following consequence already, according to a roundup of stock news on Bloomberg: "Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork processor, tumbled 12 percent to $9.04. Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S.-based meat producer, retreated 8.9 percent to $9.96."

A fellow I know seriously believes -- or used to believe -- that on the whole, investors in the equity markets behave rationally. I don't particularly believe that. This could be an example to buttress my case. Selling off pork-processing shares because swine flu, which presumably has been in pigs for a long time, has jumped to people? Sure, I can see that. Actually, what I see are brokers yelling, "They handle pigs? Sell! Sell!"

Orders aren't traded like that, but the mental picture is fun all the same.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Item From the Past: Notes on Xiamen (Amoy), China

April 23, 1994

Our first day in Xiamen we visited a late Qing fortress (vintage 1890s) down the coast on a hill, as good fortresses tend to be. The star relic of its martial past is a German-made Krupp cannon, big and outward pointing, to intimidate barbarians. It probably wasn't particularly effective at that job, at least as far as the Qing were concerned. But in our time it makes a fine little park.

Nanputuo Temple, near Xiamen University [pictured below], was open and doing a lot of the business that Chinese temples do, such as purveying joss sticks and places to burn them, and offering to have some calligraphy done. Repairs to the temple were even under way. What would the Red Guard think?

Our favorite part of Xiamen was Gulangyu (yu = island). We went there on Wednesday just before dark, but the island's electricity was off that night, so we didn't stay for dinner, even though some of the seafood restaurants looked intriguing. It wasn't until yesterday that we better appreciated the island's charms, including the fact that no cars or motorcycles are allowed on its narrow streets.

We came over on the ferry at about 3 and took a stroll, discovering Gulangyu to be a treasure trove of Victorian architectural gems -- gems marked by stately decay, covered in soot, and strung with drying laundry. Subtropical greenery added to the effect. Mixed in with the residences were trading company headquarters and schools, sometimes occupying older buildings, but also in newer ones that somehow managed to blend in with the older building stock.

Along a main street we had an excellent four-course dinner for two for about ¥40, or about $5. We were the only ones in the place, so had the full attention of the two waitresses, two teenage girls who giggled sometimes. At other times they would stand off a little ways and watch us eat. Maybe they didn't see too many foreigners in their establishment, but I would think the residents of old Amoy would be blasé about that kind of thing.

Various idlers concentrated themselves around hotels, asking "Money?" or "Change money?" or even "Hello, change money?" I only changed money once outside of the Bank of China, when Yuriko and I were sitting on a bench and reminded me of the FECs that I had -- not much, only about ¥110. I took them out of my wallet to look at them, and a man next to me on the bench, who had previously expressed no interest in us, suddenly offered a 1-to-1 exchange for RMB. I accepted the deal. I don't know what profit he got from it, since FECs were being phased out, but he must have gotten something.

2009 Postscript: RMB, or Renminbi (人民币), "People's Money," is Chinese currency, of which the yuan is the main denomination. From 1979 to early 1994, just before we visited, foreigners in China were supposed to use foreign exchange certificates (FECs) instead of RMB, which the government sold to foreigners at a premium to RMB. But as usual with this kind of thing, I understand that rule wasn't rigidly enforced, especially by the early 1990s. We didn't have to worry about it in any case, and thinking back on it now, I'm not sure how I got the FECs.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009


An 80-degree day is predicted for tomorrow. Time must be made, then, to lounge around outside, maybe even under a patio umbrella, which is still in the garage but can be installed on the deck. Mowing the lawn is not an option, fortunately, since the ground is still good and soaked, including standing puddles in the lowlands out toward the back fence.

Filed a story about landscape design today and by some kind of coincidence, received a book called A Clearing in the Distance (Witold Rybczynski, 1999), a biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, in the mail today. Just glancing through it, I see I've missed a few places he designed that I could have easily visited, such as Belle Isle, Detroit, and Smith College, had I known they were his designs. [Smack on head. "I could have seen an Olmstead!"]

Olmstead is usually worth going a little out of one's way. I'd go to see Buffalo's parks, for instance, if I were a little closer to Buffalo (that and President Fillmore sites), and I may yet make it. This isn't so odd to my way of thinking. People go see buildings by certain architects and paintings by certain painters, so why not landscape architecture by the master?

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day, Arbor Day, Greenery Day

As if on cue, the rain stopped, the air got warmer and the Sun emerged from its undisclosed location. Spring is back after getting mugged for a few days by rearguard elements of Winter.

After whatever Earth Day inculcation kindergarten class offered to Ann this morning, she came out of school in a mood to pick up trash on the way home. In the park next to the school, that meant depositing a few items in brown trash barrels. Along the path toward home, where there are no barrels, that meant giving bits of trash to Dad for him to carry home to add to the solid-waste stream. "If we don't pick up the trash, the Earth will get tired," she said.

When I was her age, Earth Day hadn't been invented yet. I can't say that I remember the first one in 1970, being not quite nine at the time, though I remember very well the Apollo 13 drama, which happened the week before. In later years, I vaguely remember hearing about the occasion. But there was no pedagogues pushing the idea, no Google to change its logo for the day and not much merchandising of the day, not even by Disney.

Arbor Day must be jealous. Can't say that I paid much attention to Arbor Day growing up, either, being unaware that it's the last Friday of April in Texas. It's also the last Friday in April in Illinois, which is this Friday. To celebrate, crews from the village came to my neighborhood today and cut down a tree across the street from my next-door neighbor, which mostly involved a man in a bright yellow cherry-picker cutting with a power saw and two guys feeding the ever-larger cut pieces into a Morbark wood chipper, the kind of evil-sounding device that Bond villains probably feed their enemies to. Maybe not that evil, but it sure was noisy. Even retreating to the deck on the other side of the house for a little while didn't help me get away from the noise.

Japan has an Arbor Day of sorts: Greenery Day, one of a string of holidays that make up Golden Week. Greenery Day, however, was a late invention. Before his return to the realm of the kami, the Emperor Shōwa's birthday -- April 29 -- was a holiday. After he died in 1989, the holiday was retained but called "Greenery Day."

When I lived there I saw it on calendars but otherwise never heard much about it, except that it was the first day of Golden Week. Lately, I understand, Greenery Day has been moved to May 4, which used to be a nonspecific ponte holiday between May 3 (Constitution Memorial Day, honoring the MacArthur document, not the Prussian-flavored Meiji constitution) and May 5 (Children's Day, formerly Boys' Day). April 29 is now Shōwa Day, but it still kicks off Golden Week -- a bad time to travel in Japan, which becomes something like spring break in Disneyworld in terms of crowding.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

More Digressions

We might get May flowers out of the deal, but for now April showers have brought April mud, puddles, soggy grass, and earthworm die-offs. Been drizzling, with occasional heavier rain, pretty much continuously since Sunday morning. Haven't even had any of those springtime thunderfests with dark, pre-tornado clouds yet. But we will.

For reasons I don't need to go into, but which (unfortunately) don't actually involve me leaving the country again anytime soon, I was on line checking out the Chinese restaurant scene in Kuwait City recently. I happened across this breathless bit of verbage during my search: "If you are planning to visit Kuwait, without wasting much of your time come here. Kuwait is called food lover's paradise. Here you will find plenty of food outlets. Are you fond of Chinese cuisine? There are a number of Chinese Restaurants in Kuwait..."

Some of which the page lists. Then it ends with this: "Spend some glorious days of your vacation in Kuwait. If you like Chinese dishes, come to any of the Chinese Food Outlets in Kuwait and relish your food." Yes, indeed.

It was all I could do not to waste a lot of time on this site today, also discovered by the Internet user's best search tool, serendipity. It seems to have a staggering number of TV theme songs, all put into one place.

At first I thought it was a greatest hits sort of collection, but discovered that it includes some incredibly obscure themes, such as that of Hot L Baltimore, Longstreet and Quark, just to pick three from different genres that I saw as callow lad. Also, not only does it have the theme to Camp Runamuck, it has three versions of it. How a show that lasted less than a year in the mid-60s managed to have three versions of its theme, I couldn't say. I wasn't even a callow lad when that had its short run, and I only remembered the title and the notion that my brother Jim watched it.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Century-Old Digressions

I filed a story today with a headline that included "put the kibosh on." I'm always glad when I'm able to work that phrase into something. It's good to keep odd phrases with obscure origins alive, and it's just well enough known so that editors aren't likely to cut it out if it otherwise fits. I never heard the phrase growing up, but only when I went to see a college production of the musical Oh, What a Lovely War! in the spring of 1980, which includes the song "Belgium Put the Kibosh on the Kaiser."

While looking into that song, I ran across this YouTube channel. Well-crafted little videos made with early 20th-century moving pictures, if you like that kind of thing. I know I do. I liked the "Tribute to Teddy Roosevelt" and the Billy Murray version of "Over There" especially. After looking at that and a few other videos, I went on to this commercial site, which has all sorts of early 20th-century curiosities.

Including, if you look closely enough, a link to a song genre lost to time: Prohibition Songs. The lyrics of four songs are found there, with the present-day warning, "These pages are provided as an historical reference and do not reflect the views of the website owner." But who would have views like this in 2009?

There'll be plenty of food for eating,
There'll be plenty of clothes for wear,
There'll be gladness in ev'ry meeting,
There'll be praise to outmeasure prayer,
There'll be toys each day for baby,
And then Papa at home will stay,
And a heaven on earth will the bright home be,
When the Prohibs win the day.

-- "When Prohibs Win the Day" (Palmer Hartsough and J.B. Herbert, 1903)

To be real frank, I'd rather be a crank,
And stand right square on the Prohibition plank,
Than to be in the rank of the blankety, blank, blank,
Who votes the self-same ticket as the mountebank.

-- "Cranks!" (Charles M. Fillmore, 1898)

On the other hand, the songs "The Prohibition Chariot" and "Civilize the Philippines" go beyond quaintly obsolete polemics and into racist territory. The one about the Philippines is particularly odd, asserting that Americans' use of alcohol is getting in the way of civilizing the Philippines: "Our civilization's married," it asserts, "She is now the bride of rum."

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Late Saturday Morning at Busse Woods

Saturday: Model spring day, clear and in the 70s. Sunday: Rain and drizzle all day, with about 30 of the previous day's degrees shaved off. But at least I made it to the 3,700-acre Ned Brown Forest Preserve, also known as the Busse Woods, on Saturday to walk another length of the "bicycle" trail. "Bicycle, runner, rollerblader, walker, equestrian, cross-country skier and possibly unicyclist" trail would be a fuller description, but wouldn't fit so well on trail-side signs. (One of these days, I'm bound to see a unicyclist.)

So far, I've walked about five miles of the 7.7-mile Red Trail Loop at one time or another, half of the two-mile Black Trail and none of the 1.1-mile Purple Trail. Mostly I only have time for two miles or so at one go, one mile away from wherever I parked and one back. I've been on the trails in all seasons, with a preference for warm months, naturally. It isn't quite a rustic experience -- jets fly over regularly, headed to O'Hare -- but it's definitely apart from the surrounding suburbs.

On Saturday I went from Groves 26 & 27 to Grove 32, crossing over the small dam on Salt Creek that creates the fair-sized Busse Lake. Anglers were thick on the pedestrian bridge over the dam, with more on the edge of Salt Creek below. Happy anglers, these fellows, standing among their gear and coolers and night-crawler buckets, minding their poles and likely nursing secret beers.

Few trees have sprouted leaves just yet, but they're aching to. Here and there bushes have taken the lead in greening up, and the grass blades and clover and other underfoot plants are already there. I spotted a grass snake and heard frogs. All kinds of birds are out and about, making all kinds of noises, all part of making baby birds, I figure. Bugs are few in number, but there must be some, to feed all the sex-crazed birds. Luckily, none of them are mosquitoes just yet.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Warm Enough Thursday

Warm enough today to sit on the deck and read Chandler, for a little while anyway. It was hard to face a computer on an afternoon like today, though I persuaded myself to do it, in the interest of getting through the Great Recession. If indeed it deserves the title. I'm not quite persuaded it's worse that the roughest patches of the mid-70s to early '80s, though "worst crisis since the Great Depression" has been repeated so often that it must be true.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Magoo's Tea Party

I had my own tea party today. I boiled water, poured it over a low-cost tea bag, and drank the results a few minutes later. Actually, I do that most days, so "party" in the literal or figurative sense doesn't really apply.

Speaking of which, Lilly's social studies (that is, history) text mentions the Edenton Tea Party in the same paragraph as the more famed affair in Boston, which says more about the difference between text books of my school days and those kicking around today than about political protest in the Thirteen Colonies. I only have scant knowledge of the Edenton incident, but it sounds like a straightforward boycott, rather than the exciting direct action taken by the Bostonians.

Including Mr. Magoo. I puzzled about it briefly today, but I was fairly sure that Mr. Magoo helped dump tea into Boston Harbor, at least according to a cartoon I once saw. Or did I? Forty years is a long time to hold on to the details of sometime you might have seen only once. But I needed to look no further than that library on my desk to find out. Sure enough, Magoo "played" Paul Revere in the cartoon (a near-blind silversmith?), participating in the Tea Party, dressed as an Indian. Somehow, I'm glad I remember that.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Been a cold run of days lately, drizzly, windy, gray imitations of November. But birds are atwitter and the lawns are greener than only last week. Something is going on out there.

We went to Lilly's band concert recently, and I'm happy to report that the program featured real music for the most part, rather than songs invented to buttress the self-esteem movement. Participating were a fifth-grade band (Lilly's) and a sixth-grade one, each featuring flutes, clarinets, trumpets, trombones and percussion, and made up of kids from six different elementary schools. Lilly's been a trombonist since the beginning of the school year.

The school district's high school jazz band also played. Considering age and experience, each group accorded itself well. Going in you know it isn't going to be Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, and that shouldn't bother you.

Among other things, Lilly got to play "Ain't Gonna Rain No More," "The Victors," a version of universally recognized University of Michigan fight song , and as if that wasn't enough UM, "Let's Go Band," which seems to be an elementary-band adaptation of "Let's Go Blue."

I never knew it by that name. Back when I was in high school band, we called it "Michigan," though the association with that college was vague to us, so far removed from it. The tune wasn't anything we formally played, either. But during lulls in football games, it would rise spontaneously from certain sections of the band. One time, during a brief blackout at an away game, it really got going, which steamed our normally unflappable band director.

Another tune we noodled at times was "Swingtown," but rarely more than a few seconds. The baritones didn't actually play that. Instead, we moved our instruments in L-shaped motions to the rhythm.

At Lilly's concert, most interesting piece by the high school jazz band was a KC & the Sunshine Band medley. Well done, all things considered, and it made me want to hear a professional jazz version of it. The originals had a fair amount of brass, so the transition wasn't that strange.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Fifty Years Into the Big Sleep

I had enough time in both airports and both airplanes during my latest trip to re-read The Big Sleep. That might be my third or fourth time. I didn't realize until today that March 26 was the 50th anniversary of Chandler's death.

I made sure to pay close attention to who might have killed Owen Taylor, the Sternwood's chauffeur, a question Chandler himself famously couldn't answer when queried by the screenwriters working on the movie version, though that has always sounded apocryphal to me. Whatever the truth of that story, the book doesn't in fact answer the question of who did in Owen Taylor.

On Saturday it was warm enough for a few hours to sit around on my deck, so I did. Time, I decided, to re-read all the rest of the Chandler that I have, since it's been 10 years or more in most cases. I spent some time with The Long Goodbye, mainly so I could read passages like the following, describing something as simple as a nearly empty bar. It doesn't move the story forward, particularly. Marlowe is simply waiting for an appointment. Yet Chandler, even writing in neutral, is astonishingly good.

"The bar was pretty empty. Three booths down a couple of sharpies were selling each other pieces of Twentieth-Century Fox, using double-arm gestures instead of money. They had a telephone on the table between them... They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn't have stopped even if he hadn't really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn't seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You could never know how he got that way because even if he told you it would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world."


Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Idea of a Souvenir

Key chains, t-shirts, snow globes, fridge magnets: I've bought all of these things and other destination bric-a-brac in tourist settings, but I also think the standard notion of souvenirs is unnecessarily restrictive. Or maybe I just have an eccentric take on the idea. That's probably it.

I didn't have much time to acquire conventional souvenirs in Mexico, though I did get a few items at the Puerto Vallarta airport to distribute to family members. I didn't want anything like that for myself, besides postcards, because I already had a couple of uniquely Mexican items to remind me of my short stay in 2009.

Namely, breakfast cereal boxes. This one amused me no end:

Note that it's an Edición Retro, which tells me that Mexicans have been enjoying their Fruti Lupis quite a long time, long enough for Kellogg's to mount a marketing effort that appeals to nostalgia. Note also that Toucan Sam is just Sam in Mexico.

Tony the Tiger, on the other hand, is Tigre Toño. He's retro too.

The cereals inside have already been eaten. They're exactly the same as their U.S. counterparts in taste, color, texture and everything else, but they aren't an export to Mexico. One of the side panels on each box notes, "Henco in Mexico." That makes them genuine souvenirs, to my way of thinking, though I expect I'll only save the front panels.

Happy Easter to all. Christus resurrexit, vere resurrexit!

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

A Three-Hour Tour

The thing to do when your boat is tethered to a small buoy in sight of guano-spattered offshore islands in the Bay of Banderas is to jump off the side. At least that's what I did, because I was dressed for it. I got a first-hand, full-body experience of the chilly California Current. It was a cold dip, but after moving around for a few minutes, it was still pretty cold. So those of us who went in the water only took short swims.

I've never had any hankering to own a boat. Maybe that's because, long ago, I heard boat ownership described as the equivalent of throwing money into the water. But I'm glad to catch occasional rides on them. As a break from property visits and real estate discussions, we spent part of an afternoon on a Sea Ray boat. Not sure which model, but I think it was one of the sport yachts: big enough to carry six passengers and three crew without any of us falling over each other while hanging out toward the stern drinking beer or lying around in the sun near the bow.

The small, chalky islands were busy seabird cities. I can't remember the last time I'd seen so many birds in one place, though there was a noticeable lack of the kind of gulls I'm used to seeing. No doubt other varieties were represented. I looked around for blue-footed boobies, whose feet are indeed blue, but I didn't see anything quite like the pictures I've seen. National Geographic claims that the "bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate," and I believe it. If that were true for human beings, there would be an entire complicated and expensive and socially significant industry devoted to foot-bluing.

But ornithology isn't something I ever took up. Blue-footed boobies could have had their own villas on those islands and I might have missed them. I did notice, however, that some seabirds fly in V formation, something I associate with geese. Off in the water, we spotted dolphins jumping from time to time, but saw no whales. We were told that it's a little late in the season for them.

One thing about a seabird city -- birds have no use for sanitation, and probably no conception of it. At one point the guano smell was so intense, especially when mixed with the strong smell of brine, that one of our party had to cover her nose and mouth for a little while.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hole 3b, "The Tail of the Whale"

In the summer of 1979, my friend Mike and I goofed around on a golf course on the island of Moloka'i. By goofed around, I mean driving our golf cart most anywhere we wanted, though I don't think we vandalized any greens by doing doughnuts (which would make a better story, so maybe I should remember it that way). We also hit golf balls without regards to the rules of the game, the holes or anything else.

We could do that because we had the place completely to ourselves. Thirty years ago, Moloka'i wasn't often visited by tourists, which may still be true, for all I know. So we played a kind of bizarro golf in which hitting balls into sand- and water traps was a good thing. Neither of us were interested in playing real golf in that warm, tropical spot.

I still don't have any interest in playing golf, tropical or otherwise, but I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to try to hit a ball into the sea at hole 3b at one of the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Courses on Punta Mita. After visiting some properties one morning, we went to see the golf course, which is exceedingly lush in the controlled way tropical golf courses can be, without being overgrown. To get to 3b, we drove five or six golf carts along a golf-cart road through the course. I was the driver in my cart, with a woman from Toronto as my passenger. It may have been the first time I'd driven a golf cart since 1979, though I wouldn't swear to it.

This is a map of 3b, next to the tee. The plaque along with the map says (in Spanish and English): "Hole 3B. 'Tail of the Whale.' You are about to play the world's only natural island green. Course designer Jack Nicklaus describes 3B as, 'probably the best par 3 I've ever designed.' We trust 3B will be a hole you'll never forget."

This is what 3b looks like from the tee. It was low tide when we were there, so it was possible to walk to the green. During high tide, we were told, it really is an offshore island.

Golfers have the option of playing 3a for scoring, and then playing 3b for grins. There were no golfers in our group except one of our guides, who managed to hit the ball almost to the island. But it went into the sea. My ambition was to get it at least into the water, and for my swing I had a driver nearly as big as my foot. But I'm no golfer, not even a bad one, and my ball didn't even get wet.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Villa

As words, luxury and luxurious have been beaten to death by copywriters, at least as they apply to destination properties, though in hotel industry parlance "luxury" does still describe the topmost class of expensive hotel and resort properties. Too bad luxury has been drained of meaning, since the word has such an ancient pedigree--all the way back many thousands of years to the Indo-European leug-, to bend, turn, wind: referring to the bending, turning and winding of luxurious plant growth, which turned up as luxus in Latin, with the completely recognizable meaning of "excess, extravagance."

In any case, I luxuriated at one of the villas managed by Four Seasons Punta Mita for three nights and parts of three days. The villas are arrayed on a landscaped hillside lush with flowers and palms, and are connected by narrow, twisty roads and even narrower paths used by hotel golf carts. I stayed with three other writers in a five-bedroom villa with a view of the ocean split by a couple of small promontories sticking up from a rocky shore below.

Published sources put the villa's size at 8,000 square feet, at most. I didn't have any measuring equipment, so I can't vouch for that, but I will say that each day I discovered another room or two I hadn't noticed before. About an hour before I left for the airport, for example, I found the laundry room and the connection to the garage, just off the kitchen. Maybe I'd missed that because I dallied too much in the kitchen, which included all the usual upscale suspects, such as Subzero, Viking and Krups.

The sturdy wooden front door opened up into an open-air courtyard. It also took me a day or two to realize that there were three separate water features in this courtyard, the combined effect of which was to make me believe for a moment, in the middle of the first night, that it was raining. Most of my photos of the courtyard suffer from awkward lighting, even though it seemed pleasant enough to the human eye, with sunlight reaching its pastel yellow walls, offset by dark wooden pillars and iron accents.

This one turned out all right, though. Stone fish in rock pond.

The fish was only one of many mostly Mexican objets d'art throughout the villa, including ceramics, driftwood art and wall hangings. Potted palms and ferns also figured in the interior design scheme. Under everything was a limestone floor, hard but pleasant under foot, and pock-marked by small shell impressions.

Short corridors branching from the courtyard led to the various bedrooms, which by themselves (mine anyway) were much like well-appointed hotel rooms, with certain added touches. Such as a doubled-door shower. One sliding glass door led into the shower from the main part of the bathroom. On the other side of the shower, another sliding glass door led to a small, roofless room whose only purpose was to be a small, roofless room next to the shower.

The villa's living room was large enough to include an L-shaped modular couch, a round dining table for 10 -- with a lazy Susan large enough to do Aztec sacrifices -- various chairs, end tables and lamps, and a square coffee table outfitted with coffee table books. The room also sported a large flat-screen TV, mounted on a wall, but it could hardly compete with the visual treats of the next "room" -- a partially covered outdoor patio as large as the living room that also included a couch and a round breakfast table, but with the addition of a full view of the ocean.

The pool was out there, too, essentially an ocean-ward extension of the patio. Elsewhere were sunbathing recliners and umbrellas, plus flowers in pots. It all sounds cluttered, but it wasn't remotely cluttered. Clutter wasn't in the interior vocabulary of this place, and it would have taken weeks of sustained effort by me, an expert at unorganized accumulation, to make it that way.

Did I mention that the villa faced west? It would have to, of course, to overlook the ocean, since it was the west coast of Mexico. But it's worth mentioning again. We managed to time things to be at the villa to see two out of the three sunsets that occurred when we visited.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

A Slight Difference in Latitude

A couple of inches of snow fell last night, meaning that the view from my back door this morning looked pretty much like this again, though it has mostly melted since:

That's actually a picture from Sunday morning, March 29. Roughly 48 hours later, thanks to the infrastructure that makes modern travel possible, I was able to point my camera at this view:

This is the Pacific Ocean at Punta de Mita in the state of Nayarit, Mexico, on the last day of March, 2009. Here in Estados Unidos de América, most of us have heard of Puerto Vallarta. I never actually saw more than about 10 minutes of The Love Boat, yet somehow I know that PV was a major port of call for that vessel. To an even earlier generation, The Night of the Iguana put the town on the map.

Not so Punta de Mita, also simply known as Punta Mita. "I say Punta Mita and I get blank stares," said an American expat we met during our visit. "So I say it's near Puerto Vallarta, and that gets a reaction."

Puerto Vallarta lies midward on the enormous Bay of Banderas, where the Rio Cuale meets the sea, a setting made all the more picturesque by the Sierra Madre in the background. Punta de Mita is a peninsula that defines the northern extent of the Bay of Banderas. The peninsula has a slender neck and more generous proportions toward its tip, with a small set of high hills marking its interior. From there, the land slopes to the sea, mostly in a way suitable for building. The peninsula is ringed by over nine miles of shoreline, sporting the classic white-sand beaches that make it into brochures but also rocky cliffs that look down onto scenes such as this:

As a resort- and second-home development, Punta Mita is in rompers. Serious development of the peninsula really only got under way in the late 1990s, with the Four Seasons Punta Mita opening in 1999. Later developments include a St. Regis resort, which opened in 2007, a number of residential properties and a couple of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses. A fair amount of other development has yet to be realized, though in the fullness of time I don't doubt that DINE, the master developer of the area, will achieve its aims. DINE, formerly a unit of Mexican conglomerate DESC but now a standalone commercial developer, probably Mexico's largest, is also at work on properties at Punta Ixtapa and Punta Gorda on the Pacific coast of Mexico.

My visit was in the dry season, so outside the lush green areas of the resorts and residential properties -- with their bright flowers and towering palms -- brown and gray and other earth tones dominated landscape, something like the one I see from my window at home this time of year. Northern Illinois is waiting for sustained warmth. The coast of Nayarit is waiting for the wet season, which I was told evokes a sudden, tremendous eruption of greenery and wildflowers.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Further South Than I've Been in Years

The fellow who looked at my boarding pass last Monday as I entered the passengers-only zone at O'Hare couldn't have been older than about 23, a lad in the new uniform of the Transportation Security Administration. But a good-natured lad at that moment. He took a look at me in my traveling clothes, a gray suit with a blue shirt but no tie.

"Going to Puerto Vallarta on business?" he asked, more in an conversational tone than an interrogational one.

"Yes, I am."

"That sucks."

He waved me through. Often enough "business trip" means a few days in climate-controlled meeting rooms struggling against yawns and heavy eyelids, and that would have been bad. But that isn't the kind of business trip I took. I went to look at properties about 20 miles up the coast from Puerto Vallarta, and write about them later.

Not just any resort properties, but exquisite Mexican-flavored residences overlooking wide views of the Pacific horizon, enlivened by frequent flights of seabirds, the sound of the ocean thumping the rocks below, and regularly scheduled sunsets. That describes my villa, at least, but all of the properties had considerable charm, and sometimes arresting designs.

Other writers had been gathered to see the properties as well, three from Canada and one other American -- an amiable, well-traveled group. Comparing destinations was a continuing subject of conversation, but hardly the only one. Besides touring resort- and second-home properties, we participated in the slow-food movement at a number of fine restaurants, mostly open-air establishments.

One afternoon a boat ride was on the schedule, too, taking us near offshore islands that functioned as seabird cities, complete with the smell of guano. I'd say that was a first for any business trip of mine.

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