Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunspots, Planetary Positions and the Effects of the Moon

We've started the early fall pattern: distinctly cool mornings, much warmer afternoons. I ate lunch on the deck today not only because it was clear and warm, but because such opportunities will dwindle in number as September and October pass by.

Speaking of the change of seasons, why is it a news story when the Farmers' Almanac predicts a mild or hard winter? I spied such a story by the AP today. For what it's worth, the FA is predicting a colder than normal winter for much of the nation.

Not sure the prediction is worth that much. According to the article, bylined by Clarke Canfield and datelined Lewiston, Maine, the publication "issues annual forecasts using a formula based on sunspots, planetary positions and the effects of the moon."

In other words, that old editors' standby, "making it up." Canfield goes on to say that the forecast is "at odds with the National Weather Service, which is calling for warmer-than-normal temperatures across much of the country because of an El Nino system in the tropical Pacific Ocean."

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Item From the Past: "Freeze a Yankee"

On August 25, 1978, a girl named Kathy B. broke my thumb. While I was still wearing the splint, I told people that and got weird reactions. "We were dancing," I said. That didn't seem to clarify things, since I still got weird reactions. "Really, that's what we were doing." People didn't believe it, somehow. Pretty soon I gave up explaining it.

But that's just what happened. We were at a party with a sizable number of other kids. I don't know that I was exactly dancing with Kathy, a sometime girlfriend of one of my group, though she didn't attend our high school. I was just dancing in her vicinity. She was wearing some kind of hard-soled shoes. My hand went down, her foot went up, and they made contact. I didn't find out I had a cracked knuckle until the next day, at the emergency room.

But that's not what brings that evening to mind. Someone at the party had a 45 of the song "Freeze a Yankee" and he played it for us at least once, probably a few times, and we were greatly entertained. I never heard it again after that until today, when I found it on YouTube (where else?). Occasionally over the years I'd mention the song, but no one else -- the non-Texans, that is -- had ever heard of it. The group that cut the record was from Dallas, it seems, and whatever success they had with it was mostly in Texas. For reasons that might be obvious once you listen to the song.

The Gov. Briscoe mentioned in the song is none other than Texas Gov. Dolph Briscoe, who was in office from 1973 to 1979. I'm not sure what he might have said that inspired the lyric -- some bravado about keeping Texas oil for Texans, maybe, though I'm pretty sure the governor of Texas wouldn't have had much power to impede interstate commerce. But it may be the only song anywhere that mentions Briscoe, who is still alive and who also happens to be one of the largest landowners in the country.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Thursday Odds

On Tuesday, the first day at Lilly and Ann's elementary school, all the students gathered outside before classes and entered the building with their respective teachers. It was warm and clear that morning, perfect from such a gathering. Later in the day, it was hot -- the essence of a summer day. Very early on Wednesday, rain blew through, lowering the temps and visiting on and off since then, mostly as drizzle. As if to say, "No more summer for you kids."

The persistent rains have also highlighted a couple of silvery, intricate spider webs hanging from plants in the back yard. One of them is just above my car, dangling from two branches of the tree next to the driveway. Last I checked, a spider was still resident. I'll have to point it out to one or both of my daughters soon, to elicit girlish cries of fear or disgust. Which might not be heartfelt in Lilly's case; the web might have some fascination.

We went to three big boxes -- three, that's nearly an overdose for any particular day -- earlier this evening to finish off school-supply acquisition. Locusts had visited each store before we arrived, focusing on the aisles containing the supplies, and had carried off some of the items we were looking for. I will explain this in a note to Lilly's teacher, who reportedly wants all supplies in hand on Friday. But I probably won't mention the locust metaphor.

Received Tunnel Vision in the mail the other day. "A publication for alumni of student media at Vanderbilt University" that shows up occasionally. VU student media alumni Sen. Lamar Alexander, sports journalist Skip Bayless and humorist Roy Blount Jr. are all on the cover, to remind the rest of us how small our achievements are. But I can do that by going out any starry night.

Which reminds me of a Gahan Wilson cartoon I saw long ago. (He's still alive at last report, glad to see it.) I think the cartoon was in his early '70s collection I Paint What I See. We had that book around the house and it probably made me one of the few kids at Woodridge Elementary School who knew his work, which remains instantly recognizable to me. In Wilson's cartoon, an old man is looking out from his balcony at the vault of stars overhead, gesturing defiantly: "You don't make me feel insignificant, fella!"

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pilcher Park, Joliet

One of the more complete descriptions of Pilcher Park in Joliet that I've found after a few minutes' search is on, a site obsessed with topographical minutiae, and thus after my own heart. It says: "PILCHER PARK ARBORETUM, US 30, from Maple to Gauger Road, was presented to the people of Joliet by Robert Pilcher in 1922 with the stipulation that it should remain in its natural state. About 75 species of trees, including nine kinds of oak, are native, as well as many shrubs, bushes, and almost innumerable wild flowers.

"A collection of imports started by John Higgenbotham, the original owner, includes southern magnolia, sweet gum, cypress, tulip-tree, white fringe, pecan, black birch, and hickories and black cherry trees. Plans for development envisage introduction of trees from all over the world. A five-acre picnic camp, across Hickory Creek, is connected with the main part by a footbridge. One-way motor lanes are supplemented by five miles of narrow footpaths and several miles of bridle paths."

We drove some of those one-way motor ways last Saturday, and saw the footbridge, though "picnic camp" isn't the way I'd describe it. Across the bridge was a run-down looking picnic shelter. Near that site also stands a statue of Robert Pilcher, a remarkably traditional standing bronze, arms by his side, on top of a plinth describing the good deeds of the man. I didn't get a picture, but naturally Google Images has one (scroll down about half way; and there are other pictures of the park in early spring).

Elsewhere in the park are the aforementioned and -pictured nature center and the totem pole. Walking paths led away from the nature center, and we did a little wandering. The oaks mentioned by Waymaking were especially evident, since it was hard to take a step without stepping on an acorn of one kind or another. The whole place was an extravagant August green.

Hard to believe that in three months there will be browns and grays and bare branches. The Temperate Zone is an exacting taskmaster.

The curiously named Bird Haven Greenhouse & Conservatory is also part of the park. Not the largest conservatory I've seen, but well worth a walkthrough. This is the exterior, with lush flower beds on either side of the adjacent sidewalk.

Not visible, but just beyond the trellis on the left, was a gazebo surrounded by folding chairs. We figured someone was going to have a wedding there, which was confirmed when a couple of bridesmaids showed up just as we were leaving.

Inside, the conservatory had the usual rooms devoted to different plant climates: tropical, arid, temperate. Plus an assortment of small memorials. This one caught my eye: a memorial cactus for one David Hritz. We should all be so lucky to be remembered in this way.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Years Discussed in This Post: 1969, 1979, 2004, 2009

Back in late August 2004, on the original blue-and-white blog, I wrote this: "Yesterday was Lilly’s first day of first grade. It was also 25 years to the day after I flew from San Antonio to Nashville to begin college at Vanderbilt, so long ago that I flew on Braniff. Synchronicity or mere coincidence? (Coincidence, I think.)"

Today was Ann's first day in first grade, and it was 30 years to the day that I started at VU. Still probably a coincidence, but one that's appealing. Time to muse on the inevitable passage of time, etc. Which wouldn't be so bad if you could, now and then, relive the best parts of the past.

I don't mean merely remember it fondly, but actually go do it again. I'm not sure the 1979 transition from high school to college would count as a great moment anyway, and in fact the memory is dim. I remember getting rained on while going to wherever it was VU issued student IDs, so for the next four years I carried around a picture of myself with wet hair.

Speaking of living in the past, the other day I passed a magazine rack and noticed a special Time publication devoted to 1969. That kind of thing is, I believe, known in the publishing business as "cut-and-paste for nostalgic suckers." Sure, it was an eventful year, especially because of the Moon landing. But name a year in the last few centuries that wasn't eventful. I also wondered: where's 1979? You can't tell me it wasn't exceptionally eventful, too, personal considerations aside. All the same, I won't buy it even if Time produces one.

Back to the present. Ann was enthusiastic to go this morning. Lilly, who started sixth grade, wasn't exactly enthusiastic, but I knew she was looking forward to seeing her friends on a daily basis.

The pic of Ann and her backpack wasn't this morning, but it pretty much sums up her mood today. Tinker Bell, incidentally, is the centerpiece of a full-court marketing press by Disney these days. A whole world of fairies has been dreamed up to go with her, and she even received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Nashi & Sonic Drive-Ins

Pilcher Park in Joliet and its totem poles were unexpected good finds. We’d gone down that way to investigate the possibilities of apple picking. Or to be more exact, apple- and Asian pear-apple picking at a u-pick-em orchard near Lockport, Illinois. It’s almost a straight shot south of us on I-355, which was extended through the Lockport and Joliet area only a few years ago.

I expected a bigger operation, but when we got there we found a house with apple trees spreading out behind it. I asked one of the proprietors about the place, and she told me it was a hobby that got out of hand, producing a lot of apples and Asian pear-apples. The latter are cultivated like apples, she said, and in the case of her orchard will be ready to pick in about three weeks.

Asian pear-apples are worth the wait. They look like apples, sort of, but have the sweet interior of pears, only better than most pears. In Japan, they’re called nashi, a more exotic name than pear-apple, certainly, and what we call them around this house. Yuriko considers them a high-cost fruit, and they are, especially in Japan, but even somewhat at Costco.

So we went on our way, and ended up spending our apple and pear-apple budget at a Sonic Drive-In in Lockport. When Lilly saw it, she lobbied hard to go there, since apparently she has fond memories of one we visited in Tampa in 2005. She claimed to remember it better than Disney World on that trip, which was probably an exaggeration. But it didn’t take too much urging on her part.

For about $15, you can get three Sonic burgers (one with cheese), three shakes (two peach, one vanilla), a small order of fries, and a kid’s meal featuring chicken strips, fries and a small bottle of chocolate milk, brought to your car by a carhop on skates. She comes after you insert your debit or credit card in the slot at the order sign, so it isn’t quite like how Richie, Potsy and Ralph would have ordered (I forget to look for a cash option; you probably have to push a special button for that).

Sonic does go out of its way to make hamburgers more like those of old, though of course it’s by formula. Still, I’m reminded of Sill’s Snack Shack in San Antonio, a non-drive-in hamburgerie we used to patronize in the late ’60s and early ’70s, until McDonald’s cleaned its clock. So Sonic has that going for it.

We had Sonic Drive-Ins in the San Antonio of my youth. There was the time, during high school exams in the spring of 1977, when about ten of us jammed into a car driven by the only one of us who could legally drive, and descended on the Sonic on Broadway in Alamo Heights. Such youthful car-packing might be unlawful in Texas now, and even then it was the stuff of potentially lurid headlines: HEIGHTS TEENS SPUTTER AND FRY IN FIERY WRECK. But we arrived safely, and spilled out onto pavement and on top of the hood and trunk to eat our lunch, surprising the waitress.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Totem Poles of Illinois

When you think of the greater Chicago area, scenes like this might be the first thing to come to mind. Then again, maybe not.

Still, you can find this totem pole in Will County, Illinois, which stands without a nearby explanation. I should have asked the woman behind the counter inside the building behind the totem pole, but I only thought of that now. The building isn't a lodge of any kind but the Pilcher Park Nature Center in Pilcher Park, Joliet.

When chancing across a totem pole in northeastern Illinois -- as we did on Saturday -- the kind of thing I wonder is whether anyone's done a census of totem poles in the area. The Field Museum has some, I think, and there's a replica of one at Belmont Harbor and Lake Shore Drive (an original that stood there was returned to the Indians who made it). And there must be others tucked away here and there. But as far as I know, no complete count exists.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Cathedral Gets a New Ceiling

One more detail from our excursion on the streets of the near North Side last week: Holy Name Cathedral has a new ceiling. New roof, actually, since most of the old one burned away early this year. The church just re-opened a few weeks ago.

But it’s the ceiling that gets your attention – or it should, with 24,000 or so dark brown pieces (of wood?) newly refurbished with a lot of gold leaf. It’s one of the more spectacular church ceilings that I’ve seen, though my own favorite ceiling still remains the byzantine-style New Cathedral of St. Louis with its numerous glittering tesserae. The online version of the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia says the structure, brand new when the article was written, features 41.5 million pieces in more than 7,000 colors. One of these days I need to make it to Ravenna or Constantinople to see how actual byzantine mosaics compare.

A few blocks away is St. James Episcopal Cathedral. After Holy Name, we walked to it, but was too late in the afternoon to enter. I toyed with the idea of going over the Michigan Avenue to take a look at Fourth Presbyterian, another marvel of a Chicago church in the Gothic Revival style, but I was getting complains of tired feet from small walkers, so we made our way back to Union Station.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mister J's Dawg 'n Burger

We continued southward on State Street after the short rain ended early Sunday afternoon, past where it meets Rush Street, a busy node of restaurants and bars. Soon my children let it be known that it was time to eat. That wasn't news to me, since I've traveled a fair amount with them.

Luckily, Mister J's Dawg 'n Burger was near, and still open after all these years. It's about as Chicago as you can get, a box of a place whose brown tables and red chairs barely leave enough room to squeeze past, that smells of fresh grease, and which has a hiss-and-sputter soundtrack. I used to go there from time to time when I worked at State and Hubbard in the late '80s, but its main clientele were and continue to be Loyola students.

Fries go with everything Mister J's offers -- hamburgers, hot dogs, and gyros, among other things that regularly alarm health nags. Everything is salty greasy good. Except the shakes, which are good in their own sweet way, in fact the best thing you can get from Mister J's. During our Sunday lunch, everyone had one of them, each nearly thick enough to make a meal by itself, but not quite large enough to overwhelm the rest of the meal.

I didn't take any pictures, but someone else thoughtfully did and put them on Flickr. I hope that, on the sad day when Mister J's finally goes out of business, the Chicago History Museum takes the distinctive oval sign with the hamburger-shaped humanoid. And maybe the double-sided marquee, too.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Dentist & the Archbishop

Though our hour at the Air & Water Show wasn't a great time, I'm glad we went. For one thing, it's good to venture into a large crowd now and then, if only to be reminded of how vast the number of people is, and that many of them probably aren't much like you.

Also, the logistics of going to the city, and into a large crowd, aren't quite as hard as they used to be. I don't have to worry, for example, that Ann will run off into the crowd unexpectedly, as once happened in the busy Mall of America when she was three. We found her, obviously, but it made for a bad few minutes.

The best part of the day began when we walked away from the show and saw other things. Like a statue of the man who invented dentistry, which you can find near the intersection of North Avenue and State Parkway in the extreme southern reaches of Lincoln Park.

Maybe not "invented." But his fellow dentists thought highly enough of Dr. Greene Vardiman Black (1836-1915), the Father of Modern Dentistry, to erect a statue of him in Lincoln Park, a park that also sports statues of Lincoln (by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, no less), Grant, Alexander Hamilton, Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen, Goethe and Schiller.

This is what Dr. Black's statue tells us:

"G. V. Black — Father of Modern Dentistry — Born on the prairies of Central Illinois, self educated, he became in his profession the foremost scientific investigator, writer and teacher of his time."

"Erected to the memory of Dr. G. V. Black by the members of the dental profession in appreciation of his services to them and to humanity. Dedicated by the National Dental Association — August 1918"

More on Dr. Black is here. Almost directly across the street from Dr. Black is the official residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago. The AIA Guide to Chicago says: "This early Queen Anne residence still has Italianate windows but is dominated by the busy picturesque roofline typical of the style, punctuated by nineteen chimneys."

We didn't count the chimneys. Lilly counted the window-unit air conditioners, however, but I forget how many she got to. They weren't original equipment, but even prelates want to be cool on those few hot summer days that we do have, if the technology's available.

I managed to get a picture of the archbishop's garden, which is lush this time of year. Behind that is the archbishop's garage, which seems to have chimneys too, but I don't know if they're in addition to the 19 or part of the 19.

Then we strolled down State Parkway, which is really just the northern end of State Street, past some other posh old addresses, such as this one, an eight-bedroom, 6.5-bath dwelling with an asking price of $6.8 million (no doubt a deal compared with a few years ago).

The parkway, no different in size than any other Chicago street, does has towering mature trees, so it was a pleasant, shady walk. Even the cloudburst, which started falling on us a few blocks south of the archbishop's residence, added to the experience. For a while we stood under one of the block's sheltering trees and let it rain.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

An Hour at the Beach

Our time at the Chicago Air & Water Show yesterday pretty short, since it involved standing in high 80s temps at the edge of one of the most crowded beaches I've ever seen, completely unapproachable because of the crowd, most of whom were sitting on folding chairs. To stake out a spot, I figure they had to come pretty early. Last year sometime, maybe.

We were also near the paved bike path that connects most of Chicago's lakeshore. Few bikers were on the path, and those I did see were walking their bikes. It would have been impossible to ride more than a few feet without bumping into a pedestrian. Usually the balance of power on that path is with the bicyclists, but not on Sunday.

We did stay long enough to see some fine aerial maneuvers by both propeller planes and jets. Some larger military aircraft, which I thought might have been cargo planes, also flew by. But not any C-130 Hercules transports, which I'd really like to see airborne.

At first we weren't far from the anti-military booth. Occasionally they would make announcements: "The Air & Water Show is just a commercial for the military!" or some such. The rest of the crowd ignored them. If you asked me, the Air & Water Show isn't military enough. I'd like to see some bombing runs over Lake Michigan, for instance. Dropping real bombs might pose a risk of collateral damage on the beach, but why not substitutes that are about as powerful as commercial fireworks?

Elsewhere, a number of organizations had booths to either give away or sell things. We got some free aluminum disks from the U.S. Navy, so that was a "commercial for the military." Note the similarity of the wave on one of the Navy disks to "The Great Wave." We also got a free beach ball from Shell, promoting one of its gasoline formulations, so I guess that would be a "commercial for Big Oil."

I was willing to watch the planes a while longer, even walk down the bike path to where Michigan Avenue meets Lake Shore Drive, but Lilly and Ann wanted out of the heat. We walked a short distance inland and found a small patch of sandy land under some trees and parked ourselves there. It was next to a part-empty parking lot reserved for the media, which was mostly television crews, though I suppose the aviation press had representatives hanging around somewhere.

Two young men wearing EVENT SUPPORT shirts were watching the entrance to the parking lot, but since most of the media had probably already shown up, they had little to do. So one of them filled the air with an obscenity-soaked tirade against his immediate family -- mother, stepfather, sister. Too bad he didn't actually use any colorful invective worth listening to. That kind of thing is pretty rare. As it was, he got tiresome through repetition, and probably no one was suffering more than the other guy in the EVENT SUPPORT shirt.

I didn't whisk Lilly or Ann out of earshot. Maybe some parents would have. But they need to know that guys like that are out there. Maybe he was just having a bad week at home, but the more I heard him, the more I thought he was one of those people who are angry 24/7, most of the time seething away quietly but sometimes uncorked like this guy. They wake up angry, they go to bed angry. They're angry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Why? Because society beats them down from day one, or because they're born losers, take your pick.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Air & Water '09

My feet have that mild ache that comes from walking on them for some distance on the hard sidewalks of the city. My better judgment recommended against going to see the Chicago Air & Water Show today, but I ignored it. All four of us went: Car to the station, train to the city, bus to the vicinity of the event, feet to the event and then part way back to the station.

More on all that later, plus a separate excursion on Friday into Chicago, still one the Great Cities of the Earth, and a place I don't visit nearly enough any more. For now, a little detail about what we found today at the North Street Beach, where the masses had massed. I couldn't really get any decent pictures of the airplanes, but I did manage a few other shots. This is the back of a small sample of the masses.

There were a lot of vendors, but also a handful of anti-military protesters.

And a fellow with a sign about the true nature of space aliens. Good thing he was there to keep everyone informed about that.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thursday Salmagundi

We've had a run of dry, sunny days here, but not quite with full August heat (except for last weekend). This week has seen low- to mid-80s F. for highs and remarkably cool temps at night. I have lunch out on the deck if I can, and walk around the neighborhood in the late afternoon if I can do that. Declining summer, it is. School starts in less than two weeks, and I've already seen peewee footballers out practicing in parks, a little earlier than I remember in other years.

It's been six years this week since we moved into this house with a deck. I did some poking around not long ago, and it seems like the theoretical value of the house since 2003 has described a path that pretty much looks like the Matterhorn. Or at least the Matterhorn as it appeared in an old Donald Duck comic -- smoothly up to a point, then back down again. The real question now is whether it's any lower than in 2003.

I don't intend to find out. Child incubation, the main point of having a suburban house, isn't finished yet.

Got some borderline spam today from someone encouraging me to play a geography quiz associated with Facebook. No thanks. Can't muster the desire to do quizzes on Facebook, though other people are welcome to them. I usually find that geoquizzes are either too easy (what's the capital of France?) or too hard (name the eight countries on the migration route of the coconut-laden African swallow).

I persuaded Lilly to take an online U.S. states geoquiz recently, one that gives you three chances to match the correct name with the correct state. Guess it on the first try and you get three points. A correct second try gives you two points and the third gives you one. A perfect score would be 150. She got 113, or about 75 percent. Not bad, but I told she needs to know all the states by the time she gets to junior high.

Two other oddities I forgot to mention about Star Trek in a recent posting. One was McCoy's motivation for joining Star Fleet -- a divorce had left him destitute. Really? That kind of thing happens in a world of no poverty and full gender equality? Besides, he's a doctor, dammit. You'd think he'd be able to find a job of some kind, unless the movie's trying to make some point about the long-term (really long-term) impact of socialized medicine.

Also, in passing, I heard Capt. Pike tell the young Kirk that the Enterprise was being built at the Riverside Dock, or Shipyard, or something. I know I heard Riverside. A tip of the hat to Riverside, Iowa, which calls itself the future birthplace of Capt. Kirk, just because no place else had thought of it first? Some years ago, I drove through Riverside and managed to see this, but not this.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Missing Perseids

I went out to see if I could see the Perseids last night. Actually, very early this morning, just after midnight. As it happens, I can see most of the northeast sky from my deck. I also know roughly where Perseus is. He and Cassiopeia are pretty tight up there, after all, and she's one of the easier constellations to find.

Viewing conditions weren't very good. Suburban glare is always an issue with my night sky, even more in the summer than in the crisp cold days of winter, it seems. Besides that, the bright waning Moon was behind my neighbor's tree and creeping upward. I looked at the sky for about 20 minutes but didn't see anything I thought was a meteorite trail. Unless I did. I thought I might have seen some faint lines. Unless I didn't. It could have been a trick of monotony.

I probably should have stayed longer, but I had an appointment with unconsciousness I couldn't put off much longer, and it was distinctly chilly. I haven't had all that much luck with naked eye observation over the years. Though I saw a faint spot, the hyped Comet Kohoutek was a bust, for instance, and Halley's Comet was an even bigger letdown. But if I really want to see the Perseids I would make a point of being somewhere remote in mid-August. It hasn't happened. Yet.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Two-Dollar Star Trek

Star Trek was a $2 movie. That is, I waited until recently to see it, after it arrived at the second-run theater closest to us, which charges $2 for most shows. Also, it was worth about $2. It insulted my intelligence on occasion, but not consistently, and it had all the homages you'd expect, plus a lot of action and explosions.

My favorite homage was during the "space skydiving" bit. Who goes along on that dangerous mission? Kirk, Sulu and this guy Olsen, whom we don't know. He's wearing a red spacesuit, this Olsen. So you know what's going to happen to him. Sure enough, it does.

Still, like in many movies, the producers paid a lot more attention to special effects than the story. In fact, the story doesn't really make any sense, even in the context of the Star Trek franchise -- or at least less than some of other entries in the franchise. The entire edifice was built to get young Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al. all together in their familiar roles to kick some bad-guy butt, after various setbacks.

All kinds of absurdities are needed reach to that point, from an unbelievably fast-and-loose system of Federation field promotions for cadets to the unbelievable actions of the main villain, who can destroy scores of opposing spaceships, indeed whole planets, but somehow doesn't think to go to his home world (Romulus) and make himself emperor.

Yet it's some kind of tribute to the filmmakers that you don't notice all of the absurdities until later. That's the same sort of achievement that The X Files used to pull off most every week.

Some of the absurdities were noticeable right away, however, and one in particular bothered me more than the rest -- the idea of a "supernova" threatening "the galaxy." That's one whopping big "supernova," friends. Which seems to creep along through space, wasting planets.

I don't expect real physics and astronomy from Star Trek, but I do expect higher-quality bogus physics and astronomy than that. The scriptwriters couldn't make up something a little less ridiculous? They've got 40 years' of material to draw from, plus other masters at the game they could borrow from, such as Doctor Who.

I can make up something better, on the spot, for free, such as "the threat of an oscillating, intermittent rift in the fabric of space-time caused by neutrino cascades -- the kind that threatens whole planets unpredictably -- and which can only be mended with the application of a little red matter, which in turn can only be kept stable by a finely-tuned Vulcan mind in the company of no one else." Or something along those lines.

Otherwise, why would the Romulans entrust saving their planet to one person in a small ship? Wouldn't a threat like that merit getting the Romulan equivalent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the job, pronto?

See how easy that was? I didn't have to use much technobabble, only a sentence's worth. "Supernova"? That's down at the Irwin Allen level. Even at this late date, Star Trek should be more plausible than Lost in Space.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

(Very) Local News

A single pink rose appeared suddenly near the driveway gate over the weekend, or so it seemed. We noticed it suddenly would be more like it. But now that it's here, the bloom is hard to miss -- a delicate little flower, pink as a princess dress in one of Ann's books, and flanked by two buds that promise more blooms this week.

It's in a fertile green spot that has given us mint, but it's never been a rose-producing area. I asked Yuriko if we'd put in any roses there. She couldn't remember. I don't either. We've tried planting roses in other spots around the yard, but mostly we've gotten dry, thorny sticks stuck in the ground for our trouble. So do we have volunteer roses? Is that even possible?

I probably should contemplate this little event a little a more deeply. Maybe something Eastern along the lines of, "Does a rose have Buddha nature or not?" Or maybe something Western, acknowledging the unexpected gifts of the Lord. On the other hand, maybe a volunteer rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Item From the Past: Borobudur

I didn't make many notes about our visit to Borobudur 15 years ago.

August 11, 1994. "Up at 4:45 to see Borobudur. Not really 'at sunrise' as advertised, but arrived close enough, at 6 a.m., when it was still fairly cool and fairly quiet. Not many other people around. A marvel of construction, long ago, and a marvel of reconstruction by UNESCO, not so long ago."

But, as usual, it isn't hard to find a good description. From Buddhanet: "[Borobudur] is of uncertain age, but thought to have been built between the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth century A.D. For about a century and a half it was the spiritual centre of Buddhism in Java, then it was lost until its rediscovery in the eighteenth century.

"The structure, composed of 55,000 square meters of lava-rock, is erected on a hill in the form of a stepped-pyramid of six rectangular storeys, three circular terraces and a central stupa forming the summit. The whole structure is in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha.

"For each direction there are ninety-two Dhyani Buddha statues and 1,460 relief scenes. The lowest level has 160 reliefs depicting cause and effect; the middle level contains various stories of the Buddha's life from the Jataka Tales; the highest level has no reliefs or decorations whatsoever but has a balcony, square in shape with round walls: a circle without beginning or end. Here is the place of the ninety-two Vajrasattvas or Dhyani Buddhas tucked into small stupas."

Best of all, a small admission allows you, if you happen to have come to Java, to wander around all the levels of the complex, as the morning fog slowly burns away. Though in awe, I can't pretend I understood very much of what I saw. But if I let a little thing like that stand in my way, I'd never go anywhere.

Better pictures than we took are also freely available, too.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Things to Do When You're Off Line

Some Internet connectivity issues around here on Thursday night. Was it fallout from the worldwide hacker attack by Burandan rebels as part of their liberation struggle? That bit of direct action might have put Twitter on hold as well, I hear, a disaster of such proportions that I expect panic in equity markets on Friday.

More likely, it was my ISP being its not-quite-perfect self. So I went out to look at the full Moon, except it was cloudy. A couple of days ago I spent a few minutes out on the deck after dark, looking at the nearly full Moon. It had an unusual luster, probably caused by obscure, temporary components of the atmosphere, or maybe I was just more receptive to it for obscure, temporary reasons having to do with brain chemistry.

And again, I thought, looking at the white orb and its gray patches: a dozen men walked there. Were sent there by dint of enormous effort. It's a hell of a thing, really. A marvel to go with the luster of the Moon. No wonder the thought befuddles simple people.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Girl Shy

Drop her in any decade and she'd be fetching. In her own heyday, she was probably the bees' knees. She's the mostly forgotten '20s silent actress Jobyna Ralston, apparently named after the even more forgotten Gibson Girl Jobyna Howland.

I saw Girl Shy today, vintage 1924. Ralston co-stars in it with Harold Lloyd. He's better remembered, of course, but not a lot. Sad to say, the last time I remember seeing a Harold Lloyd movie was Safety Last in film class in 1983. Girl Shy holds up well as comedy, no little thing after 85 years. Mostly the kind of comedy that makes you grin, but sometimes I laughed out loud (which I'm never abbreviating).

Ann laughed sometimes too. She watched the whole thing with me, either guessing at the title cards or asking me about them, because they went by too quickly for her to read.

Girl Shy follows the travails of Harold Meadows, apprentice tailor and would-be bestselling author of an advice book about wooing women. It wouldn't be comedy if he himself didn't have a hard time doing just that, but he overcomes his shyness in the presence of the wealthy Mary Buckingham (Ralston). Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. That story arc is older than... well, silent movies, but never mind. The comedy's in the details.

From what I've read, the movie is best remembered for the elaborate chase scene toward the end. Harold has to get to a wedding ceremony on time, to prevent Mary from marrying another man. (The producers of the The Graduate must have had this movie in mind). It's an amazing chase. Harold goes through a half a dozen cars, a couple of horses, a horse and wagon, and a motorcycle on his frantic journey through rural and urban southern California. He also steals a streetcar at one point. Even if Lloyd did only half of the stunts, and I've read he usually did his own, it would have been a tour-de-force. Or maybe a tour-de-farce.

Much less madcap, but just as funny, was the scene in the train car when boy met girl. Complicating things, girl had a dog that wasn't allowed on the train, and a conductor was close by. Before it was over, Lloyd was obliged to make dog noises, eat dog biscuits and look like a weirdo who stole women's clothes and stuffed his pockets with them. The scene has to be seen to be believed. Seen, but not heard, and considering how much of the comedy depended on dog noises you couldn't actually hear, quite a trick.

Chaplin is remembered for his an expressive face and subtle body gestures. Lloyd's clearly in the same league. Part of the comedy of the movie hung on the fact that Harold Meadows was a stutterer, something bound to draw the complains of sensitive souls in our time, but more importantly something you really wouldn't expect from a silent movie. Lloyd pulls it off remarkably well, without going overboard while pushing and straining to get those words out -- all done with gestures. Sometimes it was for laughs. But just as often you really feel sorry for the guy as his speech impediment gets in the way of his life.

The movie was loaded was a lot of curious, time-stamped detail, too. Just as interesting as the comedy. In fact, worth watching just for that. My own favorite was the fictional (I assume) brand, Acme Dog Biscuits. If I'd thought about it before, I would have realized it went back further than Loony Toons writers, but pretty much everyone born after about 1950 thinks of Wile E. Coyote.


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Kerokerokeroppi Abides

Ann and her mother came back from a major big box retailer the other day with a new lunchbox, since she will be carrying one starting in a few weeks. She'd picked a Kerokerokeroppi lunchbox. I always did like that name.

Shortened to Keroppi in this context, the onomatopoetic Kerokerokeroppi's a 1980s-vintage character in the Sanrio stable, and probably jealous of the more popular Hello Kitty. The ever-sunny Sanrio web site, however, says, "Keroppi loves adventure, and his bubbly personality makes him popular around Donut Pond. He has a brother called Koroppi and a sister called Pikki. Keroppi is a fantastic swimmer and singer (but not at the same time!)."

Why not at the same time? Surely anime frogs would be able to pull it off. I didn't know he was popular enough in the United States to appear on kids' lunchboxes, but there's a lot I don't know about pop culture. For all I know, a big-budget, live-action Keroppi movie is in production, with Jim Carrey as the lovable amphibian.

He's already been in regular animated movies. Or at least cartoons; I didn't stick it out long enough to find out. But I'm pretty sure that somewhere around here on a VHS tape that we haven't watched in years, there's a cartoon adaptation of Gulliver's Travels starring Kerokerokeroppi.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Tercels, Clunkers & Government Cheese

I checked today, and neither of our cars meets the U.S. government definition of a clunker. The program, easily the biggest federal hit since government cheese, is officially known as the Car Allowance Rebate System. That name's about as interesting as an exit ramp designation, so it's little wonder that "Cash For Clunkers" is the name that stuck, and will probably stick in future books and articles that describe our time.

My old Tercel gets far and away too many miles per gallon to qualify for government-ordained destruction -- 29 combined city and highway mpg, according to the CARS web site. Good thing, I'm too fond of it anyway to have it euthanized.

Last week, I pulled up to the drive-by mailbox at our local post office just as an employee was unloading the boxes, so he took my mail directly from me.

"How many miles you got on that car?" he said, with a hint of admiration in his voice. I told him -- it's not all that many, considering how long I've owned the car -- and he made a remark about the car's durability. About a month ago, when I went for minor maintenance on the same car at a Toyota dealership, one of the mechanics voiced a similar opinion, and I don't think he was being sarcastic.

Tercels never used to get that kind of praise. During their production run (1978-99), they were the Gummo Marx of the Toyota line. A few years ago, I remember a moment early in Night in the Museum, when Ben Stiller's character was being established as a failed inventor and a sympathetic loser, you briefly see his car, which has a Denver boot on it: a beat-up '80s Tercel. A losermobile, in other words.

Now they're cars that last a long, long time and get fairly high mileage. These are desirable things in our moment in history.

Speaking of moments in history, I'll bet that if I mention "government cheese" to Lilly, I'll get a peculiar look.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Item From the Past: Boot Hill

Back in the summer of 2005, I wrote about Mt. Moriah (Boot Hill), in Deadwood, SD: "[It's] a lovely wooded hill, covered in pine, dotted with stones of all sorts, from nearly worn-away to large, handsome, newish monuments. A light mist was falling, and it was fairly cold for the third of August, about 55° F. I think.

"Wild Bill Hickok came to Deadwood in the summer of ’76, died famously, and now reposes at Mt. Moriah. In recent decades, admirers erected a bronze bust to mark his grave, which is surrounded by an iron fence. Calamity Jane rests behind the fence as well, reportedly by her own request nearly 30 years after Wild Bill was stashed away."

As I've said before, acknowledge the famous, but don't ignore the obscure. Not far from Wild Bill is a stone for Grace Lela Trebilcock, born December 10, 1902, died April 27, 1909.

According to the on-line records of Mt. Moriah at least, she's the only Trebilcock in the cemetery. Maybe her parents were passing through Deadwood, or resident for only a few years. A sad story lost to time.

Trebilcock's an interesting name, though. The Internet Surname Database offers this information about the name: "Recorded as Trebilcock and Trebilcocke, this is a Cornish and English surname. It is, like the vast majority of Cornish surnames, locational, and in this case from a place called Trebiloc near the village of Roche. It is first recorded in the annals of the county in the year 1302. The place name and hence the later surname, is believed to mean 'The home on the cookoo's hill' from the Cornish medieval phrase 'tre-pyl-cok', although other explanations are possible."

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