Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Naper Settlement

"Naper Settlement, the only nineteenth-century outdoor historic village in metropolitan Chicago, began in 1969 as a cooperative effort... to preserve examples of that city's heritage as an agricultural village before development completely transformed Naperville into a 'technoburb,' ” writes Harold R. Wilde in the Encyclopedia of Chicago. "The 13-acre 'living village' in downtown Naperville encompasses 27 historic relocated, recreated, or restored structures, including a Gothic revival church (1864), operational blacksmith and print shops, the first hotel built west of Chicago, and the Martin Mitchell house (1883), deeded to the city in 1936 and for many years Naperville's historical museum."

Naper Settlement's collection indeed spans the decades -- of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Very early Naperville is found in a log cabin...

... and a re-created stockade. The original stockade, according to the sign, was built for the Black Hawk War but never saw any hostilities. Later, it was used as a pen for animals.

Martin Mitchell was a Chicago-area brick baron, or rather bricks and other building material, of the late 19th century. He certain used enough bricks to build his house, tours of which were available when we visited.

The volunteer guide wasn't exactly overflowing with information, but she did mention in passing that Mitchell had three children, but no grandchildren, and that one of his daughters was a dwarf.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harris' Hawk in Illinois

According to the Peregrine Fund's web site, Harris' hawks -- also Harris's hawks -- (parabuteo unicinctus) "are found in semiarid habitats like savannas, chaparrals, scrub prairies, and mesquite and saguaro deserts," none of which describes Illinois that I know of. Indeed, "they range from the southwestern United States through Central America and into much of the drier habitats in South America."

Thus the hawk's handler at the pow-wow, a member of S.O.A.R., told us that you aren't likely to see one in metro Chicago, and for good geographic reasons. I'm pretty sure I hadn't seen one. Mice and other small creatures of our area ought to be glad, since the bird had some wicked-looking talons. I'm probably just projecting, but it also looked like one determined bird, which is fitting for a bird of prey.

"The bird was named by John James Audubon after his friend Edward Harris," the site continues. "This hawk has also been called a Bay-winged hawk and Dusky hawk." I'm impressed. Audubon himself named it.

The bird was a hit with the kids. (Ann isn't one of these girls, but she did see the bird, as did Lilly.)

The other bird in the photo is a bald eagle, tethered temporarily to the ground. That, according to various sources, is "Deshka the American Bald Eagle."


Monday, September 28, 2009

Pow-Wow Sunday in Naperville

Windy fall has arrived, for now anyway, following a modest thunderstorm Sunday night. But during the day, Sunday was warm and summerish. So the thing to do was go to a pow-wow in the western suburbs.

The event was at the Naper Settlement, an open-air museum in Naperville, Illinois, that features many old structures of the city, spared from destruction and gathered to the site in the last 40 years or so. It's been more than 10 years since I last went there, for an event of a different sort -- a Civil War re-enactment. I don't remember that they were doing any particular battle at the time, since there weren't any in this part of the country, just having a mock blue-and-gray fight.

We watched the Indian dancers for a while. The drumming had, sometimes, a hypnotic rhythm. And it's impossible not to admire some of the complicated regalia, which looked like a remarkable lot of work to put together and keep together. But after a while, we came to the conclusion -- at least I did -- that it's better to be a participant than a spectator during an event like this. So we wandered off and came face-to-face with birds of prey. Or, as they prefer to be called in these more enlightened times, raptors. Such as this one:

More about him tomorrow.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

SPQR 2.0

Finally got around to watching the first episodes of the second season of the sometimes meretricious, always interesting Rome this weekend. It picked up right where the first season left off, right after the assassination of Caesar. It bothered me a little that the first season had that event in the Senate, rather than the Theater of Pompey, as history tells us. But the actual staging of the deed was spot-on. Rather than having Caesar say "Et tu, Brute?" or "You too you sonofabitch?!?" or some such, that exact sentiment was conveyed by his look at Brutus.

Caesar must have thirsted for immortal glory. One can only wonder what he would have made of the fact that people are still telling the story of his death, etching it in light even, more than 2,000 years later. Of course, he had help. But for the consolidation of his legacy by Augustus, his story would probably be no better known than that of Marius or Sulla.

As with the first season, I'm so taken with the series' verisimilitude that I can overlook its worst aspects, especially its gratuitously prurient nature (but hey, it's HBO). Besides the extraordinary look and feel of the production, I like its more-or-less historic accuracy, which is certainly better than you usually get with dramatized Romans; and the well-drawn fictional characters, especially the two soldiers. I also like the way that the story doesn't bother to explain everything the characters do, either in historic or cultural terms.

Another a good point: the show allows the characters to take their religion seriously, or not. Roman paganism is not treated, even implicitly, as a mere warm-up for Christianity.

It's made me pull my Cary and Scullard A History of Rome, Third Edition, off the shelf again. I open it up and written on the inside front cover is "Dees Stribling, Jan 14, 1981." Bought it for Roman history class that semester, taught tediously by a young classics professor.

Luckily that wasn't my introduction to the subject. My brothers were, sort of, at least with their commentary on the sword & sandal movies we'd see on TV; and then there was Mrs. Quarles, high school Latin teacher, henna-haired and eccentric, who had actually been places and seen things, such as former parts of the Roman Empire. I was also a member of the Texas State Junior Classical League for a few years, and went to TSJCL conventions primarily as a reason to get out of town (the same goal as with National Forensic League meets). One year I went all the way with the Latin Club to Amarillo. Exotic Amarillo. A vigorous dust storm buffeted the bus en route to the Panhandle.

My VU Latin professor, the late Dr. Ned Nabors, also referred to C&S from time to time. "If it isn't in Cary and Scullard, it didn't happen," he said, overstating the case, but he was fond of overstating things. Anyway, it's a worn old hardback, and if I want to know where Rome is fudging or conflating things, I look there. Just me being old-fashioned, since I could look on-line just as easily.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Alt Rainbow Fish

Even if you have no interest in children's books, the vehemence of the some of the reviews of The Rainbow Fish (Marcus Pfister) makes for some interesting reading. A lot of people really, really hate the book; plenty of others just love it to pieces. I'm not all that fond of it myself, for various reasons, but I don't hate it enough to deny reading it to Ann this week, at her request after she got it at the school library. I suspect that all she's really going to remember from it are the shiny scales.

"Don't make up endings!" she commands me every night, but I do anyway. So far I've come up with about three alternate endings for The Rainbow Fish. I figure I've been inspired by "Mr. Mike's Least-Loved Bedtime Tales." The actual text is in roman, my additions in bold.

1. Finally the Rainbow Fish had only one shining scale left. His most prized possessions had been given away, yet he was very happy. For a few days, the fish who received shining scales played with Rainbow Fish, but soon they didn't come around much, because the truth was, Rainbow Fish was not very interesting. Also, fish tend to be ungrateful, even for the most special presents.

2. Finally the Rainbow Fish had only one shining scale left. His most prized possessions had been given away, yet he was very happy. Soon, a mean-looking school of fish from another part of the ocean came to Rainbow Fish.

"We want some shining scales, too," growled the biggest of the fish.

"I only have one left," said Rainbow Fish.

So they ganged up on Rainbow Fish, beat him up, and took his last scale. His so-called friends, each of whom had received shining scales from Rainbow Fish, were too scared to help him.

3. Finally the Rainbow Fish had only one shining scale left. His most prized possessions had been given away, yet he was very happy. Suddenly, all the fish saw a large shadow engulfing them -- it was the net of a Chilean fishing trawler. Rainbow Fish and his new friends were caught before they could escape. Later, they all become fish sticks.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Haymarket Riot Pilgrimage

My traveling friend Ed has long been fascinated with the theory and practice of pilgrimage, something I really didn't appreciate until more recent years. I thought about pilgrimage last Friday not when I visited Old Patrick's Church, or stood before the maiden of the peat bog in Mr. Daley's nearly new pocket park. Interesting spots, certainly, but nothing special for pilgrims. Instead, it occurred to me at a secular pilgrimage site not far away.

A little further north along Des Plaines, just north of its intersection with Randolph, is the site 1886 Haymarket Riot, which is pilgrimage destination for anarchists, or at least black-flag sympathizers, even now. The concept of "pilgrimage" and "anarchism" might seem to exclude each other, but not at this particular spot.

How do I know this? In the spring of 2002, I had lunch at the hot dog stand about a block from the site. In those days, a weathered plaque fixed to the sidewalk was the only monument on site to the tumult of 1886. As I had lunch, I overheard conversation at the next table that had a distinct anti-globalization tone, spiced by anarchist sentiments. Not something you hear too often at Chicago hot dog stands. They were kids -- college kids, maybe even older high school students -- so it's entirely possible that their commitment to anarchism was neither deep nor lasting.

Be that as it may, they left before I did, and walked over to the plaque and spent a couple of minutes there, doing something, but I couldn't quite see what. By the time I finished my lunch, they were gone, and I walked over to the plaque and saw that the anarcho-kids had taken small white stones from a nearby vacant lot and used them to make a circle with an A in it, a symbol for anarchism, on the sidewalk next to the plaque. They probably would have scoffed that the notion that they'd completed an act of pilgrimage, but that's what they were doing.

In more recent years, the city has erected a statue to mark the site of the Haymarket Riot. By Chicago sculptor Mary Brogger, the work is supposed to evoke the speakers of May 4, 1886, and the wagon that the speakers stood on to promote their message of an eight-hour work day, before a bomb was tossed at the gathering and all hell broke loose.

I suspect that this graffito wasn't part of the original design:

This writing certainly wasn't done by the sculptor -- it was left by pilgrims:

If you look carefully at this side of the plinth, the City of Chicago seal on the plaque has been painted over by the circle-and-A anarchism symbol. More pilgrims at work:

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Things You See at Heritage Green Park, Chicago

Across the street from Old St. Patrick's Church is the small Heritage Green Park, which didn't exist only a few years ago. But Mayor Daley loves to plant trees. A landscape architect I interviewed in the early 2000s complained that the City of Chicago was hogging all the good trees from nurseries in several nearby states.

Heritage Green Park, taking up about a quarter block at the northeast corner of Des Plaines and Adams, was surface parking as recently as three or four years ago. Now it has trees and bushes and benches and footpaths and a cast-iron fence most of the way around its perimeter -- that's another thing that the mayor likes, cast-iron fences. Though not officially considered a dog park, the human and canine population of the near West Side have apparently taken to it in a big way. I saw a handful of dogs walking their humans in the few minutes I was there. The park is probably a smellfest we humans will never fully appreciate.

Near the southwest corner of the park is a statue of a young woman in flowing robes standing on a curious rock. The statue too is fairly new to Chicago, erected in 2007. Two granite stones at some distance from the statue give its name and describe it, one in English and the other in what I guess is Irish Gaelic, but the raised letters on the both stones have already been partly effaced, so I could barely make out the name of the work: Gráinne.

An article
published in Galway, Ireland, notes the following: "Gráinne is a tribute to the many thousands who emigrated from Ireland and means Grace in Gaelic. This sculpture symbolises the traditional Gaelic society before it dramatically changed in the 160’s [sic, I think the article means 1600s, though second-century Ireland might have undergone dramatic changes I don't know about] and is inspired by an archaeological finding of a young girl preserved in a peat bog. Prehistoric European sculptures of women were depicted with the left hand raised while those of men used the right hand, thought to be a gesture of blessing. The base of the sculpture is derived from the famous Turoe Stone, a Celtic pagan monument from County Galway, dating from the time of Christ."

So the heritage is Heritage Green Park is about the Irish, not any of the other dozens of ethnicities that came, and still come, to Chicago. From the peat bog to the shores of Lake Michigan. Well, why not; it's still Mr. Daley's town, for now.

This little sign, also near Gráinne, hasn't been worn away by the few seasons since the fall of 2007. The Plumbing Council of Chicagoland might have insisted on something a little more durable than raised lettering on granite, and they got it. There's no problem in reading their plaque. I wish there were a plumbing plaque in Gaelic, too. An Irish online dictionary I found through Google tells me that Gaelic for the plumbing trade is "pluiméireacht."

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Old St. Patrick's, Chicago

Cool today after yesterday's rains, but last Friday just before noon it was very warm, as it has been all month. I found myself on Des Plaines Street, on the near West Side, an easy walk west from Union Station. I had a lunch to go to, but I also had the advantage of a few spare minutes.

So I visited Old St. Patrick's Church. It's been a few years since I've been able to admire its interesting Celtic Revival interior, especially the stained glass, so I ducked inside and for a few minutes was the only one there. The church dates from the 1850s, survived the Fire somehow, and was redecorated in this unusual style in the 1910s.

"Inspired by the Celtic art exhibit at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the Book of Kells in Ireland, Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy designed, constructed, and personally installed the 15 beautiful stained-glass windows of Old St. Patrick’s between 1912 and 1922," says the church's web site. "The 12 side windows were inspired by the Celtic designs of Ireland's Book of Kells. The final triptych windows, done in an art nouveau style and installed in the eastern facade of the church, are the 'Faith, Hope & Charity' windows, also known as the Terrence MacSwiney Memorial Triptych."

The lighting inside was no good for photography, but I did stand across the street and capture another unusual feature of this church, the towers, in a slightly crooked image. One is supposed to represent the western church, the other the eastern church. The "western" tower is actually to the south of the "eastern" tower, geographically speaking, but never mind. They make an interesting pair.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Item From the Past: Irkutsk

September 21, 1994

Irkutsk has a distinctly European feel to it -- broad streets, trees lining those streets, a variety of old, short buildings. Not as much Stalinist concrete as I expected. Double windows seem standard just about everywhere, the better to deal with winter. The place is also as run-down as expected, especially the many wooden structures, which tend to be sagging and lined with character cracks. Enthusiastic rehabbers would love the place, except maybe that it's in Siberia.

Been to a variety of churches and museums, the most interesting among them the Decembrist Museum, once the Trubetskoy and Volkonsky homes, two families of Decembrists who eventually set up fairly comfortable digs in 19th-century Siberia, it seems. One church we didn't get to see was Saint I Forget Who: Our guide pointed to some drab Soviet building and explained that the largest church in Siberia used to be there, until Stalin had it destroyed. Someone asked why he had done that. “Because,” the guide answered, “Stalin was a weird dude.”

At an Irkutsk uni-plex on the 19th we saw Cliffhanger, a Stallone vehicle with some action and colorful death, especially people falling from airplanes and cliffs. It was dubbed into Russian the cheapest possible way, with one male voice reading the script as the story went along. It was a better movie without the English soundtrack, though occasionally it poked through the dubbing. "Gravity's a bitch," I heard one character say as another fell out of an airplane to his death.

Today we made an excursion to Lake Baikal. It's a clear, flat, blue, cold-looking lake, something like Lake Superior on a calm day, but with rolling, fall-foliage hills up against the shoreline. Something like Tennessee in late October, if it had a huge lake somewhere in the middle of the state. Add to that mountains in the distance, on the other side of the lake. Like the Rockies. So it's Lake Superior with Tennessee foliage and Colorado mountains. Had an excellent lunch at the Intourist Baikal Hotel -- lake fish and sour cream, very Russian. The restaurant also has a superb view of the lake.

The boat trip on Lake Baikal didn't take that long, just up and down the lake shore, with a stop near shore that allowed us to take a dip in the water. Of about a dozen of us, only two Australians jumped into the water, already -- always -- very chilly. They didn't stay in long.

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Nothing Like the Smell of Burning Rubber in the Morning

Time: About 7:45 a.m. Place: The Kitchen. My thoughts: Now what is that smell? It doesn't smell good at all. Like burning rubber.

Burning rubber usually isn't associated with breakfast, and for good reason. I made biscuits this morning. At a certain point, they looked nice and brown on the outside, so I took them out and put them on the counter. Or more exactly, I put the circular pan on which the biscuits rested on the counter, which itself was protected by a dishcloth.

But they weren't quite done. So I put them and the pan back in the oven for a few more minutes. Then the smell started, a faint bad smell. I didn't realize the oven had anything to do with it at first. Then I did, but the biscuits weren't burning. If they had been, they'd have been those special petrochemical biscuits that you don't really want to eat. I didn't see any smoke, either. But the smell got worse.

Part of the problem was that I didn't have my glasses on, so I got those and inspected the oven again. Kusai! Yuriko said (臭い) from the stairs as I did so. That's a most visceral word in Japanese, and in this case I can translate it, "Something stinks!" Yes it did.

Now wearing my lenses, I saw a little bubbling at the bottom of the oven -- a rubber-band shaped bit of bubbling. Instantly, I knew that a small rubber band, which get loose and roam around the house sometimes, had been on the counter and had hitched a ride with the circular pan into the oven, where it met a smelly fate. At least it wasn't one of the large rubber bands.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

RIP, Melvin Simon

Something I should have known but did not: Melvin Simon, who died today, was the producer of Porky’s, among other movies. Mel Simon, you ask? Mall mogul Mel Simon, that’s who. The company that he co-founded with his brothers in the early days of U.S. malls, now called Simon Property Group, currently owns more retail space than anyone (263 million square feet or so: or about 9.4 square miles of gross leasable area.)

I never met the man, though I did interview one of his daughters about 10 years ago at Simon HQ in Indianapolis. Apparently in the late ’70s he decided to have a go at Hollywood, and managed to produce Porky’s and its sequel, as well as some lesser-known titles, such as Zorro, the Gay Blade and Chu Chu and the Philly Flash.

I admit that I saw Porky’s, on tape in the early 1990s, because I didn’t know much about it beforehand. It came out when I was in college, a time when I saw few new movies, so I'd missed even hearing much about it. I was long past the target demographic -- dim 12-year-old boys -- when I finally did see it. I didn’t get much out of it.

According to the AP: “ ‘I did about 25 movies and I got out of it, thank God — it didn't cost me any money ultimately,’ Simon told The Indianapolis Star in 2002. ‘It was a good lesson, and I wouldn't do it again.’ "

RIP, Mr. Simon.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Are You Suggesting Coconuts Migrate?

Coconut shells recently entered our household. To be more exact, two half shells from different coconuts. I ask myself -- why did it take so long? Like the rubber chicken we have in the upstairs bathroom at the moment, no home is complete without some coconut shells.

They have a lot to recommend them. Their brownish exterior, smooth but not too smooth. Their lined interiors, something like the illustrations of eyeballs, but in brown. Their practical applications for holding liquid. Their musical potential. Ann has already explored coconut clapping, sometimes to the point of annoying Lilly. If you bang them open-end to open-end like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you do get a hoofbeat sound, though it's fairly hard to make it convincing. Hit the rounded sides together, and it's more of a tapping. Find a stick and you've got coco-drums.

The girls have already heard (but probably don't remember) "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts," which I have on tape. But I was pretty sure they hadn't pondered the question of whether coconuts can migrate, so I found the clip and played it for them. They pronounced it "weird," but I think it's going to stick in the back of their minds until some not-too-distant year when they see the movie all the way through, and remember the banging coconuts we had around the house.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

September Summer

Summer lingers. There might be touches of yellow here and there on the trees, plus shorter days and cool nights, but the days have been very warm and dry lately. The bees are active in every available flower bed near my back door, as well as the strip of land I call my "prairie restoration" (Yuriko does not call it that) on the hard-to-see side of the garage. Wasps come to visit me for lunch, if I sit on the deck. Mosquitoes come for an evening snack, if I sit there after dinner and read, and I counter with blows.

So it's summer. But any time now, summer will vanish like a swimmer pulled under by a rip tide.

Embarrassment travels fast in our time and gets translated into a number of languages, breathlessly. Since real estate is a beat of mine, I've taken some interest in the case of the Wells Fargo exec -- make that former exec, now -- who evidently wasn't satisfied with the digs possible on a banker's salary. At some point she decided to use a foreclosed, bank-owned mansion in conspicuous ways, such as for parties for (presumably) her friends. Put her name into Google news and headlines from around the world appear, such as Un bancher american a ocupat ilegal o locuinţă confiscată din Malibu.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

American Gothic on Steroids

After wandering around Chinatown last Sunday, we caught another Chicago River Taxi to a landing near Michigan Avenue. This river trip was an end to itself, but I also wanted to see American Gothic on Steroids.

Actually, the sculpture is called "God Bless America," by sculptor J. Seward Johnson, and stands on Pioneer Plaza just south of the Tribune Tower. Apparently it's been there for ten months or so, facing Michigan Avenue and attracting a fair number of onlookers.

At the foot of the familiar American Gothic pair, there's a large suitcase, proportionally sized to the giant figures. An assortment of destination stickers are plastered on the suitcase, which made me wonder -- how long has it been since travelers put such stickers on their suitcases, or more likely, their steamer trunks? Did anyone ever actually do that? If so, it's as passé now as a short snorter. If not, it must have been one of those illustrator conventions with scant basis in fact.

In any case, the convention survives as illustrator (or artist) shorthand for "we've been a lot of places." The stickers on the giant suitcase are specific, too: TH (Thailand), Shanghai, CHN (China), TW (Taiwan), IND (India) and Dhaka. What is the artist saying here? We've been to a lot of hot, crowded, mostly oppressive Asian nations, and boy is it great here in America by comparison? Or we've been all over Asia, and we're too dense to understand anything we've seen? Pick whichever interpretation offends you most, as Matt Groening once said about his Akbar & Jeff characters.

I don't know Johnson, but I've read he catches flak from critics for creating works that people actually like, or don't question prevailing cultural paradigms in academically recognized ways, or something. As a wealthy scion of the Johnson & Johnson fortune, however, he probably can afford, literally and figuratively, to ignore his critics.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chicago Chinatown '09

This song comes to mind when I visit a Chinatown. One of the many things that occurs to me, but I have to like a song that begins, "I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand."

Lee Ho Fook is still around, according to I remember in 1994 being startled in London's Chinatown to see that it was a real place. Maybe Warren Zevon had some good beef chow mein there once upon a time.

Chicago's Chinatown is larger than it used to be, even in the time since I first visited in the late 1980s. Chinatown Square, a residential and retail expansion, began in the 1990s, though the planning stretched back to when Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago. To reach the older core of Chicago Chinatown from Ping Tom Memorial Park, you walk through the newer development, first apartment (or condo) buildings, then the open-air mall.

"Framing each end of the square are imposing bronze gates depicting the 4 greatest Chinese inventions," says, but I wasn't able to check those out, since we were seeking out lunch after we arrived, and had a boat to catch when we were leaving. So I don't know what Chinatown Square considers the four greatest Chinese inventions. Gunpowder comes to mind right away, and it would be interesting to see that rendered in bronze somehow.

Wentworth Street is main street of the older Chinatown. We didn't eat at Won Kow, but I've always liked its marquee.

The other side of the street.

From there, the Pui Tak Center towers over the street, and the Sears Tower in the distance towers over it. "Built in the 1920s, the architecture showcases traditional Chinese design," notes, regarding the Pui Tak Center. "Imposing green and red pagoda towers topped with walls of terra-cotta flowers and mother lions truly represent the majestic traditions of China. Inside, the reception hall represented the one and only indigenous Chinese shrine in the Midwest. Originally constructed as the On Leong Association Building, this historical landmark became known as the Pui Tak Center (Pui tak means to cultivate and enhance virtues), which is a social service agency run by the Chinese Christian Union Church, a local Christian organization headquartered in Chinatown."

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

South Branch, Ping Tom & the Canal Street RR Bridge

The South Branch of the Chicago River is a working river. On Saturday we mostly saw other tour or pleasure boats as we headed south, but I've seen barges of various kinds on the waterway over the years, including enormous long vessels carrying loads of crushed rocks or sand or other materials. The water is supposed to be cleaner than in previous decades, but still not free of heavy metals and bacteria that will mug your GI tract. We saw a few fish jump and a number of ducks using the water.

It's also home to the occasional alligator. Channel 2 (WSBT) reported last month on the capture of a young 'gator in the North Branch, and ended the story with this: "It was not the first time an alligator has been captured in or near the Chicago River. A larger one — weighing about 45 pounds -- was caught in June 2008 in Bubbly Creek near the site of the old Union Stockyards. The creek is a tributary of the river's South Branch."

After the Chicago Water Taxi dropped us off at Ping Tom Memorial Park, I had a few moments to take pictures. I'd visited the park once before, during its dedication ceremony in the early 2000s. It has everything a pleasant little urban park should have -- greenery, shaded places to sit, a playground -- along with a Chinese motif.

Even better, it has a great view of the Canal Street railroad bridge, the only vertical lift bridge on the whole river, and a fine work of iron sculpture. Next time I'm down that way, I'm doing to make a point of taking a closer look at it.

This fellow took a much longer trip down the South Branch than we did, under his own power, and he took a lot of good photos too. I'm not sure I'd have the stamina for that, and I'm certain that any camera I took on such a small boat would find itself wet and damaged before long.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Labor Day Aught-Nine

It was a good long weekend, though it included some work. But how bad can things be on a weekend you see The Guns of Navarone? Running gun battles, explosions, a high German body count, suspense, music by Dimitri Tiomkin, and of course Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven, among others. Niven, as usual, delivered his lines with his trademark aplomb. Coming from lesser talents, lines like this wouldn't be as wry, but from him, pure Niven.

Miller (Niven): Captain, I'm concerned about this vessel. It's taking on water.

Mallory (Peck): Why does that concern you?

Miller (Niven): I can't swim.

Mostly, though, we weren't entertaining ourselves with video over the weekend, since it was so warm, almost hot, summer-like in the way that September can be, and generally pleasant outside. On Saturday, I decided that the wood had dried out enough to be fuel for a grill fire, and it worked out. Various meats were shown to the fire, and became better for it, at least as far as my family was concerned.

On Sunday we went to Chicago's Chinatown by train and then boat. That's only possible, or at least easy, on weekends in the warm months, and only recently. At some point the Chicago Water Taxi, a boat run by tour-boat operator Wendella, started making runs from a dock between Union Station and Northwestern Station to a smaller dock at Ping Tom Memorial Park, which is just south of the 18th Street Bridge over the South Branch of the Chicago River. From there it's a short walk to Chinatown.

On Monday early we fortified ourselves with pancakes and then went over to Schaumburg's Septemberfest. In the morning and into early afternoon, all-you-can-ride wristbands are sold, and that was the only way I would take Lilly and Ann to a municipal entertainment like this, since paying with tickets is a quick way to either spend more than you want, or catch flak for not buying any more tickets.

Despite the name, and for that matter Schaumburg's origins, there's nothing German about the event, not even any standard cliches. No oom, no pah-pah. You can buy beer, but not at a Biergarten. Still, it was good to get there by about 9:30. By noon, the crowds and the heat had both arrived. Lilly especially had had enough fast rides, was ready to leave by then too.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Vacation Circle

Back to posting after this year's late Labor Day. I read this recently about the holiday, on the CNN web site: "More than 39 million Americans will be traveling on vacation -- at least 50 miles from home -- this Labor Day weekend, slightly more than the 37.1 million who traveled on the Fourth of July weekend, according to AAA. July Fourth is typically the busiest automobile travel holiday of the year."

Reading that got me in a literal-minded mood: Vacations start at 50 miles. Less than that and it's what -- an excursion? According to my beat-up Rand McNally road atlas, one inch represents about 19 miles on the Illinois page, so that's roughly two-and-a-half inches to achieve a AAA-defined vacation.

So when we visit our friends in Grundy County, as we did a week and a half ago, that's just about enough to technically be on vacation. Likewise, we could go about 50 miles are reach the following places: Rockford, Rochelle; Paw Paw; the Norwegian Settlers State Monument (LaSalle County); Wilmington (home of the Gemini Giant). All those are places in Illinois. We could also reach metro Hammond-Gary in Indiana, or Kenosha, Wisconsin. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, a resort area, is too close to count.

No plans this long weekend to drive past that imaginary circle with a 50-mile radius, however. Luckily many interesting things to see lie well within the circle.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Zero Hour, 9 a.m.

Another September 1 rolls around and we're at the top of that long slide into cold short days. Already the Sun goes down much noticeably sooner than before, but at least it still provides warm days, like today. The crickets are still singing and the grass is still growing. I could do without that last one.

Rocket Men (Craig Nelson, 2009) is a pretty good read so far, especially when it talks about some of the lesser-known aspects of German rocketry and then the American and Soviet space programs, such as the horrible fate of cosmonaut-in-training Valentin Bondarenko (talked about in some detail mid-way through this book chapter by Soviet space program expert James Oberg).

Still, the book also features all kinds of odd errors, such as this peculiar description of the Apollo 4 launch: "Two F-1 rockets abruptly quit during liftoff, at which the stack pulled a U-turn and headed screaming back to the ground. But the guidance system righted the vehicle, and the CM dummy capsule was successfully put into orbit."

That's a Saturn V he's talking about, during its first unmanned test in 1967. "Pulled a U-turn?" A cartoon rocket could do that, maybe, but it's hard to image that happening for real without being followed by an absolute disaster. And besides, everywhere else (such as in the remarkable Chariots For Apollo, for instance), the Apollo 4 mission is described as an unqualified success. Apollo 6, on the other hand, was a near failure with various problems with some of the engines, but nothing along the lines of making a U-turn.

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