Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cuneo Oddities

These days, the Cuneo Mansion has a second-story room displaying the family's enormous silverware collection, including a server, holder and folk specifically for handling asparagus. Back when the Cuneos bought the house, it was John Cuneo Jr.'s room. He was about five years old when he took up residence in 1937, and the memory of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. was still fresh.

So the Cuneos had an iron fence installed on the balcony outside his room to discourage would-be Bruno Hauptmanns. The fence is still there; this is what it looks like from outside.

In the mansion's library, as you'd expect, are a lot of books, including some of the leather-bound editions that the Cuneo Press used to produce. There's also a wood-paneled, solid-state Admiral TV, dating from the 1960s from the look of it, which looked a little out of place there underneath a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. Then again, considering the fact that it's an American-made television set, it's just as much of a relic as anything else in the museum.

The last room of the tour was the utterly utilitarian kitchen, which looked like it was last updated in the '60s. But it contained older items here and there, including this presumably empty tin; pre-World War II, I'd guess:

It would be too easy to mock this, so I won't. I doubt that the claim "healthful food... on the alkaline side" was taken any more seriously when the tin was new than potato chips claiming to be "organic" would be now (for example). But I have to wonder what the copywriter saw in "alkaline." No doubt it tapped into some long-forgotten association with a now-discredited nutritional idea. In our time, because of advertising, "alkaline" goes with "battery" in a non-chemistry context.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ann Pays Attention at the Cuneo

The real surprise at the Cuneo Mansion last week wasn't the story of Samuel Insull or John Cuneo Sr. or John Cuneo Jr., circus animal trainer, or the building's Italianate design, or the large arrays of fine art, antiques, tapestries, sculpture, silver, or porcelain within -- room after room after room -- or even the suit of armor given to the Cuneos by William Randolph Hearst, poised there in the Great Hall. I expected to be impressed by the house and its contents and its history, and I was.

The really remarkable thing for us was that Ann not only let herself be dragged on the tour, she enjoyed herself. She paid attention to the guide and looked at things. She was taken by the place from the moment we entered. "Wow, this is great," she said (fittingly) of the Great Hall, which must have seemed much larger to her than to someone my size, though I'd call it large enough. Throughout the rest of the tour, she was actively interested.

The tour, led by a highly knowledgeable young woman, started with seven people, but picked up a few more as we went through a dozen or more rooms. Another child that went all the way through was a boy of about 10. Once the guide had told us that some of the ceiling color in the formal dining room was gold leaf, not gold paint, he was excited by the idea, and after that asked about many of the yellow or goldish surfaces that he saw: "Is that gold leaf too? What about that?" Sometimes it was. Sometimes it was just paint. But I can't blame the kid for being a goldbug; he's about the right age to be first bitten.

Some of the rooms, the bedrooms especially, are already beginning to blur into one big mid-20th century posh space. But I have my favorite rooms, such as the chapel. Just off the Great Hall is a chapel -- a bone fide Catholic chapel. According to the tour booklet: "The chapel was a sun porch during the Insull family's residence. Hiring John A. Mallin to paint the Stations of the Cross in the lunettes and to design the stained glass windows, the Cuneos converted the porch into a devotional space. It was rare to have a consecrated chapel in a private residence, but Cardinal Strich, a family friend, was able to obtain papal permission, and the chapel was dedicated on July 8, 1941, the day of the Cuneo children's confirmation. John Jr. and Consuela are the children under the protection of their guardian angel pictured in the second window to the left of the altar."

John Mallin did the lunettes and ceiling murals of the formal dining room and the breakfast room, which also sports a work by Joshua Reynolds (I didn't note the title; "Portrait of a Fop You've Never Heard Of," maybe). Even better, the room's "gilt torchiere in the corners once lit (with candlelight) the palace of Napoleon in Corsica." Having something of Napoleon's might have been a point of pride. Biltmore, after all, has Napoleon's chess set.

Elsewhere was the Ship's Room, which the guide called Insull's and Cuneo's "man cave." The booklet continues: "This room gets its name from the Linenfold wall paneling, which was taken from the captain's quarters of a 17th-century English sailing vessel... each panel on the wall opens with a concealed handle to reveal a recess for shelves. Since both Insull and Cuneo used this room as a study and office, most of the shelf space was filled with books and papers. There were guidebooks from the Chicago World's fairs, manuals on Hackney pony breeding, boxed sets of 78 rpm albums, and issues of Connoisseur magazine, among other things..."

Things once available only to the wealthy have widened their scope to lower socioeconomic classes. Hardwood, handmade Linenfold wall paneling may still be the province of the rich, or even unavailable, but most people have access to clutter these days.

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Cuneo Mansion and Gardens

If you're going to possess obscene riches, the least you can do is leave behind remarkable buildings for later generations to see. The heirs of Commodore Vanderbilt were good at it. Unfortunately for me, it's a long drive to the nearest Vanderbilt legacy structure. Fortunately, other robberbarons had similar impulses, including Commonwealth Edison founder Samuel Insull, who had a notion to have an Italianate mansion built for him a fairly close to where I would live nearly 100 years later.

Though not very warm, last Friday was clear and dry. More importantly, Lilly and Ann were still on spring break and Yuriko had the day off, so we all made the drive to the Cuneo Mansion and Gardens in Vernon Hills, Illinois, a suburb in Lake County. Biltmore, it isn't. Still, its lavishness befits a power utility mogul of yore.

But it isn't the Insull Mansion and Gardens, though in the 1910s he hired architect Benjamin Marshall to design the former and landscape architect Jens Jensen the latter. The Depression crushed the business fortune -- and more astonishingly, the personal fortune -- of Samuel Insull, so he was obliged to sell the property to another high-net-worth individual (high, as in stratosphere): John Cuneo Sr., a Chicago printing baron. Now the property of Loyola University, the mansion still carries the name of its second owner.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Item From the Past: Indiana '02

I've written about our visit to south-central Indiana in late March 2002 before, and I try not to repeat myself. (See March 24 and April 2, 2003.) But I didn't publish images in those days.

Such as an exterior view of the Ameritech/SBC switching station at Seventh and Franklin in Columbus, Indiana.

This is a better picture. The Columbus C&V Bureau notes: "Paul Kennon of Caudill, Rowlett, Scott designed this building in 1978. It is encased with a skin of reflective glass. The result mirrors activities of the surrounding neighborhood. Giant yellow, orange, red and blue 'organ pipes' on the west side are both functional and decorative."

After visiting Columbus, we went on to Nashville, Indiana, which has a history as an artists' town. To repeat myself from April 3, 2003: "There was one shop in Nashville that we liked more than the others, just a bit off of the main street, and we bought an inexpensive watercolor there. It illustrated the town of Story, Indiana, some miles south of Nashville.

"The man behind the counter, burly, tattooed, graying and about 50, told me that Story was worth seeing, very rustic, and that the drive there was hilly, not very Midwestern at all. Then he said, 'Thanks for buying my painting. I did that one.' And indeed, his mugshot and a short bio were pasted on the back."

I would mention his name now, but when I removed the watercolor to scan the other day, the information was missing, and I can't quite read the signature. This is the watercolor:

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Slumlord of the Gameboard

I'm not sure how many people actually do "family game night." We don't with any regularity, but we happened to this evening. Ann has more-or-less learned the basics of Monopoly (I remember doing the same in first grade), and was eager for all of us to play. So we did for about two hours.

Our set is a little frayed. The fold of the board is worn, some of the money is crumpled, and the barrel of the canon piece is bent. But it's all serviceable. Most of the money seems to be there, and more importantly, so are all of the deed cards.

In the end, I had the most properties and money. Yuriko and Lilly had left the game, and while Ann controlled a fair number of properties, she was cash poor. It might not be widely appreciated, but low-rent monopolies like Mediterranean and Baltic avenues can be cash cows if set up early enough, as I was lucky enough to do. I ended up being the slumlord, in other words, though toward the end I was Trump too, with Boardwalk and Park Place. Yuriko had the light-blue properties, and even some houses on them, but started development too late, as did Lilly with the green monopoly and Ann with the orange.

I spent some idle moments dreaming up round-the-board games for our time, since Monopoly is so Depression-flavored. Foreclosure would be one. Not sure how that would be structured, but it would involve the bank misplacing important loan-modification documents. Then there's Rescission, the exciting new game that rewards players who drive policyholders into penury. Or what about Cartel, the game of collusion and price-fixing?

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Schaumburg Stone Circle

A little further down the path at the Chicago Athenaeum International Sculpture Park is Schaumburg's own stone circle. Not quite as impressive as Old World circles, and not nearly as likely to attract Druids. Unless their rites are secret. Can't say that I've ever seen any Druids in Schaumburg, but maybe they blend in with the general population most of the time.

Actually the title is "Vineland," and it's supposed to be the outline of a Viking ship honoring Leif Ericson, though he isn't known to have made it to the Great Lakes. Jarle Rosseland of Norway is the artist.

More homages to olden times: "Chairs" by Argyro Konstantinidou, a Greek.

The chairs might feature images of Egyptians and other ancients, but they reminded me of something Frank Gehry might come up with.

Another piece by a Norwegian, Egil Bauck Larssen: "What Now?"

According to the Athenaeum, which has a web site if not an actual museum in Chicago or Schaumburg, the thing weighs 6,000 pounds and is composed of 400 steel balls.

I noticed that one of the sculptures, "Snails" by the Greek Apostolos Fanakidis, was missing. The base is still there, along with a sign giving the title and sculptor's name, but the figures had been removed. Stolen? Repossessed (these are hard times)? Repatriated to Greece in lieu of an Elgin Marble? Removed as detrimental to the morality of snails? No clue.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Chicago Athenaeum International Sculpture Park

The Chicago Athenaeum isn't in Chicago anymore, and its Schaumburg branch is long closed (see January 13, 2010). But the organization's public sculpture -- almost all of which is vintage '90s -- remains, though probably under municipal care these days. Entering the Chicago Athenaeum International Sculpture Park from the west, you first come across this piece, standing 18 feet high, made of cedar, except for the concrete supports: "Together" by Jerzy S. Kenar of Chicago.

It's a fitting sort of entrance archway.

Another Chicago sculptor, Jerry Peart, did this one, "The Diver." Painted aluminum.

More representational than it seems at first.

The more I look at this one, the more disturbing it becomes. "Tongues," it's called, made of bronze by New Yorker Nina Levy.

They're bigger and more detached than tongues ought to be.


Monday, March 22, 2010

South Creek, Schaumburg

Last Friday night, cold returned. By Saturday morning, so had a few inches of snow. But it was an oddly tidy snowfall, since several days of spring-like warmth had raised the surface temperature of the streets, sidewalks and driveways, meaning that the snow didn't stick to them, but did elsewhere. It started to melt on Sunday, but on Saturday at least we had snowcover designed by an anal-retentive weather god: precisely covering the lawns and rooftops, but nothing else.

Because we all knew that the pleasant run of days would be over soon, I carved out a few hours on Friday to take a walk outside. Behind the Schaumburg municipal complex and the Prairie Center for the Fine Arts is a short path that more-or-less follows a small creek. I sign I'd never noticed before told me about the restoration of the banks along the creek by the replanting of native vegetation and the dismantling of a culvert some years back, and it also mentioned the name of creek, which I'd never heard before either: South Creek.

Not too much imagination in that, but never mind. (Or see this page for more interesting creek names.) This is South Creek just behind the municipal complex, spanned by a footbridge.

The path leads to the Chicago Athenaeum International Sculpture Park.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Item From the Past: Japan, Day One

Flew out of San Francisco March 21 [1990] via Korean Air, arrived at Narita on the afternoon of the 22nd. Fed en route, a choice of "Western" or "Japanese" (I figured I might as well have Japanese) and saw two movies, more or less, An Innocent Man and The Abyss, though I dozed a lot during the latter, waking up periodically to see creatures baffling people underwater, or divers struggling to breathe, or something. Sat next to a Japanese man who taught me one word in Japanese: manju, which was the dessert on the "Japanese" menu.

Arrived tired but not too tired, and after a brief pass through customs caught a bus (¥2700) to the Hotel Metropolitan Marunouchi, from which I was supposed to call Max's friend Akiko, who was supposed to meet me and take me back to Max's (he had something else to do). For that purpose I used a phone card for the first time, bought (¥500) from a vending machine in a room off the hotel lobby. Akiko didn't answer for a while, which was distressing, but eventually she did and I made it to his place by taxi (¥1000) -- not really a long ride for that much money -- noticing the tax driver's uniform, including hat and white gloves.

Slept solidly and on Friday the 23rd was able to wander around around Marunouchi and later Shinjuku by myself. I was amazed by how narrow the streets were, and how crowded they are with pedestrians and bicyclists and motorbikes and cars (most of those were on the large streets), but got used to it quickly. First stop, the massive Tokyo Central Post Office, from which I sent Mother a telegram letting her know of my arrival. After more wandering and looking around -- and there's a lot to see, from large buildings to weird little detail -- I managed to buy (¥800) my lunch, rice topped by a pleasant brown sauce, by pointing at the plastic model outside a small shop. I'd heard about doing that, I was a little surprised that you can actually do it [I think I had hayashi rice that day] .

Took JR to Shinjuku Station, a marvel in an of itself, a maze of twisty passages, all different, all full of motion, bright and dim at the same time. Haven't seen anything like it since some of the London Underground stations. Outside, the day was warm and mostly clear, so I sat down for a while in a pleasant little Shinjuku park. Green spot, really. Actual parks in Tokyo seem to be a rarity, especially the kind with trees and benches. Anyway, it was a place to pause and marvel, wow, I really came here. Nearby an enormous building was under construction, a postmodern job that wouldn't look out of place in Chicago. The exterior is finished, but loud work continues on the inside. Max later told me that it's the new Tokyo Metro Gov't building, a hulking 50 stories -- not too many taller than that around here. Hope it can withstand during the next Great Kanto Earthquake.

In the evening, Max and I went to an even taller building, Sunshine 60 in Ikebukuro, tallest in the country actually [not any more] which has a bar on one of the top floors. Spent a while there, as well as ¥1000. Max expressed amazement that I didn't get lost in Shinjuku Station. Guess I have some sense of direction, which I think I'm going to need in the days ahead. Back at Max's apartment, we started watching Married to the Mob on tape subtitled in Japanese, but I couldn't stay up for it -- lingering jet lag, a day of walking, dinner and alcohol knocked me out before long.

Postscript 2010: I'm glad I didn't stay in Tokyo. Too much hubbub. Metro Osaka, with its 10 million, is more my size.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hobo Spokesman

At Lilly's request this evening, I opened up to check tomorrow's forecast. She wanted to see if she could wear shorts tomorrow, as she did today in the afternoon (though it wasn't quite the 70° F. promised). The answer was maybe not. As for Saturday, maybe snow.

But that wasn't what made me laugh. Laugh out loud, even. An ad for mortgage refinance appeared on the page, one clearly trying to smash the paradigm of featuring good-looking young people in advertising. A face appeared with the text that wasn't ugly, exactly, just more disheveled than usual, an older man with an enormous head of gray hair and a large gray beard.

"He's a hobo," Lilly said.

That made me laugh. Thinking about it now, I see her vocabulary acquisition at work; I remember her asking about the word not long ago, which she might have heard while not-really-listening to an episode of Mad Men called "The Hobo Code."

Anyway, what's the subtext of the ad? Refi your mortgage or you risk living under a bridge with this guy?

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Golden Age of Video Stores

A fine warm day today -- pushing 70° F., which I'm told we'll actually hit tomorrow. I re-acquainted myself with the backyard deck for a short while. It can't possibly stay like this until summer comes along, though. I'm excepting a 20- or 30-degree rollback soon.

My college and post-college friend Victor once said, many years after we'd finished school, that he was glad that at no time during our college days did anyone say among friends, "Let's go rent a video." I'm with Victor on that one.

Video rental was in its extreme infancy in those days, and no one we knew had a machine -- except for a wealthy fellow I met in the summer of '81 who had a Betamax, but we didn't go to school with him. We found enough ways to entertain ourselves without videos.

It occurred to me in the dying video store late week that I might be making my last visit ever to a retail store devoted solely to videos and games. I couldn't remember when I first visited one, though by 1989 I was renting items from a Blockbuster (?) on the corner of Broadway and Berwyn in Chicago some Fridays on my way to my then-girlfriend's apartment, because she had a TV and VCR and I didn't. That store was the only one I ever saw with a section called Le Bad Cinema. It included what you'd expect: Plan 9 From Outer Space, Surf Nazis Must Die, etc.

Facets Multi-Media on Fullerton had a much better selection in those days, and I hope it still does, but was a fair amount of trouble to get to.

My favorite video store anywhere was in Osaka in the early '90s, a place simply called Cinema (using roman letters). It was on the way home from my subway exit. It didn't have a vast selection, but a large enough one that I often found things I wanted to see -- usually movies I'd never gotten around to before. Two days' rental was (I think) ¥250, a little over $2 in those days, and most of the tapes (all VHS) were subtitled in Japanese.

One day I noticed that Cinema was selling off old stock for ¥500 a tape. I found one I still have, a Japanese-subtitled Dr. Strangelove (on the left). If I'd seen it on DVD last week, I would have bought that version of it too. It's one of those watch-every-two-or-three-year movies.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Twilight of Video Stores

Last Friday I drove a few miles to take pictures of the exterior of video rental store on a major suburban street. It's closing and I'm writing about the contraction of the parent company, and more generally the demise of video rental stores. When this particular place closes in about two months, it's going to leave a fair-sized vacancy in a mid-sized, grocery-anchored shopping center that also includes a post office, pizza buffet, pet salon, tax service, dentist, insurance agent and whatnot.

The store was selling off its stock of DVDs for $3.99 each, or three for $10. I looked around. What could I find worth having at that price? What would I want to see more than once over an unspecified period of years, until DVDs are obsolete to point at which DVD players aren't even on the market?

Not many. It wasn't because of a small selection. The sheer volume of movies made in recent years is remarkable (God forbid stores like this carry anything made before about 1980, unless it won an Oscar), though maybe it only seemed that way looking at shelf after shelf after shelf of disks, all waiting for someone to buy them.

Equally remarkable is how easy it is to judge most of them by their package. The verdict: they're mostly not my kind of movies, however competently made, or they're just plain bad. But I did find a couple of jewels in the rockpile -- two-thirds (two disks) of the entire run of Fawlty Towers, something I could watch every year or so without risking staleness.

The in-store movie playing while I was there was The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, a live-action prequel to the 1994 live-action movie. I saw that first one in Indonesia, subtitled in Bahasa Indonesia. It was tolerable partly because of the theater's air conditioning, and partly because I got a few jokes that the non-English-speaking crowd missed.

Viva Rock Vegas, on the other hand, got on my nerves pretty fast. Who thought it was a good idea to include the Great Gazoo? And it wasn't even Harvey Korman, who had some other part in the movie, doing Gazoo.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Once a Decade

The same event dramatized, one based on Shakespeare and the other not, but mainly showing the difference between the sensibilities of 1953 and 2005. (Also, I never knew that Humbert Humbert delivered the final blow to Caesar; I don't watch enough old movies.)

Our census form showed up in the mail today. It seems puny compared to the Long Form I got 10 years ago. But I read recently that the Long Form is a thing of the past, replaced by the more frequent American Community Survey. There were probably logistical reasons for this, or maybe the bureau was simply tired of people whining about it, like this fellow.

I filled out my Long Form back in 2000. I'd do it again, too. I doubt that any losses of privacy or civil liberties I might happen to suffer in the future will be laid at the door of the U.S. Census Bureau. As for the notion that the current census overreaches because it's only supposed to be a literal head count, it's worth noting that the 2010 Census form's ten questions are short by historical standards, and that asking for more than a head count goes back well into the 19th century. Almost from the beginning, in other words.

Moreover, the historical record is clearly a lot better for it. According to a timeline published by the Washington Post:

1840: Congress requests new information on social matters such as "idiocy" and mental illness. Many questions on commerce and industry are added, lengthening the form to 80 questions.

1850: Significant census reforms are made. Federal government marshals scientific and financial resources to to discuss what should be asked, how the information should be collected and how it should be reported. First time detailed information about all members of a household is collected.

1860: Data from the 1860 Census is used during the Civil War to measure relative military strengths and manufacturing abilities of the Union and Confederacy.

I've got an eye toward posterity. In 2072, assuming the records are still intact, the law doesn't change and the Tea Party doesn't overthrow the federal government, my answers in 2000 will be public record, just as those of 1930 are now. I'm pretty sure I will have no more privacy concerns by then. In exchange for about an hour of my time in 2000, I get to be part of the historical record, sending a message across the decades to anyone who wants to read it, including any descendants of mine who take an interest.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Manchurian Buckwheat Pi

Every time Pi Day rolls around, I forget to mention it until March 14 has already come and gone. Not this year. Time to post a few links about the world's favorite irrational number (though there must be e partisans; but it's too hard to conceptualize for mass appeal).

YouTube doesn't disappoint when you run "pi" through it, once you get past trailers for the movie of that name. That may be a fine movie for all I know, but it isn't "Pi Pi Mathematical Pi Song."

All I can say about this is, surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman.

By way of the blindingly erudite Mr. Kurp, a Polish poem about pi, reconfigured into English.

I was looking through one of my envelopes of personal debris recently for things to scan, and came across a ticket stub that fits mid-March.

Item from the past all right, but the trick of memory is that I don't remember seeing Buckwheat Zydeco at all, and the only bit of writing that I can find about doing so is an entry in my 1988 At-A-Glance desk calendar (of course I still have it). The entry uselessly says "Buckwheat Zydeco," but is on the correct date, at least.

So that show's down the memory hole, though I probably saw something like this. Another note in the calendar a few days later tells me that I saw The Manchurian Candidate for the first and only time 22 years ago, when it was revived at the Fine Arts Theatre. That I remember, maybe because Wo Fat was in it.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Global Obviating System

It wasn't the loudest, all-hell-out-for-a-stroll thunderstorm I've ever heard (that was in Singapore), but we had a good one this evening. Nice and loud. It was the first one of the year, and a harbinger of spring, with enough close lightning for us to switch off all electronic entertainment, computers included, for a little while. We need to do that more often, and for longer.

Speaking of switching off the electronics: "GPS... obviates our need to memorize routes and may even diminish our capacity to do so," writes Julia Turner in Slate in an article called "A World Without Signs."

"Since the early 1980s, cognitive researchers have argued that it is the process of deciding which route to take that helps us develop our mental map of a place and remember how to navigate it the next time we pass through," she continues. "People who use GPS systems tend to retain less information about the world they encounter. Greg Giordano, who designs wayfinding systems for PageSoutherlandPage in Austin, Texas, notes that the technology gets us where we need to go without teaching us anything: It's not very good at 'making us smarter about places.' "

I suspected as much. GPS is fine for the high seas, open deserts or trackless rain forests. But the well-traveled, well-marked roads of North America?

GPS does (theoretically, still) offer us the prospect of never getting lost on our North American roads again. As if that were a good thing. Getting lost occasionally and finding your way again is an essential part of travel.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Black Jack & Clove, But No Beeman's

The patches of snow outside my window are as scattered as Micronesian islands, replaced by squishy flats of brown-green grass. Even those holdout snow-islands are doomed: temps were above 50° F. today, maybe even touching 60 (which would be the first time since before November), and they will be tomorrow too. Of course, none of that means that it can't snow again next week or even next month, but it does mean that the snow won't last for weeks and weeks as ground cover. It's the mud season now.

The little sign at the discount grocery store today said: "Nostalgic Gum." I had to take a look at that. Two of the three advertised brands were still in stock, so I bought one of each: Black Jack and Clove.

Nostalgic, eh? Just chewing it takes you back to wherever your nostalgic sweet spot lies, maybe. Except that I'm not much of a gum consumer, and I didn't recognize the brands (the missing one was Beeman's).

But every package tells a story, and these sticks of gum trace their roots to Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, in an indirect sort of way. Santa Anna sold the first lot of chicle, the original basis for modern chewing gum, to one Thomas Adams of Staten Island, who eventually created Black Jack and Clove and other brands.

Black Jack has licorice flavor, but the first ingredient is still sugar. "Gum base" is second, but I understand the sap of the chicle tree isn't much used for that anymore. Then again, maybe it is, because the gum is made in Columbia. Apparently Cadbury, which owns the brands now, makes a batch of each every few years to satisfy the nostalgic or merely curious (like me), but they aren't regular production items.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Sea Monkeys, 3-D Glasses & Itching Powder, Updated

Someone left a bag on my front door doorknob this morning; included were a lawn care flyer, a carpet cleaner refrigerator magnet, and a comic book, among other things. None of the items were particularly odd or noteworthy except for the comic book, which is called Race Warrior, "America's Racing Comic Book."

It has a 2000 copyright and cover date, and the staff box attributes the comic to Custom Comics of America Inc. My urge to read the thing is pretty small, but I did flip through enough to notice that besides being a comic about race-car driving in the future, it's also an extended advertisement for Dr. Pepper/Seven-Up and Valvoline products.

A little Googling finds a 10-year-old article in Promo magazine, which tells me that "Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc., Dallas, and the Valvoline Co., Lexington, Ky., last month initiated sponsorship of Race Warrior, a weekly kids comic-book series that, with Seven Up's help, is being sold in more than 2,500 grocery, drug, and mass merchandise outlets including Wal-Mart, CVS, Kroger, Target, and Winn-Dixie locations...

"Although the project is billed as a years-in-the-making concept being aided with sponsor contributions, the comic book itself comes across as blatant shilling, with brand imagery in every panel and names and marketing slogans sprinkled within the narrative.

" 'The very first comics were created to sell soap,' says Race Warrior creator John Powell. 'In our case, instead of selling sea monkeys, 3-D glasses, and itching powder, we are helping market 7 Up and Valvoline.' "

All that isn't so strange. But what was a decade-old soda pop promo comic doing on my doorknob this morning?

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Monday, March 08, 2010

Inanimate Things at the Zoo

Just inside the entrance of the Cosley Zoo is the gift shop and zoo offices, taking up the left side of this picture, in an early 20th-century train station moved here at some point.

Next to it is a caboose. The world needs more loose cabooses here and there, so I'm always glad to see this one, though it's doubly nonfunctional right now in that it isn't rolling stock anymore, and because it's still closed for the winter.

Near the duck pond is an old-style windmill. It doesn't seem to power anything, but I might be wrong about that. Maybe it provides all of the ducks' electrical needs -- just a hint of the green-energy revolution ahead.

Animals? you ask. Are there any animals at this zoo besides the ducks? Yes indeed, but my photography skills are sore tested by moving animals. The zoo features goats, horses, llama, deer, birds of prey and more, though on Saturday some of them were elsewhere for the winter. The pig and chicken pens, empty of animals, looked like they were being renovated. That or the zoo staff got through the long, hard winter this year however they could.


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Cosley Zoo, Illustrated

On Saturday, the Sun warmed the air to over 40° F. and melted more snow. The thing to do was go look at ducks and other waterfowl.

These birds were huddled around one of the ponds at the Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, Ill., which we visit two or three times a year. A few of the more intrepid birds floated on the water and dove in, probably looking for snacks on the bottom, though I'm not sure what they would find this time of year. Some of the others seemed to be nibbling at the snow, maybe as a way to deal with duckish thirst.

This is the entrance sign for the zoo.

Note toward the bottom right, a rock with FUN painted on it. The odd thing about it -- one of a number of odd things, really -- is that the rock is the sole remaining one from what used to be a string of similar-sized rocks on this spot, before parking lot and entrance were renovated about a year ago. As far as small children were concerned, the string of rocks were a lot more fun for climbing and jumping than the lonesome FUN rock.

Also, in enlarging the parking lot, the Cosley Zoo -- that would the Wheaton Park District -- destroyed a fine copse of trees with a short path snaking through them. If the parking lot at its former size was full, as it must have been fairly often on weekends, the thing to do was park on the street a block way, take the sidewalk to the copse, then take the short path on to the zoo's parking lot. A minor, five-minute sort of inconvenience. Can't have that; trees had to die.

But not to grouse too much. The Cosley's still a good little zoo. More about which tomorrow.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

Don't Forget to Remember the Alamo

Remember the Alamo with a good scene from the 2004 version of The Alamo, featuring David Crockett on the fiddle, in the face of death.

(Link for Facebook readers.)

Elsewhere in the movie, Billy Bob Thornton's Crockett offers this remarkable line about the perils of fame. If the book Three Roads to the Alamo is correct, the line is a good guess at why Crockett might have stayed at the Alamo, even though he had just arrived in Texas.

"If it was just me, simple old David from Tennessee, I might drop over that wall some night, take my chances. But that Davy Crockett feller... they're all watchin' him."

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hints of Spring

All the standard hints of spring are out there. Snowcover is gradually giving way to bare ground, except that it isn't bare, but covered by hibernating grass. Most of the sidewalk ice is gone, though March ice can be the most treacherous of all (see March 11, 12 & 13, 2003). Last night around 10, Orion and his Big Dog companion were fairly far to the southwest, preparing to leave our nighttime sky.

This morning I heard a couple of birds singing. They seemed to be in call-and-response mode. Two notes from one bird, then two different notes from a different bird off in a different direction, then two more notes from the first bird. I stood there listening to it for about a minute, as the birds made themselves heard over the rumbling of cars and the distant whoosh of an airplane. Couldn't say what kind of birds. If I had to know, I might be able to find out, but for this morning it was enough to hear them sing of spring. Spring mating, that is. What else could it be?

Not everyone is glad to see the end of winter. This came home from school the other day with Ann:

So far I've come up with a few names for the creation. "Snowman Raging at the Prospect of His Demise." Or "Frosty Needs Rehab." Or "Snowman Sluggo, Mr. Bill's Wintertime Tormentor".


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

For No Comment, Press 1

I called up a bankrupt retail company this morning to ask for information about their restructuring plan. I wasn't expecting to get anything more than a place to park a voice-mail message that would never be answered, but part of my business is making the effort.

"Thank you for calling Bankrupt Retail Co.," a pleasant recorded female voice said. "For information relating to our bankruptcy filing and restructuring, please press 1."

I pressed 1.

"Thank you for calling Bankrupt Retail Co.'s restructuring information line. Details we can share related to our Chapter 11 filing can be found on a special page of our web site."

She then gave that page's address, spelling it out completely letter by letter.

"We'll be updating this page as warranted. If you're calling to confirm the status of store location in your area, please visit our restructuring web page for links to store locator tools. Stores in the process of closing are labeled 'closing sale, savings storewide.'

"If you have other questions, you can leave a message with phone and e-mail contact information after the tone. However, as a matter of company policy, we are for the most part not responding to media inquiries in connection to this issue. If you do not receive a response within one business day, please feel to report that the company could not be reached for comment. Thank you."


Over the years I've called a fair number of companies who didn't care to talk to me, but never one that bothered to spell out "no comment" in quite such detail. Impressive, in its way. Whatever else is wrong with the company, its media relations department has its act together.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Thing 1 & Thing 2 Live!

Ann came home from school today with a paper Cat-in-the-Hat hat on her head. Somewhere in far-off Pedagogia (that is, the National Education Association), someone decided that Theodore Geisel's birthday, which is today, should also be Read Across America Day. Making paper hats must be part of the event, if you're in the first grade.

Adults would do well to check out some of Dr. Suess' lesser-known works, though I have seen them collected in books.

We had a short discussion of The Cat in the Hat over dinner tonight. Not my favorite Suess as a kid, but fun all the same. I wondered out loud whether the Cat had a name, since "Cat in the Hat" is more of a sobriquet, though I didn't put it that way. Then I speculated that he's retired now, living in West Palm Beach or somewhere. Thing 1 and Thing 2, on the other hand, still do a show in Branson. By this time, Lilly and Ann were ignoring my suggestions.

It's also Sam Houston's birthday. And Texas Independence Day. Just thought I would throw that in.


Monday, March 01, 2010

True North

Just as well that the Canadians won men's hockey at the end of the Olympics. Hockey's their game, they can have it.

Otherwise, there might have been war -- or at least motorboat raids across Lake Erie, skirmishing along the Manitoba-North Dakota line, or maybe a little cross-border shelling of Bellingham, Wash. Feelings seemed to have been running pretty high in Canada about that game. Nations have fought over less, such as El Salvador and Honduras (1969) or Freedonia and Sylvania (1933).

The Canadians in the U.S. would make a hell of a fifth column, too, with about a million of them in our midst. The subject -- Canadians in the United States, not fifth columnists -- came up while Neil Young was singing at the closing ceremonies. Yuriko said she thought he was a strange choice.

"Well, he is Canadian," I said. That was a surprise. She'd thought he was from California. Maybe he's lived in California for 40 years, I answered, but he's still considered Canadian. Not only that, he's the son of a Canadian sports journalist who wrote a lot about hockey.

Neil Young's voice has held up pretty well, I'd say. But where was famed Canadian William Shatner, he of golden throat? He could have done a number for the closing ceremonies, too.