Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Meet Me in the Petroleum Combustion Unit"

September didn't go out with a bang or whimper, at least in terms of weather conditions in my general vicinity, but like smooth jazz. A light breeze and about 70° F. in mid-afternoon under partly cloudy skies. I didn't have a lot of time to sit outside and read, but I made a little while for it. October will not be so generous with pleasant weather.

Also on Season 2, Disc 8 of Saturday Night Live on DVD (see yesterday) is the May 21, 1977, episode of that program (Buck Henry, Jennifer Warnes). I carved out a few minutes today for that as well, with the advantage of skipping the parts I didn't want to see. During the "Coneheads Return" sketch, Beldar and his family stop for gasoline en route to Manhattan, and the camera caught sight of the price of gasoline at whatever New Jersey Exxon station they filmed at: 60.9¢/gal. I couldn't see the grade.

Naturally, that sent me to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' web site to use its inflation calculator (isn't that what you'd do?). I entered the variables and it spat out the answer: "If in 1977, I bought goods or services for $0.61 then in 2010, the same goods or services would cost $2.21. That in turn led me to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report, which tells me that the current average (9.30.10) for a gallon of regular is $2.689. So gas is somewhat more expensive for us than Beldar, though I also remember that by 1979, when I was having to pay for gas myself, it was closer to $1/gal., in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and its attendant oil shocks. A dollar in 1979 is $3.03 now.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SNL Mardi Gras Special

Tucked away on Season 2, Disc 8 of Saturday Night Live on DVD -- among Special Features -- is the SNL Mardi Gras Special, which was broadcast only once, on February 20, 1977, and never repeated. I had to see it again after all those years, to see how my fragmentary memories of the show tallied with what was broadcast.

Overall, except for the chaotic setting, it was much like any SNL show from that era. Some sketches worked, some didn't. Some things I didn't understand then, but do now. It's a lot funnier to hear John Belushi scream "Stella!" in the New Orleans night, while wearing a torn white t-shirt, if you've seen A Streetcar Named Desire, which I didn't until some years later. But even in 1977 I thought it outrageously funny for Belushi to impersonate Mussolini on a balcony facing a crowd of revelers, and even better to get the crowd to shout, "Duce! Duce!" As a high school kid I might have been unusual in my knowledge of World War II leaders.

I'm fairly certain I didn't really appreciate the music then, but I do now. Just how many songs are there about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927? Quite a few, actually, and Randy Newman sung one of them ("Louisiana 1927") on the show, with full orchestration. Also featured was The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra doing "Rebecca Came Back From Mecca," which probably hasn't been on network television since (and maybe never before, though there's no telling what ended up on variety shows in the '50s). Would SNL have the nerve now to book any musical act that far outside the mainstream, even as a secondary act? I wouldn't know, but I suspect not.

Eric Idle had a memorably funny turn as well, at an empty outdoor cafe doing the old broadcaster-stuck-with-nothing-to-report bit: "Here, there's an atmosphere of almost unbelievable gaiety -- [glances around the empty outdoor cafe] and festivity. You can practically smell Mardi Gras here! The atmosphere, for four days, has been a feeling of Carnival, which was, uh, really here up to, uh, well, just a few short minutes ago, uh -- before you came over here.

"The place was literally packed with revelers, partymakers wearing beads and singing and dancing -- it was a real Carnival atmosphere, and we were all having a really, really fun, fun time -- up until a couple of moments ago. Literally, crowds of people were literally thronging these streets, literally hundreds of gay -- uh, happy -- folks were... lurking all over the place! What a pity, they've all gone..."
That goes on for a while, and toward the end Idle holds up a postcard of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which he moves up and down to give the audience a sense of the vanished festivities.

Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (1986), by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, details how difficult the New Orleans episode was for the SNL cast and crew, besides simply being a logistical nightmare. This 2008 article by Dave Walker of the Times-Picayune covers the subject well. The payoff, in terms of ratings at least, was mediocre. In a way, it's too bad that the concept of SNL broadcasting occasionally from other places died with that single show in 1977. Over the years, the show could have done other interesting things from other interesting places, had the New Orleans foray worked out differently.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wax It Up, Lay It Out

The other day I saw the first 20 minutes or so of Absence of Malice, a 1981 Paul Newman-Sally Field vehicle directed by Sydney Pollack, and while it seemed like it might be worth watching all the way through, I didn't have time for it and wasn't in the mood anyway. But I did watch the opening credits with some amazement. It depicted a newspaper story being produced from reporter to printing press, all very state-of-the-art.

State-of-the-art in 1981, that is, which is to say completely obsolete. Luminous green word-processing was in use at the time, so the clack of typewriters wasn't part of the montage. But waxing blocks of type and laying them out on a board was; and so was running the layout boards through a camera to produce a negative, which then went to a printing plate. The process might seem ridiculously pre-Quark, pre-PageMaker to a generation who's never known the feel of layout wax on their fingers, but it made me nostalgic for the first-floor press room of the publishing company I worked for as an editor in Chicago in the late 1980s.

Desktop publishing hadn't arrived even then, and sometimes during the rush of deadline, the editors would have to do layout too. Print the text out, cut it into pieces with an X-Acto, run it through the waxing machine, paste it on the board just so, and then -- usually -- remove it from the board and do it again because we were editors, not layout men.

Paul was our full-time layout man, a fellow getting on in years and a well-practiced curmudgeon. Paul often had pithy things to say about Chicago pols and the men in Springfield and Washington running the country into the ground (politicians, businessmen, union bosses). Wish I could remember exactly what he said, but it's been 20+ years, and maybe it's enough to remember Paul the layout man eying the pages, waxing the text down and pasting it up, and airing his complains all at more-or-less the same time.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Pepe's Fate

Around Labor Day this year, the smell of skunk suddenly perfumed our back yard. Not a full blast of skunk, but just enough to remind us of the one-of-a-kind stink every time we went outside using the back door. "Where's the skunk?" Lilly would ask. "I haven't seen one."

I hadn't either, but I figured the smell was left over from some unseen fight some dark night between a skunk passing through and a raccoon defending his territory. I've seen raccoons around here. But it was pure speculation about whether raccoons and skunks ever mix it up.

Anyway, the stink lasted a week or so, and then faded from nose and memory. Today I mowed the back yard, maybe for the last time in 2010. The last time I'd done so was in early September, because of slow grass growth, inconveniently timed rain and my own sloth. Leaning against the back yard fence is a large plastic kiddie pool, a blue oval that I keep there during the warm months. Lilly has long outgrown it, of course, but Ann could still use it, though she didn't bother with it this summer. I noticed that a little rain water had collected in the kiddie pool, so I tipped it over to pour out the water, and all at once smelled skunk again -- just a little.

Behind the kiddie pool and near the fence was a decaying animal corpse, but with enough distinctive skunk fur to make identification certain, as if the smell wasn't enough. Somehow the animal, let's call him Pepe, bit the dust here. When I have time for it in a day or two, I'll take a shovel out there and put him in a hole next to where he fell. It's the least I can do. Actually, it's the most I can do, since taxidermy isn't within my skill set.

One more note: Google "Pepe Le Pew" and the search engine suggests "Pepe Le Pew quotes." He was never a favorite of mine, but he is Warner-canonical, so I let myself be distracted by that search. Big Cartoon Forum has only one quote for the Gallic skunk, which is, "Zee cabbage does not run away from zee corn-beef."


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Our Furniture Anniversary

September 26, 1993


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Shine On Harvest Moon, Provided It Isn't Cloudy

I forgot about the "super harvest moon" on Wednesday, but I figured this evening was close enough. All I saw here in northeastern Illinois when I went out to look at about 9:30 CDT this evening was the fuzzy orb shining behind a layer of clouds. An intense wind blew at the same moment, foretelling rain.

In fact, it was windy all day. I went out to my deck for lunch, since we aren't going to have many (any?) more 80° F-plus days this year, that is for the next six months at least, so I wanted to savor the moment. The moment was nearly blown away, however, along with my napkins.

I'm pretty sure I linked to this clip a few years ago, but of course that link went the way of all YouTube clips. Someone has put it back. But I didn't link to this, which I should have, since it's a lovely song.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Texas City, 1947

It might be a good read: "In 1947, Texas City was experiencing boom times, bristling with chemical and oil plants built to feed Europe's seemingly endless appetite for raw materials to rebuild its ruined cities. When an explosion ripped through the docks, the effect was cataclysmic. Thousands of people were wounded or killed, the fire department was decimated, planes were knocked out of the sky, and massive ocean-bound freighters disintegrated. The blast drove people to their knees in Galveston, ten miles away; broke windows in Houston, 40 miles away; and registered on a seismograph in Denver."

The book is City on Fire by Bill Minitaglio (2003), and that's a slightly edited version of part of the blurb, which needed a little editing. I hope that doesn't portend careless editing of the rest of the book, because I'm looking forward to reading another story of a generally forgotten yet enormous disaster, in this case an ammonium nitrate explosion in April 1947 that caused other explosions.

It wasn't something that came up in Texas History class in the seventh grade that I remember -- even though the teacher surely would have remembered the event herself -- nor in Texas History Movies, a collection of comic strips formerly used to teach Texas history that we had kicking around the house when I was growing up. (It's likely that the strips were published before 1947.) I forget where I first heard about the Texas City explosion, but it's always been a shadowy reference. Time to read a little more about it.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Original Berenstain Bears

Hard rain early Monday afternoon, after which I was expecting clear skies and cool air. But no, the air got warmer. Here we are practically at the equinox and summer tugs back. Today was positively summer, up to and including temps at nearly 90 F. and a summer-style thunderstorm around dusk, though not one with a lot of wind or lightning displays.

Ann has been reading a lot of Berenstain Bears books lately, which isn't a bad thing, but I have noticed how relentlessly didactic most of the titles are. Such as The Berenstain Bears [each title begins with those words, or the possessive Bears']... Go to the Doctor; Visit to the Dentist; Trouble With Friends; Trouble With Money; and the Messy Room; and Too Much TV; and Too Much Junk Food; Learn About Strangers; Forget Their Manners; Trouble at School; and the Bad Habit; and on and on.

Those aren't the books I remember reading as a kid. Before Stan and Jan Berenstain went all educational with their series sometime in the 1970s, they created more entertaining bear books, though of course the point was to encourage children to read. The early bear books also relied on that old trope, as old as Plautus and probably older, of the dimwitted father leading his family into trouble.

In The Bears' Picnic (1966), for instance, the father bear tries to find a picnic spot, only to be driven away each time by a smoky locomotive, a mass of other picnickers, an enormous swarm of mosquitoes, a dump truck that dumps garbage on them, a jet that flies right over them, and then a sudden thunderstorm while they are on the top of a hill. It's the one-damn-thing-after-another style of storytelling, with not a moral in sight, at least not explicitly. Each page is vividly drawn, as are the expressions of the bears: the father is befuddled in the later style of Chevy Chase, and the mother's expression grows angrier and angrier without saying anything. She has exactly four lines in the entire book, after she takes it upon herself to head home with her son and let the father bear be hit by lightning. Hit on the butt, a perfect detail for kids.

The older titles are constantly checked out of the library, so I finally reserved The Bears' Picnic and The Big Honey Hunt (1962) for Ann's amusement, and we got them today during our Tuesday run to the library. I'm glad to report that she was much amused by them.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

The Leaves Haven't Even Fallen Yet

"Daddy, do you want to come to my tea party?" asked Ann, setting up her plastic cups, saucers and teapot not long ago.

"I've got to work up some rage against the federal government first," I said. I couldn't resist. She ignored me, because children are wise in the ways of ignoring politics. I sat with her a few minutes and drank some air tea.

Over the weekend I made it to a warehouse store to pick up a few items, but mainly to eat free samples. There's an aisle of Christmas goods on display already. Just one aisle, which will certainly expand later.

I played a little game: find an item not made in China. It was hard. The most elaborate made-in-China Xmas item was a Nativity set that promised it was "hand-painted," "antique style," and complete with "faux gold leaf accents." I guess that last one would involve gold-colored paint.

Elsewhere was a Lighted Santa -- maybe better to look at from a distance, and on a dark December night -- Ornamental Lanterns in various styles, and LED lights in diverse arrays: icicle-style, along with 100- and 50-light strings. But my own favorite were the flameless candle sets, which sport LED flame-like flickers, a vanilla scent, and remote control. Just how many settings do these flameless candles have, to be operated by remote control? The box didn't say.

Still no non-Chinese items. Even a pair of porcelain Nutcracker Tealight Candle Holders began its journey to northern Illinois in eastern Asia. But one of the two on display will end up in a landfill. That is, it will be deposited there sooner than the rest of the items, since everything I saw is destined for a landfill in the fullness of time. Someone, by accident or on purpose, had decapitated one of the nutcrackers, but then carefully placed the head next to the figurine's feet. Was it an homage to the headless nutcracker character in The Nightmare Before Christmas?

Finally I found one holiday item not only not made in China, but actually made in the United States, for what that's worth: a box of ornate Christmas cards. But then I realized the game wasn't worth the candle, since I didn't much like the cards, and besides, it's September.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Item From the Past: A Boring Chat With the Man Upstairs

September 1981

LS visited. Had a good talk. She said that NM wants me to call; that she knows Sam the McGillite, whom I met last Saturday; and the she's gotten a job at Capt. D's. I told her about my summer, of Austin and other places, of Fritz and other people. Fritz, she asked? He was the fellow RF and I had dinner with on May 14. Fritz and RF went to high school together. Poor, gullible Fritz. I had him believing I was from Alaska and some other rubbish.

Since that evening, RF had told me, no good has come Fritz. One day this summer, he stole a bicycle and was hit by a car while riding it. He was unconscious for a few days, and even when he woke, wasn't all together there for a few more. RF relayed an account of a conversation between Fritz, still in his hospital bed, and a mutual friend, Jim. I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's a good Fritz story anyway.

Jim: How are you, Fritz?

Fritz: I talked to the Man Upstairs.

Jim: What?

Fritz: I said, I talked to the Man Upstairs!

Jim: Who do you mean? The guys on the next floor?

Fritz: No! I mean God! God!

Jim: You talked to God? What did He have to say?

Fritz: Not much.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eat Cheese or Die

“Live Like You Mean It” ? That's the slogan of the state of Wisconsin? I'm with op-ed writer Gail Collins (April 4, 2009) in the NYT on this one: "In 1985, Gov. Anthony Earl of Wisconsin decided 'America’s Dairyland' was boring and sponsored a contest for a new state slogan, which drew an avalanche of suggestions. A screening committee declined to consider the popular favorite: 'Eat Cheese or Die.' I truly believe that nothing has gone right for Wisconsin on the slogan front ever since."

Eat Cheese or Die. Now that's a slogan worthy of the dairy imperium. Here's another one for the next Wisconsin tourist season: Eat Cheese, Pray Hard, Love the Packers.

The Wisconsin Cheese Mart is on Old World Third St. in Milwaukee, not far from the riverwalk. We found it because Ann had to go to the bathroom, and the riverwalk itself is deficient that way. The Cheese Mart's web site tells us that "Wisconsin's cheese making industry produces 2 billion pounds of cheese every year, 30 percent of the nation's total cheese production. More than 250 varieties, types, and styles of cheese are available from Wisconsin's skilled cheese makers... We carry over 150 types of cheese in our display cases."

That's a lot of cheese. But we didn't buy any, as fine as some of those 150 cheeses must be. At moment there's excess cheese in our refrigerator, good stuff too, and cheese isn't something you can hoard. But we were thirsty enough to buy three bottles of Sprecher soda: Root Beer, Cream Soda and Orange Dream, products of a local microbrewery. We'd chanced across the root beer before elsewhere in Wisconsin, but not the others. All were satisfying, especially the cream soda.

Near the Cheese Mart's front door was a large collection of foam cheese headgear. The standard wedge of cheese -- which is trademarked as a Cheesehead® hats -- but also foam cheese top hats, sombreros, cowboy hats, fire helmets and more. Foam cheese headgear, I'm glad to report, was a Wisconsin creation.

Ann was particularly taken with the "cheesehead cornhead" hat. But we didn't buy her one. Maybe Santa Claus will.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Bronze Fonz

Back in the early 2000s, cable channel TV Land was seeding the nation with bronze statues of characters from the golden age of US television comedy -- Ralph Kramden, Sheriff Taylor and Opie, Mary Richards, Bob Hartley, et al. -- but has since dropped that particular marketing campaign. A statue of Arthur Fonzarelli was nearly orphaned when TV Land changed its mind about bronzes, but local boosters (especially VISIT Milwaukee, the local C&VB) took up the cause and raised enough dough to install the statue on the Milwaukee Riverwalk about two years ago.

I couldn't visit the riverwalk without seeing the Bronze Fonz.

It's the creation of sculptor Gerald Sawyer, but I didn't see any plaque saying so, or even explaining who this curious fellow with two upturned thumbs might be, though at the base there was a list of donors. Sure, most of the people now strolling by the statue know who Fonzie is, but that collective memory will vanish. Maybe the thing will be long gone by then anyway, relegated to a warehouse by the Milwaukee Historical Society, or even melted down to make ordnance for a war with Canada. But if it does stay by the riverfront across the decades, the people who see it will probably think of it as just another piece of public art.

That's because there's more art on the Milwaukee Riverwalk, such as this.

By John Ready, it's one of the few pieces I've ever seen that makes use of bowling balls. A bowling ball salad, you might call it.

Also using the sphere motif is this, which I think looks like something under an electron microscope.

I'd cite the name of the artist, but I've misplaced the Milwaukee Riverwalk art guide pamphlet that I picked up. Which, curiously, doesn't mention the Bronze Fonz. Maybe the publisher of the pamphlet took umbrage at Fonzie's turquoise pants, which didn't look very cool, but maybe the artist was trying for blue jeans.

I didn't tell my family we were going to see a statue of an old TV character. I wanted to see how they'd react, since I was pretty sure none of them knew him (and boy, did they miss out). Their reaction was almost no reaction: there's another sculpture. They didn't even ask why his thumbs were up. Sic transit gloria Fonzie.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Milwaukee Riverwalk

When I have nothing better to do, I sometimes listen to radio stations randomly. You never know what outrageous thing you'll hear next. A while ago I heard a radio preacher actually specify when the end of the world will be: October 21, 2011. Not just down-to-the-day specific, but soon. Not something you hear every day. Who was that preacher? Did he learn nothing from the Great Disappointment? Or Matthew 24:36, though of course not everyone agrees on what that verse means?

Harold Camping, that's who, and he obviously holds no truck with the Mayans. Camping has examined Scripture quite closely, I'm sure, and has come up with a precise-as-Bishop-Ussher date for the rapture, May 21, 2011. After that it's a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth for the remaining people of Earth until October 21: poof!

Do you suppose Mr. Camping would be willing to turn over all of his worldly possessions to me? I'd let him use them until May 21, but after that they're all mine. No? I didn't think so.

After visiting the Pabst Mansion on Saturday, we ate well at Phan's Garden, a Vietnamese restaurant on National Ave. not far south of the mansion. I can vouch for their mighty fine Vietnamese pork chops. Right next door to the restaurant is a Buddhist temple of some kind, occupying what seems to be a converted apartment building. We might not have noticed except that we sat near one of the windows at Phan's, and noticed a monk, fully decked out in robes, go into the building.

Sated with Phan's fare, we sought out the Milwaukee Riverwalk and did some walking near the Milwaukee River. It's a fairly new feature of the city. When I first visited Milwaukee in 1987, the river was just a wet place that passed through town. Much renovation of its banks has been done since then. To borrow from Wiki, which I have verified with my own eyes: "Milwaukee Riverwalk has grown to include art displays... Riverwalk Park, water taxi landings, and other venues such as cafés, and brewpubs."

It isn't as intimate as the San Antonio Riverwalk, since the San Antonio River is lilliputian and the Milwaukee River is fairly wide, but the Milwaukee Riverwalk definitely has its charms on a warm September weekend. It also sported a few groups of boisterous drunks upholding the traditions of Beer City.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

The Pabst Mansion

About a mile from home today, I saw Mormon missionaries pedaling along. On bicycles, riding one right after another, each wearing a tie, and looking like young lads -- yes, they had to have been door-to-door Mormons. Wow, I thought the LDS had given up on us Schaumburg Gentiles.

It was a good day to be on bicycles. Warm but not hot, mostly clear and dry. On Saturday morning we had a heavy downpour for a while, but not enough to discourage us from spending another day away from home. Not far: Milwaukee. Last weekend we were in Indiana, so I figured a jaunt to Wisconsin would balance things out.

One goal for the day was to tour this place, a palace that pre-Prohibition beer drinking built -- in full, the Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion.

It's a grand old house, full of back story: built by a colorful beer baron at the height of the Gilded Age, residence of the Catholic Archbishop of Milwaukee for decades after that, and subject of an intense effort in the 1970s to save it -- because it came within a whisker of being torn down for a parking garage. The woodwork is astonishingly fine, the artifacts mostly original, and the walls are adorned with enough fine art to qualify the place as a gallery besides being a house museum. A short history of the place is at the mansion's web site, as are some images that only do the place scant justice.

Off on the east side of the main building is an addition that Capt. Pabst himself supervised. These days the addition is the gift shop, but originally the structure was the Pabst Pavilion at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After that was over, the captain had the pavilion shipped to Milwaukee to add to his new home. Later, the prelates of Milwaukee added stained glass and used it as a chapel. It always pleases me to find a piece of the 1893 world's fair, since there are so few.

The mansion is missing only one thing, namely land. It doesn't need to be surrounded by vast tracts like Biltmore, just a few acres. As it is, two multifamily residences tower on either side and much of the property itself is taken up by a parking lot. Then again, I understand that the street, formerly Grand Ave. but now Wisconsin Ave., used to feature a number of mansions -- a millionaire's row back when that demographic didn't hide in gated communities or posh highrises -- so land was probably never that important. The Pabst Mansion is the only survivor of the era on the street, and Milwaukee is lucky to have it.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Item From the Past: A Tale of Two Ten Tughrik

In September 1994, we managed to leave Mongolia with two 10-tughrik (or tugrik or tögrög) notes in our possession. These days, 10 tughrik are worth about U.S. 7.6¢, according to the ever-useful I'm not sure what the exchange rate was 16 years ago, but I know that it wasn't hugely different. The denomination was definitely small change. In fact, I don't think anything smaller was circulated then.

One of the notes was an older, beaten up, Communist-era piece of currency.

The other was a crisp, new, post-Communist note.

In the early 1920s, the Republic of China, or at least whichever warlord was running the part of China next to Mongolia, determined to negate Mongolia's recently declared (1911) independence by force. The Mongolians resisted and eventually prevailed, in the sense that the country became a Soviet satellite for many decades, rather than part of the Republic of China and then perhaps the People's Republic.

One of the main Mongolian leaders against the Chinese was Sükhbaatar. He appears on both the older the newer notes. It's interesting that the older note dresses him in strictly military garb -- a specimen of the New Communist Man, maybe -- while the newer one has him looking distinctly Mongolian, a national hero up there with a certain 12th/13th-century Mongolian who kicked ass across Eurasia.

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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Monastery, Munster

Roadside America, that "caramel-coated-nutbag-full of odd and hilarious travel destinations" (its own words) calls this building material -- the stuff behind the girls in this picture -- "sponge rock," specifically sponge rock from "a mine in Arkansas."

The scant information I can find on line about "sponge rock" associates the term with perlite, a silicous rock that when heated expands to many times its original volume. The material we saw didn't resemble the perlite I see on line. But whatever it is, there's a lot of it at Our Lady of Mount Carmel monastery, in Munster, Indiana, which we visited on Sunday a short while after Valparaiso University (the interlude being lunch).

The monastery's Discalced Carmelite friars built the Grotto of the Holy Mother and the Holy Sepulchre Chapel out of these rocks, and it's an odd effect at first. Cave-like inside, but also as if the cave were ordered from the Sears Catalog back when you could get structures delivered to you in pieces for DIY construction.

The friars themselves say at their web site: "After the Second World War, a group of Polish Discalced Carmelites, including former chaplains of the Polish Army, came to the United States. They fulfilled St. Raphael Kalinowski's dream of a Polish Carmel in America when they established a monastery in Hammond, Indiana. Two years later they moved to Munster, Indiana... They built a monastery and Shrine dedicated to Mary under the title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and in the monastery garden constructed a grotto in her under the title of Our Lady of Lourdes."

Roadside America, with its less serious attitude, takes it from there: "Small shrines and prayer spots populate the grounds. There's a memorial to the Polish Underground; a shrine (surrounded by barbed wire) to skinny Maximilian Kolbe, the martyr priest of Auschwitz; and another to St Therese of Lisieux, the 'Little Flower of Jesus,' who is sculpted as she tells her tearful dad that she's off to join the Carmelites.

"It's dark inside the Holy Mother Grotto, and warm -- hundreds of candles are burning. Decoration is sparse [no it isn't], with occasional marble sculptures, stained glass windows, and accents of fluorite, dogtooth calcite, dolomite and rose quartz to enliven the gloom. Overall, this place seems more like a twisty sponge rock catacombs than a religious shrine... We expected the same when we walked down a path to the Holy Sepulchre Chapel, but it has some surprises. Inside is the Flagellation Chapel, with a marble Jesus tied to an alabaster pillar.... In an adjoining alcove lies dead Jesus on his bier. Beneath his carved pillow and blankets is an impressive altar crafted from giant minerals -- a huge backlit ball of crystals evokes the image of a glowing sacred heart."

I didn't know the story of Maximilian Kolbe. The plaque next to his memorial on the grounds of the monastery says, Blessed Maximillian Kolbe O.F.M. Conv. • Priest • Publisher • Prisoner • Martyr of Brotherly Love • Gave His Life For a Fellow Prisoner in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp on August 14, 1941.

More detail came be found at the Jewish Virtual Library, including the fact that he has been canonized since the plaque was created (one of John Paul II's many new saints; the second one of his pontificate, as it happens). It was hard to get a good picture of the memorial, but if you look carefully you might see that his statue is partly surrounded by barbed wire threaded through wooden posts that evoke the camp.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

On Sunday, we visited Valparaiso and Munster, which didn't involve logistically difficult, or even impossible, transits between metro Chicago, Chile and Germany in a single day. Those are also towns in Indiana. Even better for our purpose, they're towns in northwestern Indiana -- so close they're part of the Chicago CMSA, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Valparaiso is in Porter County, Ind., while Munster is in Lake County, Ind.

Which isn't too say that these places seem close, because driving through gooey traffic on forever under-construction highways is usually necessary to get to that end of the metro area, opposite from ours. Sunday meant that traffic was fairly light, however, and so it took us about an hour and a half to arrive at the Chapel of the Resurrection of Valparaiso University.

That's only the chancel; the rest of the chapel, which is a lot of building, trails off to the left in my pic. This blog has a lot better, and a lot more, images of this handsome modernist chapel, inside and outside.

Ann was especially taken with the place, exploring it at some length, and insisting that I take her picture in front of the chancel's stained glass. It was hard to go wrong with a setup like that.

"The chapel was dedicated in 1959, three years after groundbreaking ceremonies..." says the university's web site. "Architects for the building were Charles Stade and Associates of Park Ridge, Ill., although other designers were involved in special elements such as the stained glass windows and the baptistery.

"Inspiration for the design of the building was provided in part by the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem... The chancel of the Chapel of the Resurrection is 98 feet high and is circular in shape with a roof shaped like a nine-point star. The nave is 58 feet high and 193 feet long. There is seating for more than 2,000 people, although capacity varies depending upon the configuration of the movable pews."

I'm always glad to see an example of a modernist structure, and there are some, built with some regard historical context and the people who will be using it. Almost everything about the Chapel of the Resurrection says "Eisenhower era" and yet the design idiom is fully that of a Western church. It's vaulting and full of natural light, and neither lavishly ornate nor austere. The architect made it all work.

There's all kinds of interesting detail around the building. Including the cornerstone -- or rather, the temporal cornerstone, Jesus being the "chief cornerstone."

Not only do you read the year of dedication anno Domini, you're provided the Reformation Year too. Valparaiso U. is a Lutheran school, after all.

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dancing Goldenrod Afternoon

Recently I wrote the following two paragraphs for publication. Only one of them made into -- print isn't quite the word, since no ink and paper were involved -- the for-pay electronic publishing realm.

"Warren Buffet turned 80 on Monday, and still no word on who will eventually succeed the Oracle of Omaha at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., probably because he's publicly stated that he'd like to "work past 100." The Geico Gecko is considered a (very) long-shot as successor."

"What to do when you want to publicize a still-new technology? Put on a race, of course. It worked for the Great Leslie and Professor Fate, after all."

The second of them was cut. I pretty much knew it would be. The gecko is still highly visible, after all (and Geico is a Berkshire Hathaway company). But an allusion to a movie that came out in 1965?

Maybe The Great Race came to mind only because I saw it again a few months ago. This time with Ann, who was the only other person in the house that would sit through it with me. A month or so later, we watched Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and to continue the theme of long, highly kinetic comedies made in the 1960s, we watched It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on Saturday. I'd never gotten around to seeing it before, and marveled especially at the who's-who nature of the casting, plus the sheer amount of on-screen destruction: cars, planes, buildings and on and on.

Friday was a brilliant, mildly windy day with temps in the low- to mid-70s. "Chamber of Commerce weather," a former co-worker of mine used to call it. So I went out looking for goldenrod.

Actually, I didn't need to look for goldenrod. It's blooming in abundance here in northern Illinois and getting blamed for the kind of sneezing and runny noses going on at our house now. Until recently I also viewed the plant with suspicion. But according to the Iowa State University ag extension, a trustworthy source in these things: "[Goldenrod has] long suffered from an undeserved reputation as a common field weed that causes hay fever. In fact, ragweed is the primary hay fever culprit. Goldenrod is falsely accused because it flowers abundantly during the peak allergy season."

The extension's web site continues: "Goldenrods are easy to grow when planted in good garden soil in full sun. They are extremely hardy, drought tolerant, long-lived perennials. They also have few insect or disease problems and require minimal maintenance... Convincing some gardeners of the landscape value of goldenrods (Solidago species and hybrids) is difficult."

Why do some gardeners dislike them? Because they're too easy to grow, perhaps. Dandelions get the same rap.

I went to the Poplar Creek Forest Preserve on Friday afternoon and found an unpaved trail to walk on. Namely, the "orange" one that more-or-less parallels Poplar Creek itself. The trail looked something like this.

Plenty of goldenrod, and sunflowers too, danced in the wind.

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Thursday, September 02, 2010

Texas '10 Oddments

Back to posting on September 7 or so. An enjoyable Labor Day weekend to all.

On our last full day in Texas, we ate barbecue with my brother Jim, who suggested we go to Texas Pride, a joint east and a little south of San Antonio on Loop 1604. As the name says, that road loops all the way around the city, making an even larger circle than Loop 410, which is part of the Interstate system (though no one ever calls it I-410). Much of Loop 1604 is a rural, two-lane highway, and so it is near Texas Pride.

The place is going for that former gas station/road house look, I guess. Had some good 'cue there and a Frostie Root Beer. Can't remember the last time I had one of those.

On the way back, I asked Jim if I could drive (we were in his car), and he agreed to that, so I drove a little south on Loop 1604, and then turned west on US 87 back toward the city. The point of this maneuver? So I could pass through China Grove, Texas, the subject of a fairly nonsensical but still memorable 1973 song. Going home that way wasn't out of the way, so I figured, why not? I'd never been there before, song or no song. In China Grove I saw a scattering of businesses, including gas stations, an industrial bakery and a convenience store. I didn't stop. Maybe the interesting parts of the town are off the main road.

I had more interest in the San Antonio River and its headwaters on this trip than at anytime before, perhaps because of my visit to the now-dry spring at Cathedral Park that was flowing in the late 1970s. This web page is remarkably detailed on the subject of the headwaters. I wish I'd seen it before I visited (that happens often). Next time I'm in town, I'm going to visit the Headwaters Sanctuary and the Blue Hole on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word.

There were a lot of objects around my mother's house, photos but also smaller items, that I wanted to scan and post sometime or other. Trouble was, I had no scanner. Not even a computer. That was one aspect of the trip that I liked best, since I need to leave my electronics behind now and then. Not quite all of my electronics, since I had my digital camera, and so I took a few pictures of unusual objects around the house. Such as this one.

That's a commemorative plaster plaque from the American Legion National Convention in San Antonio in 1928, which my grandfather attended. So did Gen. Pershing and Col. Lindbergh, who are the floating heads above the Alamo chapel. My mother says she has a faint memory of her dad in a Legionnaires parade (she would have been three years old). He didn't buy the plaque at the time of the convention. I don't think that would have been in character for him. But many years later, my mother found it at a garage sale or the like, and got it as a retroactive souvenir.

I've read that H-E-B, or more formally the H.E. Butt Grocery Co., now has nearly two-thirds market share in San Antonio, and I believe it. There were many to be seen during our drives through the city. Once upon a time, back in the retail mists primeval BW (Before Walmart), H-E-B was one of three major grocery operators in the city. The other two were Piggly Wiggly and Handy Andy. Piggly Wiggly left the market all together, I believe, while Handy Andy is a shadow of its former self with only a handful of stores. Maybe. I haven't seen any for years, and the most recent articles I found on the subject are some years old, never a good sign about whether a business is ongoing.

A Handy Andy was within walking distance of the house I grew up in. This was an important consideration in the days before getting a drivers license, so I went there often enough. It seemed so large then -- it would be small now -- and by the mid-70s had a deli. That was an exotic innovation. Besides an impossibly large selection of meat and cheese -- which would be small now -- the deli also carried exotic goods such as Tiger's Milk nutrition bars and canned bear meat. We rarely bought anything like that, but it was somehow good to know that you could.

There was also a mini-mall attached to the Handy Andy, all under the same roof, which was there as recently as 1994, when I had some film developed at the mall's camera shop. The entire area now an H-E-B, with no trace of the mini-mall; the grocery store swallowed it up. The site of the small barber shop where I got my hair cut every six months or so is now part of the store bakery, way at the back. My regular barber back then was a good ol' boy from somewhere in East Texas. He fit the stereotype, too (someone has to). In the early '80s I remember seeing a report on the barber shop TV about AIDS, before it even had that name, I think. The reporter explained that the mysterious disease seemed to afflict Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users; and my barber said that any disease like that was all right with him.

On the streets of Alamo Heights, a small city completely surrounded by San Antonio, I saw a number of black signs with white lettering that simply said: NO SOCIALISM. I'd heard about these signs, and others, which appeared last year during the long hot-n-bothered period before the passage of health insurance reform. I wondered whether the signs represent a principled stand against public ownership of the means of production (and service industries, in our time) or resistance to an entitlement program that will not benefit the sign-placers personally.

Since both Lilly and I were traveling by car together, we each sought San Antonio radio stations on the dial not necessarily to the other's liking. But here's the twist: I remember some of the same stations from years ago. Especially KONO, which now is an oldies station. In other words, it plays almost exactly the playlist it might have in 1979. KTFM, on the other hand, now plays contemporary music. In the 1970s it was an album-oriented rock station until suddenly one day in January 1979 it went 100 percent disco. I left town before the station, I imagine, sheepishly pulled the plug on that format sometime in 1980.

But in any case I wondered: which of these two stations hasn't really changed? One plays the same stuff as it did 30+ years ago; the other plays new stuff, which it did 30+ years ago.

Some lawyer or architect or accountant needs to lease this building, which is on the Austin Highway at its junction with Broadway in Alamo Heights. It was once a Mobile gas station, in case the Red Pegasus wasn't a giveaway.

The station closed in 1985, and I've read that Mobile allowed the new owners of the building to keep the trademark on the building as a "permanent loan." Good to see than not all landmarks disappear when you leave town for a few decades.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Kerbey Lane Cafe, South Austin

Ah, for the life of a food blogger. It would be easy to photograph your meals and post them. The hard part would be ensuring accuracy in your descriptions, provided you were conscientious in that way. Taking notes with every meal, interviewing the chef (don't call him a cook), following up on what all those ingredients were -- it could all add up to a long list for the conscientious food blogger. Then there's the risk of burning out on eating just-so expressions of a chef's passionate love of the art of food. I wonder whether the young woman doing Lick My Spoon ever gets a strong urge for a Pop-Tart.

Along with my friends Tom and Catherine, I participated in the eating of this carrot cake, served by Kerbey Lane Cafe-South Austin on the evening of August 16, 2010. (Lilly and Ann had ice cream at the same time.)

I can't list the ingredients, though I'm fairly sure carrots were included. Note the grated carrots as garnishes. Texas isn't particularly known for its carrot production, so local sourcing might not have been an option (my guess is California carrots, trucked in via I-10). I also didn't interview the pastry chef, so I can't honestly gush about his love for the art of carrot-cake creation, building on the traditions of carrot cakes served at the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris but adding that ever-so modern twist of using x ingredient, which also pays homage to the terroir of California's Central Valley. Maybe the literal terroir, since there was probably dirt on the carrots when they were delivered.

Never mind, it was delicious carrot cake. At least I got a picture of Ivor, our personable waiter.

Not really, that was a painting on one of the walls of Kerbey Lane South, near the restrooms. One of a series for sale, I think, but I took no notes. The restaurant itself is one of a series of five in Austin. "The first Kerbey Lane Cafe opened on May 5, 1980, with the simple goal of having a cozy place to eat that offered healthy local food at a low price," says the Kerbey Lane web site. "At the time, this was a virtually competitive free restaurant concept."

The first location happens to be on a small Austin street called Kerbey Lane. I don't remember eating there during my Austin summer in 1981, but by the time I visited town regularly during the mid- and late '80s, I started going there with my Austinite friends. In fact, it was almost always the first place we would go once I got to town.

Last year and this year I went with those same friends to the South Austin location on South Lamar, opened in 1986 and marked by some spiffy neon (I didn't try the tomato pie).

Kerbey Lane South's comfort food is just as comfortable as at the original location. Besides carrot cake, which came last, I enjoyed breakfast for dinner -- biscuits & gravy with sausage. Here's my stab at food blog writing: mmmmm.

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