Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dieu et Mon Droit & All That

It's too late in April to be this cold. But April ignores our pleas, and fobs the job of the warming of the Northern soil onto May.

I've developed some rules of thumb for reading about Prince William and Kate Middleton, though I can't say I've been reading about them all that much. Anyway, (1) don't read articles with the term "fairy tale" in the head or the deck or the lead paragraph or in a photo caption or pretty much anywhere; on the other hand, (2) don't take sour (ex-)British republicans very seriously either, such as Christopher Hitchens. We get it, Chris. The Windsors stubbornly refuse to live up to your standards. But so does everyone else, it seems, including God.

One of the more interesting ideas I've read in recent years regarding the British royal family came by way of advice columnist Dan Savage, of all people. Somehow or other the question of a Briton still being Canada's monarch came up, and he suggested that Prince Harry, being a spare and all, should immigrate to Canada to found a new dynasty for that country -- provided he marries a French-Canadian woman and makes bilingual babies with her. Not sure how the Canadians might feel about that, but it did strike me as an intriguing suggestion.

I'm not planning to watch the event. I skipped Charles and Diana's broadcast in 1981, too. Not out of any particular antipathy toward the participants, but just my odd idea that either you see a wedding in person, or not at all. It's something that shouldn't be televised. Besides, this time around it's at some ungodly hour here in North America.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Puelicher Butterfly Wing

More rain. The lawns are greening up nicely, though some parts of them are under puddles right now. Yet the urge to mow is strong among some householders, though not so much in my case. A neighbor's back yard -- visible from the park next to Ann's school -- features a couple of mower-tracks, obviously cut the other day in the process of discovering just how soggy the grass is.

While we were visiting the Milwaukee Public Museum, we toured a small but popular exhibit called the Puelicher Butterfly Wing. It's a warm, humid room full of free-flying butterflies. As I said, the place was popular.

It's hard to see any butterflies in that picture. But they were in the air, on the plants, on the walls, and sometimes on the visitors. None liked me enough to land on me. Lilly, on the other hand, attracted more than one, for reasons only known to the butterflies.

I asked a docent, an elderly gent in a t-shirt that said BUG SQUAD (or was it BUG PATROL?) whether most of the species in the room were tropical. Most are, he said, except for some Monarchs the museum happened to have handy. Grand as they are, Monarchs are positively dowdy compared to some of the iridescent-hued bugs flitting around that room.

Still, I wondered, what's the evolutionary value in being so colorful? It must work, but how? I guess I could look up current thinking on that point, but I'd rather it be a minor mystery.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Milwaukee Public Museum

Heavy rains last night and some later in the day, and even better, it was warm for a few hours today. Better than last Saturday in Milwaukee, when it wasn't pleasant enough for an outdoor romp. So we did an indoor romp at the Milwaukee Public Museum. We made the acquaintance of this creature while we were there.

It's the Herbior Mammoth, discovered in southern Wisconsin in 1994 and acquired by the museum in 2007. Imagine being in the vicinity of such a beast, more than two stories tall and sporting those wicked-looking tusks, while you are armed with a stone spear and maybe a stone knife or two, and you have no horses. Of course, you're with the rest of the hunters in your clan, but still. The mammoth will be angry when you start poking it with your sticks.

According to the museum, the mammoth died about 14,500 years ago -- and has evidence of being butchered. So people ended up eating the thing, whether they hunted it or scavenged it, which is less dramatic but also possible. I prefer to imagine paleo-Indians poking it with sharp sticks; that would have been quite an achievement. More importantly for paleoanthropologists, the bones are older than the Clovis site, and thus among the oldest evidence of human habitation in North America. Cool.

Elsewhere in the museum was the big-ticket exhibit, "Mummies of the World," which apparently displays dried dead people not only from Egypt and Peru, but also lesser-known mummification spots, such as "part of a group of 18th-century mummies discovered in a long-forgotten church crypt in Vác, Hungary," says the press release associated with the show. Imagine that discovery: "Say, Béla, what's in stone box over there?" "Dunno, let's find out."

Interesting, but I didn't want to shell out for it. Instead we wandered through the halls of the museum, looking at whatever caught our interest. Much of the place is given over to re-creations of one kind or another, such as Old Milwaukee, which features storefronts with large windows, inside which are various artifacts of old-time businesses. My own favorite item in that part of the museum was a poster at the late 19th-century drug store advertising Paine's Celebrated Green Mountain Balm of Gilead Cedar Plaster, which you can see here (with the wry note, "Advertisements often depicted the natural sources of proprietary medicines rather than the factories in which they were bottled.").

The Milwaukee Public Museum is also fond of traditional, full-sized dioramas: nature scenes, scenes featuring Indians, scenes depicting far-away cultures. One diorama has fish and other sea creatures hanging by strings from the ceiling, with a watery background, which is something I'd never seen before. I have to like a museum that's hanging onto its dioramas in our time, when digital imaging is state-of-the-art in simulation. But until we get holodecks, even computer-generated 3D imaging isn't quite going to replace the diorama.

Not all dioramas are in museums. Such as this odd contest I'd never heard of before: the Pioneer Press Marshmallow Peeps Diorama and Video Contest.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Basilica of St. Josaphat

Here's a headline I saw over the weekend: "Chicago's Gas Prices Highest in Country." Hell's bells. "The U.S. average for a gallon of regular now stands at $3.88, but in Chicago, it'll cost you an average of $4.27," reports NBC Chicago. I assume the story means in the city itself, since out here in the suburbs it's about a dime less than that.

Just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin line at the junction of I-94 and Wisconsin 50, which sports a large knot of retail properties, gas could be had for $3.99.9/gallon last Friday. Four dollars, in other words. I know this because I bought some on our way to Milwaukee to take advantage of the last gasp of the frequent-flyer award my family's round-trip across the Pacific earned nearly two years ago. No charge to stay in the room, but some expense to get there.

Good Friday was cold and drizzly. We knew that ahead of time, so planned to spend most of our time indoors, including one place whose exterior has intrigued me for years, the Basilica of St. Josaphat. Every time I drive into Milwaukee on I-94, I see its dome from the highway, since it's pretty hard to miss, but I'd never taken a close look at it. Get off the highway, make your way into the heart of south-side Milwaukee, park on a nearby side street, and the dome is even harder to miss.

The structure is more than 100 years old, built for a massive Polish congregation and modeled after St. Peter's. "Father Wilhelm Grutza hired a German-born architect named Erhard Brielmaier to design what is, in essence, a smaller version of St. Peter's." says the Visitor Guide and Tour we picked up at the church. "The church has the same cross-shaped floor plan and same huge central dome that distinguish St. Peter's." Brielmaier and his family were the go-to architects if you wanted a Catholic church built in the Midwest in the late 19th- and early-20th century, it seems. One source credits them with designing over 800 churches.

St. Josaphat's is as resplendent as you'd expect, with large stained-glass windows, paintings, bronze bas-reliefs, gold leaf, a marble pulpit and a marble altar, some onyx columns, and a lot of activity up inside the dome -- various orders of angels, plus prophets, apostles and doctors of the Church. There's an inscription in Polish around the base of the dome: 1 Kings 9:3, according to the guide ("I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually.")

Even better, there's a backstory to all that splendor. H. Russell Zimmermann, writing in Milwaukee Magazine, tells it: "Upon learning of the impending demolition of the Chicago Post Office and Customs House, [Grutza] negotiated a deal to buy materials. For $20,000 he got 200,000 tons, including stone, doors, hardware, railings and light fixtures. It took 500 railroad cars to ship... Brielmaier created a masterpiece, but close inspection will reveal a few reminders. Some ornamental brass hardware bears the U.S. Treasury seal, and carved capitals atop the portico’s columns contain American Eagles... Today, with its newly cleaned exterior, St. Josaphat’s looks better than it ever has."

So Brielmaier practiced green building, at least in re-using building materials, before that was even a glimmer of a concept. I didn't have the leisure to look around for those Treasury seals, which I didn't learn about till later anyway, because the Stations of the Cross was in progress when we arrived. We stayed for the end of that, and then looked around a bit afterward. I also missed the painting "Miracle at the Vistula," which depicts the defeat of the Bolsheviks by the Poles in August 1920. Not something you're likely to see in many churches.

Images of the basilica's interior are here. St. Josaphat, incidentally, was
this fellow ("Finally on 12 November, 1623, an axe-stroke and a bullet brought Josaphat his martyr's crown."). I'd never heard of him before, but apparently there's a church dedicated to him in Chicago as well.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday Falls on a Thursday Again This Year

No posting till next Monday. Regards for Easter, and spare a thought for today, Maundy Thursday, a term that confused me a little as a kid. It apparently comes from mandatum, "commandment," referring to Jesus' instructions to His disciples at the Last Supper.

Maundy Thursday in 1997, March 27 as it happened, was also the day that the pregnancy that became Lilly was medically confirmed. That gave me a fair amount to think about the rest of the day.

There won't be another April 24 Easter until 2095, at least in the Western tradition (the "Gregorian" Easter). As for the East, an April 24 Easter will come around again in 2022. East and West are coinciding this year.

As for an April 25 Easter -- the latest possible date in the West, as far as I understand it -- the next one will be in 2038, so some of us might be around for that. The real rarity is a March 22 Easter, the earliest possible day. I doubt that any of us will see the next one, in 2285.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Big Can of Hot Cocoa Mix

Still cold today, but not quite as cold. A strong thunderstorm moved through last night -- a few degrees less and it was have been a lot of snow -- and this morning I saw at least two dozen robins out on the field next to Ann's school, which I can see from my back yard. Having an earthworm feast, they were.

Ann asked for hot chocolate when she came home from school today. She used to do that regularly in the dead of winter, but not so much recently. So I got out the Super Family Size can of a certain "MILK CHOCOLATE flavor" ("flavor" in very small letters) brand of cocoa mix that everyone would know, if I mentioned it by name. Which I am not, because the food processing behemoth that makes it is not paying me to do so. Super Family Size, by the way, is 39 oz. (1.1 kilograms) in this case.

Cocoa isn't the first ingredient. Can't say that I'm too surprised at that. Sugar is, and I can't say that I'm surprised at that either. The can, in fact, brags that it contains "no artificial sweeteners," as if the hand of man (or more likely, factory robots) had no role in processing that sugar. It also says that the mix "is made with care in a real dairy where fresh milk from local farms is delivered daily, dried, and blended with premium, imported cocoa."

I'm really fond of packaging blarney like that. Even better: "For more indulgent cocoa, make with milk instead of water." Doesn't that sound great? Indulgent cocoa. To indulge, to yield to the desires or whims of, especially to an excessive degree; to allow oneself a special pleasure. I looked up the etymology of that word, since I don't think I ever have before, only to find that it goes back no further than Latin (indulgere, to be forbearing, to grant as a favor). Dang. I was looking forward to finding some bizarre Indo-European root with weird cognates, but otherwise the American Heritage College Dictionary says "origin obscure."

But I ramble. And worse, I'm beginning to sound like a food snob. I made Ann her hot chocolate (with water) and then made some for myself. Can't remember the last time I had any, since tea is usually my hot beverage. But sugar, cocoa and hot water do go together, and make a minor indulgence on a cold day.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday Gripes

Something gave me a mild headache for much of the day, though it's gone now. What could it have been? The fact that a day from late November lodged itself somehow into mid-April? Though he was talking about Minnesota, Lileks put it well this morning for Illinois too: "This spring was off to such a promising start, but it was the usual cruel tease, the cozening look, the crooked finger, the flash of ankle, the stroll down the alley where we could be alone, and then bang: a pimp’s blackjack on the back of the head."

Or maybe it was the drip-drip-drip of being nickel-and-dimed constantly. The latest incident of being nickel-and-diming literally cost me four nickels, or two dimes, when I bought 20 postcard-rate stamps today and discovered -- guess I wasn't paying attention -- that the domestic postcard rate is now 29¢, up a penny from before. The clerk didn't have any new denomination stamps, so I got 20 polar bear 28¢ stamps plus 20 Tiffany Lamp 1¢ stamps.

Looks like the nominal postcard rate has caught up with the first-class rate of 29¢ back from 1991 to '95. I was out of the country when the 29-cent Elvis was issued in early 1993. In fact, I missed the nationwide voting to pick between Young Elvis and Elvis After He Discovered Carbohydrates, but I heard it was a landslide for the former anyway.

Or maybe it's our kitchen ants. They're very small. Each could fit between the very smallest subdivision lines on standard wooden ruler, I think. We've seen a few in the kitchen for a week or so now. But only a few, marching one by one. Today they were out in greater numbers: ten by ten, hurrah. So now I have to figure out a way to deal with them, besides on-the-counter summary executions.

But I'm just carping. In the late afternoon, even in the cold and drizzle, the day didn't seem so bad after I drove past two police cars, lights flashing, on a quiet suburban street. The cops were doing a sobriety check on a fellow they'd pulled over. I know this because I caught a glance of him, balding and pudgy and about my age, with one of his legs raised. I'm fairly certain I had a better day than he did.

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Ground Whitener

Woke up this morning to see snow. Not a lot of snow, but enough to whiten the ground, with green grass stubble poking through. I planned to take a pic of the stubble, or maybe the bright yellow croci now bent over, but work and other indoor tasks occupied me all morning, and by the time I thought about it again shortly after noon, the snow had melted. Such are April snows.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Items From the Past: Wong Tai Sin Temple and the Shing Mun Redoubt

On the afternoon of [April 10, 1994], we went to Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon, a colorful, lively place. A weekend crowd was there and the air was smoky thick with burning joss. It is the first Taoist temple I've ever been to, though if I hadn't read about it beforehand, I'm not expert enough in Chinese religion to have known that.

The Main Altar of Wong Tai Sin Temple. According to Travel China Guide, "Many people who visit the temple come to have their fortunes told. Generally, worshippers entreat the fate of the same year. They light worship sticks, kneel before the main altar, make a wish, and shake a bamboo cylinder containing fortune sticks until one falls out."

Friday [April 15, 1994], found us on a short trip out to the New Territories. We spent part of the day walking a series of trails connected to the MacLehose Trail, "family walks" in the parlance of the Hong Kong park service. To get there, you take the subway to the end of the line at Tseun Wan, a major nexus of danchi and construction sites. From there, take a microbus to Shing Mun Country Park, a fine green spot around a reservoir dug in the '30s to supply the city. Hong Kong usually isn't associated with this kind of greenery. Almost no one else was there -- I don't associate a lack of crowds with the place either, but the park defied expectations. Maybe it's a different story on weekends.

We were under a double layer of shade: tall trees, and above that, a high thin layer of clouds. So the walking was cool. Later we did go on a section of the MacLehose Trail proper, Section 6, and hiked up a hill to the Shing Mun Redoubt, or what was left of it from the battle in '41. Still in evidence were long tunnels made of concrete, dug through the top of the hill. At their entrances are fanciful names -- London streets. Later generations have added graffiti to the ruins, and nature is slowly eating away at the concrete.

A fragment of the Shing Mun Redoubt along the MacLehose Trail, which snakes through the New Territories for about 60 miles. I'm not sure why I didn't take any photos of the overgrown concrete bunkers nearby.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

No Datapoint Left Behind

Cold again. Bah. Not freezing, but still bah. Puts me in a curmudgeonly mood, just in time for a sheaf of papers Lilly brought home from school today.

Rosa Luxemburg Junior High insists that I micromanage my eldest daughter's studies. Or at least that's one interpretation of the Student Summary Reports they send home six times a year, complete not only with an "in-progress grade" that breaks her grades down into as many components as the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index or some such. For instance, her "Trimester Achievement Grade" in Spanish breaks into Homework (20%), Formative Assessments (30%), Summative Assessments (¿qué?) (30%) and Daily Work/Participation (20%).

That's not all. There's a list of assignments she's done in each class. My own favorite is in Language Arts -- good to see that pedagoguese for English still kicking around -- under the subcategory "Achievement JRH Grade -- LAR Writing Communication." Therein I find New Friends Extended Response; Tone Paragraph; Lesson 18 Sentences; Lesson 30 Vocabulary Sentences; Noble Experiment Response Questions; Figurative Language Poster; Lesson 25 Vocab [sic] Sentences; and "Thank You, M'am" [sic] Response Sentences.

What's going on here? Do I need to know all that detail? Is it to persuade me that the teachers are doing their jobs? (I'm sure they are.) Does the administration insist the teachers do it to make it look like the administration is on top of things? Since the papers are clearly computer printouts, can I trace it to some educational software developer who sells schools on the idea of More Better Data? A state mandate of some kind? Parents who demand this kind of information?

Then again, I think I will ask Lilly just what Noble Experiment Response Questions and Tone Paragraphs might be. I could stand to learn something new myself.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Springtime Delights

Warm enough to read outside this afternoon -- 1861, but I didn't have enough time for much of it, as usual. (Though I did read an interesting section about the Wide Awakes.) The grass has greened up, bushes are budding, and early flowers face the sun. A few pioneering insects are out and about.

At Moraine Hills State Park last weekend, frog-song was my favorite harbinger of spring. It was warm enough to drive with the windows down, and the distinct sound of throaty frogs rose from the ponds near the road. No doubt singing the chorus common to male creatures: pick-me pick-me pick-me pick-me pick-me.

Or maybe the more harmonious among them were singing the amphibian equivalent of this. Being cold-blooded, they don't experience fever, but then again the song isn't talking about literal fever anyway.

It isn't exactly a springtime thing -- there's no tradition of this in Japan that I know of -- but recently Yuriko fried some gyoza (potsticker) wrappers in olive oil and then sprinkled them with powdered sugar.

Crispy and sweet. They were a big hit with everyone who lives here.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two April 12ths, Maybe Three

Today's a remarkable double-shot anniversary: The firing at Ft. Sumter, and then 100 years later, the launch of Yuri Gagarin into space. Both events are worth thinking about at some length.

For the occasion of the Fort Sumter's sesquicentennial, I picked up 1861 by Adam Goodheart, published this year in time for the Civil War sesquicentennial. I've only read about 20 pages so far, but it's good reading. True to the spirit of historical inquiry in modern times, Goodheart starts off with some interesting revision. Or perhaps in this case, re-revision.

When South Carolina seceded, the U.S. Army presence in Charleston Harbor was mostly at Fort Moultrie, under the command of Maj. Robert Anderson. Unlike Sumter, Moultrie was essentially indefensible.

"It would be one thing if President Buchanan had simply announced that he was withdrawing the troops from Charleston Harbor and turning the forts over to South Carolina, a decision that Anderson would have certainly obeyed, perhaps even welcomed," Goodheart writes. "But he would be damned if he was to surrender -- even worse, perform a shabby pantomime of a surrender -- before a rabble of whiskey-soaked militiamen and canting politicians."

Under the cover of darkness on December 26, 1860, Anderson moved his command to Fort Sumter. "Like so much else about the beginning of the Civil War, Major Anderson's move from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter is largely forgotten today. At the time, however, the little garrison's mile-long journey was seen not just as a masterstroke of military cunning but as the opening scene of a great and terrible national drama... 'Major Robert Anderson, thundered the Charleston Courier, 'has achieved the unenviable distinction of opening civil war between American citizens by a gross breach of faith.' Northerners, meanwhile, held enormous public banquets in Anderson's honor; cannons fired salutes in New York, Chicago, Boston, and dozens of other cities and towns.

"And considered in retrospect, Anderson's move seems freighted with even more symbolism. He lowered his flag on an old fortress, hallowed by the past, yet half ruined -- and then raised it upon a new one, still unfinished, yet stronger, bedded in New England granite...

"Twenty years after the war, when officials at the War Department began preparing the Official History of the War of the Rebellion, a massive compilation of documents that would eventually grow to more than two hundred thousand pages, the first of all the uncountable documents that they included was Anderson's brisk telegram announcing his arrival at Sumter. Nineteenth-century historians knew that without this event, the war might not have happened...

"When the saga of the Civil War is recounted now, it usually begins four months later, when the Confederate batteries at Charleston finally opened fire... It elevates a moment when war was already a fait accompli, with Americans on both sides simply awaiting the opening guns."

As for Col. Gagarin's venture into space, I remember how little detail about the flight -- or any Soviet flight -- used to be available. That's no longer the case, fortunately. And with the Cold War long over, there's no excuse for neglecting the flight of Vostok 1 as an achievement for all humanity, just as Apollo 11 was.

From the April 12 entry at, I learned a few things about the flight I didn't know, such as the fact that Gagarin parachuted out before the capsule hit the ground -- which was a secret for years.

"Vostok 1 - Call Sign: Kedr (Cedar). Crew: Gagarin. Backup Crew: Titov; Nelyubov. Payload: Vostok 3KA s/n 3. Mass: 4,725 kg (10,416 lb). Nation: USSR. Apogee: 315 km (195 mi). Perigee: 169 km (105 mi). First manned spaceflight, one orbit of the earth. Three press releases were prepared, one for success, two for failures. It was only known ten minutes after burnout, 25 minutes after launch, if a stable orbit had been achieved.

"The payload included life-support equipment and radio and television to relay information on the condition of the pilot. The flight was automated; Gagarin's controls were locked to prevent him from taking control of the ship. The combination to unlock the controls was available in a sealed envelope in case it became necessary to take control in an emergency.

"After retrofire, the service module remained attached to the Sharik reentry sphere by a wire bundle. The joined craft went through wild gyrations at the beginning of re-entry, before the wires burned through. The Sharik, as it was designed to do, then naturally reached aerodynamic equilibrium with the heat shield positioned correctly.

"Gagarin ejected after re-entry and descended under his own parachute, as was planned. However, for many years the Soviet Union denied this, because the flight would not have been recognized for various FAI world records unless the pilot had accompanied his craft to a landing. Recovered April 12, 1961 8:05 GMT.

"[Gagarin had been] accepted into the cosmonaut unit in 1960, at age 26. After his historic 108-min. flight around the Earth in Vostok 1... he was promoted to unit leader. Seven years later, on March 27, 1968, Gagarin died with a flight instructor in a fighter jet crash."

The footnote anniversary is that of the first space flight of the Space Shuttle, Columbia, with John Young and Bob Crippen on board, on April 12, 1981. I didn't see the launch that day, probably because it was early in the morning, and I was a college student. Two days later, however, I remembering watching the early afternoon landing on a TV fixed to the wall at the VU bookstore. A lot of people were gathered around watching, and a few cheers went up when the craft landed successfully.

Has the Shuttle program been a success? History will have to make that call. In the meantime, here's something to watch. It's hard to believe it's an unofficial NASA PSA.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Chrome in the Park

The sun rose on Sunday and the day became a fine, summer-like event. Saturday wasn't bad, with temps in the 60s F., but on Sunday they shot right past 80°. (Today we were back down 20 degrees.) Just going outside yesterday was a pleasure. The wind kicked up sometimes, but it was a warm wind, visiting like an old friend you haven't seen in years.

The thing to do was go somewhere and walk around. We picked Moraine Hills State Park in McHenry County, Illinois, a section of land that's a relic of the last Ice Age, as the name suggests. A nature walk, as nature starts to awaken from winter.

In the parking lot of the visitors center, I spotted another relic of a bygone time. A manmade relic, in this case.

I didn't know what year this stylish machine had rolled off the lines. I'm not enough of an auto expert to have known that, standing there next to it. But I have a library on my desk, and using that and the photo I took, I tried to pinpoint it just now. Could it be that it isn't just an 50s-vintage Olds Super 88, but a '58?

Look at all that chrome. It looks just like this. Then again, Wiki is one thing, and I couldn't quite confirm it at a web site devoted exclusively to the '58 Olds. Still, how often do you see that much chrome in one place? A whole chapter in the imaginary coffee-table book my brother Jay dreamed up -- The Grandeur That Was Chrome -- could be devoted to the '58 Olds.

The car was in such good shape I that I suspected that Doc Brown had fitted it with a flux capacitor and driven here from the late '50s. That or a serious enthusiast owns the thing, and takes it out for drives on summer-like days. The owner wasn't around, or I could have asked him about the car. I'm sure he would have told me, maybe in loving detail.

Across the parking I saw another relic of the past. I had to take a picture of it, too. One of these days, maybe in my lifetime, the only public phones in this country are going to be displays at the Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Item From the Past: The Sakura of Suminoe

Twenty springs ago, I visited the Osaka Gogoku Shrine in Suminoe Ward. I'd been told that the shrine's cherry blossoms (sakura) were well worth seeing. For one thing, they're cherry blossoms. A grove of cherry trees in bloom is arrestingly beautiful, something I already knew, having first visited Kyoto during cherry blossom season in 1990.

Just as importantly, no crowds. Everywhere else I saw sakura I had to deal with crowds, especially at the grounds of the Japan Mint, which happens to be in Osaka and happens to be planted with cherry trees.

No one else was at Osaka Gogoku Shrine that morning.

Note the headstones, featuring a shell, a warplane propeller and a cavalry horse, among other martial emblems. The web site of the city of Osaka says of the shrine: "Established in May 1940 and dedicated to Emperor Nintoku and all soldiers from Osaka who died in battle from the Meiji era onward. The surviving families of the fallen soldiers had wished for such a monument since 1900... Some volunteers formed a cherry tree donation committee, finally donating approximately one thousand cherry and paulownia trees, covering... the holy site and giving it a peaceful, serene atmosphere."

Because of their brevity, sakura have long been associated with mortality, and before 1945, the Japanese government promoted an association with the war dead in particular. But it's a fitting association, considering that most of the war dead would have had very short lives indeed.

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Thursday, April 07, 2011

551 Horai Butaman

The following are some links to the drama and comedy of history. First, the drama. About all I can say about these color photos of small towns and rural settings from 1939 to 1943 is: wow. Take a good look at them.

Then there's comedy. I was glad to see "Undergraduate Gems" online. I remember it circulated pre-Internet as a photocopy in the 1980s. It remains one of the funniest things I've ever read. Some of my favorite lines include:

In the 1400's most Englishmen were prependicular.

Europe was full of incredible churches with great art bulging out their doors.

The German Emperor's lower passage was blocked by the French for years.

Russian nobles wore clothes only to humour Peter the Great.

A new time zone of national unification roared over the horizon.

I had a steamed pork bun for lunch today, the kind available in the frozen food section of one of the mom-n-pop Oriental grocery stores not far from my home. The buns are pretty good. Good if you actually steam them, tolerable if you lazily microwave them. But they aren't 551 Horai butaman. No steamed pork bun could be as good as they are.

I didn't realize until some years after leaving Japan that 551 Horai (551 蓬莱) brand steamed pork buns, butaman (豚まん) that is, aren't a Japanese specialty. And by that, I mean they aren't a Japanese interpretation of a Chinese item, the steamed pork bun. They are an Osaka take on the Chinese steamed pork bun. They aren't even available in other parts of Japan.

A large shop in the Namba district, deep in the heart of Osaka, makes the buns. I used to pass the shop often enough, but didn't need to buy my butaman there. 551 Horai kiosks also operate in various other parts of town, including major train stations, which is where I usually bought them. Butaman, each about as big as an adult human fist, came in Chinese red-colored boxes in even numbers: two, four and I think six.

The numeral part of the name, incidentally, is pronounced "go-go-ichi," meaning "five-five-one," not "go-hyaku go-ju ichi," meaning "five hundred fifty-one." I asked more than one Osakan about why that might be, and the answer boiled down to "dunno." A blog called About Food in Japan says that the 551 name was originally taken from part of the shop's phone number.

About Food in Japan has photos. The bun's exterior swirl makes it instantly recognizable as a real-deal 551 butaman, because you can buy other, inferior brands. Those were known, at least to gaijin, as nikuman, a kind of generic designation. Niku = meat; man = bun. By contrast, buta = pork.

Pork indeed on the inside, along with some egg and a smattering of onion, all mildly but deliciously seasoned. I wish I could fully convey the pleasure of bringing home a box of butaman -- two before I married, four afterward -- opening them up, and eating them warm right away with something cool to drink. Gets your senses working overtime.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Smokey Bear Tangent

I remember the last time the federal government shut down. I happened to visit Washington DC in December '95, during the event. That was the last time I went to that city, in fact. The shutdown thwarted my desire to visit certain places, such as Mount Vernon and the National Zoo (because who wouldn't want to truthfully say, "I've been around the world, and I've been in the Washington Zoo"?).

I thought it a little odd that the federal government runs the zoo in DC, but then again it was created by Congress in 1889 and is part of the Smithsonian Institution, its full name being the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. It's also where Smokey Bear lived most of his life.

Re Smokey Bear, a blog produced by the Smithsonian, "The Bigger Picture," says that "Smokey was a popular attraction at the National Zoo, and received millions of visitors during his twenty-six year residency. He became so popular in fact that he received more than 13,000 letters a week and was granted his own zip code."

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Fire & Wind

Besides the manmade items at the Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary detailed yesterday, there was also evidence of human intervention in the landscape. Such as acres of grassland, burned.

It's intentional burning, of course. It's well established that many ecosystems need a regular burn to stay healthy, and Spring Valley management burns different patches every year. This year we noticed that some of the land next to the Schaumburg Road parking lot had also been torched, right up to the asphalt.

There was also plenty of evidence of wind destruction. Maybe this tree cracked and fell during the blizzard in early February or because of the big blow last October.

But it's not really destruction. The fallen tree is merely on the way to becoming food for other creatures.

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Monday, April 04, 2011

Manmade Objects at Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary

This group of figures resides just outside the Vera Meineke Nature Center at Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary in Schaumburg.

It wasn't cold at all yesterday afternoon, so Ann suggested we go to Spring Valley, and we did. The figures were still dressed for winter by unknown hands. I don't think I've ever seen them dressed, but then again we usually don't go to Spring Valley in the winter. They're a Rockwellesque trio. No plaque or other marker describes who made them, and for all I know they're something you can pick up at a garden superstore.

Follow one of the footpaths into Spring Valley's grassland and eventually you'll find some large wooden spools. Probably they had an industrial use once upon a time. Telephone line? Electric cable? Whatever their former purpose, now they sit in a clearing and add visual interest to the place.

About 10 minutes' walk from the nature center is the Merkle Cabin, formerly an office for the peony farm that was once on the site of the nature sanctuary. Among other items near the cabin is this bench.

It's made entirely of cast iron.

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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Item From the Past: Zaharakos

So much for March going out like a lamb. More like a walrus fresh from taking a dip under the ice, since the last days of the month were blustery, rainy and only a bit above freezing. Today, on the other hand, was downright spring-like. Windy and overcast, but not cold at all. So today's a candidate for the first day of spring.

Gozaic, created by a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is an interesting site. A little busy, but chock full of items about places worth seeing. I learned about it in my usual circuitous way. I wanted to find some updated information about a place called Zaharako's in Columbus, Indiana, a memorable ice cream parlor. In early April 2002, we had lunch and some ice cream there, and I wrote the following.

"At the end of the tour, we walked down the main shopping street and found a place I had seen from the bus, Zaharakos. It’s an ice cream parlor, first opened in 1900 and not looking much different now, tricked out with oak fixtures, an onyx soda fountain and a mahogany bar. The sandwiches were good, the lemonade better, and the ice cream best. The place also has a working Welte German pipe organ, installed in 1908."

A Gozaic blog post from last summer says: "Zaharakos has been a Columbus institution since it was opened in 1900 by three Greek brothers with the last name Zaharako. The store closed in 2004, but was restored and reopened in June 2006... There is a Tiffany-style lamp on the bar and the Welte Orchestrion, which had been removed and sold to a collector, was purchased back and returned to Zaharakos... All the ice cream is made on the premises, and the Green River Float is a bright green soda with a lemon lime flavor."

I have a postcard of the place somewhere, but couldn't find it among the stacks of cards I have around the house, so no scan of the card will appear here. Some images appear at the shop's web site, the home page of which plays "The Entertainer" upon opening. Which made me wonder: would the shop's pipe organ have played ragtime back when that music was new? Or is that more of a tribute to the fact that a lot of people remember "The Entertainer" as a mid-70s hit from a hit movie? My guess is the latter.

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