Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stille Nacht

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Posting will resume again around January 2, 2012.

You'd think we'd hear this English version of the song more often, but no.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I'm Dreaming of a Brown Christmas

A solstice fact for the day, courtesy "December 20 and December 23 solstices occur less frequently than December 21 or December 22 solstices in the Gregorian calendar. The last December 23 solstice occurred in 1903 and will not occur again until the year 2303. A December 20 solstice has occurred very rarely, with the next one occurring in the year 2080."

Looks like Christmas Day in northern Illinois will not feature crystalline water ice coating the mixture of clay, sand and organic matter that serves as substrate for plant growth. That is to say, there's no snow on the ground today, and none predicted for the next few days. I wonder, was a "white Christmas" a popular idea before the Irving Berlin song, or did the song foster the idea? Probably the latter, considering how astonishingly successful the song has been.

Roy J. Harris claims in the article linked above that "longing for Christmas snowfall was hardly a common image before Berlin's song." But it is now. My own daughters are complaining about the prospect of a brown Christmas. But that doesn't bother me, since it's just like the ones I used to know.

I had a fine time driving home from Phillies (see yesterday), listening to Christmas music on WXRT, which has started playing it from 8 p.m. to midnight. That station, which normally plays a broader range of popular music than most, has figured out an alternative to the repetitive, unimaginative approach WLIT takes to Christmas music every year. First of all, XRT plays it only four hours a day; that should be more than enough for anyone. More importantly, countless artists have recorded countless holiday titles over the years, and the station dips deep into that well.

The selections include unheralded versions of classics, lesser-known songs, and a variety of demented holiday tunes. You never know what you'll hear next. I was enjoying the songs, but after awhile Lilly wanted me to change to WLIT, so she could hear "something I can sing along with."

"What, you can't sing along to 'Father Christmas'?" I asked. That was the song playing at that moment. (The Kinks, 1977; not exactly unknown, but the Christmas Lite wouldn't touch it.)

But the last time I played Father Christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said: 'Father Christmas, give us some money
Don't mess around with those silly toys.
We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over...'

I allowed that maybe "Father Christmas" didn't quite inspire the holiday cheer she was looking for, so we went back to the usual suspects for a few minutes. And what do you know, WLIT soon played the original Bing Crosby version of "White Christmas." I can't really complain about that. A few songs can take the repetition.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Italian Sausage & A Visit to the Expo

Over the weekend we visited our old haunts in the western suburbs, and had a fine supper at a place called Phillies in Willowbrook, Illinois. "Old Fashioned Thin Crust Pizza is Our Specialty," its card says. The girls had some pizza, and it was a good thin-crust pie all right. I had a first-rate Italian sausage sandwich.

Good food is important, but Phillies has something else no other restaurant I've ever been to has: an entire room dedicated to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Dozens and dozens of framed photos of the world's fair hang on the walls of that room, with some other pics scattered around the rest of the restaurant. Buildings, interior shots, pictures of people attending the fair, machines on display, the first Ferris wheel, and more -- including two rows of photos of denizens of the Midway Plaisance in native costume. It was a marvelous exhibit.

This list gives a good idea of the variety to be found on the Midway during the fair, and these photos include some of those on the wall at Phillies, especially the individuals posed in their native garb. As we were leaving, I made sure we all looked around the room. "As soon as I get my time machine," I told the girls, "I know where I'm going."

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Christkindlmarket Chicago '11

I visited at the Christkindlmarket Chicago on Friday as an appendage to a longer visit downtown, as during previous years, since it isn't something I would make a special trip just to see. The ornaments are pretty and all, but not so dazzling that I'd drive to a Metra station, ride an hour on a train, and walk six or seven city blocks just to gaze upon them.

Nice baubles.

It might be a misapprehension, but it seemed like there were more food vendors at the market this year than before. Such as this purveyor of pretzels.

It was a fairly cold day, though not actually freezing -- been a strange December that way so far, with little snow or ice. But it was cold enough for pigeons on Daley Plaza, site of the Christkindlmarket, to seek out warmth wherever they could.

That's Daley Plaza's Eternal Flame, dating from 1972, whose plaque says, Eternal flame in memory of the men and women who have served in our armed forces. Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, National Guard, Reserves and Merchant Marines. In Pigeon, it might be called "the Warm Place Always."

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Item From the Past: Urakami Cathedral

We happened to be in Nagasaki around Christmastime in 1993, and visited St. Mary's Cathedral, better known as Urakami Cathedral, after the district in the city in which it's located. We were there during the day and then in the evening on Christmas Eve, to attend church.

The place has a melancholy history. Begun in the late 19th century after the legalization of Christianity in Japan, the cathedral was finished in the early 20th century. On August 9, 1945, it was only about a third of a mile away from the atomic bomb blast, and so destroyed. The current structure dates from 1959, with a renovation in 1980 to make it more closely resemble its original French Romanesque style.

Not far away is the Nagasaki Peace Park, where you can encounter this 30-foot fellow, created by Sculptor Seibou Kitamura, a Nagasaki native.

I'm not versed on Buddhist iconography, but I'd guess that the sculptor took inspiration from it. In any case, the Nagasaki Tourism Guide says that "the raised right hand points to the heavens to signify the threat of atomic weapons while the left arm is raised horizontally to represent the wish for peace."

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Name Salad

Got an e-mail from Americans for Gary J today -- how did I get on that list? -- and the subject said: Gary Johnson is Angry! Find Out Why. I have a pretty good idea. He's asking himself, why isn't it my turn? Even the pizza guy got a turn.

We attended the Rosa Luxemburg Junior High Winter Band Concert this evening, in which Lilly participated as a trombonist. For anyone worried about the "winter" in that name at the expense of Christmas, I can report that the program included no fewer than four songs with "Christmas" explicitly in the title, plus others with obvious Christmas associations. Some tunes I wasn't familiar were "Santa at the Symphony," "Funky Ol' Saint Nick," and "Rhapsody in Red & Green."

I looked at the lists of kids in the bands (7th grade, 8th grade, the district junior highs' jazz band) and I'm pleased to report a multi-ethnic salad bowl of names, out here in the homogeneous suburbs. A selection: Avila, Begbaaji, Freiburger, Gonzalez, Hirjoi, Jones, Khokari, Kim, Li, McCoy, Nagorzanski, O'Connell, Patel, Popovic, Rizvic, Scalafini, Schmaus, Stribling, Takizawa, Walker, Woo. As for first names, the likes of Ann, Alex, Caroline, Jessica, Jonathan, Kevin, Lilly, Mike, Patrick, Rebecca, Sarah, Thomas and William are represented, but so are Aya, Ena, Jemi, Koryana, Malik, Mumbua, Reena, Sergio, and my own favorite, a kid named Vlad.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Failed Coinage

How does the saying go? December showers bring January... nothing really, unless the ground is still damp enough to freeze solid. It rained much of the night last night and much of the day today, leaving large puddles in our back yard and an even larger one in our neighbor's back yard. A cold rain, but not an icy one. It felt like a slice of March broke lose and lodged here in mid-December. I like it, but it can mean only one thing: a few rounds of blizzard in the not-too-distant future.

I was bummed to read that the number of presidential coins minted going forward is going to be slashed. That's two of my favorite things, coins and presidents, in one package. But I have to say that I haven't gotten around to collecting any of the presidential dollars, either in circulating or proof condition. On those few occasions when I get cash from a human teller at a bank, I ask for dollar coins (and sometimes $2 bills), and usually they have some presidentials along with Sacagaweas and even Susan B. Anthony pieces. Then I go out and circulate them.

I don't actually want to see the $1 bill discontinued, since it's iconic, but I don't mind using dollar coins, either. I'd go for U.S. $2 coins, too, as long as the $1 and $2 pieces were distinctive enough, like the Canadian loonie and toonie.

In an idle moment today I rummaged through the container where I keep the small change of other nations that I've accumulated over the years, and it occurred to me -- since I've been writing some about the problems of the euro lately -- that I have some defunct currency in that container. At the moment there are 17 euro-zone nations, and I found bits of the former currencies of nine of those countries in my possession, ten if you count 1 pataca from Portuguese Macao, all as worthless as car-wash tokens from car washes that have gone out of business.

Besides the pataca, the others include: 1 DM, 20 French centimes, 100 Italian lira, 1 Dutch guilder, 10 Belgian francs, 1 Austrian schilling, 1 Finnish mark, 20 Estonian senti and 50 drachma. All collected in their countries of origin, except for that drachma. While in St. Petersburg, Russia, we stayed in a guesthouse with WCs down the hall. One time I went to use the bathroom, and there sitting on top of the tank was a 50 drachma coin.

Mostly copper, between the size of a quarter and a half-dollar, and minted in 1988, the coin sports an image of Homer on one side, a trireme on the other. It's a nice piece of money. Bet the Greeks are missing their drachma something fierce about now.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit

I saw about five minutes of the feature-length abomination known as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas on TV this evening. That's all I've ever seen of it at any one sitting over the decade or so since it was new, and I've never formed a better opinion of it. An alternate title might have been, Dr. Seuss’ Heirs Eager to Cash In, No Questions Asked.

But at least it reminded me that I own this book, which goes by the fine title Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit. It's a translation by the husband-and-wife team Terence and Jennifer Tunburg, unless that's a ruse, and the original was actually on a fourth-century Greek/Latin codex rediscovered at Mount Athos in the 19th century (and updated a bit in modern versions, to exclude such details as the Grinch's heresy trial for following Arianism).

It was one of the better Christmas presents I've received over the years -- I think it was the Christmas after Lilly was born -- from some old high school friends of mine. Now that's an adaptation of a classic children's tale we call all get behind.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Indoor Display of '11

Finding and setting up a Christmas tree was another weekend project. Find one we did, at a Lutherian church lot at some distance from our house. It's a balsam fir, about six feet high -- a shade shorter than usual, since that was cheaper, and I always have to trim a few inches off anyway to crown the thing with the golden plastic star.

So far, I haven't got a decent picture of the whole thing. But Ann took a couple of closeups. One is of a electric multicolor star-shaped ornament that I refuse to put on the top because the golden plastic star goes there, since it's exactly like the star on the top of the trees of my youth, except not silvery. This year, the electric multicolor star-shaped ornament is near the base of the tree.

Ann also set up a gang of Christmas characters at the base of the tree.

Be of good cheer, they seem to say, or else. Santa's got some muscle with him in the form of that Christmas bear. Sure, he's smiling. He enjoys his main job, which is keeping the elves in line.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Synchronized Electric Holiday Cheer

While visiting a drug store this weekend, I noticed that A Christmas Story has become a cottage industry -- a fairly major cottage industry, I'd say, to get a whole endcap display of its themed merchandise at this particular large chain. Maybe this year I'll get around to seeing that movie, since somehow or other I've missed it over the years. I'd never even heard of it until some years ago, when I read that the house in Cleveland used for exteriors had been converted into a museum devoted to the movie. Or I could just read about the movie, so that I'll understand the significance of a female leg table lamp in the story.

Until this weekend, I'd also never seen home Christmas lights synchronized to flash in time to a musical score, though I'd been vaguely aware of such displays, which are still fairly new. An early example of synchronized Christmas lights "was the work of Carson Williams, a Mason, Ohio, electrical engineer who spent about three hours sequencing the BB Light-O-Rama channels that controlled the 16,000 Christmas lights in the 2004 version of his annual holiday spectacular," says Snopes. "His 2005 display included over 25,000 lights that he spent nearly two months and $10,000 to hook up. So that Williams' neighbors wouldn't be disturbed by constant noise, viewers driving by the house were informed by signs to tune into a signal broadcast over a low-power FM radio station to hear the musical accompaniment."

Another source says that Williams spent three hours sequencing each minute of his display, but whatever the total, I'm sure it was a lot of work. Now, in the holiday season of 2011, either the techniques involved in creating this kind of light show are being defused to the benefit of Christmas-display enthusiasts, or Christmas-display specialists have learned Mr. William's strategies and are finding a market for their services. Or both. But when you chance across an elaborate synchronized display in the heart of the northwest suburbs, you know the thing's got some legs, at least among homeowners for whom static Christmas lights just aren't enough.

One of Lilly's friends told us about a synchronized display a block from her house, and when Lilly and I were in the area on Saturday evening, we stopped in front of the house for a few minutes and watched. It's exactly as described above: thousands of lights and a hand-lettered sign advising us to tune into a certain unoccupied FM frequency. As we watched, the lights flashed in artful on/off patterns to "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies" and a few other songs. A remarkable sight. I plan to take Yuriko and Ann to see it soon.

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

12/8/41: A Strong Passive Tense

I played the Pearl Harbor address, so easily available online, for Lilly today. At the moment she happens to be studying World War II in her social studies class (please never to call it "history"), but her teacher didn't play it in class, despite today being a perfect time to do so, and the fact that it's one of the most famous speeches ever given by an American president.

Listening to it again myself, it occurred to me that the very first sentence belies the idea, advocated with unreasoning vigor by some editors and English teachers, that the passive voice is a mark of namby-pamby or evasive writing. It can be used those ways, of course ("mistakes were made"), but so what?

I've seen editing guides that discourage the passive, and no less a writer than George Orwell discouraged the construction in the famed "Politics and the English Language." But Orwell wasn't right about everything, and nor are editors and English teachers. FDR knew how to create a powerful passive. There it is, in the first sentence.

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date that will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

Now, imagine that a narrow-minded editor had gotten ahold of it.

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date that will live in infamy -- naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan suddenly and deliberately attacked the United States of America."

In this case, the active is weak and the passive is strong. The president wasn't trying to deliver a news report. Emphasizing what happened to the United States of America was what he set out to do, and he did it.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Vocal Refain By Glee Club

Up in the southeastern sky at about 10 p.m. this evening was Orion, trailing a fairly bright Moon. But he was bright in the winter air. So winter's here.

Is anyone recording topical songs any more? I suppose someone must be, but I'm too out of touch with contemporary recording to know. So I look around a little and the answer is "yes." If you can call "Osama bin Laden Is Dead!!!" a song. I don't have the urge to listen to it.

Today I did listen to a few of the songs listed at "Pearl Harbor - Popular Songs" by the UMKC University Libraries. It seemed like the thing to do. All of them have long faded, but I did know "Remember Pearl Harbor" by Don Reid and Sammy Kaye. Recorded 10 days after the attack and a best-seller in its time, it's the World War II song that sounds the most like a college fight song. "Go to meet the foe?" How gallant.

I knew it already because it was on the soundtrack of Radio Days. Which I acquired while living in Japan. Life's peculiar sometimes.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Gansito Snack Cakes

Woke to a dusting of snow this morning, but I can't call it the first snowfall of the season, especially since most of it melted by noon. By evening the sky was clear, with a bright Venus following the Sun down, and waxing gibbous Moon not far from Jupiter on the other side of the sky. A pretty nice celestial show for the suburbs.

Recently I bought a package of Gansito brand snack cakes (pastelito relleno) on impulse at a grocery store that features a good many Mexican items (and Polish items, for that matter; this is metro Chicago). I turned my research assistant Señor Google to the task of finding out more about it. He came back with a number of interesting things, such as the contrast between this (I assume) older Gansito commercial and a newer one.

Of course, once you start watching vintage Spanish-language commercials, there's no limit to the amount to time you can waste with it. Still, it might be worth 30 seconds to become acquainted with La Negrita brand pancake mix.

Gansito ("little goose," or "gosling") is a product Marinela, a division of Grupo Bimbo SA de CV, a vast Mexican food conglomerate (revenue $8.8 billion in 2010). So vast, in fact, that it bought Sara Lee's North American Fresh Bakery unit in 2010 for nearly $1 billion. Now Rainbo bread, among others, is technically a Mexican brand.

The Gansito package is as colorful as you'd expect, pink and blue and orange, and features an anthropomorphic gosling in t-shirt, baggy pants and athletic shoes. The package I bought has two cakes in it, for a total of 3.5 oz. (100g). It's clearly made for export to English-speaking lands, though with Spanish flourishes, such as "Búscame en Facebook: Gansito Marinela," in case you want to be the cake's amigo on Facebook.

Another assistant of mine, Señor Wiki, claims that they are "similar to Twinkies," but I disagree. They're both cylinder-ish in shape, and creme filling is a component. But Gansito also includes strawberry filling, and is coated with dark chocolate covered in chocolate sprinkles. They're not bad at all. Not something I'd buy any more than Twinkies, which isn't that often, but a good alternative when the snack-cake urge strikes.

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Monday, December 05, 2011

Basic Trash-Can Policy

Near freezing temps expected for tomorrow, and maybe a little snow. We shall see.

"Why are you going slow?" Ann asked me not from the back seat long ago, as I was backing out of the driveway. Usually it's a time for proceeding slowly, but at that moment I also didn't want to hit my full trash cans, which I leave next to the curb, near where the driveway means the street.

"I don't want to hit the trash cans," I told her.

"Oh. So it's your policy not to run over the trash cans."

Where did she pick up that turn of phrase? But yes, I had to agree that it's my policy not to run over my own trash cans.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Lighting the December Nights

This weekend proved to be unexpectedly warm (that is, not biting cold) and November-like. Much rain on Saturday morning instead of snow. Go figure.

I took the opportunity to light the outdoor lights, which have been in place since last year, when I had to replace most of the older strings. I also festooned one of our small evergreens with the new, aforementioned LED lights. Then I put out one plastic and one ceramic snowman, neither of which lights. Yuriko acquired the ceramic snowman last summer at a yard sale, and he's not bad looking.

Here in our suburban neighborhood there seem to be about as many inflatables as ever, but icicle lights, so popular in the late '90s and early '00s, are now pretty scarce. Replacing regular outdoor, wall-mounted lights with red and green bulbs, once a novelty, now seems fairly common, sometimes to supplement other decor, sometimes as the only decor. One house not far away put in red and green lights to replace the usual white, but also opposite-colored lights at ground level, shining up at the wall-mounted lights. That is, green shines up to a red light, and red shines up to a green light. It's a pretty effect.

One family down the block, who always decorates for Halloween with items that include an animated dark figure sporting sinister blue-light eyes, also decorates with some elaborateness for Christmas. They've put out my favorite lawn decoration so far this year: some Christmas chickens. No, really. The ensemble includes lighted figures, the largest of them a chicken with a scarf and a top hat and a raised baton. Smaller chicken figures (chicks?) are nearby, apparently taking musical direction from the larger chicken. I've never seen the likes of it before.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Fill 'Er Up With Premium Electrons

On Saturday, we went to Chicago Premium Outlets, which is actually in Aurora, Illinois, just off I-88. I saw something there I've read about, but never seen before: an electric vehicle charging station.

Cool. A U.S. Department of Energy web page tells me that there are currently about 75 nonresidential charging stations in Illinois, though as a state, Illinois' total is fairly low. California has well over 500, and Florida, Michigan, Texas and Washington state all have between 100 and 200. Then again, some states have none, including the yawning stretches of Montana and the Dakotas.

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