Tuesday, January 31, 2012

January Ends With a Whimper

The contrast between the end of January this year and last year is remarkable -- and so I'm remarking on it. Today was so much like a random day at the end of March I sat on the deck for a few minutes around noon, wearing a jacket instead of a coat, and enjoyed it. The Sun wasn't high, but bright and warm. The wind blew, and while it was a little too cool for comfort, it was no biting winter wind.

The only thing missing, I thought, was a small patch of crocuses emerging from a spot next to the deck. They're always the first flowers, usually rising in late February or early March. And then I noticed them, peeking out today.

Wow. Could it be that winter was only about three weeks long this year? Probably not. February could still drop the hammer on us, and it would be a pretty heavy hammer.


Monday, January 30, 2012

Ant Stories

In August 2001, I drove to St. Louis with Lilly, who wasn't quite four years old, to visit my brother Jay and nephew Sam, as Sam moved into his dorm for his freshman year at Washington University. Lilly and I spent the first night at a motel en route, and it so happened that Them! was on TV that night. We watched most of it. Lilly was frightened and much more recently -- last year, in fact -- claimed that she actually remembered how scared the giant ants made her, which was the only thing she remembered about that trip.

It had been years since I'd seen the movie. What I remember from the 2001 viewing, besides Lilly's reaction, was that I hadn't realized that a pre-Matt Dillon James Arness was in it. Thinking about Them! now, I'm surprised some producer somewhere hasn't managed to remake it into a CGI travesty in which the ants are created by genetic engineering, rather than atomic testing. Give it time.

In the summer of 2006, we came home from Canada to discover that ants were busy trying to take over our house. Or least set up shop and live in it. I called in professional help and the bugs were dispatched. They were large black ants, and they've never returned.

I bring this up because I discovered a trail of very small ants this morning across the floor of the room in between my office and the kitchen. We'd seen these little black ants here and there during recent weeks, and even some in the upstairs bathroom, which I discouraged with a few squirts of bug spray. But I guess their numbers increase if they're aren't dealt with more systematically.

Most of the ants were following one of the grooves in the floor created by the grid-like pattern of tiles. The groove is a straight shot across the floor -- an ant highway -- all the way from the trash bin in the kitchen to a small hole in the baseboard. Their lair must be in there. Well, nest. But that always sounded too pleasant for ants, which have some nightmarish features if you think about it. (Or see movies in which giant ant mandibles kill people.)

So I picked up some ant traps today, the kind that promise that the ants will enter, pick up a load of poisoned food and take it home to the nest. The first time I ever used such a thing was in Japan, during the first year I lived there. Ants invaded; somehow I found the ant traps in a store, though I had no idea what to ask for; and they worked very well. During the 2006 ant invasion, ant traps didn't work. So we'll see if these little ants take the bait of doom.

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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ann at Nine

As long as she lives in Northern climes, Ann will always pass her birthday in the pit of winter. This year, at least, the pit isn't so deep. We got a dusting of snow last night, but in the slightly above freezing temps today, most of that disappeared.

We opted for chocolate cake this year. It's been a while.

The cake came undecorated from the industrial bakeries of a warehouse store, but Ann soon fixed that with pink sugar pearls, which spell "Happy BD," but mostly she just scattered them on top. Add a candle 9 and the cake was ready.

A couple of Ann's friends spent the night on the living room floor, giggling and making other noise well into the night. They're shown here after opening presents.

One present was a Monster High doll -- Ann had two already -- which are also pictured above. Monster High is a television show that I tried to sit through once, but I couldn't make it. I hear that it's popular among little girls, and who knows, maybe unmarried men in their 20s, some of whom have unaccountable tastes in entertainment.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Come to Australia, You Might Accidently Get Killed

It's that time of year again, that is, Australia Day. Unfortunately I've lost touch with my Australian friends from the early '90s, but I hope they're well. I understand that staying well can be a tough proposition down under.

“The taipan is the one to watch out for. It is the most poisonous snake on Earth, with a lunge so swift and a venom so potent that your last mortal utterance is likely to be: 'I say, is that a sn--' ”

― Bill Bryson


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Knock 'Em Down

The February 2012 issue of Boys' Life arrived in the mail today. I was happy to see one of my articles in it, on a two-page spread.

"Knock 'Em is the fitting title, since it's about building demolition. What boy doesn't like to see things knocked down? I enjoyed writing it, too, learning such things as exactly what a shaped charge is.

Nice work by the editors and graphic artists. In these hard times for print magazines, BL is still a class act.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pointing Out the Pointers

Early last week, Ann asked me to go outside with her and point out some stars. She'd been studying the sky in school. It was one of the clear but cold nights just before we actually got snow around here, but I was only too happy to oblige. The sky's not very dark in the suburbs, but dark enough for me to show her some basic items, including the way that the easy-to-identify Big Dipper and Cassiopeia appear to circle the North Star tightly.

After we went inside, she said down and drew this. Not for school, just because she wanted to.

Spot-on, except for the minor detail that the Pointers actually refer to Dubhe (α) and Merak (β) at the edge of the Big Dipper's bowl, not Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper itself. I showed her that when you draw a line from Merak to Dubhe and beyond, it will point to Polaris (without bothering with the stars' formal names; I never can remember which is which, anyway). It's unlikely that she'll ever forget how to find the North Star.

This evening the sky was layered with high thin clouds, but when I went out to the garage I could still see a thin-crescent setting Moon (new moon was yesterday), a bright Venus above that, and a less bright but still visible Jupiter high in the southern sky. I went inside and asked the girls to come look at the sky. Lilly didn't want to, citing the cold (only about freezing), but Ann went. The Moon, she said, looked like a smiley face.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

The Coke Freeze

So there I was, shoveling snow from the driveway late Saturday morning. Frozen precipitation had visited northern Illinois on Friday in quantity. Unless there's a snow blower active nearby, shoveling snow is a fairly quiet time: the softened hum of traffic in the distance, your own breath, or panting, the thump of your pre-heart attack heart beat, the tap-tap-tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker. Wait, what?

It usually isn't until March sometime that I hear the characteristic woodpecker pecking, but I heard tapping from a tree above, with eight or so inches of snow on the ground below. It didn't fit. I looked around and there it was, tapping away, high in a neighbor's tree. Maybe the winter has been so warm -- until about 10 days ago -- that there were some grubs in that tree for the bird. Or maybe he just likes showing off.

The January cold has taken its toll, especially on a Coke can accidentally left outside of the garage refrigerator. The contents expanded and the top popped off. I decided it needed to be documented.

This is the bottom of the can, compared with one that didn't freeze.

This is the can, viewed from above. To make the can stand up, I put a stapler next to it.

The frozen contents look a little unappetizing, but after the frozen Coke slush melted, it was drinkable.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Item From the Past: A Day Off For LBJ

A few years ago while visiting my mother, I found this scrap of pink paper tucked away among the few relics of my time in grade school, the same place I found this photograph. I don't know why I kept it. Maybe I knew I'd have a special interest in dead presidents some day, but more likely I put it away because it was unusual.

January 24, 1973


School will not be held in the Alamo Heights School District on Thursday, January 25, 1973 to honor the memory of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. No make-up is required as the action is authorized by the Texas Education Agency.

For your information, we will have school on February 19 and March 16. These are the make-up days for the "ice holidays." Please change your school calendars accordingly.

George M. Moore, Principal

The school made this announcement during my last year there, sixth grade. Of course, Lyndon Johnson had died two days earlier, on January 22, 1973, of a heart attack, and his funeral was held on the 25th at the National City Christian Church in Washington. No doubt it was televised. I have no memory of watching the funeral or anything else I did that day. I just know I wasn't in school. Texas was honoring one of its own.

The "ice holidays" had happened earlier in January. We got out of school from two whole days because of an ice/snow storm on January 11 (I had to look up that date). We got all of 0.8 inches of snow that day, according to the NWS, but I suppose the ice really shut things down. We did not know -- could hardly imagine -- that there would be another winter storm on the night of February 8, 1973, leaving more than two inches on the ground. The next day was a Friday, which we got off. I don't remember making it up, but we must have.

Those were the only times I got off school for snow during the entire 11 years I went to school in San Antonio. And the only time I got off for a presidential death, all during the same few weeks.

George Moore, incidentally, was the only principal we'd ever had at Woodridge (we, as in the students who finished in 1973). According to this short history of the school, he had been principal since the unimaginably distant year of 1962, but would only be there until 1974. I don't remember much about him, except that he always wore a coat and tie.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Brazil, Where the Nuts Come From

The following description from a product label just about made my day. Sometimes that's all it takes. The product is a can of mixed nuts, nearly empty now, because they are tasty mixed nuts. For the record, Southern Grove brand, sold at Aldi.

The can says: "Peanuts product of USA and Argentina and Mexico, Cashews product of Vietnam and India and Brazil, Almonds product of USA, Brazil Nuts product of Peru and Bolivia and Brazil, Hazelnuts product of Turkey and USA, Pecans product of Mexico and USA."

An international festival of nuts, if there ever was one. I was glad to learn that at least some of the Brazil nuts come from Brazil. Also, I stumbled across the Brazil nut effect because of a Google autocomplete. I knew it was worth getting out of bed today, even with temps in the single digits.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Model of a Modern Major Plutocrat

Another cold day. January has settled into its normal routine, figuring better late than never.

I'm no expert on the architecture of the Internet nor copyright law, but SOPA and PIPA sound like bad ideas. And with friends like the RIAA and Rupert Murdoch, what bill needs enemies? As for Murdoch, he couldn't be more of a caricature of a plutocrat if he tried. Of course, it helps that he is a plutocrat. The last of the old-fashioned robber barons? Time will tell.

Not that robber barons will go away, just the old-fashioned kind. At this point in his life, rather than bitching about Google, or like King Cnut commanding it to recede, the least Murdoch can do is build an insanely lavish home, if he hasn't already (I'm not up on his residential properties). That way it can be a future tourist attraction along the lines of the Hearst Castle, the Breakers (Vanderbilt's property in RI, not the hotel in Palm Beach) or Biltmore. That kind of project should be on the bucket list of any robber baron worth his salt.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Car Meets Tree

Icy roads this morning. And ice has its consequences. Today I noticed evidence of a recent car-tree encounter (in the morning, probably) in my neighborhood and decided to document it. I saw tire tracks, made by one side of a vehicle, running from the street straight into a tree. A fainter, parallel track runs the same direction. I assume that that side of the car didn't gouge the ground very much.

This shot gives a better idea of the size of the tree -- fairly large -- and that the car must have glanced off it back toward the road. The car must have been damaged, but maybe not so much that it couldn't drive away. As the next photo shows, other tire tracks led away from the tree.

I took a pic of the base of the tree, but it's hard to see anything that in the image. It looked like the tree suffered some chipping near its base, but otherwise it didn't look too badly damaged. No evidence of paint flecks or the like, but then again it was too cold for me to linger. Still, it's an example of speeding car + patch of ice = bad day for someone.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Let Your LOVE Lights Shine

Cold over most of the weekend, enough to keep the snow on the ground, but then we had an MLK Day warmup today with partial meltage. A random survey of suburban houses, also today -- that is, what I saw as I drove along -- revealed only one set of holiday lights still glowing, some small strings on a few bushes near the house.

But I also saw some Valentine’s lights. That was a first. Fairly modest by Christmas standards, but outdoor decorative lights all the same: white and pink, one heart-shaped, one Cupid, and one that spelled out LOVE. Are companies that specialize in holiday lighting are looking for the next market-expander?

Maybe in a few centuries, people will be astonished that no one lit up for Valentine’s Day before the mid-21st century. After all, marketing is sometimes astonishingly effective in inventing romantic notions (e.g., diamond engagement rings). Or it could be that the notion of romantic love as a basis for marriage will have been discarded, replaced by a psycho-genetic compatibility algorithm.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Item From the Past: The Salt Lick

Driftwood, Texas, in the Hill Country west of Austin, has a number of charms, but the one I remember best is The Salt Lick. It does one thing and does it well: barbecue. In January 1993, Yuriko and I stopped by on the recommendation of an Austinite friend, and feasted on beef, sausage and pork ribs -- you can get all that on one plate, and we did.

The Salt Lick Pavilion, a venue for large events, is located near the restaurant itself. "An 8,000 Sq. Ft. Open Air Pavilion on the Banks of Onion Creek, a Scenic Setting Available for Private Parties, Weddings, Receptions, Company Picnics & Seminars," as the sign puts it.

I'm glad to know that Salt Lick is still around, and in fact has another location in Round Rock, Texas, northeast of Austin, and an outpost at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. One of these days, I'm going to visit again. I'm sure the other locations are fine, but I'll hold out for the original, sitting at the long tables of the Salt Lick in Driftwood.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012


Sure enough, we had a "snow event" today. Not a dramatic blizzard, just a steady snowfall starting at about 9 a.m. and continuing lightly even now. It's adding up, but not enough to impede ground travel that much. I ducked outside for a moment at about 3 p.m. for the customary first-snow snapshot. This was the view from the back door, looking roughly southwest.

We're ready for it. Ann was ready for it weeks ago, often sporting the cap she got for Christmas.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Snow Event, Dead Ahead

Those wise in the ways of meteorology say that soon we will have snow we can trudge through -- would that be trudgable snow cover? -- here in northern Illinois. Blanketing the entire Midwest, in fact. One headline screams: BIG Snow Event Headed for the Midwest!

How many inches would that be? Three to seven here. I realize it hasn't snowed much this year, but that's only a mid-sized snow event. This is a BIG snow event.

But I guess it's about time. Weather.com tells me that "according to the NOAA/NOHRSC, a mere 15.8 percent of the Lower 48 States had snow on the ground Tuesday. Last year at this time, that figure was just under 62 percent."

I was interested to learn that NOHRSC, which needs a snappier acronym, is the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center, an arm of the National Weather Service that does national snow analyses, among other things. It's headquartered in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota.

I mean, Chanhassen, Minnesota, which I'm sure is a lovely suburb of Minneapolis, but it would be more interesting if the organization that keeps track of the national snow cover, and which is a "remote" sensing center, was somewhere remote. On the shores of the Lake of the Woods, maybe in the Northwest Angle.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Incident at Ranger Pond

The car-in-pond incident yesterday was unusual enough to merit a short article in today's Daily Herald. According to the paper, it was a one-car accident. That's not what a store employee outside for a cig told me yesterday -- he said two cars -- but I think I'll go along with the newspaper in this case.

"A woman was treated for mild hypothermia after driving her vehicle about 40 feet into a Hanover Park pond early Monday evening, according to fire department officials," Paul Biasco wrote. "Rescue crews responded to Ranger Pond, located just off Barrington Road about two blocks north of Irving Park Road at 5:30 p.m. and fond [sic] the small passenger vehicle in the middle of the pond, said Hanover Park Fire District Batallion Chief Eric Fors.

"The driver, who is in her 30s, was driving north on Barrington Road when her car left the roadway and ended up in the pond, according to Hanover Park Police Deputy Chief Tom Cortese. The vehicle was about 40 to 50 feet from the shoreline, fire department officials said."

That's what it looked like to me -- right in the middle of the pond. Since the pond is so shallow, I guess it was possible for her car to drive along the bottom until flooding caused engine failure.

I like that phrasing: "her car left the roadway." What was the driver doing at the time? The newspaper account mentioned mild hypothermia, but maybe she has worse medical problems than that, the kind that cause blackouts. Or maybe she wanted to end it all, in which case she needed a colder day and a deeper pond. At least she didn't take out another car or some pedestrians.

Ranger Pond? I never knew it had a name.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Car in the Drink

At about 5:30 this afternoon, I left my usual grocery store, and in the major thoroughfare beyond the large parking lot was a collection of emergency vehicles, lit up and ready for action. A ladder truck, a pumper, an ambulance (or two?), cops and more. One of the store employees, out for a cigarette, said there'd been a two-car crash, and that the Jaws of Life had been involved. Also, something about a car driving into a pond.

On the other side of the thoroughfare is a large pond ringed by a footpath. I put away my groceries and walked across the parking lot to the thoroughfare. A knot of people stood there, looking across the street. So I did too. All of the emergency vehicles and first responders were on the other side of the street, and two lanes (out of four) were still occupied with traffic -- slow moving traffic, but moving -- so I decided it was wise to stay on my side of the street to see what I could see.

At first I couldn't see it, but then the outline emerged: the top of a small blue car, halfway submerged in the pond. Its emergency lights flashed. I couldn't see anyone by the car, either occupants or rescuers, but a sizable crowd of onlookers stood on the far side of the pond. The car was smack in the middle of the pond. How did it get there, assuming it came from the thoroughfare? Did it run off the road and then float there by its momentum? Well, maybe. At least it wasn't upside down, which would have made escaping the car harder.

Bad day for someone. But at least the car ran into merely cold water, rather than icy cold water, as would have been the case in almost every other January.


Sunday, January 08, 2012

No Country for Old Christmas Trees

The curious snowless winter continues. There has to be some downside to this, besides a loss in seasonal income for workers that specialize in snow-related activity, but I'm hard pressed to think of what. No ice lurking on the sidewalks, no biting winds in my face, lower heating costs: all good things. But maybe waves of vicious insects that a cold winter would have otherwise killed in their pre-larval stage will rise to plague us in the summer. Guess we'll have to take that chance.

It's the time of year to anthropomorphize your Christmas tree. "Say, what are those plastic tubs you've put next to me?" the tree wants to ask. "I seem to remember them from somewhere."

Christmas trees, as a rule, have poor memories. The last time the decoration storage tubs were near the tree was about a month ago.

"When is it going to be time again for another -- I don't know what it was, but I seemed to be the center of attention," the tree further muses. "The small ones came to me and seemed quite excited. They spent a while right there on the floor, opening boxes and eating something. I thought that was a good time. Let's do it again. Ah, you're taking a few things off me. Good. I felt a little cluttered anyway..."

So it goes for another year. I never did get a good picture of the '11 Christmas tree. So here's one from 2005, taken on Christmas morning. That tree looks about the same as this year's tree. The girls, on the other hand, seem a bit different now.


Thursday, January 05, 2012

Franks Diner, Kenosha, Wisconsin

I've been to a diner or two in the Upper Midwest. But none quite like Franks Diner in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We were there recently, as a side trip to another southern Wisconsin destination. It's one of those places whose charms are not visible from the sidewalk.

Enter through the unremarkable front door and inside you find something much more remarkable: a genuine rail car-style diner dating from the 1920s surrounded by that brick exterior, which was added later (but probably not too much later). The main room, long and narrow -- narrow as a rail car -- features a stone-top counter with 18 stools and a narrow food-service area behind the counter, complete with a large griddle given over mostly to the preparation of Franks' specialty, the Garbage Plate, more about which later.

The place had that diner smell: eggs and meats and hash browns and coffee. It also had that diner sound: the murmur of conversation, workers calling to each other, silverware scraping plates, metal clinking metal, the hiss of the griddle.

It was packed. A row of people sat at the counter, while others were at booths in the small rooms added to the counter room. A line of people waited for their seats in a long row behind the people at the counter. When seating was free, the people at the front of the line squeezed between the people sitting at the counter and the people behind them in line to reach either empty counter seats, or a small door that went to the rooms with the booths.

Franks Diner has a history. The Jerry O'Mahony Diner Co., a corporation whose specialty is long lost, built the original rail car-style diner in 1926 in Bayonne, NJ. Taken to Kenosha by flatcar, "there was some real excitement in downtown Kenosha when six horses pulled Franks Diner to the spot where it stands today," notes the Franks Diner web site. "Anthony Franks, who first learned of the unique restaurant opportunity through a magazine article, paid $7,500 plus $325 in shipping charges to launch his business. He added a dining room in 1935 and a larger kitchen in the mid 1940s."

I have to add that $7,825 in 1926 dollars was quite a risk, totaling more than $95,500 in current dollars. Mr. Franks must have really wanted to make a go of it, and I'm glad to say that the Franks family owned the joint until 2001. The current owners have only had it for about a year, and apparently have not meddled with success. At one point, an enormous man -- large of height, large of stomach, bald and wearing a white apron with food stains -- emerged from the back kitchen, and by his conversation with someone else, I knew he was one of the co-owners. "Did you have a good year?" I asked him. "It's been great," he said.

Diner authenticity is one thing, but without Franks' great food, the restaurant would have vanished long ago. The star of the show is its Garbage Plate, a concoction of hash-brown potatoes, eggs, green peppers, onions, jalapeños (if you want them), and a choice of three or fewer meats (or including no meat). The thing is seriously large. The standard Garbage Plate has five eggs, while the half plate has three. Most of the people I saw leaving Franks were carrying to-go boxes probably full of garbage, so to speak. Yuriko and Lilly split a full Garbage Plate, and I was able to sample some. Wow. My own meal, a couple of large pancakes, was superb, but not as good as garbage.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Wasabi Kit Kat

January brought winter cold, but no snows yet. Odd how I've been acclimated to snow. It seems like something is missing, and I guess it is. But I expect we'll get slapped with a blizzard before too long -- just not this weekend, which will be in the 40s, they say.

Nestle does not make wasabi-flavored Kit Kat chocolates for the U.S. market, but I got a hold of "fun-sized" one recently, a genuine example of made-in-Japan-but-not-for-export candy. That's true even though there's an English slogan on the package: Have a break, have a Kit Kat.® Japanese packaging is peculiar that way, and I've given up trying to figure it out.

At first, the taste is standard Kit Kat chocolate. But then you sense a faint but unmistakable hint of wasabi, the same spice as on sushi, though dialed down considerably. It's strange. It's completely out of place. It must be an acquired taste. I don't think it's ever going be exported to this country, so few will be the Americans who acquire the taste. I will not be one of them.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

We’ve Wandered Many a Weary Foot

Another new year. It's just now sinking in. But not just any year -- a leap year, an election year, an Olympiad and the 30th anniversary of the release of "The Safety Dance."

This New Year's Eve was almost Lilly's first with friends, rather than her family, but the party fell through. Next year, I figure, they'll pull it off. Gathering for the new year is something youth should do.

Last summer, a high school friend of mine published this picture on Facebook, and she's kindly letting me put it here. It dates from December 31, 1981, during a gathering of high school friends a few years after we'd finished high school.

I'm actually in it -- barely. That's the edge of my leg, arm and head on the left. At least, I'm fairly certain that's me. Left to right from there, top: Tom, Catherine, George, Ellen, Lynn, Louis, Elysse, Tom, Debbie; bottom: Stephen, John, Nancy. I'm not sure who took the photo.

I'm glad I have an image of Stephen, the fellow with his tongue out, a pose he struck sometimes. Stephen Humble in full. He was born in December 1961, so had he lived, we would now both be 50.

That occurred to me a while ago, and when I had the thought I happened to be near Google, so I put his name in. There's a psychiatrist in Nashville by that name, and an English cricketer of that name who has a Wiki entry and a Facebook page, and a number of other references that probably don't point to the person pictured above. Deeper in, there are other references to other people, but I have to put in "Stephen Humble MIT" to get a few fleeting references to his name in dusty user group archives and academic papers. Maybe those are faint traces of the person I once knew.

So I thought he should have a better mention somewhere on line. Here, for instance. Stephen Humble was my friend in high school and a memorable character for those of us who knew him ('umble, he said it was pronounced, but not even the teachers said it with a silent h). He was exceptionally bright and insatiably curious about a lot of things, with a special facility for mathematics, the sciences and languages, at one point studying Turkish "for fun." He was the only male flautist in our high school band. He appreciated strange humor and weird incongruities, and had a vigorous laugh for someone with such a skinny frame. In his high school years to proved to be a freethinker and all around odd duck.

So naturally Stephen gravitated to my group of friends. Fit right in, he did. I know he caught a fair amount of flak from, let's say, less enlightened kids, though probably more so in junior high than high school. Too bad for them. They missed out on a lot by not listening to what he had to say.

He's the only one, besides former Sun-Times columnist Zay N. Smith, ever to appreciate my line, which I made up one day after Latin class: "I move that the subjunctive be abolished from the English language." Stephen laughed out loud at that, back when that was an actual activity rather than Internet shorthand. Of course, it's not really a laugh-out-loud joke; but as I said, Stephen was a highly literate oddball.

He went to MIT in the early '80s. I don't really know what he did for a living after that. He was a Unix expert, among other things. I remember once he told me how user-unfriendly Unix was, noting that when you made an entry mistake, the only reply the system would give you was a question mark. I think he spent some time in Europe, doing who knows what, but by the last time I saw him, in 1995, he was back in Cambridge, Mass. At that moment in his life, he had an enormous, Old Testament-prophet head of hair and beard.

He also had a boyfriend. That was a surprise. Not, ultimately, that he preferred men, but that he had a sex life at all. Knowledge of the carnal sort seemed to be one of the few kinds he wasn't interested in, but I suppose our high school assumptions were wrong, as they often were.

I don't know why he killed himself in 2002. How could I know that anyway, even if I'd seen him more often during the last 20 years of his life? Whatever troubled him must have been powerful, to subdue his love of learning. But I won't dwell on his end. All I know is that my life was more interesting for having known him, and so requiescat in pace, Stephen.

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Monday, January 02, 2012

New Year Entertainments

The stretch of days between Christmas and New Year's proved to be brown and dry, at least around here, except for the rain and dank drizzle on Friday, and a weak spot of snow on New Year's Day. It's like November never ended -- the least-white December I've seen since '94 in London, which, a native told us, was a strangely warm month as well. Suits me.

Unlike last year, we didn't happen to see any of the holiday movies showing at theaters, such as We Bought a Cemetery for Christmas, Who Cares About the Adventures of Tintin? or The Girl Regretting Her Dragon Tattoo. I did manage to see Duck Soup on television on New Year's Eve.

That was my nth viewing of that movie at intervals of once every two or three years since the mid-70s. I know all the gags but laughed again all the same, and saw some details I'd never noticed before (or had forgotten). I paid particular close attention this time to Margaret Dumont, whose face was remarkably expressive. I've come to doubt the story that she didn't get most of the brothers' jokes, which sounds like something Groucho would make up.

I also paid closer attention to Edgar Kennedy, the lemonade vendor tormented by Chico and Harpo. Turns out he had quite a career and, if Duck Soup is anything to go by, a fitting sobriquet in "Master of the Slow Burn."

Over the holidays I also chewed at some of the books I've been reading lately, such as The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency (Jeremy Lott, 2007), an entertaining read that (among many other things) makes a good case for regarding President Tyler more highly. Still, I didn't find myself in the grip of an intensely good book, as I did with True Grit this time last year.

I did spend some time reading the entertaining blog Lifetime, Wow! which consists of reviews of movies shown on the Lifetime Movie Channel. I'm not particularly familiar with Lifetime, but apparently it shows a lot of risible movies, and the bloggers at Lifetime, Wow! shoot those fish in that barrel with glee. The blog's plot synopses are probably more fun than most of the movies themselves.

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