Tuesday, July 31, 2012

End of July Notes

I saw some Olympic diving out of the corner of my eye last night and wandered over to the TV for a look. Svelte lads in ridiculously tiny suits -- wait, there are two of them jumping at the same time. Since when has that been an Olympic event? Shows you what I know: since 2000.

Somehow or other, I'd never seen synchronized diving before. Actually, I know how that happened. I didn't watch much of either 2000 or '04 Games and simply missed the contests in '08, when my viewing was less-than-fanatical.

A credit card offer came in the mail today. Nothing unusual about that -- based on the continuous stream of offers, you'd think there had been no painful recession recently. It was a Disney-themed card issued by a too-big-to-fail bank. But not just any Disney theme: a mockup of the card attached to the letter features the Sorcerer's Apprentice Mickey in full-magic mode. On the back of the card is Mickey and a couple of the broomstick servants he created.

I thought about that. He's one of the iconic Mickeys, of course. But he's also the one who inadvertently creates a catastrophe instead of the useful servant he imagined he was getting. It started small, but got out of hand. You know, something like a credit card can.

The toys of the moment for Ann are her Monster High dolls. They're Mattel creations, released only a couple of years ago now, and the conceit is that they're teen offspring of famed public domain monsters -- Frankenstein's, Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy, et al. Lately Ann has been creating derivative characters on paper based on monsters not mentioned in the series featuring the dolls. Sometimes she asks me for input.

So far, we've come up with the children of the Bogeyman, the Devil, Godzilla, the Loch Ness Monster, a Bug-Eyed Martian, a Roc, the "Seaweed Monster" and -- my favorite -- the daughter of Them. As in monster ants, the kind featured in Them. That was her idea.

She's also been taking pictures of her Monster High dolls.

In black & white, for some reason.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Those Weren't the Days

The XXX Olympiad has put me in the mood to read about the III Olympiad, among other things. I'm funny that way. But it's interesting to read about, mainly because the St. Louis Games had fiasco written all over them.

Back when Chicago made its futile pitch for the 2016 Games, I thought one claim the city had on the event was the fact that St. Louis had snatched the Games away from Chicago in 1904, to complement the Louisiana Purchase Exposition -- the Meet Me in St. Louis world's fair. Some sources say the fair organizers essentially bullied Baron de Coubertin by threatening to hold separate athletic events to overshadow the Olympics. In any case, the Games ended up being overshadowed by the fair anyway. Also, they were badly run; hardly international at all, since most of the best European athletes didn't want to come; and marred by various notorious incidents, both in the opinion of people at the time and more recently.

The story of the marathon that year is bizarre in the extreme, and well-told at Marathon & Beyond. This amusing podcast is about the runner who actually won the race, as opposed to the guy who cheated. Throw in a Cuban who stops to eat apples along the way, some Zulus recruited to the race at the last minute, and racers having to dodge auto-mobiles and horse-drawn vehicles on dusty, pre-modern roads, and you've got kinetic comedy. I'm surprised no movie along the lines of The Great Race or Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines was ever made from the story.

The disgraceful history at "Anthropology Days" at the Games is discussed by Slate in 2008 and the Daily Mail this year. Go to the IOC web site, and the incident is downplayed considerably in the short page about the 1904 Games. That is, not mentioned.

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Be Not Afear'd; the Isle is Full of Noises

About four years ago I wrote, "the London Games would do well not to ape [the Beijing] show, but instead try for something simpler, more focused on individuals, rather than masses. China's got masses, that's for sure. Western Civilization is about something else."

We watched most of the opening ceremony on Friday, and liked it in spite of NBC's dumbed down, annoying presentation (and its ludicrous decision not to show the implicit 7/7 tribute). I don't know that I'd call the '12 ceremony simpler than '08, since there were a lot of moving parts. Sure was more festive, though.

And something of an answer to Beijing's message: Look here, we're strong and modern! To which the London replied, we invented modern. While having a spot of fun. Do the Chinese have an equivalent to Mr. Bean? Probably they do, but the party mandarins wouldn't dream of putting him front and center before a worldwide audience of a billion.

Ann was full of questions for me: What's that? What are they doing? What's that supposed to be? I told her as much as I could, but the references were flying by. The onrush of British content was something to behold, and must be bewildering if you're nine. Still, she'll pick most of it eventually. Such are the connections between the UK and the rest of the English-speaking world. I was reminded just how fortunate I am, being able to understand (most) of what the British have to offer the world, in the original language.

How is it I never made it to Glastonbury Tor? I don't think it was that obscure before the opening ceremony featured a model of it. But when I visited Bath in '83, which isn't very far away, I probably hadn't heard of it yet. During later visits to the country, it never occurred to me. Ah, well. Just another place to visit if I live long enough (and there are many such places in the British Isles).

We sat through the Parade of Nations, though as usual it was butchered by NBC. Why, for instance, since it's on tape delay, does the network pretend that a number of teams paraded by when the commercials were on? Sometimes the patter of the announcers told me some interesting tidbit about the teams, especially about one or another of the competitors, but a lot of the time their assumption was that the audience didn't know anything about anywhere, and didn't really need to.

Also as usual, I got to wonder how it is that some subnational places get Olympic committees, while others do not. American Samoa, Aruba, Bermuda, the BVI, the Caymans, Guam, Hong Kong, Palestine, Puerto Rico and the USVI all count as non-nation participants, though in the case of Palestine, it's pretty much a de facto nation (or two) and Hong Kong makes sense because it was a distinct entity for so long. But if Puerto Rico can get its own team, why not French Guiana? American Samoa but not French Polynesia? The British Virgin Islands but not Martinique? Maybe Martinique isn't big enough to field a team, but I'm sensing a pattern. French territories compete for the glory of France, or not at all. C'est la vie.

The Olympic cauldron lighting was pretty cool, with 204 copper petals, one for each team, rising up to be conduits for one of the many fingers of the giant flame. Not bad, but it couldn't top Paralympian Antonio Rebollo shooting a flaming arrow into the cauldron in Barcelona (or near it, since I've read the flame wasn't actually lit by his arrow, but who cares). Still, the London lighting was effective, and I didn't learn until today that the unexplained girls in floaty dresses carrying cup-like items along with each team were in fact carrying the copper petals that would be part of the cauldron. Nice touch.

One more question: What about Ringo? Couldn't he have played drums with Sir Paul? I haven't heard that he's ill, and surely he could have played that short set list. Maybe there were other considerations. Still, it would have been fitting.

I suspect the '16 ceremony will be a whole lotta festive. After after, it's Rio. But we'll have to wait and see.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gem of the Lakes © 1990

There’s a plaque at the foot of the larger-than-life bronze sculpture in the Winter Garden at 311 S. Wacker in downtown Chicago, which is also part of a fountain. The plaque says: GEM OF THE LAKES © 1990 Raymond Kaskey.

Kaskey is best known as the “principal artist” -- the detail man, in other words -- of the World War II Memorial in Washington DC, designing the bronze eagles, the wreathes, the many bas-reliefs, the haunting bronze star field on the Wall of Valor, even the flagpoles. As such, I’d say he did a fine job. It was the overall design by architect Fredrich St. Florian that didn’t greatly impress me.

I thought that © was odd, right there permanently on the bronze plaque. But then I read about another statue by Kaskey in Portland, Ore., called “Portlandia” (1985). Joseph Streckert writes in Not For Tourists, “Downtown Portland's Fifth Avenue transit mall has a lot of what you would expect -- buses, trains, and commuters, for instance. Look up, though, and you might notice a giant woman holding a trident.

“Sitting on the ledge of Michael Grave's postmodern Portland Building is 'Portlandia,' a symbol of Portland that never took root...  Most of this can be attributed to artist Raymond Kaskey's retention of 'Portlandia's' copyright. Kaskey never allowed his work to be put on key chains, t-shirts, shot glasses, or calendars. Portlandia was to be in the (not very good) Madonna film Body of Evidence, but Kaskey sued Paramount and had footage of his statue removed from the final cut.”

So the © is in character. If Kaskey feels that strongly about it, I won’t publish any pictures of his statue here, fair use though it may be, and it will just another (incredibly minor) step on the way to future obscurity for him and his work, despite the high visibility of the WWII Memorial. It’s a moot point anyway, since the light wasn’t right for good pictures, especially of the face. But of course other people have published images: Google Images reveals some, including the statue wearing a Blackhawks jersey, which must have been after that team won the Stanley Cup.

Emporis, at least, describes the work this way: “It depicts a large Neptunian figure drying himself over a seashell fountain.” I’ll go along with that. A buff dude with a long beard. And still very green after 20+ years, so building management must keep him nice and clean.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

311 S. Wacker

The event I attended yesterday was at the Winter Garden, a six-story indoor space at 311 S. Wacker, one of Chicago’s taller skyscrapers. Seventh-tallest in the city, in fact, which I didn’t know till I looked it up. According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the killjoys who took the tallest-building title away from the Sears Tower once upon a time, 311 S. Wacker is the 74th tallest building in the world. I didn’t know that either, but why would I?

A little more on 311 S. Wacker: It’s a Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates design, about 1.4 million square feet in 65 floors. I remember it under construction in the late ’80s – it’s a very late ’80s building, if you asked me – but didn’t get to see it complete until later, since I was out of the country by the time it was finished in 1990.

It stands pretty close to the Sears Tower, across the street in fact, so 25-words-or-fewer architecture tour guides can point to the Sears Tower and say, “That’s the modern one.” And then to 311 S. Wacker: “That’s the postmodern one.”

So there I was in the 74th tallest building in the world, looking up at the ceiling of the Winter Garden. The floor is below ground level, but the glass ceiling is well above it. (See yesterday for a picture of the floor.)

I couldn’t say for sure, but I think those palms are embalmed. Not like people are, but like large plants can be for public spaces exactly like this.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Working the Crowd

Part of my work on some days involves visiting places with crowds like these, and taking pictures. Today was one of those days.

Specifically, pictures of smaller groups of people within this larger group, two to four ideally. I also have to get their names and titles, and perhaps ask a bit about their business. I'm not a salesman or politician by inclination, but like public speaking, it's something I've learned to do. All part of journalism in the digital age, since the pictures I take and the information I gather is usually published electronically the same day, or the next one.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer Flora

Clouds keep promising more rain, but then not following through. So it's still dry. But some flowers are blooming all the same.

All of these shots were taken recently at the still-lush Spring Valley, deep in the heart of the northwest suburbs.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Item From the Past: Lady With Lapdog

I've been a few places over the years, and I've almost always taken a book along, or acquired one or more during the trip, if the trip is long enough. They're as essential as good shoes, especially if you're traveling alone. What you're reading gets bundled up afterward with the destination.

For example, Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories. On the inside cover of this edition of I wrote, "26 July 1983 Rome." I bought it at an English-language bookstore near the Spanish Steps. It's a Penguin Classics edition of a translation originally published in 1964. Penciled on the first page is, I think, the price: "5550." That would be 5550 lira, or about $3.70 at the time. I remember reading it on the train to Florence and, once I got there, spending part of an afternoon on the grounds of the Pitti Palace reading some of the stories.

I still have it. The book is a little frayed but the pages not so yellow. Every now and then I read something out of it -- "Ward 6" more than any of the other stories, when I'm in the mood for a large helping of Russian darkness, a tale set in the loony bin of a provincial hospital. It remains one of my favorite short stories. Later, I found out that it was mocking some of Tolstoy's ideas, though I'm not steeped enough in those ideas to fully appreciate what Chekhov was up to. Even later, I also got a kick out of learning that the psychiatric facility that Dr. House spent some time in was Ward 6.

Other books I bought or found or were given that summer -- and in one case, lost -- included Green Hills of Africa, one of Hemingway's lesser efforts; Tales of the Unexpected, a Roald Dahl collection with a high creep factor; By the Green of Spring, a sprawling WWI soap-opera novel; and Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad. I didn't finish that last one, not because it wasn't interesting -- and how is it that Conrad didn't speak any English until he was a grown man? -- but because I left it somewhere, maybe on a bench. That summer I spent a good chunk of time on Euro-benches, reading.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tire Story

Something pleasant for me this morning: a flat tire on one of our cars. I was told before breakfast, before I was really conscious, that the air had seeped out of a left rear tire overnight, and was tasked with putting on the spare. Which is really only part one of the repair process, since the spare is one of those anemic temporary tires.

A college friend of mine once told me years ago the he'd driven some hundreds of miles on a highway using a temporary tire, and maybe he did. He had a reckless streak, besides a vast talent for sports writing even as a young man. I occasionally wonder what became of him, but make little effort to find out. His name's common enough that a mere Google search doesn't turn up much; or much that's new, anyway, since he seems to have some professional sports bylines from the late '80s lingering in on-line archives.

Or maybe riding fast on the temp tire isn't really so reckless. I'm not in a position to know. Anyway, I took some Dutch comfort in the tire-changing task. That is, thank God it's no worse. It could have still been raining (the car was in the driveway); it could have been 100°; it could have been out in the middle of nowhere. The last time I changed a tire in the driveway, there was snow on the ground. So today wasn't so bad. Removing the lug nuts, as usual, was the hard part, but they eventually surrendered to the force of my weight pushing down on them.

Yuriko wanted to have the tire repaired right away, or get a new one, but I had things to attend to at the word mill, so she went to the repair facility of a major auto dealer not far from us. Soon I get a call from her, and she tells me something I find a little hard to fathom. She'd been told, alas, that a new tire was needed. Sharp shards had torn up the tire's innards, but good, the bastards (I'm paraphrasing a little). A new tire would be $250.

I ask to talk to the fellow who told her that. I ask him about that price.

"That's, uh, the price for that model," he says. "I think, I'll have to check."

"Two-hundred fifty dollars for one tire?"

"Well, uh, maybe not quite that much. I have to check."

I tell him that yes, he should check on that. That was our conversation. I've had to replace a few tires in my time, and I'm fairly sure our car isn't so remarkably uncommon that we need special, expensive tires of some kind. It isn't like we have (say) a '79 Le Car and the things have to be custom made.

Later, Yuriko tells me that the shop had another look at the flat and decided, by golly, that it could be repaired after all. And so it was, for about $30.

I'd be shocked -- shocked -- to learn that the shop had a (strictly unofficial) policy of special pricing for people whose English isn't native, even though fairly fluent. I have no proof, of course, just my suspicions. But I don't think we'll be going there again. Suspicion is more than enough on which to base a consumer decision.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rain on Me

Rain! A low rumble of thunder at about 9:30 this evening, then something louder, then buckets of rain, completed with thunder and lightning, the likes of which we haven't seen since early June at least. Since then, it's slacked off, but they say more will come. We need a week's worth or more.

I wouldn't want to live in a desert, even the kind of irrigated deserts we have in the United States, because I'd miss the rain. The overture of gray clouds and distant thunder, the moment the first drops come -- and you either see it, or feel it, or both -- all the sounds the rainfall makes as it comes down hard, the immediate aftermath when the earth smells like rain and the rivulets are on their way (eventually) to the ocean.

When it does happen in the desert, I suppose rain's quite a thrill, but I'd rather have it more regularly. Occasionally people who hear about my Texas upbringing ask me about living in the desert, which I never have. I laugh at the idea and think of the enormous, violent spring storms in South Texas.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

RIP, Donald Sobol

I heard -- in an e-mail, of all things -- that Donald J. Sobol has died. I didn't know Sobol, but I did know his creation, Encyclopedia Brown. After I heard, I looked up the NYT obit. I had no idea Sobol had still been writing and publishing books in the series almost until his death. The last one (by him) hasn't even come out yet.

Then again, I haven't read any of the books in about 40 years. But I guess younger generations have. The formula was always the same, as the obit notes: "Each book holds 10 stories, each involving a mystery that 10-year-old Leroy (Encyclopedia) Brown solves by keen observation and deduction. He notices that the culprit has his sweater on inside out, or claims to smell flowers that are fake. The rest is self-evident.

"The solution is not spelled out in the story; readers are challenged to figure it out for themselves — or to flip to the back for the answer, as Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie About Schmidt does as he lies in bed, engrossed in Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man."

They weren't my favorite series as a lad, but I liked them a lot. (I always enjoyed Danny Dunn better, whose creators are long dead now). It's good that there are works of juvenile fiction that cerebrate knowing something, as opposed to cerebrating ignorance (viz., just about anything on the Disney Channel). RIP, Mr. Sobol.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Weedy Heat, the Sequel

It's a weedy heat out there. That phrase has been rolling around my head lately, inspired by the only kinds of plants that seem to be growing in my yard, except for those we water: a flowering plant whose name I learned, but have forgotten. Its blossoms are made up of a lot of small white blossoms, and while I can't remember what it is, I have a sneaking suspicion that it's an invasive species. Maybe we can just make the best of it and call it xerogardening.

I googled "weedy heat" and this was the third listing. I was astonished. I'd forgotten I'd ever used such a phrase, but I guess it isn't a phrase too many other people use. Also, I'd forgotten that the June 2005 was so hot and dry.

I tell my children that summers were like this every day where I grew up. They aren't impressed.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Item From the Past: The Cameron Highlands

A few sentences in a short essay called "Malaysia" by Paul Theroux, published in the collection Sunrise With Seamonsters (1985), first introduced me to the Cameron Highlands. "[In the Cameron Highlands], the air is as cool as an autumn day in England; below you, in Tapah and beyond, people are gasping in the heat and swatting mosquitoes, but you are thousands of feet up, in a temperate climate, where strawberries grow and beds need blankets and rooms log fires," Theroux wrote in the early '70s, early in the transition of the area from a British hill station into a modern Malaysian resort district in the central mountainous region of the Malay Peninsula.

When I first went to Malaysia in July 1992, I visited the Cameron Highlands for a few days, and liked it so much that when Yuriko and I came that way again two years later, we stayed there a few days. For all I know, the place has been overdeveloped by now, but 20 years ago it still had some cool green hill station charms.

The highlands are home to Cameronian Boh tea -- and the plantation, whose green, tea-planted hills are seen here -- was open for tours.

The local farmers are also proud of their vegetable crops, as you can see.

Theroux was right about the pleasant climate, which lent itself to long walks. We walked along some of the jungle trails, but during my first visit I found myself on a road that ran next to a golf course (behind the fence on the left).

AWAS means CAUTION in Bahasa Malaysia, but I don't think you really need any language to understand the sign.

One evening Yuriko and I went out for a walk and came upon a park-like area from which some of the evening sky was visible. I was able to pick out the Southern Cross, riding low. As we were looking up at the nighttime sky, the call to evening prayers began off in the distance.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Conveyor Belt Kingdom

As you enter the UPS Chicago Area Consolidated Hub -- which our guide called CACH -- at first it just seems like a really large industrial building, not too loud, with the ceiling and walls stretching off into the gray distance. But go up a flight of steel stairs and down a walkway and you're soon in awe of the awesome complexity of the place.

Below are conveyor belts coming from large doors, with three of them merging into one larger belt moving directly below you. Then you notice more groups of belts to the left and right, and then an entire floor of more belts below the one you're looking at. Turn around, and there are belts left, right and center. Most of them are moving. Packages of various sizes and descriptions are moving along. The place is an enormous 3D puzzle of belted motion.

A bit of data: CACH, not counting the parking lots, land, etc. measures about 1.5 million square feet. It handles 1.3 million to 1.5 million packages a day, and 2.5 million around the Christmas holidays (UPS adds workers then, though most of the time about 5,700 people work at CACH). If the buildings, which are mostly horizontal, were stacked vertically, the aggregate structure would be twice as tall as the Sears Tower. And my favorite stat: the place sports 65 miles of conveyor belts.

Our guide explained that when the packages were unloaded from the trucks to a particular conveyor belt, they went under a scanner that read the destination information. The the package would travel along the belt until flip, a device that looked exactly like the flipper on a pinball machine, only much larger, knocked the package off the side of the belt, into a shoot, where (I assume) it went downward to another belt that took it further toward where it needed to be. Flip, pause, flip, pause, pause, flip -- these flippers were moving at intermittent intervals all up and down the belts that we could see, and no doubt hundreds upon thousands of them were busy elsewhere pushing packages along, out of our sight.

We also saw another raft of conveyor belts devoted to moving around smaller packages. Instead of a pinball flipper-like device, each belt featured gizmos that somehow flipped the packages up, and then over, to waiting bags. Once the bags were full, employees would take them to where they needed to go (trucks, I assume: everything was organized by bar code-like data).

At truck bays, employees filled trucks with packages manually (over 70 lbs. and more than one worker is supposed to lift together). The packages aren't uniform, so it becomes a task of stacking them like Tetris pieces so that there's the least possible empty space. Hard because lifting is involved, but even harder because not everyone can stack so precisely. The guy we saw, who was handling three or four trucks at the same time, looked like he had a talent for it.

That might have been one of the harder jobs, but what's the best-paid non-executive position at UPS CACH? Our guide mentioned it: mechanics to keep the systems going. I believe it.

A marvel of our age, this place. Ingenuous in the extreme, but simply devoted to moving stuff from Point A to Point B.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

July 10, 2012

Yesterday I got up at about 5 a.m. and set to work on a short article that needed to be done, and then worked on a larger article that also needed to be done. At about 7, I went back to bed, not thinking I'd be able to go back to sleep. But I must have, since I got up at 8 surprisingly refreshed. Good thing, too, because I needed to be considering what I had to do the rest of the day.

I finished both the short and the long articles by 10:30, with time for a quick shower thrown in. Then I drove to Glenview, a northern suburb, where I needed to take photos of a lunch gathering of a real estate organization. The event was at a kind of place I rarely see: an upmarket golf club, complete with all the posh trappings.

I took pictures of four groups of people, talking to them about their business, then drove back in time to pick Lilly up from her summer school class. When I got home, I took Ann to no-extra-charge, supervised swimming at a nearby park district pool, and then went home to write most of my daily column about the economy, as well as my next weekly contribution for another publication, along with a phone interview thrown in. I almost finished both bits of writing by about 4, when I picked up Ann and left her at home with Lilly, since I had another event to go to, this one in the southwest suburbs. Traffic was awful.

Never mind the details, the main thing was the event included a 30-minute walking tour of UPS' Chicago Area Consolidated Hub, a 1.5 million-square-foot package sorting and distribution facility. I'd never seen the likes of that. I was going to stay for the dinner, but I had something else scheduled in the evening: a concert to attend, scheduled before I knew I going to be doing these other things on the same day.

So I drove back home -- traffic was much lighter by this time -- picked up Yuriko and drove to the northern suburbs. We got to Ravinia only a few minutes after the concert started, and stood for the whole thing. We didn't mind a bit, because we got to see Natalie Merchant.

We got home by 11:30, and I polished off the work I hadn't quite finished in the afternoon, despite exhaustion. I filed the bastards just after midnight and went to sleep without much trouble.

A remarkable day. But I'm glad I don't have too many like it.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Green Spots Among the Brown

It might be dry, but in some spots it's still green. It helps to have a pond handy. This is a view of the pond at the Ruth Macintyre Conservation Area in Schaumburg on Sunday.

Thirty-six acres, but if you didn't know it was tucked away among the houses, you'd miss it even from nearby side streets. Still green, as I said, but I did notice that the water level is down, exposing a few mud flats in places.

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Monday, July 09, 2012

In Old Fantasy Scotland

Dry. That's the best way to describe northern Illinois at the moment. I don't ever think I've seen my yard so brown, just to take one very small sample. Little rain is forecast for the days ahead. Cracks are appearing in patches of ground not covered with brown grass. Wind blows clouds of dust from the baseball field in the park behind our back yard.

At least the temps have cooled down. But back when it was still hot, on Friday, we ducked into a movie theater, a time-honored way to escape the heat (we have air conditioning, but never mind). Ann wanted to see Brave, so we all went. Even when not at their best, Pixar movies are usually worth seeing in the theater, and so it was with this one. Better than most animations that I've seen, but not as good as most of the other Pixar animations I've seen.

Still, I was taken with the way the Fantasy Medieval Highland forests were drawn. Gorgeous backdrops. The story, I could take or leave. Not quite enough drunken brawling and bloodletting, if you asked me. We're talking about medieval Scotland, after all.

But I did entertain myself dreaming up sequels that will never be made. The story involves an independent-minded daughter of the king of Scotland, who ultimately refuses, in a very modern way, not to marry into any of the powerful neighboring clans to keep the peace. The king also has three young sons, triplets apparently, whose main function is to make chaos. Add to the mix a bit of drunken brawling, archery, a comic witch, magic spells, an angry bear, an anachronistic theme of mother-adolescent daughter conflict, and a happy ending, and there you have it.

Anyway, I imagined that a few years later, the princess did marry, and according to her wishes, not to a Scotsman. Instead she married one of the younger sons of the king of France. The purpose, of course, was to cement an alliance against England. She comes to like the court of France but, alas, dies in childbirth. As for her brothers, as soon as the old king is dead, they immediately make bloody war on each other.

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Sunday, July 08, 2012

Items From the Past: DDR Relics

We've been having a South Texas summer lately. The last time the Fourth of July was so hot in metro Chicago, I've read, was 1911. The high for Independence Day was 101° F., and for some days afterwards it was almost as hot. But not today: only about 80°, which felt positively cool.

On July 9, 1983, my friend Steve and I crossed into East Germany at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, and spent most of the day there. For one thing, about four hours at the extraordinary Pergamon Museum, which remains one of my favorite museums anywhere. We had a large map of Berlin to guide us in those pre-Internet, pre-GPS days.

This is only part of the map, but it shows the Berlin Wall snaking through the heart of the city. It's the heavy red-dash line, with the shading on the east side of the wall, which must have represented the "guards will shoot you zone" that caught up with Alec Leamas, for instance.

Next is another set of relics of my time in East Germany: passport stamps. They don't make 'em like these any more, and the world is better for it. I have two DDR stamps, there on the same page of a passport long expired, one acquired on the train between Hamburg and Berlin, the other at Checkpoint Charlie.

I didn't have a camera. Steve did, and later sent me a few prints. The pic below is the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) as it appeared in '83, with the East Berlin main TV tower in the background. The original dome took a hit in '44 and collapsed to the floor of the church. The dome had been rebuilt by the time we got there, and visitors could enter the building, but only peer inside, because the floor was still littered with rubble.

Since then, I see that the interior has been restored, as befitting a reunified Germany.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Big Oranges of Memory

What, Independence Day again? I should have taken the hint when Canada Day came and went so quickly. In honor of the occasion I was going to find some poutine, but had no luck. Anyway, back again on Sunday.

Naturally recollections of The Andy Griffith Show are being dusted off now, but that isn't the only encounter I had with Griffith's entertainments, not counting Matlock, an item best forgotten. Sophomore year in high school, which would put it in 1976 or '77, our English teacher, the remarkable Bill Swinny, played a record featuring Griffith for the class. (Last I heard, Mr. Swinny is still alive in his early 90s. Most remember him as a drama teacher, but he taught English too.)

What we heard was, "What it Was, Was a Football Game," by a young Andy Griffith. It must have been a favorite of Mr. Swinny's, besides an example of how to create a character and a comic situation only by voice. We all would have known Andy Griffith, of course, but it's unlikely that many of us had heard the record, we who were imbibing the antics of Saturday Night Live's original cast at that moment. I know I'd never heard it. I was mildly amused. I think most of the class was.

When I heard that Griffith had died, I remembered hearing the story -- a surprise, since I don't think I'd heard it since that remote day in English class. I didn't remember much, but I remembered Griffith talking about his "big orange." Odd what sticks with you, but it isn't just me. Google "Andy Griffith big orange" and you get all kinds of relevant hits.

In those days, you needed a record and a turntable. Now a computer and high-speed Internet connection are enough. So I decided to listen to "What it Was, Was a Football Game," again. It made me smile, and laugh a few times. Quite an achievement, since a lot of comedy doesn't age well. I'll have to go find a big orange and drink it in memory of the comedian.

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Monday, July 02, 2012

Musical Weekend

On Friday, I drove to Berwyn, Ill., to see my nephew's band, Sons of Fathers, at FitzGerald's, a venerable venue in the near western suburbs. They were playing as part of FitzGerald's American Music Festival, one of the first acts to take to the stage, doing two sets. My nephew Dees is their drummer, and all together the lads -- I can't help thinking of them that way, though of course they're all grown men in their 20s -- have a lot of talent and energy, and put on an enjoyable show.

On Sunday, Yuriko and I went to Ravinia on the North Shore, another venerable Chicago-area venue, to see Jake Shimabukuro, four-string Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso. He too is young (that is, in his early 30s), with talent and energy. It's astonishing what he made that ukulele do -- an instrument, as he joked at one point, that invites low expectations.

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Sunday, July 01, 2012

July Blows In

One question I asked myself this weekend was, "Haven't there been enough Spiderman movies?" That's because marketing for the latest such movie finally got my attention, for all of a few seconds. My answer is, yes, there have been. I can't take Spiderman seriously anyway, because of lasting first impressions. As far as I'm concerned, Spiderman is pretty much this (which has had a remarkable 23+ million views). Just as Batman is this. .

Today during the early afternoon, the sky darkened as if a thunderstorm were getting ready to hit. The wind picked up and it got even darker. A classic pre-thunderstorm sky. Except that it didn't start raining. Instead, the wind grew stronger. Ann was so worried about a "tornado," she asked me to look out the back door.

It was a wicked wind, all right. A couple of loose items were moving across the back yard and the all the trees within sight were shaking. But I assured her that this wasn't a tornado. I wasn't quite sure that some major tree part wouldn't fall, however.

It was over in about 20 minutes. No rain, just dark clouds and high wind. At about 4, I took Lilly to a bookstore a couple of miles south of where we live. By then, the clouds were mostly gone and the summer heat had returned. Along the way, we discovered that starting about half a mile away, every traffic light along our route was out of order -- making for some tricky eight-lane, four-way stops. Tree branches were scattered in the street in spots, and a handful of trees along the way had been split in half or knocked over, though none directly into the street. Parts of fences were down in places, too. We'd had a wind event.

Small potatoes compared to a real tornado, say, or the storms that pummeled the eastern U.S. on Friday. But enough to remind you that the atmosphere has the potential to knock you around when it feels like it.

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