Thursday, June 28, 2012

Damned Bugs

Intense heat today, nearly 100° F., and after a brief rainstorm in the late afternoon, tropical humidity. August has arrived early. Yesterday I got a handwritten note near my front door from the village engineering department. The tree next to the street in front of my house -- on village land -- is going to be removed. As in, cut down. The problem: the dread emerald ash borer.

Damn. It isn't a favorite tree of mine, but it's a tree in a spot where there needs to be a tree. The note added that a replacement would be "discussed at a later time."

Damn again. Fine, a little tree is going to go there. Will I even be here long enough to enjoy it as a full, shady tree? Probably not.

But the note did make me take a closer look at the tree that will be destroyed. It looks ill. Here in the fullness of June, it doesn't have nearly as many leaves as it should. The village has more about the problem here, including the awful lines that "... history and research has indicated that the village can expect a vast increase in mortality rates this summer. The EAB Management Plan assumes the loss of the majority of ash trees from this infestation..."

Yuriko and I took a walk late yesterday afternoon and noted the mark of death, a red spot painted on the trees, facing the street. At least a half-dozen trees on our street are slated for removal (but not all of them). I lost count of the other red spots on other streets; the infestation must be bad. I also came to think that decades ago, when this subdivision was new, someone planted a lot of ash trees. Maybe they were cheap, and the concept of biodiversity hadn't been invented, or at least popularized, yet.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Blue Lotus

In Woodstock, Ill. earlier this month, not far from the town square, I noticed something I'd never noticed before, though I don't visit town that often.

Note the Buddha on the grounds of a building that has "First Congregational Church 1906" carved in stone next to the entrance, though it's a little hard to see the lettering in the picture. Turns out that the building is now the Blue Lotus Buddhist Temple — as of very recently, since the its dedication festivities as a temple were only last month, according to the temple web site. Except for the colorful (prayer?) flags, it still looks like a handsome early 20th-century brick church.

Just more evidence that North America is large, and contains multitudes.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gas For Less

Not long ago the girls and I went into the city on a hot Saturday afternoon. We ate lunch at Elly's Pancake House, which is a busy place at the corner of North and Clark -- something else used to be there, but I can't remember what. Then, to escape the heat, we went across the street to the Chicago History Museum, which I still think of as the Chicago Historical Society.

I wasn't in a picture-taking, note-taking mood.

So the only picture I took inside the museum was of a neon sign that caught my eye. It was pretty hard to miss.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Irish Pipes

One pretty good way to start your weekend is with some bagpipes.

These happen to be the Shannon Rovers of Chicago, playing in downtown Chicago at a real estate event I attended toward the end of last week. They played -- I don't remember, but they were bagpipe-y tunes, skillfully done.

As the name suggests, the Shannon Rovers are an Irish pipe band. A history of the organization is here, stating that the early goals of the club were, "for the promotion of Irish music and to help members who are in distress; to run dances and social affairs; to finance these objectives." Unstated is the opportunity to drink, but I won't dwell on old Irish stereotypes.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Adios, Ultra Foods

Do fireflies prefer wet or dry summers? Can't say, but I did see the first fireflies of the season on Saturday evening. Just a handful, though. Maybe the dry summer so far will keep their numbers down, or maybe they're advance scouts for a firefly invasion.

Over years I've mentioned visiting a "discount grocery store" and almost each time it's been Ultra Foods of Hanover Park, Ill., one of a small local chain of stores anchoring a shopping center not far from where I live. From its parking lot, I saw a car floating in a pond; chanced across a box of Quisp there but didn't buy any; found peanut butter from Argentina there and did buy some; likewise some cookies from Columbia; bought domestic peanut butter for 88¢ a jar there during the peanut scare of early 2009; saw some shoplifters on a perp walk out of its doors; found Black Jack and Clove gum on its shelves; and more.

I got to know the place pretty well, in fact. Mostly I went there for its frequent discounts on soft drinks and a few other items, but we also enjoyed some of the deli's meats and cheeses, and the bakery's French bread and its doughnuts, some of which were very good.

Friday afternoon, I arrived to pick up some of these very items, though I'd noticed that there was no Ultra Foods circular in Wednesday's paper (the grocery circulars are, alas, one of the main reasons to hang on to the subscription). I figured it was left out by mistake.

But no: a sign at the Ultra Foods in Hanover Park said, THIS STORE IS CLOSING. EVERYTHING 20% OFF. What? That can't be right. Closing? Why? Didn't make its numbers? Lost its lease? I thought discount grocers had done well in the hard years since 2008, but it's always been true that the grocery business is a thin-margin high wire act.

The store had closed its bakery and deli, and was no longer restocking items that sold out. Certain aisles were practically empty. It was about as depressing as a grocery store can be without being visibly infested by rodents. One employee, a fellow about my age, was restocking some fruit, or maybe just re-arranging it. He looked miserable. I expect he was, since the ax hadn't fallen that long ago.

"When's the last day?" I asked my cashier, a young woman. She wasn't that upset, because she was going back to school in the fall anyway. She wasn't sure when the last day was, though. Whenever everything is sold off. Soon.

So long, Ultra Foods. I will not, as the sign also suggested, be visiting the Wheaton location, unless I happen to be there anyway. It's a fine store, but that's too far to go for groceries, especially the discount kind. Time to look elsewhere.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

One More Post About a Recent Celestial Event

Lilly and some of her friends filled up water balloons in the back yard yesterday and soon were throwing them at each other. Ann got in on the action, too. Then they lit sparklers, even though it was still daytime, followed by smoke bombs (tamely called "smoke balls" on the package, and it's true that they don't explode). During all that, they also ate pizza and drank soft drinks.

A fine way to pass the summer solstice, and a day that hit about 90° F. under clear skies, even if no one commented on the fact that it was the longest day of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere. I'm commenting on it now. First day of summer? I don't think so. It's been summerish here for weeks.

Back on June 5 -- also a very summerlike day -- some 5,000 people showed up on the grounds of the Adler Planetarium on the shores of Lake Michigan to see the Transit of Venus. At least that's the number an employee of the planetarium told the crowd at one point. But there's no doubt there was a crowd.

A number of people had come with their telescopes and binoculars, and a lot of others had eclipse glasses. There were families making a picnic of it, and TV news coverage. In this case, WGN, according to the back of the camera.

These were the mounted binoculars I looked through.

Through them, Venus was a clear, crisp dot on the background of the pale yellow Sun. Afterward, I found the rest of my family and Lilly's friends and encouraged them to wait a little while in line to look through the binoculars, too. The lad in the picture is one of Lilly's friends as he saw the transit, with the gentleman who owned the binoculars holding them steady.

Not far away, I waited in another line to look through a largish telescope, which produced a large, white image of the Sun. Venus was proportionally larger than in the binoculars, and there were sunspots visible as well, but there was no mistaking the planet. Still, I liked the binocular view better.

I got home that evening late to a pile of unfinished work, which caused me to have a long day on the 6th. But as I lay thinking about it before drifting off the sleep, I knew it was worth the aggravation.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The 2012 Transit of Venus

I did a quick check about Copernicus yesterday and found out a few things. I hadn't realized that element 112 had been named "Copernicium" about two years ago. Or that Copernicus and Kepler have a feast day (May 23) in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church. A full facsimile version of De Revolutionibus is available on line, but my meager learning isn't up to anything more than glancing at it.

Also, there's this from the National Science Foundation. One of the survey questions is, Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? It looks like about 70 percent of Americans go along with heliocentrism; which means that 30 percent do not. What? How is that possible? And somehow I don't think that 30 percent objected to the question based on the fact that the orbit of the Earth is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci.

Anyway, on the grounds of the Alder on June 5, not far from the statue of Copernicus, a transit enthusiast had set up a large pair of binoculars mounted on a frame so that they swiveled up and down. The instrument was fitted with a solar lens and people were lined up to look through it. I joined the line at once. Next to me were a couple of youngish fellows, one from near Chicago, the other passing through (I think he was a Korean student living in St. Louis, but I didn't get all the details). We talked about the transit, and they told me Venus was at about 1 o'clock on the disk of the Sun.

So I looked again through my eclipse glasses and after a few moments I saw a round dot on the Sun, a little faint but there at roughly 1 o'clock. A few minutes later I saw the transit again through the binoculars, and after that through a larger telescope, but I first saw it with my (nearly) naked eyes at about 5:30 CDT under clear blue Chicago skies.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Point Venus, Chicago

To reach the Adler Planetarium, our Point Venus for the June 5 transit, I took a train downtown, arriving just before 5 pm. Yuriko, the girls and Lilly's friends were already there, and I was going to meet them. I walked part of the way, but broke down and hailed a cab on Michigan Ave. for the rest of the trip.

At first the cabbie was one for small talk, in Middle Eastern-flavored English, and I mentioned the transit to him. I'm not sure what he made of it. I also said there was an important election going on in Wisconsin, and I'm sure what he made of that, either. But he must have been eager to please his fare, since he found a news station on the radio to listen to while we were stuck in traffic, which was a lot. It was rush hour, after all.

On one station a couple of goofballs were talking about the transit, something along the lines of this can't possibly be interesting because it isn't a CGI three-ring circus. But they did confirm that the transit was under way. So I took out my pair of eclipse glasses and looked at the Sun through the cab window. I could tell the cabbie was trying to see what his odd passenger was up to, but I didn't explain.

I also didn't see anything on the disk of the Sun which, through the glasses, looks like a pale traffic light. But then again the cab soon moved and I lost my view. Traffic on Solidarity Drive, which leads right up to the Adler, was achingly slow, so I paid my fare and walked the rest of the way to find a better vantage point. But first I noticed this statue in front of the planetarium.

It's none other than Copernicus. At that moment, in fact, it was a statue of Copernicus watching the Transit of Venus, something the man Copernicus never got to do.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Planning for the Transit

I can't remember when I first read about the Transit of Venus, but it was before the 2004 transit. Must have been years ago — how many events combine exploration of the Earth with exploration of the Heavens? Capt. Cook goes to Tahiti, figures out how far the Earth is from the Sun. To simplify the story a lot.

Anyway, the '04 transit was early in the morning, and I couldn't be bothered with it. Eight years ago I wrote, "according to today’s paper, about 1000 people showed up at the Adler Planetarium yesterday morning to see the Transit of Venus. I figure that represents the hard-core astro-buffs. Lazy duffers like myself, who knew about the event, but didn’t go, probably represented 100 times as many people in the metro area. If that assumption is true -- and it’s only speculation -- that would mean 100,000 people out of 9.1 million or so in the metro area understood what was going on, celestially speaking. Nice to be part of a knowledgeable elite, especially if you don’t have to get out of bed early to be part of it."

This time I knew the event would be in the afternoon. Months ago I wrote a note about it on the hanging calendar we refer to most often, and on another calendar hanging in my office: TRANSIT OF VENUS. No one asked what it was until the page was flipped to June. As it happened, June 5 was the day after the girls finished school: Ann's last day of 3rd grade was the 4th, and Lilly's "graduation" from 8th grade was held on the evening of the 4th as well.

If it's sunny on June 5, I told them, we're going downtown to the Adler, which is bound to have telescopes set up for viewing. At once Lilly wanted to invite some friends and spend time at the nearby beach as well. I agreed with that, as long as we made our way to the planetarium by about 5.

So early in the month, I paid special attention to the weather forecast. As I've mentioned, the last day of May was rainy all day. If the transit had been that day, we wouldn't have seen a moment of it. But by June 3, all predictions were for a clear day on the 5th. SUNNY, the forecast said on the 4th for the next day. So I knew we were going to see it. More about that tomorrow.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

Item From the Past: The Butchart Gardens

There's a lot to be said for traveling without a camera. Or at least not bothering to unpack the thing. I used to go places and not take pictures most of the time -- pretty much everywhere I went during the '80s.

For instance, I made no pictures of the Butchart Gardens, an extraordinary spot in Victoria, BC, during my June 1985 visit. The only image I have is the guide booklet above. But I remember the colorful evening light show the gardens puts on. After wandering around the fine floral displays in late afternoon, I waited in my rental car, reading, for dusk to come so I could see the variable colors sparkling among the plants, generated by strings of lights and well-positioned flood lights.

Quite a sight. I'm glad I wasn't fumbling with a camera at that moment.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Modern Moxie

Recently at a specialty candy and beverage shop, I had the opportunity to buy a bottle of Moxie and drink it. Let it never be said that when such an opportunity arises, I don't have Moxie. I'd never had the drink before, which is a regional beverage associated with New England — Maine especially. I've read that it's considered "bitter," but I found it mildly sweet (its second ingredient is cane sugar) and not bad at all.

These days Moxie is made by the Cornucopia Beverage Co. of Bedford, NH, but like some other sodas, it apparently began as a patent medicine, meaning that descriptions of its early days are bound to be as much murky lore as history. Here's a short history anyway, courtesy the Marietta Soda Museum. Moxie lost the early cola wars, according to the site, which notes, "until 1920 Moxie was outselling Coca-Cola, but Moxie made the same decision that a lot of soft drink producers made when sugar prices skyrocketed. They bought large quantities to protect themselves from future price increases.

"Unfortunately, prices collapsed and they were forced to sell their product at a loss. This also meant that they didn't have the money for advertising so they cut back dramatically. They should have borrowed the money, because without advertising sales also declined dramatically and they never recovered."

According to the bottle, the unusual ingredient to modern Moxie is "gentian root extractives," another food term I had to look up, which took me from the murky world of 19th-century patent medicines to the murky world of 21st-century health web sites. As near as I can tell, gentian is a large genus of plants that grow a lot of places, some of which are considered good for what ails ya. It also flavors various drinks, mostly of European origin, that aren't Moxie.

One more thing: another part of the Moxie experience is listening to the "Moxie One-Step," evidently written to promote the beverage during those long-lost days when it was a rival of Coca-cola.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Al Stewart, 2012

Al Stewart was in fine form early this month at the Woodstock Opera House. The remarkable thing is that his guitar virtuosity and fine voice sound almost the same now as they did on records he made around 35 years ago, or during live performances of the period currently disseminated by YouTube. We should all age so well.

The audience has aged with Al. In fact, I felt a bit younger than the average. Al Stewart had his biggest records in this country in the late '70s, when I was a teenager, but many in the audience must have first listened to him in their 20s or even 30s. Lilly, of course, was drastically out of the audience demographic, and claimed that people were starring at her (she's the age at which she feels that way a lot, but it was probably true in this setting).

The talented Stewart sideman David Nachmanoff and a bassist opened the show with three Nachmanoff songs, and then Al came out for a set in which they both, or all three, played Al's songs. After an intermission, they repeated the pattern. As usual, Al bantered between most of the songs, sometimes to explain a song's back story, sometimes to talk about some early experience in music, which I'm certain he knows the audience likes to hear. Once he talked about meeting the young Rolling Stones as a very young man himself -- 17, I believe he said, which would put the event ca. 1962.

The playlist relied heavily on his '70s albums, especially Year of the Cat. No doubt he feels obliged to play "Year of the Cat" and "On the Border" from that record, which he did, but this time around he also played "Midas Shadow" and "Flying Sorcery," the latter about aviatrix Amy Johnson. Surprisingly, he reached all the way back to his first album to play the title track of Bed-Sitter Images, a song I don't think I'd heard before. Also on the playlist from an early album (Orange) was "The News From Spain," which he characterized as his worst-selling single, "because it's so depressing." I'll go along with that.

When I saw Al Stewart live for the first time at the Park West in Chicago in early 1989, someone in the audience requested something from Orange, and he mocked the suggestion. But then again, he had an album to promote during that tour — Last Days of the Century — and so focused on newer items that aren't so new any more. These days he obviously doesn't mind reaching back more than 40 years for a tune.

The newest thing he played at the Woodstock Opera House was "Sheila Won't Be Coming Home," something he co-wrote with Nachmanoff. Also on the playlist were the relatively new "(A Child's View Of) The Eisenhower Years," which is good fun, and "Night Train to Munich," which I assume was inspired by the movie of that name, though I've never seen it.

All in all, a good show. I wouldn't have expected anything else. Still, I wouldn't have minded hearing some songs of his I've never heard live before, such as the moody "Palace of Versailles" or the only pop song I know about the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Woodstock Opera House

The Woodstock Opera House dates from 1889, when it was built as a multipurpose building: library, court, council room, fire department and second-floor auditorium for the city of Woodstock. The venue's web site says that Elgin-based architect Smith Hoag added "early American, Midwestern, Gothic and even Moorish elements. The interior is modeled after the showboats of the time, with dimensions and decorations that imitate many of those grand floating theaters."

The theater has hosted entertainment of various kinds since 1890, including an early '30s summer stock theater that included a very young Orson Welles. "In 1947 a group of citizens formed and supported the Woodstock Players," the web site continues. "For several years the Players provided acting experience for students graduating from the Goodman School. Now-famous personalities Paul Newman, Tom Bosley, Betsy Palmer, Geraldine Page, Shelley Berman and Lois Nettleton were among them."

I had to look up some of those actors, such as the late Lois Nettleton. (Who moved on to television, including appearances on Captain Video.) About a month ago, I noticed that Al Stewart would be back at the Woodstock Opera House again. Inconveniently timed, since I knew I'd be busy that week, but I decided to go. He's not getting any younger, and neither am I.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Footprint on the Square

Woodstock, Ill., has a pleasant town square, with greenery, walkways, benches and a statue memorializing the fallen originally erected by the GAR. Unlike some small towns, the business district surrounding the square seems fairly healthy, or at least without a lot of empty properties. Fixed to the sidewalk near I forget which business is this plaque.

Groundhog Day was largely filmed in Woodstock, and that spot is where Phil Connors (Bill Murray) stepped in an icy puddle a few times. If I remember right, he quickly learned to avoid stepping in it, once he understood he was trapped in a time loop. Chuck Peterson and family must have been mightily entertained by the scene.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Eventful Early June

For me, work consumed a lot of the last day of May 2012, a Thursday. It was just as well that the day felt like the last day of March. It was cold and rainy. The week before was warm and, mostly, so was the week after. But May 31 was Winter's own reminder that he'll be back soon enough. It takes more than climate change to flummox the old man. Lilly and Ann came home from one of their last days of the year and, so quietly I hardly noticed, sacked out in the living room, Lilly on the couch, Ann on a sleeping bag next to the couch. It isn't something I see too often.

On June 2, I drove with Lilly to Woodstock, Ill., where we saw Al Stewart in concert at the Woodstock Opera House. We also had time to wander around Woodstock town square, and found the plaque commemorating a moment in Groundhod Day when Bill Murray stepped in a cold puddle.

On June 4, Lilly "graduated" from 8th grade. Had a ceremony not too different from a high school or college graduation, which we attended. It brought back fond memories of my "graduation" from 8th grade. The bell rang, and that was that.

The very next day, though I had a mountain of work to deal with, I joined my family and three of Lilly's friends in an excursion to the grounds of the Adler Planetarium on the shores of Lake Michigan. From there we saw the Transit of Venus.

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