Monday, February 21, 2005

Time to retire this web log, on the second anniversary of its creation.

Not time to quit writing, however. The writing will carry on in a new blogspot, using a differnent template, with a comment function and a few other new things.

Without further ado, go to Been There, Seen That (Vol. 2).


Thursday, February 17, 2005

SpongeBob SquareBlog.

NO BLOGGING for a few days. Got a longish weekend coming up.

One day, Jack Kerouac. Another day, SpongeBob SquarePants. Such is the cultural variety possible in my time. We got a hold of a SpongeBob DVD recently by borrowing it. Lilly and Ann watched some of it before I got home yesterday. Lilly had heard of it, but since the cable wasteland is closed to her at home, had never seen it. Neither had I. So when I got home, I watched a couple of episodes, eyes peeled for signs of spongy undersea pre-version.

No dice. My well-honed double-entendre antenna picked up nothing. Of course, I don’t think that’s what whoever-it-is busybodies are griping about about: double-entendres are corrupting our youth. No, but I don’t have the desire to investigate this particular teapot (seashell?) tempest, beyond what I get secondhand.

In fact, SpongeBob could use some adult subtext, or at least punning. Without those, it’s just a brightly colored, not especially interesting cartoon. Lilly liked it. But remember, she’s seven. Give me Rocky & Bulwinkle anytime.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


The Waldenbooks on Washington Blvd. next to the Marquette Inn is closing. I’ve never been much of a fan of Waldenbooks, which has always struck me as a C-minus/D-plus sort of book store—the Jack in the Box or Long John Silver’s of the book trade—but I hate to see any book store within walking distance of my office close, for any reason. It isn’t clear whether this store is being closed as part of a retail chain’s ongoing house cleaning (stores open, stores close), or whether it lost its lease, or what.

I rarely bought anything there. More often I would stop by just to look around. Early this afternoon, I saw a sign on the door that said that said that the store was closing. Oh, boy! A big closing sale! True to its mediocre nature, however, the sale was limited—remainder table items and a few other things, half price. I did pick up a not-too-old copy of DeLorme’s Illinois Atlas & Gazetter for about $10. This is an excellent, highly detailed series; I’ve had one of Michigan for some time, and used it when visiting that state. If each atlas didn’t cost about $20, I’d have dozens, maybe all 50.

The Waldenbooks brand, indecently, is owned by Borders. From my office, it’s about a 12-minute walk to a Borders, a hulking three-story facility on State Street. Both chains were briefly owned by Kmart in the mid-90s, but that didn’t take, apparently. I still harbor a vague grudge against Borders and its ilk (B&N) for killing off a worthwhile Chicago book chain, Kroch’s and Brentano’s, but I still buy things there, especially remainder table items.

There’s a smaller bookstore that I can walk to--from my office desk to the elevator to the lobby to the street to the front door of the store it's two minutes, if the elevator’s prompt. Stewart Brent Books, an independent. I could write a whole other blog about that store, but I will say that it has the best remainder table downtown.


Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Kerouac blog.

You’d think the time of your life to read and appreciate On the Road would be in your 20s, since it’s a young man’s tale. I picked it up then, early in my 20s, not long after reading The Sun Also Rises for the first time, but I didn’t stick with it. I tried again some years later, in my 30s, but that didn’t go either.

Late last week I put a copy of it in my bag, and now I’m about half way through. I’m hooked this time. Maybe it’s good that I’ve put some chronological distance between myself and that book, so laden with times and places I did not witness. Or maybe I had to wait for the invention of the Internet to fully apprehend the multitude of ripples the book caused. If words are spigots for Google, “Kerouac” and “Beat Generation” and “Kerouac Traveler” and “Kerouac Essence Jack” gush forth pages and images and links and more pages on his books, his life, a half-dozen minor Beat figures, all the other major ones, the 1950s, the quarrel over Kerouac’s estate, City Lights, the Beat Museum (SF), the Beat Museum on Wheels, Lowell, Mass., and on and on: an endless tank of information inspired by a fellow who drank himself to death decades ago, but left behind books.

I typed in “Kerouac Essence Jack,” because the last time I spent much time thinking about him was when I saw a one-man play called Kerouac: The Essence of Jack, at a small theater in Chicago shortly after I moved to the city in 1987, starring Vincent Balestri, who was superb. The Internet also tells me that Balestri has reprised the role, sort of, in a movie called Beat Angel, an independent now making the film-festival rounds.

After he did his one-man show, Balestri stepped out of Kerouac’s character for a discussion with the audience, and one thing he said struck me as particularly funny. “Not everybody understands the concept of this show,” he noted, smiling at the thought of it. “Not long ago, during the discussion after the show like we’re having now, one guy told me I should seek therapy for my problem with alcohol.”


Monday, February 14, 2005

Slow blog movement.

Drizzle pretty much all day, more like March than February, but I won’t complain, as long as the water trends away from the low places in my house. At least this house doesn’t have a leaky basement, which I’m reminded of whenever I smell the faint must of some of the books we used to store in the old house’s basement.

This morning, Ed & Lynn forwarded me the following, by a columnist in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, not a paper I see often, but one that Ed, traveler extraordinaire, writes for periodically. I was amused. I’ve even practiced some of the suggestions. Without further ado, this is the whole thing, with occasional gloss by me in italics.

The Slow Travel movement: A primer

Thomas Swick

February 6, 2005

Last week I addressed the need for a Slow Travel movement and the column got such an overwhelming response -- two letters, which indicate of course that most people are following my advice and taking time to digest the idea -- that I've concluded that this is something too big to leave to a single Sunday.

That first column, as you recall, delineated the philosophy behind the
movement and ennobled it with a motto: "We travel to see the world, and we never see more than when we're perfectly still."

Now that we know where we're slouching from, I want to move on to the practical side, and offer suggestions for all of the would-be dawdlers with wanderlust.

Use your globe as a meditation tool. (I do this often.)

Choose one city, or state, or province (as opposed to an entire country, not even Slovakia or -- nice try -- Slovenia). (Fine advice.)

Consider taking the train. Or a boat.

Buy guidebooks with small print to discourage speed-reading.

Overpack -- heavy suitcases slow you down. (I disagree, but if it works for him, he can do it.)

Wear clothing with lots of pockets, and forget which ones you use for what.

Whatever the terminal, get there early and drink in the drama. ( Some people just drink in the terminal.)

At immigration, stand in the line with the most ethnic headwear.

Take the shuttle instead of a taxi. (Yes.)

Sweep the lobby with a glance before proceeding to reception.

If there's a bar, plop down in an armchair. (Drink a sloe gin fizz.)

Have a chat with the bellman.

Note the wallpaper in the corridor.

Test the comfort of the bed and, while testing, surf to find the local news. (Sometimes your hear the oddest things on someplace else’s local news.)

Flip, still supine, through every bit of hotel literature.

Walk. (As much as possible.)

Don't plan to see anything but try to see everything.

Forget the Alamo. (What does he know, he’s from Florida. Still, I think I understand.)

Curse the subway. (Some people cruise the subway.)

Read the posted menus of at least 10 restaurants before you decide on a place to eat.

Give each forkful quality time in your mouth. (Hard for me.)

Ask your waitress what she thinks of the Slow Food movement.

Up her tip if she claims membership in the Slow Service movement.

Have an after-dinner drink.

Go to a hot club so you can stand in a line.

Leave as soon as you reach the entrance. (It's not like you're going to miss a lot of slow dancing.)

Admire the streetlamps.

Eat a good breakfast.

Read the paper (keep the Leisure section).

Drop by a market on your way to the museum.

Stop and smell the cheeses.

Choose just a floor, an era, a school of art.

At ruins, linger till the dust from tour groups has settled.

Try to converse in a foreign language.

Empty all of your pockets and then find a gang of street kids.

Write in a journal.

Browse in a bookstore (even -- especially -- if you can't read the titles).

Forget the camera and carry a sketchpad.

Study the money before you spend it. (Little artworks, sometimes.)

Listen to the entire repertoire of Andean flute music. (Except, it always sounds exactly the same, so it’s hard to know when it’s repeating.)

Apply for a work visa. (Very time consuming.)

Wait in front of an interesting building until someone comes out and invites you in.

Board a bus that looks very lumbering.

Then take a nap.

Make your way back on foot.

Stop for mimes. (No. Forget it.)

Watch men working.

Strike up conversations with sloe-eyed strangers.

Spend a morning in bed with your green Michelin guide.

Toss four coins in a fountain.

Wonder what the woman is doing with a mannequin.

Buy postcards only after you've scoured all the shops. (And don't fall into the trap of purchasing stamps with them.)

Behold the swallow flying around the post office.

Ask the gentleman the name of his bulldog.

Read every plaque.

Gaze at the clouds.

Halt on a bridge.

Say, "I am here."

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Shabbona blog.

I’d have thought that ice fishing was out of the question this weekend. It’s always out of the question for me, since combining fishing and standing on the ice seems like blending uncomfortable with uninteresting, with each reinforcing the other. But since the temps edged up again on Friday, and peaked at about 50 F on Saturday, I’d have thought putting a lot of weight on frozen lake would have been impossible.

But no. Lake ice must not melt that fast. There at Shabbona Lake State Park, in DeKalb County, Illinois, about a dozen ice fishermen were out on the surface of the lake, doing whatever it is they do to coax fish from under the ice. It was the first time I’d actually seen anyone ice fishing.

I didn’t walk onto the ice myself, but I did tool around the edge of the lake, along squishy, muddy trails and the top of an earthen dam that holds in one side of the lake, which is as square a lake as I’ve seen—but then again, it’s a manmade lake, designed for fishing, so that’s not too peculiar. A lot of the grass was still lying down, bend over from the snow, most of which had melted. Not far from the lake were signs along the road and some of the footpaths warning hikers to stay away during hunting season—ending January 13 in this case—since the area was reserved for bow hunting deer. At certain places I saw what I took to be deer spoor, but no evidence of the passage of Ted Nugent.

We’d come this way as a sort of dry run for our vacation, which will involve drives of an hour-and-a-half or two at a go. Also, I was itching for some kind of drive: winter circumscribes you that way. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the vicinity of Shabbona, though about 10 miles away we stopped at a main street restaurant in Hinckley, Illinois, just across the line in DeKalb County. It’s still a small town attuned to the ag economy, but the furthest Chicago suburbs are inching toward it like a sailor toward a bar girl, if the patches of farmland for sale are any indication.

I avoided fast food, and yet fed my family for under $20 (just over, with tip). That’s my kind of eatery. Lilly ordered from the menu like a grown up, or rather like a child that can read most of the menu, talking directly to the waitress to ask for a chicken sandwich and a bowl of soup, with chocolate milk. A first for her.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller RIP blog.

Here’s the punch line of an Arthur Miller-Marilyn Monroe as she-wolf at costume-party joke my chemistry professor told his class years ago: “Gee, who were Romulus and Remus anyway?”

It wasn’t funny when he told it, either, but he had the added disadvantage of being a tedious lecturer in a tedious subject, so he had a tough audience—one he’d toughened himself by numbing us three times a week. I thought of that joke (I only remember lame ones) when I read on the elevator that Miller had died. There’s a small screen on our office building elevators that supplies passengers with news and ads, and I’ve learned a remarkable number of news bits like this from it over the years.

Ms. W., a high school English teacher I disliked—a mutual feeling, I think—was a big fan of The Crucible, which she taught, so that one was ruined for me. I’m glad she didn’t teach us Death of a Salesman, which I’ve seen filmed versions of, to my benefit, without any pedagogic guide. When I was younger, I puzzled the most at why Willy Loman turned down his friend’s offer of a job when he badly needed one, but of course people really do that kind of thing, and often. And it was death of a salesman, after all, so he needed to die tragically by his own hand, not subsist on Social Security after turning 65. Subsistence Retirement of a Salesman just doesn’t have that dramatic ring.

The only Arthur Miller play I’ve actually seen staged was All My Sons, which I saw in Chicago back when I used to go the theater every month or so. It had a tragic suicide, shattered family and a Big Dark Secret (ultimately revealed), so who says you need to read Southern gothic fiction to get all that?


Thursday, February 10, 2005

I am a jelly blog.

Winter has returned, though not in awful force. Still, it’s cold enough, below freezing all the time. February, bah.

Not much to report today, though I will say that IBM ThinkPads, the laptop I often use in my work these days, produce a lot of heat. The heat is vented on the left side of the machine. I’ve noticed it before, of course, since it’s like a little sirocco, but I didn’t really appreciate it until today, when I parked a certain chocolate confection on my desk next to the vent. It wasn’t there more than five minutes or so, but when I picked it up, I felt a distinct squishy spot.

I’m still not finished with Robert Dallek’s excellent book on Kennedy, since it takes a while in small drops on the train every day, but the end is nigh. From page 625, re the president’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963: “In the midst of so tumultuous a reception, no one was ready to complain that Kennedy should have said, ‘Ich bin Berliner’ instead of ‘ein Berliner,’ which was colloquial German for a jelly doughnut.”

Actually, I’d heard that before, but forgotten it. Pete Wilson, whom I knew in college, mentioned in Latin class one day that Kennedy had called himself a jelly doughnut, though I don’t remember how it came up. Maybe a discussion on the difficulties of translation. Later, in Germany, I did notice that a jelly doughnut was indeed called a Berliner.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Big burrito blog.

Last Saturday, we ate at a Chipotle for the first time. In its advertising, at least its billboards, the chain stresses the size of its burritos, and it’s truth in advertising. They come all wrapped in aluminum foil, big enough for notoriously large gringo appetites, though I’ve had as big in other Mexican restaurants, including one in Westmont—ah, Taco Express, I miss it—run by actual Mexicans. While not quite as good as Taco Express, Chipotle did a good job of it. Both Yuriko and I had a pork burrito, spicier than usual for formula Mexican fare, and very filling. So filling that dinner was hardly necessary. If we ever go again, we’ll buy one and split it. Lilly was less impressed with her tacos, which were too spicy for her, but she and Ann enjoyed their chips and guac completely.

The décor bothered me. In theory, it was up-to-date, stylish, smooth. In practice, the seats were hard and uncomfortable, and there was too much metal—metal walls, metal ceiling, metal tables. Add a little gray, plus a hatch that swings shut, and we could have been eating in a battleship. No cheesy black velvet or piñatas here, either, but works of art that vaguely evoked the kinds of pre-Columbian figures regularly featured in National Geographic. “This fresco, discovered by Swiss archaeologist Hans Lan in 1997, may depict the Aztec thunder god Uztctylpecticpotictyl apoplectic with wrath, as usual with Aztec gods.”

The hard seats reminded of the story I’d read (or heard) about Starbucks seats, which are (or were) infamously designed to be uncomfortable, the better to discourage lingering, and turn those tables. But I don’t go to Starbucks enough to testify about its seats. In fact, the last time I sat in a Starbucks was November 11, 2003; it may seem odd that I remember that, but it was Veteran’s Day, and I asked a young co-worker if she had ever heard it called Armistice Day (she hadn’t). Anyway, Chipotle’s seats, for all their sophisticated style, failed at providing a comfortable perch for the butts that Chipotle strives to enlarge with its mammoth burritos.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Chipotle blog.

I’m glad I didn’t write this headline: “The Battle for Hollywood Entertainment – Blockbuster Raises the Anti.” I’m researching the video rental industry, and came across that today.

I persist in calling it “video” rental—short for videotape, a dying medium, but also a component of digital video disc, after all. For those of you not paying close attention, and there’s no reason you should, the video store chain Blockbuster has made a hostile bid for that other video store chain, Hollywood, whose board has already promised to sell it to yet another (but smaller) chain, Movie Gallery. A corporate dustup, as the public flees to Netflix.

My brother Jay was intrigued by the thought of an Aztec chain restaurant (see yesterday), and wrote: “I, for one, look forward to reading about the country's only Aztec restaurant chain. Would I be correct in thinking that you're referring to a type of food and not the style of management or social organization? Raiding the nearby Chili's for sacrificial victims to propitiate the wholesale grocery gods and keep the supplies coming would almost certainly be looked on without favour by the authorities in even the most diversity-sensitive community.

“Which reminds me of Sir Charles James Napier, conqueror of the Sind, when a delegation came to explain the importance of suttee in the culture of the country: ‘You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.’ ”

Of course, my restaurant experience was at Chipotle, which has that Aztec ring to it. I was only vaguely aware of that word’s use in Mexican cuisine, so I found this at “Chipotles chilies peppers are smoked jalapeno chili peppers, and are also known as chili ahumado. These chilies are usually a dull tan to coffee color and measure approximately 2 to 4 inches in length and about an inch wide. As much as one fifth of the Mexican jalapeno crop is processed into chipotles.

"Chipotles date back to region that is now northern Mexico City, prior to Aztec civilization. It’s conjectured that the Aztecs smoked the chilies because the thick, fleshy, alapeno was difficult to dry and prone to rot. The Aztecs used the same "smoke drying" process for the chilies as they used for drying meats. This smoking allowed the chilies to be stored for a substantial period of time.

“Today Chipotles are used widely throughout Mexico as well as in the United States. Quite popular in the southwestern U.S. and California, Chipotles have found their way into the cuisine of many celebrity chefs from Hawaii to Manhattan.”

Now the term has been pressed into the service of the McDonald’s empire, for indeed the 400 or so Chipotles are owned by that company, and have been for about five years, though when you compare it to the 13,000 or McDonald’s in the United States alone, it’s a small province. (And, word is that McDonald’s might sell off its Chipotle operations soon.)

As for the actual experience, it was like eating lunch inside a thermos jug. More on that tomorrow.