Thursday, July 31, 2003

Mr. Brain's blog.

In the Daily Bleat ( today, Lileks linked to Mr. Brain's Pork Faggots Web site (, at which you find information on pork faggots, which are essentially meatballs in sauce -- and called that only in Britain. Well, I don't know that for a fact: there could be faggots in Australia and New Zealand; meatball faggots, that is.

I ought to e-mail my Australian friends -- hey, blokes, do you eat faggots in Oz?

Haw, haw. Haven't had this much fun with that word since junior high. No, wait, I didn't have fun with that word in junior high -- it was an all-purpose term of abuse that didn't seem to have much to do with sexuality, and I was on the receiving end of it all too often. This tended to fade as I passed into high school, though I do remember one occasion early in the 9th grade in which a girl in one of my classes, whom I sat next to, got it in her head somehow that I was going to touch her. I wasn't, but it didn't stop her from bleating out: "Keep your faggot hands off me!" Go figure.

Mr. Brain's Web site says:
"Mr Brain's is all about traditional, no fuss food.
We pride ourselves on using the finest pork and pork liver for our faggots, topped with a generous serving of delicious West Country sauce. It's no wonder 100 million faggots are eaten in the UK every year!"

I was amused by this, but it wasn't new to me. Which points to one of the reasons I like to get out & go places. Yuriko and I spent most of December 1994 staying at a flat in Ealing, a district in the western part of greater London. We had a kitchen, and often shopped at a nearby grocery store. Overseas grocery stores offer no end of interesting things to see (so do domestic ones, if I'm in the right frame of mind). In the Ealing store I discovered pork faggots in the frozen food section -- though I don't remember if they were Mr. Brain's brand. We bought some and ate them. Not bad for British cuisine.

It's a fine thing to see the great sites -- in the case of London, Parliament, St. Paul's, Buckingham Palace, etc. But traveling is also about embracing the details.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Unbought moosehead blog.

Ann is six months old today: small, alert, healthy, marveling at the world in that baby way, or so it seems. I can't ask her if she's really marveling, at least as I understand the feeling.

My brother Jay writes: "It's been a long time since I read The Sun Also Rises. I'm not sure how long; a decade at least. I may have to read it again. It's not just unbought stuffed dogs, however, that pave the road to Hell (or wherever you might be going.) There was a furniture store in an old building in San Antonio that was on the route to the courthouse from my office when I worked at Alamo Title. Through the showroom windows I noticed that stuffed animal head decorated the walls of the store. They were mostly deer, with here and there a goat or mountain sheep, but, in a place of apparent honour along the back wall, there was an enormous moosehead.

"Every time I passed the place I thought that I should go in and ask whether it was for sale, and for how much. I never did, deterred by a lack of ready cash and the intuitive knowledge that the purchase of a moosehead would lead to domestic difficulties. Now, of course, it's too late. The store closed long ago and its collection of head was dispersed. So, it's not just unbought stuffed dogs but unbought stuffed mooseheads as well.

"In this vein, as we were driving back from Denton [Texas] earlier today I spotted an enormous metalwork pig, painted like a U.S. flag, sitting by the side of some otherwise nondescript eatery. If I had that, I thought, and put it in front of my house, I wouldn't need to post a street number. But I passed by.”

Unbought mooseheads might have been a cause for woe once, but in our time we have eBay. Then again, domestic difficulties might still be a factor. I know they would for me.

Not far from where I worked in Nashville in the mid-80s, on a street perpendicular to Music Row, there was a house that had two concrete polar bears mounted in the front yard. They were big, life-sized bears painted white and standing erect on their hind legs, with one front paw up, as if waving to passersby. Investigation by the reportorial team at Nashville magazine (now defunct) revealed that the bears had once belonged to an ice company, and in fact there had been a third. But for some reason -- space, probably -- the householder had only acquired two when the ice company went out of business. The whereabouts of the third remained a mystery.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Expat blog.

The tiger lilies are blooming along the garage wall, and the fireflies are few in number now at dusk. August, declining summer, is at hand. Bah. Summer just got here.

John P., whom I knew at Vanderbilt Student Communications and who now lives in suburban Baltimore, writes: "The road to hell is indeed paved with unbought stuffed dogs."

"I did the expatriate thing in Paris for four days once (in the middle of doing the expatriate thing in North Yorkshire for three years, which is a completely different thing. Imagine Emily Bronte with the Internet). A couple of my pals came over, one to cry into his wine glass every ten minutes or so because the mistress he'd dumped his mistress who he'd divorced his second wife for had dumped him [sic, but the phrasing probably reflects the confusion of the situation], the other to argue with his young sophisticated Manhattanite girlfriend a week before they broke up.

"There's something about doing that at a sidewalk cafe in the morning and then walking over to the Musee d'Orsay to look at impressionist paintings in the afternoon that made me very happy. Fortunately Katherine and I had been there two weeks before and took in all the sights. Wonderful town. Paris was made for happy and unhappy lovers both.

"Side note: Spain is wonderful. Especially Barcelona. But also a dozen other places there. Hemingway was no fool."

I did my expat thing in glamorous Osaka. A novel did not result, but I am lazy in that way. There were plenty of opportunities for getting drunk, of course, and for quarreling with lovers. But not in a setting of non-stop cafe society. One time I overheard my Kiwi neighbor's drunk girlfriend let fly an amazingly vile tirade against him, poor sap. She was in the hall outside his door, not far from mine, and I think she didn't realize that anyone in the other apartments understood English, or didn't care. But language was almost beside the point at that point.

Monday, July 28, 2003

Onward, Christian bloggers.

I pity the poor souls, and there seem to be many loose in the world, who get no pleasure from learning. That includes learning useless facts, because most learning involves useless facts, and it's something you can do every day, even the Sabbath.

It also helps that everyone, without exception, is ignorant about something. Thus the road is open for learning a neat fact unexpectedly, like turning a corner and coming across a lively street busker. One of my pockets of ignorance -- a gapping maw, really -- concerns music.

Went to Holy Nativity for the first time in a while yesterday. Noticed with some interest that the recessional was "Onward, Christian Soldiers," which had evidently not been tossed out of the 1982 Hymnal for its military metaphor. When the hymnal is open to any particular hymn, I usually take a look at who wrote it. Often, the name doesn't mean anything to me, since I've never made a study of hymns. Could be written by an exceptionally famous hymnist, but in most cases I wouldn't appreciate that.

Words: Sabine Baring-Gould. Hm. (I looked him up today, and of course he was a remarkable Victorian writer and traveler I'd never heard of.) Music: Arthur S. Sullivan. That Sullivan? He wrote the music to "Onward, Christian Soldiers"? Really?

Sure enough. I knew that Sullivan wrote a good deal of sacred music, even wanted to be known for that more than his collaboration with Gilbert. No such luck, Sir Arthur. But somehow the fact that he had written that rather famous hymn had eluded me. A delightful discovery. I popped that useless fact into my gapping maw of ignorance and down it went (I don't expect that maw to ever be filled in my lifetime; can't know everything).

It was also the first time I'd ever heard all the words, all the way through. A stirring hymn, really. But I have to admit that I'm more familiar with the bitter World War I parody set to the tune that Sullivan wrote:

Forward Joe Soap's army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.
He boasts and skites from morn till night,
And thinks he's very brave,
But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.
Forward Joe Soap's army, marching without fear,
With our old commander, safely in the rear.

This was sung in the musical Oh, What a Lovely War! I saw a student production of this in college, and later bought the London cast soundtrack on vinyl. Among many other songs, it also includes "When This Lousy War is Over," to the tune of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and the immortal "The Bells of Hell."

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Weekend blog. Items from the past, continued.

(Undated, but written in July 1989).

Yesterday we went fishing up north -- miles into the Boise National Forest, up roads and past excellent vistas and sheer drop-offs without the benefit of railings. We fished at several spots. My pole kept jamming, and no fish showed any interest in my hook. It only confirmed what I knew already: I don't like fishing. But I thought that if I were going to give it a try again, Idaho would be the place. I will never be a sport fisherman.

So I took long walks, along the roads sometimes, more often along the banks of the Payette River. My mind wandered as much. The air was hot but dry. The trees shaded most of my way. The only sounds were the river gurgling and an underfoot crunching.

En route back from "fishing," we stopped at a little wayside camp ground called Kirkham. Down a path from that spot, you reach a stream debouching into the Payette River. Rivers here are cold. But this stream is warm -- hot even, sulfurous water leaching from deep in the mountain somewhere and ending up here. Several natural hot tubs are formed by boulders underneath a cluster of small waterfalls.

"That's my favorite spot!" said a man who came to the hot springs a little while after we did. It wasn't in the tone of get out of my spot! Instead, he was sharing his enthusiasm for the natural hot-tub pool I was sitting in, under a waterfall. Spent many fine minutes there. It was like taking a warm shower.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Weekend blog. Items from the past, continued.

(Undated, but written in July 1989).

I'm sitting at the simple wooden table where we've been eating our meals, but which at times supports a propane lantern, or a clutter of magazines, drawing paper and more. The table is in the middle of the cabin, ringed by beat-up chairs. Beyond that are more chairs, the tatty couch on which I sleep (and nap), a stove we haven't needed yet, a nicked kitchen countertop-like platform, several shelves that serve as the pantry, all kinds of tools, and heaps of cast-off things, including a rusty old baritone horn.

The baritone and all the other things sit in a cabin built on the side of a hill, overhanging a creek. Beyond the stream is another hill, crested by pine trees but hardly dominated by them. Trees around here cling to their hillsides, which are otherwise brown and dusty. There are enough trees nearby to shade the cabin, and provide a bed of needles underfoot and a strong pine smell. At the bottom of the hill, the creek is barely visible, but you can hear the bubbling. It's otherwise so quiet around here that birds make the most noise -- except when the neighbors, about a quarter of a mile away, start their pump.

There's no running water in the cabin -- a well has yet to be dug -- so we have to go down to the creek to fetch it in buckets. There are two ways down, the long way, and the short. The long way is by the dirt road, which first goes up, and then down a steep, dusty grade; the short way is more or less straight down the side of the hill, via primitive footholds. The short way is short; but how to use it without falling, or tumbling, or twisting something?

Some people have that lightfootedness. They can go up and down steep slopes like chipmunks. My inner ear compass isn't all that I could wish for, so going down such a slope is slow going. Maybe I will improve with practice. I've had a lot of practice since coming to Idaho. Besides going for water, I've scampered up- and downhill to reach fishing holes, to summit the bare top of the hill out back for stargazing, and for a half-dozen other reasons. The essential fact of Idaho seems to be verticality. Except for the valley that contains Boise, all I've seen of the place is as rumpled as the blankets we keep on our beds. Everywhere hills.

Friday, July 25, 2003

Rockefeller blog.

Ann is teething, and had a runny nose last night, so I was up for the sunrise this morning, noticing that it's later than a few weeks ago. Sunset is a little earlier too. Daylight is being chipped away from either end now. Only a little, and we still have the red burning days of August ahead, but still we're at the top of the slide that takes us into the pit of winter.

You know the old Chinese proverb. Even a journey of 1,000 leagues begins by backing out of the driveway.

Used my summer Friday hours today to spend a little time in Hyde Park. Unlike Oak Park (see the July 21 blog), which is a municipality independent of Chicago, Hyde Park is a neighborhood on the South Side of the city, and has been since a vote in the summer of 1889 by residents of 125 square miles ringing the south, west and north of the city of Chicago as it existed then. At that time, a bare majority within that zone voted to join the city, quadrupling its size and almost giving it its modern borders.

Hyde Park was part of that annexation. It's the home of the University of Chicago, established by old John D. Rockefeller himself in 1890. It's also adjacent to the site of the Columbian Exposition in 1893, which is now Jackson Park. Hyde Park is a storied place.

I hadn't been there in some years. In the normal course of my life, it isn't on the way anywhere, and I don't know anyone who lives there. Back in the late '80s, I used to go more often, particularly to one of my favorite bookstores anywhere, the Seminary Co-op. It's in a basement, and the book shelves are floor to ceiling. Then you notice that passageways branch off from the main room; and passageways branch off from there. All books everywhere. Every subject imaginable, and then some.

Didn't go there today. Can't be buying books two weeks ahead of The Move. I went to the Smart Museum; more on that some other time, but you have to like that name. I walked by the Robie House, a creation of Frank Lloyd Wright. Him again. One of these days, I will take the tour, but not today.

What I marveled at today was the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. Amazingly, I'd never been inside, and I almost didn't make it today, arriving about 15 minutes before closing. You read the word chapel and you think Little Chapel in the Woods, a wedding chapel, that sort of thing. Smallish.

John Rockefeller thought big. The structure is huge. A big Gothic thing. I knew that, of course, having passed by it a number of times over the years, but it hit home when I wandered inside. I was the only one there. The glass is mostly clear, so the angled summer sun lighted the place. Several doors were open, so there was a breeze -- unusual in such a large church. For large it was, as large as many cathedrals I've seen.

From the chapel's Web site: "Rockefeller Memorial Chapel is the chapel for the University of Chicago. Built between 1925 and 1928, this Gothic structure is named for the University's Baptist founder, John D. Rockefeller. The Chapel was designed, at Rockefeller's request, to be the 'central and dominant feature' of the campus, in accordance with his confidence in the integration of faith and learning."

Or the integration of himself and that eye of the needle. He was quoted as saying that "God gave me my money." Maybe he was trying to show some appreciation in paying for this building.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Apple Camp Blog.

Whenever I wander down North Michigan Avenue, I tend to think of it as the "North Michigan Avenue retail market," where rents are high and vacancies are still fairly low. (Vacant space is one measure of the health of any commercial market; low is good for landlords, naturally.) That's just one of those habits of mind that comes from writing about commercial real estate so much. That and the knowledge that merchandise there runs high, simply because it's sold on Michigan Avenue, one the great shopping streets of the nation, where rents are...

Anyway, the avenue has the kind of stores I don't usually frequent, such as expensive clothiers, a couple of jewelry stores, upscale knickknackeries, and some of the usual monster chains: a Border's further north, a Virgin Megastore toward the south.

I do go into Border's from time to time, just to look, but there's one closer to my office than the Michigan Ave. site. As for Virgin, I might go in occasionally if I ever were in the market for recorded music, but I seldom am. Besides, I'm old enough to remember when London was the place to visit a Virgin record store. That wasn't so long ago -- 1988, when I spent a fine while rummaging through a Virgin store there. It was worth doing because I couldn't do it back home. As a result, something about seeing a Virgin Megastore on Michigan Ave. doesn't quite sit right. I feel the same way about the now-ubiquitous Barnes & Noble. That's a New York bookstore, dammit.

Chicago used to have a fine local bookstore chain -- Krock's & Brentano's. A fine record chain as well -- Rose Records. Both vanished in the 1990s.

Tilting against retail windmills, I am. Today I went to the Apple Store on North Michigan Ave. It's been open only a few months, replacing I don't remember what. My associate editor Bonnie and I actually had a work-related reason to go, too, besides our professional interest in retailers. We are going to buy a digital camera for the office, and wanted a hands-on examination.

It was my first Apple Store visit, but of course I'd heard about them. Spare and white as a NASA clean room, glass and steel predominating, products arrayed for inspection (adoration?). I'd read that the staircase leading to the second floor is not plastic, as it appears to be, but specially toughened glass. The stairs and a bridge from one side of the second floor to the other are made of this glass. Knowing that my full weight was being supported by mere glass gave me pause. But it held. It's tough, all right.

A solicitous young man, wearing an orange "Camp Apple" t-shirt and clearing doing this as a summer job, had apparently been assigned to the digital camera table, and he listened to us describe what we wanted: something to made 300+ dpi images for publication in a real paper magazine. We even confessed that we were still using an OS9x system (a clerk in the Mac room of Microcenter once reacted to that information as if I had said I preferred quill pens to those new-fangled ball-points).

The fellow at the Apple store had probably been indoctrinated in maintaining a poker face in such situations, and so cheerfully talked about the pictures he'd taken with his camera, a Canon on the table about the size of a cigarette pack. You can put it right in your pocket, he said. I gravitated toward a somewhat larger Nikon, with similar capabilities, simply because it seemed more like a real camera. Cameras shouldn't be too small, unless they're meant to spy with.

We didn't buy anything there. That wasn't part of the plan. But soon we will order a camera on-line and have it delivered here. That, I expect, is exactly what Apple wants us to do.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

The Blog on the Edge of Forever.

Yesterday's WSJ had a front-page article involving Harlan Ellison, who's suing AOL Time Warner for something or other. Hadn't thought about Ellison in years. As soon as the second paragraph, the teleplay for the original Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" was mentioned, cited as perhaps his most famous work.

It was a good episode, better than most, though I'd say I liked "The Doomsday Machine" better. But one thing has long bothered me about it. The story hinged on Kirk facing the awful prospect of allowing Edith Keeler, a woman he had grown fond of while visiting Depression-era Earth, to die. If she lived, the central conceit of the story goes, she would found a pacifist movement that would delay American entry into World War II, thus allowing the Nazis to go nuclear, etc. In the end the Earth as Gene Roddenberry envisioned it -- a peaceful, one-government, namby-pamby sort of place that doesn't seem to have a money economy -- would not exist. Some unspeakable evil would have evolved instead, maybe a world in which Spock has a beard.

There's dramatic tension in that, certainly, but it occurred to me after watching that episode for the nth time as a lad that the story assumes no Pearl Harbor. In the world in which you and I live, no amount of pacifist activism would have keep the United States out of war with the Axis after December 7, 1941. No less a public figure than Lindbergh was a defeatist, and look what came of that. Nothing.

Of course, I expect too much from a television show.

One other thing... there's also a scene in that episode in which Dr. McCoy, temporarily crazy as a loon, allows a down-and-out-looking person he meets on 1930s Earth to get a hold of his phaser. The man promptly vaporizes himself. What about him? Isn't it possible that his death upsets the future dramatically? But it was merely a passing moment, just another illustration of the well-satirized fact that being a minor character on that show was risking gratuitous death.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The Blog Also Rises.

After posting yesterday's material, which dealt largely with Hemingway's birthplace, I noticed that yesterday was the 104th anniversary of writer's birth. July also happened to be the month that he did himself in, but that's another story.

In any case, I read The Sun Also Rises the summer I turned 20, and have re-read it every few years since then, most recently in 2001. It's one of those books. It has staying power. I'm not sure why: a loose band of expat drunks and their blowsy meanderings in France and Spain in the mid-20s. Then again, I know why: the virtuosity of the writing amazed me when I was young, and it still does. More so now, I think.

Besides, it contains my favorite line in literature. To set the scene: Jake, the narrator of the story (and who was emasculated by the Great War) and Bill, who offers the book's comic relief, are walking through the streets of Paris one evening. Bill, of course, has had a lot to drink already. They pass a taxidermist's shop.

"Here's a taxidermist's," Bill said. "Want to buy anything? Nice stuffed dog?"
"Come on," I said. "You're pie-eyed."
"Pretty nice stuffed dogs," Bill said. "Certainly brighten up your flat."
"Come on."
"Just one stuffed dog. I can take 'em or leave 'em alone. But listen, Jake. Just one stuffed dog."
"Come on."
"Mean everything in the world to you after you bought it. Simple exchange of values. You give them money. They give you a stuffed dog."
"We'll get one on the way back."
"All right. Have it your own way. Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs. Not my fault."

Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs. I guess you have to be of a certain cast of mind to appreciate a sentence like that; so surreal, so funny. Over the years, on those rare occasions when I've passed by a taxidemist's in the company of someone else, I say, "Let's get a stuffed dog." No one ever gets it.

A bit earlier in the book, Bill and Jake wander past a monument -- I'm paraphrasing here -- "a couple of men in flowing robes." Bill says: "Gentlemen who invented pharmacy. Can't fool me on Paris." Occasionally I pull that one out, too, when I see a monument I can't readily identify: "He invented pharmacy." People have taken me seriously when I say that.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Unbought stuffed blogs.

More storms last night. One, two, three in a row. As usual, one lightning strike sounded like it was just over our heads, dashing 'mid the large trees overhead. I was certain something large would come crashing down onto the roof. In the morning, I checked, and the only thing that had moved in the night was the recycling bin, which had fallen over, spilling its cargo of metal, plastic and a little glass.

The weatherpeople say this is the wettest July on record in northern Illinois. Certainly the grass has been responding. So have the mosquitoes. We missed giving you West Nile last year, but we'll do our best this time around. Actually, that's something I don't worry about very much; I still know the real enemy of long life and happiness, and it isn't a mosquito-borne disease, not in North America, not yet; it's still that timed-honored way to die before your time in the USA, driving a car. Yet drive I must.

My company has lately started giving us part of Friday afternoons in the summer off. (Huzzah!) So last Friday I took the opportunity to ride the rails to Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb immediately west of Chicago, producer of two famous sons: Frank Lloyd Wright and Earnest Hemingway. As a dashing young architect, Wright left town with a client's wife; and as soon as he'd grown up, Hemingway left town, too. Still, Oak Park claims the two, in the form of museums and civic propaganda.

Comments on Wright, another time. But it's enough to say that as interesting as his buildings can be, I've long thought that the answer to "Why was Frank Lloyd Wright a genius?" is "Because everybody says so!" Something like Charlie Chaplin in that way.

Last December, I had had part of an afternoon free, and had gone to the Hemingway Museum, but hadn't had the time to see his birthplace down the street. I kept the part of the ticket that would allow me in, and decided to use it on Friday. It was a fine stroll from the El up Oak Park Ave. to the house; a gorgeous and not too hot summer afternoon.

The house, built in 1890, is a Queen Anne very typical of the period. "Nothing architecturally significant," the guide said. "But Hemingway was born here." Can't compete in that way with the FLW, I suppose. Still, I thought it was a fine-looking house, nicely restored in most places, and except for my more advanced notions of central heating, I wouldn't mind living in one like it.

The furniture was period, very little actually belonging to the Hemingways. After all, they didn't realize they had to prepare the dwelling to become a museum in 100 years. In fact, Earnest himself only passed through. He was still in short pants when the family moved to a larger house a few blocks away. All in all, a nicely done display of how the haute bourgeoisie lived ca. 1900. Whatever Papa Hemingway's later pretensions, he was a kid from the suburbs.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Items from the past, continued.

July 20, 1983. (14th anniversary of the first Moon walk.)

A full hour after the scheduled time, a train came. We got on. The scenery was good -- rolled past houses, farms and fields. Plenty of little stops. When our stop came, our stop at tiny Paestum, the train didn't stop. Paestum flew by, and we headed unwillingly south. Steve said with great sagacity, "I knew it!"

The next stop was five minutes later at a place called Agropoli, and we got off. We checked the schedules, and, theoretically, a train going north stopping at both Agropoli and Paestum wouldn’t come until 2:30. It was about 11.

So we hung out in Agropoli, a town built from the coast up a high hill and back down again to another beach. Greek origins? A smaller town in Magna Graecia? The name made me think so. Steve wanted to swim. Others had the same idea, despite the sewage outlet not far from the beach. First we ate some bread & cheese & bananas and drank all-important aqua minerale.

I had no towel or bathing suit, so I headed for the hill by myself, which seemed to have some curious ruins on top. It looked like a fort, which would be a natural for such a steep hill. I following the streets and climbed without regard to direction, except that I was going up. It was very hot. I sweated viciously and drank a lot of water.

The view was good. I saw the beach and the behind it, fields, and behind that, mountains. Suddenly the road ended as a road for cars, but continued as a footpath, which lead to the part of the city carved from the top of the hill. Now the footpath became a series of stone staircases that lead three of four different directions, going under the name 'via' this and 'via' that, as if they were ordinary streets. Doors along the way had address numbers, too.

The stairs and walls were old and dark and stained. But for the televisions and the small electric street lights, I could have imagined I'd been dislodged from the 20th century, like Martin Padway. I came to a piazza with tables and chairs and a group of kids playing board games. I rested there a while, and noticed on the walls signs with lettering that looked for all the world like Hebrew, some newly painted. And I saw such signs elsewhere on the hilltop. Was this once a Jewish quarter? Was it still a Jewish quarter? It was hard to imagine such a thing. I sat for a long time in the piazza, looking over the sheer cliff down to the Mediterranean...

... Paestum was magnificent! Ned N. [my Latin professor] did not steer me wrong about these ruins.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

Items from the past, continued.

16 luglio 1983.

Didn't sleep well, for no particular reason. In the morning we went seeking the Mausoleum of Hadrian and the Vatican and its glories. The Castel St. Anglo proved to be a genuine fortress, complete with armory and cannon balls made of stone. Narrow, twisty passages snaked from room to room down inside, past some dungeons, and other rooms with long rows of Roman toilets, essentially rows of raised holes in the stone floor.

After a while there, we hurried over to the Vatican Museum, which our sources had told us would close at 1 p.m. The sign out front said closing time, 4 p.m. In true Italian fashion, it closed sometime in between, but no matter -- we saw plenty.

One Egyptian statue was unlike any I've ever seen -- a human body in a Roman toga, with the head of a dog. Dated the local equivalent of 30 B.C., the time when Rome has established mastery of Egypt, so perhaps this was political commentary. Spent time in the presence of the "Death of Laocoon" statue, first century BC. So real -- the agony on his face, the pathetic terror of his sons -- that it was horrible to look at, but fascinating all the same.

Even the Raphael rooms were open -- the "School of Athens" fresco was just there, on a wall. Perhaps I'd read that it was in the Vatican, but it was still the same surprise when something you've studied suddenly appears before you. Had the same sensation in front of Laocoon.

We just made into the Sistine Chapel, which closed right after we entered. Jammed with people. Wow, look at the stunning array of... excuse me, sir... and then there's... pardon me... I've seen the creation of Adam so many times, and there it is... ah, my neck hurts. The price of extreme fame, I suppose. Well worth seeing, of course, but hard to see.

Afterwards we went to St. Peter's, called the largest church on Earth, and I believe it. Spent hours there, staring at things, climbing to the top. It was hard work climbing up there, but also I had the satisfaction of doing something I'd wanted to since elementary school, when I'd read that it was possible to climb to the dome -- I remember imagining people actually on top of the dome, outside of the dome, hanging on to the large cross on top, swinging around.

The most amusing thing on the main floor of the basilica were the bronze markings on the main aisle. Hash marks they were, indicating the size of some other famously large churches, such as St. Paul's, Notre Dame, et al., all smaller than St. Peter's. We're number one! Go St Peter!

Back to our room via subway -- Rome has a new subway, only two lines, but shiny and new, only a few hundred lira to ride -- and later, in the evening, went to the Forum. Steve had seen a poster advertising a Keith Jarrett concert at the Piazza Campidoglio, so we went. That's where the equestrian Marcus Aurelius used to be, before pollution began to eat him away. Interesting concert, especially when Jarrett seemed to get angry with the audience.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Roaming blog.

Today I had some fun with a letter to my wireless provider, AT&T. I got the phone at the beginning of this year, to be ready for the baby's arrival. Since then, I use it occasionally, and while we were in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, I called a couple of 800 numbers, seeking some consumer information unrelated to my wireless service. How thoughtless of me, how old-fashioned, believing an 800 number is toll-free.

"To Whom It May Concern:
"I had heard of the concept of roaming charges, but thanks to AT&T I now have first-hand experience.

"Two calls from Wisconsin to 800 numbers: $2.76 each!
(Refer to my latest invoice, dated 7/9/03, p. 4)

"Of course, this must be an industry standard, so you have to charge it. I have paid it. But if you have any interest in keeping me as a long-term customer after our contract expires on Dec. 31, 2003, you might consider a credit of $5.52 to this account. And I promise to roam no more. Just a thought."

AT&T may actually credit me the amount. They would be wise to, because I will switch if they don't. Every now and then, I send a letter like this, protesting some outrageous fee, often associated with a credit card -- $25 for missing the due date by one day, for instance. Another time I hit my checking-account bank with a letter for hitting me with a large fee for being 50¢ short of the minimum for all of two days. It usually works. Over the years, for the cost of postage -- a few dollars -- I might have had $100 or so credited to various accounts. Not a bad investment.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Drop that Ethelbert blog.

Got an e-mail from Julia Roberts this morning. She works for the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chicago, and I'll bet she's sorely miffed at times that an overrated movie star shanghaied her name some years ago, though I've never discussed the matter with her. I'm fairly certain that will never happen to me. Let's just say the odds are pretty slim.

Then again, my brother Jay informed me recently of an obituary of a someone named Dees Stribling Daniels, who lived in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Born in 1930 or so, Daniels was apparently named after my uncle Ethelbert Dees Stribling (my father's brother) about 30 years before I was, but since we don't know of any relations with that last name, we're not sure why.

Uncle Dees, whom I don't really remember (he died in the late 1960s), did not use that first name of his. Didn't care to go to that extent to honor the various Saxon kings of that name, and I can sympathize. But he was elected Neshoba County Attorney in 1927 and Mayor of Philadelphia in 1934. Perhaps he did some really important legal work for the Daniels family.

From the Clarion-Ledger ("Mississippi's News Source"), June 30: "Dees Stribling Daniels, 73, a retired hospital worker, died Saturday, June 28, 2003, at home. Visitation is 5-9 p.m. today at McClain-Hays Funeral Home in Philadelphia. Services are 10 a.m. Tuesday at the funeral home with burial in North Bend Methodist Cemetery in Neshoba County."

I have no idea what kind of life D.S. Daniels lived, or what kind of person he was, or even if he was a he. But if he was male, and he used his first name, I'm fairly certain he had his name misspelled often; was asked "Is that your real name?" often; was also asked "Is that short for something?" often; had to spell it on the phone as a matter of course; always knew when a speaker reading a list of names had come to him, because the speaker would pause to puzzle it out; and would receive mail addressed to "Miss, Mrs. or Ms." Stribling.

It's a fine name. I hope I get to use it at least as long as he did.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Intermodal blog.

I attended the first-ever I-39 Expo today, held in that mecca of obscure business meetings, Rosemont, Ill. The idea of an "I-39 Expo" is something of an oddity, when you think about it, but the organizers had their reasons.

The Illinois section of I-39 runs from Bloomington/Normal north to the state line at Beloit, Wis., and as things stand now, that highway is beyond the pale of greater Chicago, though that metro area is slowing reaching westward to meet I-39. The economic development people who put on this event want to egg on that process, hence the expo. According to those selling the area, it is now the "I-39 Logistics Corridor." Which is to say, the econ development people dream of new warehouses and distribution space.

To simplify, but not oversimplify: Warehouses come first, because to make the numbers work you need fairly cheap land; then comes residential development; then retail development to service those people; and lastly, office space, if at all. People talk about "sprawl" as if were some kind of mold, which is nonsense. There are economic rationales for each stage of development. It may not look orderly, or look good at all, but there is an economically rational pattern overall. More or less.

Most interesting to me is the intermodal center that's being built near the town of Rochelle, Ill., which along the Interstate in question. I suppose intermodal centers are an acquired interest, but anyway one is being built by the Union Pacific, and in the logistics world, it's big news. The shortage of intermodal capacity in the Chicago area -- and from this perspective, Rochelle counts as the Chicago area -- has been backing up the distribution chain for goods for half of the world.

That's only a slight bit of hyperbole. Billions of things are made on the Pacific Rim, which are put into millions of intermodal containers. These come by ship to the various ports of the West Coast, and then put on trains. The rail network of North America is such that Chicago is the hub of all hubs. So vast numbers of the containers come here -- to intermodal centers, where they are either loaded on trucks, or other trains bound eastward.

The UP intermodal center isn't the only one around here, of course, or even the only new one. Last October, I attended the grand opening of the BNSF intermodal center near Joliet, Ill. It isn't what I would call picturesque, consisting as it does of several long strips of concrete with RR tracks running the length, and a number of enormous cranes on parallel tracks to service them. But it was fun to drive the length of the concrete to the tent for the festivities. It was like being turned loose on an airport runway in my car -- something you don't get to do every day, or ever for that matter.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Superior blog.

Furious storms last night, beginning at about 4:30, lasting a long time for those of us awakened by it (30 or so minutes by the clock, which is always such a literalist about matters like time-keeping). It was the second night in a row I’d lost sleep around that hour, but on Monday morning it was for no good reason. I just woke up and stayed that way too long.

Furious editing at the office today. We’re looking to wrap up the last issue of Real Estate Chicago by Friday; then we start the re-launch, becoming a magazine called Real Estate Mid-America. Same company, same staff, same offices; somewhat different magazine. More on the transmogrification later.

Despite the editing flurry today, I took time to go over to the Wrigley Building for a haircut. My regular barber in the Civic Opera Building has been on vacation for weeks and weeks now, it seems, and I wanted to get it cut before an event I must attend tomorrow. So I went to my former regular barber (1998-99), who didn’t remember me. He’s cut a lot of heads, I figure.

Returning from the Wrigley Building at about 5 pm, I caught a commuter boat back to the vicinity of my office — a nice five-minute ride along the Chicago River. Vastly more pleasant than a bus ride, and cheaper than a taxi. Hadn’t done it in several years. You get to see the sweep of the riverside office buildings, dozens of them, and the undersides of a half-dozen bridges, with foot and car traffic streaming across them.

That reminded me that I haven’t written anything about our three-hour tour among the Apostle Islands, up there on Lake Superior. It wasn’t a bad boat ride, but the trouble with those islands is they aren’t especially scenic from a boat. Tree-covered pancakes, mostly, with a few rises and a couple of interesting sea cave entrances, plus a few lighthouses. My conclusion is that the real way to do the Apostles would be to find a small boat, land on a few of them, and do some walkabouts.

But with a small child and an itty-bitty baby in tow, you do what you can. Once the clouds cleared away and the rain stopped that morning, and the upper deck was opened, some of the majesty of Lake Superior was more openly visible. The lake’s English name, as I understand it, is a straightforward translation of the French, in which “superior” designed the upper position on the map among the Great Lakes — so perhaps the Upper Lake might be a more correct translation. But where would the poetry be in that? Superior carries just the right load of awe.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Superior trout blog.

Whitefish livers. After getting off the tour boat in which we had tooled around the Apostle Islands on the morning of July 2, I was hoping to find whitefish livers for lunch. I’d heard that they were a specialty of Bayfield, part of the Lake Superior fish catch that didn’t travel very far inland. We went to a pleasant restaurant called the Pier Plaza, friendly to those of us with small children, but whose menu isn’t on the wall above the cash registers. Fittingly, it overlooks the main city pier in Bayfield, and also includes an inn on the property.

No livers. Minor disappointment. Whitefish livers weren’t on the menu that day, so I settled for the next best thing, Lake Superior trout, as the star contents of a sandwich platter. Major satisfaction in that choice, which turned out to be the best dish of the whole trip for me, though some others came close. Lightly seasoned and lightly sautéd, nesting on a fresh bun with the option of tangy tarter sauce, the natural flavor of the lake trout shone through. Freshly mashed potatoes complemented the plate, and provided a handy stock of food that Ann could, and did, enjoy.

It also turned out that Lake Superior trout are a relatively rare item themselves. Every plate of food tells a story: this from Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine (April 2003): “Commercial fishing began in the 1830s and increased in intensity over the next century. Lake whitefish were heavily fished in the Wisconsin waters in the 1870s and 1880s. Over-fishing had already taken its toll on lake trout, lake whitefish and lake herring populations by 1938, when sea lamprey reached Lake Superior.

“ ‘Lake whitefish, the most sought-after species, were more shore-oriented than lake trout,’ said DNR fish biologist Dennis Pratt. ‘When whitefish numbers got low, fishermen turned to lake trout. When sea lamprey arrived, they nearly eliminated the depressed lake trout populations. Lake herring sustained the commercial fishery into the 1950s, but by the 1960s, herring numbers were down, too.’

“Special effort was put into restoring the lake’s top native predator — the prized lake trout. Since the 1960s, management efforts have reduced lake trout mortality by managing lamprey predation and human harvest. Wisconsin created two fish refuges where limited lake trout fishing is allowed: Gull Island Refuge (1976) and Devil's Island Refuge (1981)… While reducing lake trout mortality, biologists increased fish numbers by stocking fish and eggs. They placed some fertilized eggs inside Astroturf bundles on Devil's Island shoal, hoping the fish would return as adults to spawn.

“ ‘We are beginning to see the results of that work, as the fish reach spawning age,” said DNR fish biologist Steve Schram. These lake trout are slow growing, and can reach a ripe old age.’ ”

Lilly’s choice of food on that occasion was a grilled cheese sandwich, as it was several times throughout the trip. If you’re going to go on a grilled cheese bender, Wisconsin is the place to do it. For dessert, she had a curiosity — root beer ice cream. I sampled it too. Not bad, but not endangered by the evil lamprey.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Weekend blog: items from the past: the recent present picks up again on Monday.

July 5, 1992.

Up fairly early and went to Bukit China, which sports a massive hillside cemetery populated by Malaysian Chinese. The graves have peculiar, horseshoe-shaped walls surrounding a small area dug out of the side of the hill; the gravestones themselves are in the dugout.

Too long a walk in the now-hot morning (about 10:30 am) took me to the Dutch cemetery, which was mainly occupied by British, and then the Dutch church, which is now Anglican — and having a service in Chinese. I sat in a while. En route to lunch, I saw a Chinese funeral procession, the hearse crawling down the street, with a few mourners and a small band following. I don’t know of they were headed to Bukit China or not, but some of the stones there did look fairly new.

Lunch at the restaurant Kim Swee Huat, not bad fried noodles, excellent fruit lasi. From there back to St. Paul’s Hill, as a way of getting to the Muzium Budaya, cultural museum. The building, a replica of the sultan of Malacca’s former palace, is a marvel of wooden construction, and contains numerous displays of textiles, musical instruments and other items, including a fine set of distinctly curved ceremonial knives, keris in Malay. Just the thing to run amuck with.

At sunset, after considerable resting, I sought out dinner, and found it at Sri Lakshmi Vilas — a south Indian daun pisang. I had mutton & fish & veggies & rice on a banana leaf for a plate. Though they gave me utensils, I ate with my fingers, as everyone else did. Besides the novelty of that, the food was pretty good — and cost all of M$5.30, a little more than US$2.

After eating, I took a walk. The Kampung Kling Mosque wasn’t open to me, but I could see all the activity from the street, and hear it too, since the windows and doors were open: prayers ongoing inside, rambunctious kids playing in the courtyard outside. At Cheng Hoon Teng temple, in which I could go, there was a large ceremony in progress, with lots of chanting and incense.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Weekend blog; more items from the past. More on the Wisconsin trip next week.

July 4, 1992.

Been in Malacca 24 hours now. I just ate a durian, and the thought, the paranoid thought, crossed my mind that I would have an extreme allergic reaction to this tropical fruit I've never had before, and drop dead. So far not yet. But I do feel a little funny.

Yesterday I awoke in Singapore and idled away the morning. I checked out at about 11:30, and walked the short distance to My Restaurant (that's the name), which I had noticed earlier. It's a Nyonya restaurant -- a cuisine I'd never heard of till I started this preparing for this trip. So I ordered a couple of things: very ordinary chicken wings and satay (ah!) and buah keluak. Wow.

This is what the helpful multilingual menu says about buah keluak, English version: "After soaking in water for three days, the buah leluak nut is cleaned and chopped [open] to extract the paste from the inside. Mixed with mince meat and prawns, it is restuffed into the nut and cooked with lemon grass, chillie paste and a modicum of assam juice."

The black nuts, five in all, sat in a jet black sauce. The smell, the taste, the smell. O, the taste.

Without further ado, I went to the Lavender Street bus depot and caught the Express Bus to Malacca. We crossed the border without a glance in my direction from customs, but about 10 minutes into Malaysia, the bus broke down. We waited for another one by the side of the road for about an hour. I chatted with a Malaysian Indian, a German resident of Malacca, and an Englishman and a Frenchwoman traveling together.

One bus came, but it had only room for three. A second bus came, and most of the rest of us jammed in, and so we continued deeper into Malaysia at about 4:30. Half the trip was in daylight. It's great to watch a new country rolling by. Then it got dark. Not as great, but sometimes we would pass the glowing houses -- the sides of the walls seemed to glow, which I expect meant thin walls -- of kampungs (villages). The houses, which I know are often on stilts, seemed to hover in the darkness. Arrived at about 10, and the Chiang May Hotel had one room, and I got it.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Lilly’s trip, the blog.

I enjoyed the venture to the North Woods, mostly, and Yuriko liked the break in her routine, mostly, and Ann lives in that unknowable infant world that I suspect predates notions of travel and geography, or even day and night. But it was Lilly, I'm certain, who had the best trip, and I can hardly begrudge her the experience.

Lilly had a lot to amuse her, even in the car. She had equipped herself with various toys -- Barbies, an Etch-a-Sketch, and other items, in a bag that I insisted she pack herself and sometimes carry (though I was generally the porter for everyone). She also had a sister to occupy her, which was sometimes a good, calming thing for the baby, and sometimes not so good, such as when Lilly decided to have a noise-making contest with Ann.

At the Microtel in Fond du Lac, Lilly enjoyed the hot tub -- she enjoys all tubs of water -- but I was surprised that she asked to return to the exercise room, to walk on the treadmill. We visited the room more than once, and it was always empty besides us. I would sit on the exercise bicycle and more-or-less pretend to use it, while she would walk along, occasionally stopping to let the treadmill move her backwards, and then walking again before she got quite to the end.

At Lakeside Park in Fond du Lac, there's a three-or-so-story nonfunctional lighthouse, and Lilly was spirited enough to climb to the top of it with me. Then we discovered, in a different section of the park, a merry-go-round and a miniature train. These were cheap rides, so Lilly rode each a number of times. I enjoyed the train, too, though it could hardly compare with the Brackenridge Park Eagle in San Antonio.

There were also bumper boats in a manmade lagoon, and we hopped into them too -- first Lilly and me, then Lilly and her mother. Like bumper cars, only boats. At first Lilly was hesitant to get into one of the contraptions, which was essentially a tiny square boat with a large inner tube wrapped all the way around it. Navigation was by a joy stick in front, which also controlled the noisy engine. Out to the water, bzzzzzzz, turn, swing around, make it louder, BZZZZZZZZZ, there's the other boat -- whap! Get a little wet. Do it again. Lilly overcame her hesitation and bumper'd with the best of them. She wasn't the only one that squeezed a few grins out of this diversion.

In Wausau, we stopped at a city park after lunch to let her play on a swing set. While Yuriko nursed Ann, I took a walk through the rest of the park, which was full of sweepingly tall pines, and very walkable. I came across a large kiddie-splash pool, another miniature train, and another merry-go-round. I could hardly keep this a secret from Lilly, so she partook in all of them.

There was no pool at the Bridge Inn in Tomahawk, but Lilly got to work on important bubble-blowing skills on that property's porch as the sun went down. She also wanted us to go out of our way to pass through the hotel lobby, so she could see the poodle that the proprietors kept, which sometimes was quivering on top of the front desk -- that would be a long way down for a toy poodle, I guess. Lilly was warned: "Sometimes she nips." She didn't while interacting with Lilly.

The Hotel Chequamegon had a pool, and a hot tub, and we used them liberally. On the day before we left Ashland, late in the afternoon but still with temps around 90° F (35° C), we wandered around the town’s main street (called Main Street), ducking into a handful of shops, when we came across a minor, pre-Fourth of July carnival. Kids' rides and carnie games. I steered Lilly toward the rides (another merry-go-round!), and though she was hot as the rest of us, she seemed to enjoy them.

Even en route home, at the Comfort Suites in Stevens Point, Wis., Lilly found herself in a pool, one bubbling with other kids, since that chain attracts travelers with children in tow. It's always nice to let her play in a pool like that, since she makes acquaintances easily in such situations, allowing her parents to sit around poolside. But it's a little worrisome to see idiot boys jumping around in the same pool -- somebody could land on somebody else, namely my little girl. It didn't happen.

And of course, there was cable TV. That’s another blog for next week, I suppose, but it's enough to say at this point that Lilly found plenty to amuse her, much of it… arrrrrgh… on ToonDisney. It wasn't all bad, but some of the cartoons on that channel were about as much fun as sandpaper on the shins, at least for me. A topic for another time.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Blog Chequamegon.

I forgot to mention yesterday one more detail of the Bridge Inn of Tomahawk, Wis., an establishment that the decades cannot improve. Upon check-in, I got an actual metal door key, with a diamond-shaped plastic key chain attachment that had the room number on it.

The Bridge Inn, however, was only a way station on the trek north. In looking for a place to stay on the south shore of Lake Superior, I came across the Hotel Chequamegon in Ashland. We could have stayed in Bayfield, but my impression was that the accommodations there were overpriced, due to the resort town's summertime popularity, and possibly the town itself would be crowded. Ashland, on the other hand, didn't seem to share Bayfield's popularity, though it's only about 15 miles away, and on the same body of water. Rooms at the Chequamegon were $125 (lake view), and as it turned out, I've paid more and gotten less in many other places.

Besides, what I read about the Hotel Chequamegon intrigued me. This, for example, on the hotel's Web site: "This $3.5 million, 65-room Victorian-style hotel held its grand opening in November 1986. The decor and furnishings of the hotel recreate the elegance of the original hotel, which was located on the Ashland County Courthouse grounds, just a half block southwest. The hotel [however] is not a replica of the original.

"The original hotel was built in 1877 by the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Ashland was a transportation hub for lumbering, quarrying and mining industries. Throngs of tourists headed for the Lake Superior shores for the summer. Celebrities, such as John D. Rockefeller, William Cullen Bryant and Marshall Field, were among the guests of the hotel until fire damaged the building in 1904. The hotel was damaged by fire twice until its demise on New Year's Day 1958.

"The dream of recreating the hotel was that of Don Smith, native of Ashland and founder of the local hospital and several other area businesses... Vern Hanson of the firm of Arvid Elness Architects of Minneapolis designed the new hotel. The firm has a long experience of preserving a dialogue with the architectural past. Sue Kuester, local designer and co-owner of the Designers Outlet of Ashland, chose the furnishings and wallcoverings to reinforce the spirit of the time.

"In an attempt to savor the past, the wood used in the reception lobby was salvaged from nearby ore-docks. The clock behind the front desk is an antique from the original hotel on loan from the Ashland Historical Museum. Many of the antiques pieces in the parlor are donated from local residents and represent Victorian influence."

Indeed they do. After the faceless chain hotel represented by Microtel, and the post-WW II vibe given off by the Bridge Inn, walking into the Hotel Chequamegon evoked something else all together. Something we only know, or think we know, from descriptions and photos and museum artifacts. High Victorian design. Though the hotel isn't an exact replica of the original -- and I know it can't be, codes wouldn't allow it -- it doesn't need to be.

The remarkable thing is that the building allows you, an inhabitant of the early 21st century, to experience a Victorian hotel they way the Victorians did, as something new. After all, visitors to the original hotel in the last years of the 1800s didn't seek it out because it evoked a quaint old time. They wanted the latest thing on the shore of Lake Superior, and they got it.

Better still, the hotel had a excellent set of large wooden decks out back, with views of Chequamegon Bay, a tiny finger of Lake Superior that would qualify as a good-sized lake on its own, complete with a small marina, and what's left of the formerly enormous Ashland iron-ore docks not far to the left. Or, if you look away from the water, you can see the vaulting white clapboard sides of the hotel itself. We took the hotel's no-extra-charge breakfasts out on the decks, and ate one lunch there; all delightful meals, despite the Wisconsin flies, largely because of the setting (the food was good, too, especially the scones -- where did they get scones that good?).

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Sanitized for your protection blog.

One thing I want from any excursion, any trip, or any vacation is variety. Variety in the scenery, the meals, the accommodations. I met my goal this time.

Our first overnights were at the Microtel Inn on Military Road in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where we stayed for two nights. Actually, that motel isn't on Military Road, but on a nameless spur of a street connecting to a road that connects to Military Road, a fact that isn't quite obvious as you approach from US 51, but never mind (signage, Microtel, get some signage!). Microtel is a relatively new chain, 300 or so franchisees, and part of the segment known in the biz as a "limited-service" property, which is exactly what it sounds like. What you get is a room, period.

Well, not quite period, since this property had a "continental breakfast" and a "spa and exercise room." The spa was a hot tub, and the exercise room contained a stationary bicycle, a treadmill, and a hazardous looking stair-step machine. The breakfast was coffee, juice, and assorted middling breads. But I'm not writing to mock Microtel for these things -- I've seen worse at overpriced hotels, and Microtel isn't overpriced, since the tab for each day came in under $50. Besides, we made use of all the facilities, and Lilly in particular enjoyed the exercise room, learning how to amble on the treadmill in a distinctly childlike way (I wouldn't let her climb on the stairstepper, though; childlike there is just asking for an emergency room visit).

Our introduction to the chain was in Green Bay some years ago, and the property there has a remarkable swimming pool, at least for this end of the hospitality market. Among other features, it has slides, a basketball hoop over the water, gushing fountains in the kiddie shallows, and a faux volcano.

As part of a chain, the Microtel doesn't have much character, of course. But we got that at the Bridge Inn in Tomahawk, a small town in central Wisconsin only known to me because I had visited it almost 25 years ago. I didn't notice the Bridge Inn in August 1978, but I'm fairly certain it was there at the time, because it looks like it hasn't changed since at least that year, and very likely since 1968.

This includes Don & Ruth, who own the place, and have that air of being fixtures themselves. When we arrived on the afternoon of the last day of June, the elderly couple were to be found in the lobby, a dim chamber sharing the main motif of the place -- deep brown wood -- with Ruth womaning the desk. She politely looked my reservation up in a handwritten ledger, yep, Stribling, one night. Fill out this card, please. Meanwhile, Don was parked on a nearby lounge chair, watching but not really watching TV. Magazines littered a nearby couch. I think he enjoyed his crossword puzzles. A couple of local-interest posters were tacked to the walls, and off in the corner, the effect was complete: a cigarette machine. It had a permanent-looking OUT OF ORDER sign taped to it, but that didn't spoil things. Call the Smithsonian. That institution needs to collect these machines. Don't let Don & Ruth's heirs take it to the local dump.

This was a wonderful place for me, frankly because it tapped into personal nostalgia. It had a few other nice features, such as the fact that you could sit outside your room on a porch looking straight at the Wisconsin River a hundred feet away. But more than that, the place was a conflation of every motel I stayed at as a kid in the late '60s. The details were right:

• The aforementioned cigarette machine.

• The brown walls and the burnt-orange shag carpet.

• Lamps hanging from the ceiling by gold-colored chains that attempt to hide the electrical cords.

• Those same lamps, which were in the shape of -- there are no words in the language of geometry for those shapes, really, but it looked like some lamp designer took Escher as an inspiration for his multi-angled creations, and failed.

• The bottle opener affixed under the sink.

• The plastic Do Not Disturb sign, meant to hang on the doorknob, with the ’20s-style bellhop on the obverse, and the '20s maid on the Clean Room reverse.

• Best of all, a SANITIZED FOR YOU PROTECTION strip on the toilet upon arrival.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

US 2 blog.

It's high summer now. I know this because I see fireflies at dusk. They only have a few weeks to glow, which coincide with summer's peak. Lilly and I were out cleaning out the car on Sunday evening -- I was cleaning, she was supervising -- and she commented on their presence: "I see light crickets, Daddy."

The crowning drive of the Wisconsin trip was along US 2. We didn't follow much of it, but what we did rolled through the green woodlands of the southern shore of Lake Superior, from the former iron-mining boomtown of Hurley to the former iron-ore transshipment port of Ashland, and then up the coast to Bayfield, a summer resort town. From there, we made it as far west as Cornucopia, Wisconsin, which is also reputedly the northernmost settlement in the state, though the Indian town of Red Cliff -- also on US 2 -- looks as far north on the maps.

If you ask me, a vacation isn't complete unless you visit at least one picturesque cemetery (Yuriko disagrees with this notion). Some miles west of Hurley on US 2, along a stretch of road with very little in the way of human artifacts except the road itself, and perhaps within the boundaries of the Bad River Indian Reservation, there was a sign promising a Scenic View.

I couldn't resist that, and indeed there was a view from a parking lot beside the road, northwest over Lake Superior, as far as the largest and southernmost of the Apostle Islands, Madeline Is. (the Apostles aren't named after individual apostles). It was a hazy day, so it wasn't a postcard sort of view, but it satisfied nevertheless. Far beyond the hills, the lake was vast and blue-gray, the island indistinct and remote.

Bonus extra: the Scenic View was right next to a cemetery. A middle-of-nowhere cemetery, set on sloping ground shaded by tall pines. Lilly and I went to investigate, leaving the Yuriko and Ann in the car (with the AC running) and crossing a small field. It was hot, and northern Wisconsin has a surprising number of flies buzzing around in July. I looked around for something that would give me the name of this place, but saw nothing. I did notice, curiously, that all the stones -- all of them, older and newer -- faced the same direction, more or less southeast. The direction of Jerusalem? More or less.

The oldest stones I saw were of two men who had been in the War Between the States -- small white stones, rounded at the top like military tombstones conventionally are, with some of the engraving identifiable, though the stones were so worn that the birth and death dates had been effaced. I took notes: John B. Lewis, Corporal, Co. K, First Wisconsin Infantry, Civil War; Charles O. McNeill, Co. C, 39th Wisconsin Infantry, Civil War. You could fill a whole moment wondering about their lives; boys, probably, gone south to fight, seeing God knows what horrors (or maybe just military tedium), surviving it all, and returning to anonymous lives near Lake Superior, where they now repose.

Further up US 2, as the road followed the Bayfield Peninsula, we passed through the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, which is inhabited by the Red Cliff Band of the Chippewa. It's a small reservation, hugging the coast of Lake Superior at that point, but not without a casino. And not without internal politics, since roadside signs told me that a tribal election was due soon (July 10, if I remember correctly). One Ray DePerry was up for re-election as Tribal Chair, and I took note of a number of other French-influenced names running for office. I understand that randy French trappers and traders figure prominently in the ancestry of the modern Chippewa.

We were too tired to go further than Cornucopia, though US 2 continues on to Duluth, and to Seattle for that matter. I pulled over at a small beach just outside of Cornucopia. Our experience with beaches on this trip was limited. In fact, this was the only one. Lake Superior seems a good deal less beach-friendly than Lake Michigan, where there may be dead alewife fish or high bacteria counts or bugs in the sand, but at least the water is warm in the summer. Both Lilly and Ann were both asleep at that moment -- mirabile dictu -- so first Yuriko and then I walked over to the beach, passing beach grass and crossing multitudes of pebbles, and encountering those damned swarms of flies.

I hadn't come this far just to look at the lake. So I took off my socks and shoes and stood in the water. It was like standing in snow, except the evidence of your eyes kept telling you that the water was liquid, and lapping gently over your feet. The air temp was about 90° F, the water temp maybe 40° or even 50° colder, so this was something of a disconnect. I took my feet out before they had a chance to go numb.

Monday, July 07, 2003

North to Wisconsin blog.

We arrived home from Wisconsin on Saturday evening, in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour. The evidence in our yard -- grass that hadn't grown much in a week, and in fact it looked a little brown -- suggested that there wasn't much rain in northern Illinois while we were gone. But at 3:30 a.m. or so Sunday morning, the rains came, in the form of the most violent thunderstorm so far this year. Boom-boom-boom for many minutes. Wonderful, I thought, lying there. Lightning's going to take out the house, a month before we sell it.

The house still stands. But one bolt hit close enough to awaken my iMac, which had been in the sleep mode.

We spent eight days in Wisconsin. I have no excuse for taking this trip, except to quote an old song whose name I can't remember, and which I never much liked anyway, except for one line: distant roads are calling me. So we packed up the green Sienna a week ago Saturday and headed for the furthest north reaches of the state, otherwise known as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and the island's mainland counterparts, the towns of Bayfield and Ashland.

The Interstate system peters out before you get all the way to the top of Wisconsin, or into most of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for that matter (which was another trip, and I hope will be again). Of course, it's easy to scorn the Interstates as some sort of inauthentic way to travel, an opinion I don't hold. I've seen some singularly interesting stretches of Interstate -- I-10 in parts of Louisiana, which flies over bayou country, or the desert drive of I-15 across southern California, or (my favorite) I-89 near Montpellier, Vermont, in October.

That said, smaller roads tend to be more fun, and we found some good ones up north. At the northern end of I-39, which runs like a spine through most of central Wisconsin, US 51 takes over, though for a time it's a divided highway of four lanes, and thus exactly like the Interstate. Just north of the wee resort town of Tomahawk (more about which later), the road narrows. By this time, the driving visuals were compelling anyway, and all the narrowing of the road did was bring the scenery that much closer.

Since a mere imaginary line divides them, southern Wisconsin looks in all respects like northern Illinois, a farmland dominated by corn and soybeans, trim farmhouses and silos. The deeper into the state you go, the more cows you see, as you would expect -- coven-foot soldiers of the dairy imperium -- though horses are quite common as well, and on US 45 northwest from Lake Winnebago (or it might have been Wisconsin 15, which connects to US 45), we spotted a camel idling in a field. I noticed it too late to get a good look, but I think it was the one-hump variety.

Yellow deer warning signs are the norm along the smaller roads, and it's no joke. Car-deer accidents are all too common, it seems, with the deer usually getting the worst of it, but occasionally a human dies too. Twice I spotted deer on the road ahead of us. Once, a limber buck dashed across the road against all odds and made it. Later, a fawn frightened out of its wits spent a moment of terror on the lane opposite ours. It did a tight circle or two on the road, and then retreated to the side from which it had come. If it had been a second slower, it would have been hit by an oncoming car; if it had dashed further across the road, we might have hit it. Both of these were daytime encounters.

Gradually as we went northward, the land gave way more to forest, a mix of broad-leafed species in the full flush of summer green, with an increasingly heavy concentration of pines, some of which were clearly Christmas-tree plantation slaves. Also, the land begins to undulate, changing from flat farmland to low hills. On the whole, the Midwest may be flat, monotonously so in wide stretches of Illinois and Indiana and Iowa, but northern Wisconsin has contour. Not hilly, exactly, but certainly not flat.

Wisconsin is well watered along I-39/US 51, rewarding travelers with views of the large Wisconsin River on several occasions, or glimpses of such watercourses the Big Eau Pleine, the Big Rib, and the Plover rivers, along with assorted lakes and ponds, manmade and otherwise. The area around Tomahawk in particular is rich in small lakes -- Spirit River Flowage, Mohawksin Lake and Lake Nokomis, just to name three larger ones -- and this has given rise to a sizable, though distinctly local, resort industry.

Though it's remote by metro Chicago standards, north-central and northern Wisconsin are hardly uninhabited; and though the farms thin out the further north you go, the hand of man is never far from sight. More on that tomorrow.