Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Auld Lang Blog.

New Year's is the number-one major holiday in Japan. Occasionally Americans ask me -- or used to ask me -- about what the Japanese do for Christmas. The answer to that is, go to work or school, if it's a weekday. In the early 1990s Christmas Eve was beginning to be promoted as a romantic occasion for young people, a take your girl to a fine restaurant sort of evening, but I don't know if that ever became established. December 24 has the advantage of being the current Emperor's birthday, and so is a national holiday (no mail, government workers don't work).

Some shops decorate with lights and tinsel and the like in December. The only thing this has to do with Christmas, beyond a superficial similarity, is that the merchants of Japan would really like sales to shoot up in December the way they do in the West. As far as I could tell, it wasn't a particularly successful import in that regard. It worked for Valentine's Day, but that's another story.

Anyway, New Year's is a family holiday in Japan, with a religious component. Most everything is closed, as it is here on Christmas. Almost everyone has the first three days of the year off.

I've done New Year's Japanese style in Japan twice, once going into 1994 and later going into 2000. Mostly, you hang out at home and eat, and watch TV. On New Year's Day or January 2 or 3, people tend to visit their neighborhood shrine and do various things to promote prosperity and the like in the coming year. How deeply they believe in it varies, I suppose, and probably some people visit a shrine because that's what they've always done.

The first New Year's I spent in Japan, I was by myself, and on January 1, 1991, I went to a large shrine about a mile from where I lived, Sumiyoshi-jinja. The grounds, which included a dozen or so buildings, and some lovely trees and greenery in the warm months, were packed with people. Lots of families, lots of kids out and about, lots of people dressed nicely for the occasion (but some more casual).

There was an especially active crowd in front of one small building, about the size of a two-car garage. A gilded rope strung through posts marked off a small patch of land directly in front of the structure, which had one door and some windows, but these were closed. From a distance, I couldn't tell what was going on. As the crowd milled around, they seemed to be waving their arms. So I had to take a closer look.

Turns out they were throwing one-yen coins at the building. One-yen coins, worth a penny (give or take one or two tenths of a cent), are made of aluminum. They have a silvery glitter. The building's thatched roof and the patch of ground in front were completely covered with silvery one-yen coins. People were having a jolly time throwing more of them. Something to do with prosperity in the New Year, I figured, and the shrine gets to keep all the coins. I tossed in a few myself.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Odd food blogging.

In another list I made sometime this year, probably in the wake of trying sweetbreads at a tapas restaurant for the first time -- see the May 11 posting -- I itemized all the unusual foods I've eaten over the years.

It isn't a very long list, considering the years I've had to work on it. And the foods aren't all that unusual, except by finicky standards. It's one thing not to like a food you've tried, and tried at various stages of your life, since tastes change with age. But not to try something, just because it's outside your normal eating orbit? Can't understand that psychology.

Here's what I came up with: bear chili, reindeer pate, pigeon, sea and freshwater eel, alligator croquettes, bison, wild boar, durian (and durian ice cream), jack fruit, mangosteen, poke salad, rattlesnake, yak cheese and milk, jerk goat, green tea ice cream, lavender tea. I didn't count ostrich or escargot or frogs' legs or tripe or Chinese gooseberries -- all too pedestrian -- and I probably shouldn't have counted jerk goat either, since all you have to do is visit your neighborhood Jamaican restaurant. Eel is also questionable, since I've encountered it merely as a form of sushi, and so are the tropical fruits (durian, etc.). All I had to do in that case was visit a market in Singapore or Malaysia.

Perhaps I can add sweetbreads and elk to that list, as this year’s additions. 2003 hasn't been a total loss, in terms to trying new foods.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Odds and ends blog, especially odds.

My neighborhood and the neighborhoods I walk through are still adorned for the season, but I did see a forlorn Christmas tree at a curb this morning, given an unceremonious heave-ho only four days after Christmas.

Ours will be up a little longer. But I will throw it away. By contrast, it's harder for me to throw away any kind of written document, most of all something I've written, so they tend to accumulate in piles and in files here and there. Today I was leafing through a pile, and came across some notes I'd made in July, just before our move.

"Oil paint. Wood stain. Varnish. Fertilizer. Pesticide. Cleaning solvent." A fine cocktail, all that. DuPage County maintains a drop-off station for hazardous household waste, and I availed myself of it before we moved.

Then there was the list I made as I sat in my car at a grocery-anchored strip center in Naperville, also last summer. I was by myself, and I'd gone into the grocery store to get something or other -- and as I was getting ready to leave, my eyes followed the line of stores in the strip center, just to see if there were anything unusual.

Mostly it was the usual suspects: Hair Cuttery. H&R Block. Cigarettes Cheaper! (a persecuted trade, but still in business), Kiefer Swim Shop. And the mandatory strip-center Chinese restaurant and take-out, this one called Fortune Stix.

Then there was Planned Parenthood Express.

That was the reason I sat there and made the list. Planned Parenthood Express was too novel to forget, especially in a strip-center context that was absolutely unremarkable otherwise. In fact, I was so struck with it that I delayed leaving for a moment while I went to look at the PP Express storefront. I didn't take any notes there, but I do remember that the signs out front -- nothing flashy, but unambiguously frank all the same -- indicated that it was what you'd think it might be: a place to stop in for birth control. I was flabbergasted. Not by the service itself, which seems useful enough, but by the fact that it was there at all.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Christmas wrap blog.

In the last week or so I've been as indolent as a father of two little kids can be, which is to say a fair amount has been going on, and I've been involved with many of these activities, but I've done little for-pay work and no volunteer blogging. Been nice to get away from those things, and it's not quite over yet. I'm working tomorrow and Tuesday, and then I'm off again till next Monday.

I will regret all this down time come January 5, when the real post-holiday drudgery begins.

But, it's been worth it, so I could sleep till about 8 a.m. every day, buy things for my immediate family, compose and mail cards, attend a Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas in Elk Grove Village, drive around a neighborhood just south of us that loves its holiday displays (our favorite: an inflatable Homer Simpson Santa), enjoy roast pork and wine for Christmas Eve dinner, listen to 90.9's amazingly eclectic Christmas music, wrap presents and watch Lilly unwrap most of them on Christmas morning, feel the quiet of the neighborhood on Christmas Day, watch too much television, read as much as I could, venture foolishly into a handful of crowded stores on Boxing Day, talk by phone with my mother, brothers, and a very old friend -- known him 30 years now -- and do all the usual busy-ness associated with interacting with an 11-month old, not to mention a six-year-old.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Bollixed blogger blog.

Lots of days off in the next week, but not all of them. Still, plenty of opportunities for sleeping late in the days ahead.

Blogger actually sent me an answer to my query about the problem with apostrophes, dashes, etc. An answer that was no answer -- suggesting that my cutting and pasting from Word, which I do, is responsible, since other programs are too dense to read those complex marks. Maybe. If so, why hasn't this been a problem from Day One, back in February? I've been creating my postings in Word since then. Why did it happen retroactively, as to cause the most trouble?

I won't lose any sleep over this. I won't be posting again till Boxing Day at the earliest. So MERRY CHRISTMAS to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Apostrophe blog.

Yesterday's blog, and all of the archive as far as I've investigated the matter, published with the added feature of substituting random symbols -- euros signs and the like -- for apostrophes, quotation marks and dashes. For a lot of bloggers, that wouldn't be much of a problem, I guess:

hey i went to see lord of the ring today,didnt think it wastoo bad i like hobbets.

So I'll make this short. Just read around the falderol, if it happens with this post. I had lunch today at the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, the Midwest's version of the CIA. For $12 + drink & tip, you can have a fine three-course lunch, prepared by the students, and it's almost always good. Every year around this time I go to lunch there with two old friends, someone I've known 21 years, and someone I've known 16 years.

Elk was on the menu. I had to order that. It was something like a tasty cut of beef, but not gamy. I asked the server where they got their elk, but she wasn't sure. "Our head chef" -- the master instructor, in other words -- "knows where to get game. It's hard to find."

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Lobby blog.

It's a measure of my acclimation to Northern winters that I could walk in 20-degree weather from Michigan Avenue to Union Station, as I did this evening, without being bothered much. Not sure how far it was; over a half mile, but less than a mile. In my youth in subtropical Texas, I'm sure I would have thought a walk like that impossible, or at least not worth it.

I was returning from a real estate event in the lobby 233 S. Michigan, originally known as the Railway Exchange Building, later the Santa Fe Building. It's one of the finest lobbies in town, done in impressive white marble with an opaque white skylight held up by ironwork, three stories above. The Chicago Architecture Society likes the building so much that its store, chock full of interesting architectural gewgaws, is located off this lobby.

I get to travel to Michigan Avenue. My nephew, Sam, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, will be going further afield soon, starting exactly at New Year's, when he goes to Italy for a semester overseas. This from his father -- my brother Jay -- not long ago:

"He departs for Italy on January 1, 2004, flying Lufthansa to Florence via Frankfurt. The semester begins on the 4th, I think, and runs to the last week of April. He and two other boys will be sharing an apartment on a street in the old part of town. I can't recall the name, but reportedly Michelangelo's family lived on the same street towards the end of the 15th century. After that he proposes to knock around Europe for a few weeks -- he has said, inter alia, that he'd like to visit Scotland -- possibly in the company of certain of his colleagues.

"A couple of days ago he announced that he would also like to participate in a itinerant drawing course that one of the professors at Wash U. has scheduled for the month of June (and possibly the first part of July; I can't remember its duration.) By itinerant, I mean that this course starts in Helsinki and works its way south and west to Barcelona. I don't know what path they propose to take. I assume that they'll be drawing pictures of building as they go, but I'm not sure about that either. We'll see."

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

A Pleasant Hills blog.

It was cold today, but I was able to walk the mile to the train station. It wasn't the abysmal cold that we'll have in about a month, or maybe even next week, and I had reason to think that all the ice patches along the way had melted, and I was right. At least, I didn't find any under my feet.

Part of my route takes me through an unincorporated Cook County subdivision known as "Pleasant Hills." It's pleasant, all right, but not a hill in sight. The residents of Pleasant Hills have houses and lots a little larger than my subdivision, which may represent the difference between my area's development in the 1960s -- when people were still more or less rational about their housing needs -- and Pleasant Hills in the '70s or '80s, when the runaway giantism that characterizes new suburban development in our own time was getting under way.

PH also has a strong appetite for outdoor Christmas decor, and a week before Christmas, it's in full flower. My favorite decoration in PH is a house tricked out in blue lights around the eaves and a short curtain of white icicle lights.

A blue-and-white motif might represent a Jewish household, but in this case I think it's something else. The yard has a flagpole, and every day I pass by I see two flags on it. The Stars and Stripes takes its place at the top, following flag etiquette, and under it is the national flag of Finland -- blue and white. My guess would be a Suomi-American household, ready for Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Schadenfreude blog.

Between my office and the train station I ride into and out of every day is the South Branch of the Chicago River. Connecting the street on the either side of the river is a bridge, one of a dozen or more sturdy steel drawbridges that cross the branches of the Chicago River, making the street grid uninterrupted by the river. The bridges are suitable for car traffic and pedestrians too, and as a result homeless people station themselves at the edges of the bridges, or sometimes in the middle of the bridges, the better to beg from a steady flow of passersby.

That was the first thing I thought of when I saw the photos of the unshaven former tyrant of Baghdad yesterday. Yeah, I've seen him, begging on the bridge.

Heh-heh. Sometimes, Schadenfreude is just the thing.

Normally, I don't editorialize here, but I have to make exceptions. The capture of Saddam Hussein has me thinking again about the nature of dictators, the modern sort in the mold perfected by Hitler and Stalin. Fortunately, none today are so big as they were, unless you count the party dictatorship in China, but dictatorship is still a scourge on the Earth -- worse, I would argue, than war, since the former generally instigates the latter. If all the dictators of the world were suddenly beggars on bridges, how much war would there be? It would be foolish to say none, but completely realistic to say a lot less.

Of course, we could argue all day about what constitutes a dictatorship. But on the whole, the worst of them are clearly recognizable by the murder and torture they commit. When the United States takes it upon itself to overthrow a dictatorship as awful as Ba'athist Iraq, it acts as a positive force in the world.

I would take this year's antiwar voices a good deal more seriously if they were as adamant in their denunciation of tyrants as of war. Not many are. "Saddam's bad, but war is worse!" As if he were a philandering husband. Why be against war? Because of the death and suffering involved. And what about dictators? "Well, they cause a lot of death and suffering too... but... it's different." Indeed. The violence of war is (sometimes) easily seen on TV. A dictator's violence usually behind closed doors.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Items of yore, cont.

Christmas Day, 1996. (Chicago)

It's been a good week leading up to Christmas. On Sunday the 22nd Yuriko and I went to the Music Box theater for the double feature sing-along. Between the movies, a Santa Claus -- lean and not very old -- came out to lead the audience in singing Christmas songs, some standard and some spoofs. The Music Box has an organ for occasions like this, and the organist was in fine form.

The place was packed, and it was a spirited crowd, jingling the bells they brought and singing along with the bouncing ball (I wonder who thought that up originally?). They also hissed with gusto at Mr. Potter, the villain in you-know-what sentimental holiday movie, which was the other half of the bill with White Christmas. Jay made the point on the phone today that Potter was incomprehensible as a rich man: he could have made a lot more money subdividing land and selling houses than as a slumlord -- it was 1946, after all, and that's where the real dough was.

I also wondered, what if Clarence had shown George Bailey the life he would have had, had he been able to go see the world, as he had planned before his father's sudden death. But that would have been a different movie, and probably not a sentimental holiday movie.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

More items of yore.

December 5, 1986. (Nashville)

Today gave me a headache, and that's rare, so I thought I would write about it. The Foreign Service Exam in the morning didn't help, to start off. After it was over I had a daydream about being Secretary of State and personally ordering an extra half-hour for the "English Expression" section of the test.

After the test I went shopping. Not exactly. I wandered from store to store, marveling over the variety and abundance of goods, without actually buying much. Window shopping, without the windows.

First I went to Famous State Sales, because I was curious to see the inside, esp. since the day Rod W. came to work with a microwave he bought there. It was like a Sears appliance store in a Quonset hut.

Next, a crowded Sam's Wholesale Club. I can't be a club member, since I don't work for the right people. But security was a wee bit lax this Saturday in December, and I snuck in without a membership card. Steph inspired me to visit. She'd been there with her member friend, and bought a year's supply of Cool-Pops (Kool-Popz?). It was worth the effort, just to see boxes and crates from floor to ceiling. I saw a cereal box big enough to bury a dog in.

I couldn't quit while I was ahead -- or had no headache -- and went to Rivergate Mall after that. More like Tailgate Mall today, endless tailgates and bumpers and hoods and glass and chrome streaming -- trickling -- grinding through narrow -- cramped -- pygmy streets. The traffic engineers who designed the place were Moe, Larry & Curly.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Grapefruit blog.

We're in the first deep freeze of winter. The snow didn't pan out, but the arctic air came to stay, bringing temps to around 10 F in the early mornings. For the last couple of days, I've taken the easy way out and driven to the train station in the morning. Only it wasn't so easy yesterday morning, since the doors of the Tercel were frozen shut, and I had to use a small garden tool to pry them open.

The Christmas grapefruit came today. We're always glad to get them. My mother orders a box of Pittman & Davis citrus for us every year around this time: really more than grapefruit, since the shipment also includes oranges, and this year, for the first time, two jars of preserves, all in the distinctively yellow and tough P&D shipping box. Pittman & Davis is a citrus grower with a Harlingen, Texas, address -- citrus from the Rio Grande valley. Florida and California are fine, but do not compare with Texas citrus.

So breakfast tomorrow promises some delights, including grits, grapefruit and preserves on biscuits.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Rules of decor blog.

The tree is more or less decorated. I wanted to wait until today to decorate it, but Lilly insisted on putting on some ornaments last night, so that I had to remove most of them to put on the lights, and then re-ornament it. Which is the basis of my first guideline on Christmas tree decoration: lights first, ornaments next, icicles after that (tinsel to some people, those who also call it "trimming" the tree). The last item is the Star of Bethlehem, which goes on top.

Other guidelines, if you happen to be me, and want to decorate your tree:
* Space the lights and ornaments evenly, but not uniformly or systematically. That is, unless you have a very young child, as we do; in that case, fewer and tougher ornaments go near the bottom, and fewer lights down there too.
* Decorate the back, the bottom and the interior of the branches, not only the front or visible sides.
* Be eclectic with ornaments, but no commercial logos or too-silly ornaments, unless your child made them.

For us, that last one means you'll find on our tree: balls, santas, angels, stars, bells, birds, elves, snowmen, toy instruments, strings of beads, ribbons, even an eggplant ornament. They're made of glass, plastic, cloth, paper, wood and ceramic. Lots of colors, more cool than hot. Some are old and beat up, some relatively expensive, some downright cheap, some bought at department stores, or discount stores, or garage sale, or acquired for free as gifts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ho Ho Blog.

Lilly and I fetched a Christmas tree early this evening, before the weather got any worse. The fact that I buy a real tree every year means that I'm not a complete miser, since the price is high. Supposedly the Boy Scouts benefited from the transaction, but I'm not so sure. The fellow who took my money looked like his scouting days were long ago, if ever (I never was one either). They just happened to have to closest lot; when we lived in the western suburbs, it was a Presbyterian church that got our tree business.

It's a mid-sized Douglas fir, just a little taller than me. It fit inside the car, a distinct advantage. Lilly was giddy all the way home, so I guess I'm getting my money's worth. Naturally, our conversation had a Christmas flavor.

"Daddy, what does Santa Claus do on Thanksgiving?"

"Dinner with his family, probably."

"He has a family?"

"I think so. There's Mrs. Claus. But they're old, so they probably have grown children. Maybe their grandkids come to see them."

"Oh." She thought a minute. "If Santa dies, there are a lot more Santas. Or if he gets too old. There are a lot of Santas."

I couldn't disagree with that.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Field blog.

Yesterday I visited Marshall Field's penthouse. Well, to be more precise -- though it doesn't make as good a lead -- I found myself in space that formerly constituted one of the top-floor dwellings of Marshall Field III, long since converted into other uses, just as Mr. Field has long since departed the ranks of the living.

I'm not as versed on the life of Mr. Field as I might be, but I do know that he was the grandson of the dry goods merchant who became wildly successful in 19th-century Chicago, that he ran the Sun-Times for years, that he was what Ted Turner aspires to be, a big-ticket philanthropist with liberal sympathies. He probably cut a dandy figure as a wealthy youth, and grayed into moneyed eminence. Also, he built the Field Building, 135 S. LaSalle, now largely occupied by LaSalle Bank, the North American presence of an enormous Dutch bank, ABM-AMRO (you'd think they could buy a better Dutch name, something like Dem Grossenguilder Bancshares).

135 S. LaSalle started construction at the end of the '20s and wasn't finished until the pit of the Depression. It has a striking art deco lobby and arcade, and I've been in the building many times. But on Monday I was there to oversee a photo shoot of some LaSalle Bank real estate lending execs we're putting on the cover of the magazine. When I got there, I asked LaSalle's PR man where the photographer had picked as a backdrop, and he took me to the 42nd (43rd?) floor, where I'd never been. The floor features a number of well-appointed meeting rooms, and on the west side -- with a fine view of the Board of Trade and its statue of Ceres -- the bank's executive dining room.

It was morning, and the dining room staff were scurrying around getting ready for lunch, and the photographer took his shots using a gilded, circular staircase outside the dining room as the background. As I was talking to one of the executives, he told me a little about the history of this floor.

"This used to be Marshall Field's penthouse, you know."

"No, I didn't know. Where?"

"The whole floor."

Formerly for one wealthy man, now for a coterie of men running a wealthy corporation. Many things are like that, I suppose. The bank hasn't done badly with the space -- there's some interesting photography on the walls, among other things -- but there's nothing to indicate what it used to look like. I wonder if the shade of Marshall Field III ever knocks about at night.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Asimov blog.

Over the weekend, for no special reason that I can think of, Isaac Asimov came to mind, and a short hop via Google led me to an archived edition of Fresh Air featuring Dr. Asimov, dating from 1987. So I listened to it. I can't remember the last time I read anything of his, though I'm sure it was years before he died in 1992. According to a Web site either run by, or at least sanctioned by his widow and daughter, he actually died of AIDS, contracted during a triple bypass in the days of tainted blood. I'd never heard that before.

It was interesting listening, at least for those of us with faded recollections of Foundation and Robot stories, or his science columns. I was familiar enough with some of his ideas, but what really struck me was his voice. I don't think I'd ever heard it. He sounded like a New Yorker of my parents' generation. Which, of course, he was. The New York dialect was audible, naturally, but so was the cadence and pacing of people who grew up in the '30s or '40s.

He mentioned his well-known dislike of traveling. It's a puzzling psychology to me. Someone so obviously curious about the world who never bothers to go see some of it. Then again -- and an indefatigable traveler friend of mine, Ed, introduced me to this idea in a letter once -- perhaps if you asked, you'd find that as many people are afraid of traveling as they are of public speaking.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Roaming Christmas blog.

More items from the past. December 29, 1996.

Christmas has slipped by, and anno Domini 1996 almost has too. We stayed in Chicago for the holiday this year, which was fine. Nice and quiet. Got to stop bouncing around for Xmas. It occurred to me that I've spent every Christmas in a different place since I first went to Japan in 1990. Before that, they were all in Texas.

1990: Osaka. 1991: Canberra, Australia. 1992: Dallas. 1993: Nagasaki. 1994: London. 1995: Arlington, Mass.

This represents a range of circumstance, too, from a complete gathering of my family, which was very good (Dallas), to the trough of an unemployed Christmas (Arlington). Christmas in Japan might sound exotic, but Christmas in Australia really was. That day I strolled to the edge of Canberra and watched a summer sunset from atop a dusty hill.

My first Christmas in Japan, I had to work, and before the day was out, a crew came by and stripped the place of its Christmas decorations, which were marginal in the first place. We were tourists in Nagasaki for Xmas '93, and tourists in London the next year. In both cities, we attended a Christmas Eve service in an enormous cathedral -- Urakami Cathedral, the largest church in Japan, and completely rebuilt after the second atomic bombing knocked it down; and the next year, St. Paul's, which has survived everything since the 1660s.

2003 Postscript: I got my wish. We've passed Christmas in the Chicago area each year since I wrote that, excepting perhaps 1999, when Yuriko and Lilly were in Osaka, and I was here (that was the worst of them, but we couldn't help it).


Saturday, December 06, 2003

That Tokyo blog.

Items from the past, again. Dec. 1, 1993.

Last week we took an overnight bus from Osaka to Tokyo for a long weekend. It was more comfortable than you'd think -- three rows of single seats, with significant aisles in between each row. The seats also recline to an angle that isn't horizontal, but fairly friendly to sleep, and the curtains over the windows are almost opaque. The only trouble with the ride was that it ended too early, namely 6 a.m. But it is the cheapest way to get to Tokyo, except for walking. Even driving a car on the highway is more expensive, considering the steep tolls.

Tokyo lends itself to a busy and satisfying time. One of the more impressive sites this time around was Nicholai Cathedral (Nicholai-do), belonging to the Japanese Orthodox Church, done in Russian style complete with onion dome outside, ornate altar screen and plenty of icons within. We went on Sunday, as a service was in progress, with all the singing and chanting and incense and processions. It was a little hypnotic.

Less active, but just as interesting, was Yasukuni-jinja (shrine), which enshrines Japanese war dead (since the revolution of 1868, that is -- it isn't an ancient institution). Perhaps you can imagine the uses such a place might have had for an aggressive government. That ended in 1945, but the place still has a tarnished reputation in the rest of East Asia. Its associated museum holds a large collection of war artifacts, photographs, etc. I couldn't read most of the captions, but it was worth wandering around to see the photos from the Russo-Japanese War and the replica Zero and kamikaze planes, among other things.

We spent most of a day in Yokohama, which is the port south of Tokyo proper, but in fact the two are fused together with other cities and towns to make the vast greater Tokyo glop. Still, Yokohama is a distinct place. It has an enormous Chinatown, probably as big as San Francisco's and certainly as busy. We had lunch, took in some shops, and visited a temple as brightly colored as any I've seen: reds, golds, oranges and black. Yokohama also has a place called Landmark Center, an office/hotel/shopping complex that might as well be in North America.

Monday we had lunch at... the Sizzler. Why this franchise came to Japan, I couldn't say, but there is was, and curiosity got the better of us. Not bad. Better, maybe, than the American Sizzlers, but I haven't been to one in years. It's in a part of town called Shinjuku, famous for its labyrinthine train station and characterized by tall office buildings. Tall for Japan, anyway -- 40 to 50 stories. The tallest of them, Tokyo City Hall, was under construction the last time I was in town. It's finished now, and a nice piece of work. Postmodern, resembling but not exactly copying others I've seen in Chicago.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Der Deutsche Blog. (Die Blog? Das Blog?)

No snow in my suburb this morning, and none downtown. Just as well, I think, since I want to put up the Christmas lights this weekend.

In fact the downtown streets were fairly dry today around noon, when I visited Chicago's Christkindlmarket, set up in Daley Plaza, the open half block in front of the Daley Building, which houses courthouses and other municipal functions. According to season, various temporary structures find a home on the plaza, in the shadow of the Chicago Picasso.

This Christmas market appears around Thanksgiving, at about the same time as the municipal Christmas tree, menorah, and -- I just noticed this today -- Islamic crescent. The market is formed by a few rows of covered wooden stalls, mostly occupied by German vendors selling Christmas ornaments, knickknacks or food. A handful of the stalls are occupied by Chicago-area businesses with German themes, and a few others are from somewhere else all together. I saw Poland, the Ukraine and Ecuador represented.

I like looking around. The ornaments, some of them, are exceptionally fine, and some of them reminded me of the German ornaments that we hung on our Christmas trees when I was young, especially the glass birds and clip-on mushrooms. These were -- and are, my mother still has them -- souvenirs of my parents' sojourn in West Germany in the 1950s. But the ornaments I saw today were expensive, and I'm not buying expensive breakables this year.

Everything is expensive at the Chicago Christkindlmarket, unfortunately. It was as if the merchants priced everything in euros, then used a lousy hotel cambio exchange rate to price in dollars. And then tacked on 25%, for the trouble of coming all the way to Chicago. The ornaments, perhaps, should be expensive. But $4 for a skinny brat? Five dollars for a dwarf's portion of beer?

Still, I found a "Germanburger" with kartoffelsalat -- potato salad -- special for a not-too-outrageous price, and ate it at a stand-up table near a row of stalls. It was a chicken patty, not bad at all, and the potato salad was tasty indeed. Reminded me of something I might have eaten at the summerfest on the fussganger in Luneburg 20 years ago, though the finest cheap eating in that north German town was at a small joint that featured halb henchen mit pommes frites, half a roasted chicken with French fries.

One stall was selling chocolates -- $2 for Ritter Sport, which is closer to $1.20 at Trader Joe's -- and I eyed the marzipan pretty closely. Two women were asking the young German woman in the stall what marzipan was, and she described it. At the end of her description, I couldn't help telling the women, "It's really good." I've always had a soft spot in my large stomach for marzipan, ever since I visited Lubeck. After the women wandered away, I said to the stall-keeper, "I had good marzipan in Lubeck."

She was unimpressed. Maybe she thought I was flirting; she was a Teutonic cutie, but I didn't have that at the top of my mind. Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the merchants running this stand were from Stuttgart, as I noticed later. Talking about Lubeck marzipan in that case might be like saying to a Florida orange grower, "I had some terrific oranges in California once!"

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Bulb blog.

Rain today, so far, not snow. But perhaps we will awaken to some slushy, semi-solid conditions in the morning, though educated weather opinion seems to think it will be too warm (upper 30s) tomorrow for it to linger on the ground.

I didn't stray far from the office, anyway. It's a slushy process, sometimes, putting together a magazine. Practically the day's only diversion, and it was a very minor diversion, came in the form of a catalogue I got in the mail called Interlight, "Your Specialty Bulb Catalog."

"Stop Looking -- We've Got it All. Over 518,183 Bulbs in Stock." 518,183? Must have been an engineer for a copywriter. Less precise types would have written OVER HALF A MILLION BULBS! In any case, Edison's bulb has spawned a lot of descendants, from aircraft/airport bulbs to xenon bulbs. A moment to marvel at the fecundity of the light bulb universe.

It was addressed to the old magazine, Real Estate Chicago, so I guess an automated data miner picked us up on the automated assumption that we do property management, and so buy light bulbs. Close, but no cigar.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Mummy blog.

Clear and cold these early December days. But the weathermen are all atwitter at the prospect of the first real snow of the season, which could be soon.

Yuriko recently borrowed a pod of tapes from a friend of hers; all relatively new, English-language feature films. Well, only a few years old at most. Pictures I missed, mostly. Missed for good reason, some of them. Lilly's now able to sit through complete, non-animated movies, for better and worse (it would depend on the movie, I guess).

Earlier tonight Lilly was watching The Mummy -- not the '30s version, which I've seen -- but the later one, which I haven't. I looked in for a few minutes, and the glimpses I saw involved the requisite ghouls, sandstorms, and sinister-looking Semites, plus chase scenes, gunplay and some explosions.

She could do worse than earnest adventure movies. Videotapes more or less at random would seem to be the equivalent of someone my age watching movies, or parts of movies, on Saturday afternoons long ago.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Inflatable blogs.

Work consumed my day as completely as a Hormel plant does the big piggies it receives. It was that kind of day, one that makes you question the wisdom of taking the previous week off. But in the longer run, there's no questioning the wisdom of that idle week. It's essential.

Outdoor Christmas decor is fairly advanced here in the new neighborhood. A lot went up in the days after Thanksgiving. One conclusion I can draw about outdoor decoration: Those with a tendency to put up silly Halloween inflatables on their lawns are also likely to put up silly Christmas inflatables. So far it's just a Santa or two, but I'm expecting reindeer, snowmen, and who knows what else.

Somehow I didn't get around to putting up any of our decorations last weekend -- it still seemed too early -- but this weekend it's a distinct possibility. Our outdoor display consists of strings of lights. Simple by American standards, but I'm reminded of the time I spent Christmas in Canberra, Australia. Someone had strung Christmas lights around his house there, and the bloke I was staying with thought this such a novelty that he took me to see it one evening. But that was 12 years ago. For all I know, a lot Australians are now lighting up their houses for their warm holiday season.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Stooge blog.

Time to start this thing again, before the wheels completely rust up. December 1st is a good day to do it, too, being the start of meteorological winter. No need to wait around for the solstice around here, since it's pretty cold just about every day now. What better definition of winter do you need?

I scanned the early evening sky for Orion, too, another certain sign of winter. Not yet. I will be sure to record the first moment when I see it in the sky. That means winter has arrived.

Sometime about two months after we moved into the new house, I broke down and attached the TV to the antenna, so that we could get broadcast television. Television, that is, as God intended it: three networks plus PBS, and an assortment of cut-rate stations in the netherland of the UHF band, some clear, others fuzzy, a few in Spanish, others showing bizarre, unwatchable programs. I'm still resisting cable or satellite TV. The cost is one thing. The size of the wasteland is the other. If broadcast is the Mojave, cable is the Sahara. Cable is Dune.

That said, we passed a major milestone recently in my eldest daughter's cultural education, thanks to one of metro Chicago's UHF stations, Channel 26. Every Saturday evening, this station runs two hours of Three Stooges shorts, and we caught most of them last Saturday and the Saturday before last. Previously, she'd never shown much interest, though she hadn't had a lot of exposure. Six, it turns out, is the right age to appreciate the Stooges.

"What is it?" Lilly asked, after watching a while, and laughing a lot.

"They're the Three Stooges," I said.

"I love the Stooges!" she answered.