Monday, March 31, 2003

The Blog of Ashurbanipal.

Sure, they’re outgunned and surrounded, and fighting like cornered barbarians. But you have to admit, the Iraqis have cooler army names than we do: the Medina Division, and of course the Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar divisions. Even better — though I don’t think this is an actual name — would be the Belshazzar Division, which would see the hand writing on the wall.

Over the last few years, business travel has taken me a few places, though I’ve never had in a job that required me to be on the road too much. In 1999 and 2000, when I edited “Midwest Real Estate News,” I took about six or seven trips in 15 months. At “Fire Chief” magazine the pace of travel was somewhat less, and at “Real Estate Chicago” even less, since the magazine is locally focused. I’ve never shied away from doing the business I go to do, but that’s not what I remember about these trips. If possible, I make an effort to see something in the area.

The effort has been rewarded. For example, I’ve made it to places in or near Atlanta, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Grand Rapids, Orlando, Kansas City (Mo.), Las Vegas, New York (City and State), and San Diego. The best thing I’ve yet seen on a business trip was a Saturn V rocket. It was an elaborate side trip: I rented a car in Orlando one evening and early the next morning drove down the Beeline Expressway to Cape Canaveral, only to return in the early afternoon. NASA has a number of interesting things to see, including an actual Saturn V hanging from a very large ceiling.

On this Indianapolis trip, I didn’t have much spare time. But on the last day, I had about an hour. So I hobbled to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, about two blocks north of the hotel. It is a big war monument in the old style, about valor and fortitude and glory.

It’s also about the wars before World War I. Mentioned on various sides of the monument are the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the “War for the Union,” the War with Spain and the Philippine Insurrection. Later wars have other monuments; this one was built after the Civil War, with Spain and the Philippines added. I suppose after that the city fathers didn’t want to burden the monument with any more wars.

Soldiers and sailors in various uniforms emerge in stone all around the basic shape, which is an obelisk on a squarish base. The base is quite broad, with a number of steps leading up to a door on the south face. Early the first day I was in town I saw that the door was open, and that intrigued me. I'd seen the outside of the monument before, but didn’t know that you could go inside. Naturally I wanted to go in.

It turns out that there’s an elevator in there, up to an observation deck. Tickets: $1. I was warned that there were some stairs to climb after the elevator, but that didn’t stop me. According to one of the postcards I bought, the observation deck is about 230 feet above the street. A respectable height even now, but no doubt it was taller than anything else in town when it was built in the 1880s.

It was a postage-stamp sized elevator. The steps I’d been warned about were a squeeze too, but I made my way up. It wasn’t too crowded, and the staircase was narrow enough that I could buttress my weight against the walls if need be. The steps themselves were iron, painted battleship gray, and worn by countless feet.

The observation deck was almost as claustrophobic as the way up, despite its windows. These were small, and still covered with grime from the winter. Not one of the great views of the world, but a view worth a little climbing.

An old plaque at the base of the monument caught my attention. It commemorated the first National Encampment (convention) of the Grand Army of the Republic, held in Indianapolis in 1866. What an occasion that must have been — solemn memorials & full saloons. The plaque went on to say that the last National Encampment of the GAR was in Indianapolis too. In 1949. A different sort of occasion, I imagine. A little research via Google told me that the total membership of the GAR in 1949 was 16. I wouldn’t have expected even that many.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Will blogs never cease?

My nephew Sam, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, writes: “I read your blog on the Indianapolis trip, and noted the part near the bottom where you mention the drive reminding you very much of the drive out of downtown St. Louis. Lindell/Olive (the street you're referring to) is probably one of the most well-maintained streets in the city. It really doesn't pass any of the slums, runs past the most affluent neighborhood in the city, and Forest Park (not Fair Park) simultaneously, and ends in an ultimately confusing and suicidal traffic circle right at the foot of Wash. U (not 200 feet or so from Givens, the architecture building in which I spend most of my waking and sleeping hours). It is an interesting drive indeed.”

My favorite place on that drive is the new Cathedral of St. Louis, a neo-Byzantine wonder, but I will take that up some other time. I am not quite done with Indy.

While I was out seeing the corporate sights, Yuriko, Lilly and Ann spent their days downtown. It wasn’t the best of trips for Yuriko, since she is welded to a two-month-old infant. But for Lilly, any trip that involves a hotel stay means that wonder of wonders: the hotel pool. Last year, the marvels of Montreal were only incidental to her. What she wanted, and got, were many trips to the hotel pool. Washington DC lobbyists can’t hold a candle to a five-year-old determined to go swimming in an exotic pool.

The Hampton Inn in downtown Indianapolis doesn’t have a pool. It is a renovated railroad hotel, with small but nicely appointed rooms, but apparently adding a pool was beyond the budget. Still, guests can use the pool at the Embassy Suites, a few blocks away. By the time I got back on the first day at about 4 p.m., Yuriko had already taken Lilly to that pool once. Lilly wanted to go back, of course, but Yuriko really wanted to use the hot tub. Since I couldn’t go swimming in my cast, I would take care of Ann while everyone else got wet. So off we went.

It was a little tricky getting there. The only way (it seemed) up from the street to the third-floor Embassy Suites lobby was via a long escalator. I can navigate escalators in my cast, but Ann’s baby stroller was another matter. We took the stroller up the escalator, but I knew I didn’t want to take it down — which I suppose Yuriko had done after their first visit to the pool, a true white-knuckle experience.

The pool itself was what I expected. A large bucket bubbling with small children. Lilly had a fine time. Yuriko soaked in the hot tub. I feed Ann a little formula once, and she slept a little.

When we were done, I wanted to take an elevator to the street. So I wandered over to the front desk, my cast and cane visible, our baby stroller not far behind. If ever there were candidates for an elevator, we were them.

“Excuse me,” I said to the young woman behind the desk. “Where is an elevator to the street?”

“Elevator?” she replied, her expression baffled, as if I had asked directions to the magic carpet for a spin around the atrium.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m willing to give this woman the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps her mind was in neutral just at the moment I asked something no one had ever asked her. In any case, another woman immediately answered my questions, directing me to an elevator for the handicapped that went to the second floor — and from which you can proceed via footbridge to Circle Centre Mall, the major retail property downtown, which also happens to have elevators to street level.

Lilly went to the pool one more time, the next day, while I was working. That wasn’t all my family did in Indy, though it may seem that way. They also spent time in Circle Centre, where Yuriko bought Lilly a nice Easter dress for not much money, and some time in the room, watching cable. Cable is a treat, since we don’t have it at home. I was able to see only a little myself this trip — most notably a few minutes of TV Land one night. It was either a late episode of “Happy Days,” quite clearly after the Fonze (and the series) had Jumped the Shark; or a bit of the short-lived successor series, “Joanie Loves Chachie.” (I refuse to check the spelling of that name.) Anyway, it was awful. Some things are best left in the past.

Tomorrow: The GAR and me.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

The Blog of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Two warm weekends, now a cold one. Cold, but not quite cold enough for the snowflake or two I saw late this afternoon to stick.

Indy on business meant a steady succession of parking lots, building atriums, elevators, company reception areas and meeting rooms, all of which blurred into a corporate haze after a while. During my 48 hours or so in town, I visited a fairly new downtown office tower, an older downtown building renovated into offices, a couple of characterless suburban office parks, and some other suburban office properties with slightly more visual interest. I can’t call it a comprehensive survey, but I did notice a couple of things. Building management in this city doesn’t seem to take much interest in controlling access to its buildings, at least during office hours, unlike some of the more suspicious Chicago-area managers; and no one locks their bathrooms. I approve of that second one.

One of the characterless office parks had streets with the following names: Priority Way, Advisory Way, Counselors Row, and Delegates Row. What was the developer thinking? Was there a company-wide contest to choose the least interesting names possible? My own entries would have been Water Reclamation Board Blvd., Committee of the Whole Ave., Subcommittee Street, and Executrix Way.

Better was a sign I saw on the way to one of my meetings, which told passersby the name of an older residential subdivision in north Indianapolis. “Sherwood Forest,” the sign said. As if to reassure nervous residents, the line underneath that name said, “Police Patrolled.” Really? I wondered. Who’s on the job? The Sheriff of Nottingham?

But back to the offices. The poshest office — complete with hardwood details, expensive furniture, and actual artwork instead of the bland kind of reproductions you see in bland offices — was occupied by a company that I suspected owned the worst-looking real estate. Another office had a display of gold and platinum records on one of its walls. It turned out that in their younger days, several of the execs with that particular real estate company had owned a chain of record stores, and had also been record wholesalers. Not only do the artists get special records when so many units are sold, it seems; so do the middlemen. They got one for Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” among other immortal disks.

In two separate meeting rooms in different offices I saw reproductions of 19th-century fox hunting scenes. I managed to note their titles: “The Meet at Blagdon,” and “Sir Richard Sutton and the Quorn Hounds.” Further investigation, if the number of Web sites offering these prints for sale means anything, reveals that they are popular items. It only goes to show the lingering cache of an aristocratic sport, I suppose. But why do you never see falconry on modern American meeting room walls?

Gail, our associate publisher, and Scott, our other account exec, were in town to sell ads in our upcoming special supplement to our magazine, “Real Estate Indianapolis.” I was there to ask questions, learn things, and Be the Editor. I did learn a remarkable number of things about the Indy commercial real estate market, most of which I will not bore blog readers with, since they are of professional interest only.

But I was impressed by some people’s enthusiasm for their business. This was especially the case with a fellow who leases industrial space for a living. By that, I don’t mean manufacturing space, necessarily, though that’s part of the definition of industrial space. Mostly I mean warehouses and distribution centers. On the whole, these facilities are invisible to the public at large, even though they can be as large as a million square feet (and that’s big) and are absolutely vital to the modern consumer economy.

He was eager to describe the perimeters of the warehouse/distribution business in metro Indy, and to facilitate things he whipped out a map. (A man after my own heart.) “Here… and here… and here,” he would point, “are the major hubs of distribution in Indianapolis,” and he would go into detail about how they got that way, who had developed them, and how one area compared with another, logistically speaking. He also talked at length about the reconstruction of the local airport and some other important infrastructure projects. All in all, it was an education just sitting down with the guy. You have to like an interview like that.

Later on, I met with a retail expert. We talked of winners like Costco and Walmart and losers like Kmart and Wards. Of Walgreen’s, Osco and CVS. Of Home Depot and its ilk. And then the conversation turned to doughnuts. “Is Krispy Kreme in this market?” I asked.

“Only two stores,” he answered. “They came in by opening five stores some years ago, but later closed three of them.”

No kidding? I’d never heard of a setback like that for the juggernaut KK. He also noted that there was exactly one Dunkin’ Donuts in the whole metro area, population about 1.3 million. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen any other chains either, though I can only think of Mr. Donut or Wenchell’s, neither of which I’d ever seen east of the Great Plains in any case.

“I guess Indianapolis isn’t a doughnut town,” he concluded.

Tomorrow: Lilly finds her pool, but I can’t find an elevator.

Friday, March 28, 2003

The Return of the Blog.

Back late last night from Indy, just ahead of the cold rain that has fallen most of today. This trip was a strange alloy of business and family — not something that went entirely well, but it did have its charms. Let’s start with the best of those, namely North Meridian Street.

Indianapolis is a grid city, and the zero axis running north-south is a major thoroughfare called Meridian. Our hotel, a downtown Hampton Inn that used to be an old railroad hotel, was just east of Meridian; our first business meeting on Wednesday morning was on the north side of the city, at an office building at about 10900 North Meridian. Gail, the associate publisher of Real Estate Chicago magazine, had printed out MapQuest driving instructions from our hotel to this building.

These directions involved various turns downtown and then a route that followed the Interstate system to more or less where we wanted to go. I don’t have a facile dislike of the Interstate, but it was fairly clear to me that Meridian went straight where we wanted to go, and probably offered a more interesting drive. I suggested that we go that way, and we did.

A few blocks north of our hotel, Meridian runs into what may be Indianapolis’ only traffic circle (roundabout, for you Commonwealth types). It goes around the iconic Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which is the bullseye of the street grid. Meridian then continues due north, past other downtown structures and monuments. Indianapolis has a medium-sized downtown, and after that petered out, the cityscape turned distinctly seedy: dilapidated buildings, vacant lots, payday loan, pawn and liquor shops. On this section of Meridian I saw my favorite business name of the trip, 21st Amendment Liquors.

Then we passed a sign that said “North Meridian Historic District,” and as if the sign had transformative powers, the neighborhood became wealthy, with block after block of large houses and mansions, many clearly dating from the late 1800s or early 1900s, and most nestled on large lots, guarded by enormous trees. A handful had elaborate ornamental gates and carriage houses. More than one was for sale. The trees were still bare, but — amazingly — the grass was almost green (not a function of the area's money, but it was more noticeable there).

Along this section of Meridian, we also passed several houses of worship, most as aesthetic as the neighborhood. One was a nicely designed synagogue with a marquee promising that Ben Vereen was coming to speak there. (?) Another was a pretty Episcopal church, St. Paul’s. And then there was the Second Presbyterian Church.

I was astonished. It was as if a Gothic cathedral, of the sort you might find in northern France, only slightly smaller, had been deposited in Indiana. Or so it seemed, just driving by. On a return trip, when the press of business was over, I pulled into this church’s parking lot briefly and took a closer look. (Gail, who doesn’t seem to have the same tourist instinct as I do, had seen enough just driving by).

Subsequent investigation told me that this church was in fact modeled after Sainte Chapelle in Paris, though I doubt that Second Pres has the Crown of Thorns or any pieces of the True Cross tucked away anywhere. It didn’t look nearly as old as its Parisian inspiration, of course, and it turns out that it was completed — of Indiana limestone — in the 1950s, long after most churches had given up re-creating Gothic architecture on our shores. Most impressive to me was the octagonal fleche tower, which shoots up almost 100 feet.

One more detail: among other bits of sculpture on the outside was the “Door of the Reformer.” Not something you’d find in northern France, I reckon. Unfortunately, the church was locked, so I will have to see the inside if I’m ever in that part of the world on a Sunday morning. It's supposed to be ornate.

Continuing north, Meridian becomes a more ordinary residential street, and then, as an intersection with I-265 approaches, retail and office buildings make their appearance. On the whole, the street was a very satisfying drive, ranking up there with Lake Shore Drive on a good day, or the leafy Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, or the twisty Alamo Heights Boulevard in San Antonio. More than anyplace else, it reminded me of the drive from downtown St. Louis past an assortment of neighborhoods, the new Cathedral of St. Louis, and one edge of Fair Park.

Tomorrow: Indianapolis is not a doughnut town.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Five little guys named blog.

NO MORE BLOGS UNTIL FRIDAY. I will be in Indianapolis, and I don’t have a laptop.

Another temperate day in Chicagoland. So warm, in fact, that I didn’t need a coat or sweater going out in the morning, for the first time in about a half-turn around the Sun. The bulbs planted on the southern side of our house are pushing through, too. A certain sign of spring. But the forces of Winter are marshaling for a rearguard action.

“Chicagoland?” Non-natives may wonder at the term. But it’s real. It refers to Chicago and its many, many suburbs: greater Chicago or metro Chicago, which you also hear sometimes. Fifteen years after first hearing the term, it still sounds a little odd to me. It’s the only metropolitan terminology I know that makes its area sound like an amusement park.

My regular doc had a look at the foot this morning. He thumped the cast like a watermelon and said, hmm. Well, not really, but essentially that was it. No x-rays today (which I wouldn’t have done anyway, since I needed to get to the office). In two weeks there may be some x-rays, to see how the bone is mending.

I’ve been passing through Indianapolis for years — ever since I did my first Nashville-to-Chicago run way back in ’82. I’ve even stopped in a few times. Business has taken me there often, and as usual I manage to shoehorn in some sightseeing on such occasions.

Back when I worked for “Fire Chief” magazine, I went to a fire chiefs’ convention there. Some of it was under the Hoosier Dome (now the Three Initial Corporation Dome). Those shows were always fun — plenty of fire trucks and other gizmos to see — but it had the added charm of being under this dome. The top of the dome isn’t a fixed piece of construction, but more like a vast white parachute, held up because the interior has a slightly higher air pressure. You enter the dome through enormous revolving doors. But there were more ordinary doors for the handicapped, and when they open you can feel the air blow outward.

In 1999, I visited Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery on a business trip, after I’d done my work. It’s an enormous old-style cemetery, plenty of trees and headstones and even a few hills. President (Benjamin) Harrison is buried there, so I went to see his stone, but it was a fairly drab affair, an undistinguished family stone surrounded by artless individual stones.

Nearby, Vice President Hendricks (Cleveland’s first, who died in office in 1885) has a better one, and best off all was Gov. Oliver Morton, the “War Governor” of Indiana (1861-67), who has a spiffy bust of himself atop his monument. By golly, he wanted people to remember him. Of course, almost no one has.

Yuriko thinks it odd, that I enjoy visiting cemeteries.

Then there was last year’s trip, in late March. The destination then was Columbus, Indiana, but we passed through Indy — right through the center of town, in rain that had grown stronger and stronger as we headed south that Friday morning. By the time we got to Benjamin Harrison’s house (him again) in mid-afternoon, it was pouring so hard that we waited in the car for a few minutes for it to slack off, rather than take the dash to the porch and main entrance of that structure. Just off a main north-south street and within sight of I-65 and the city’s downtown, the Harrison home proved to be a nicely appointed Victorian dwelling.

We were the only ones taking the tour, with a young guide that knew the house reasonably well, but not a lot about President Harrison. I thought about the contrast with my guide at Rutherford B. Hayes home in Sandusky, Ohio, who occasionally spoke as if “the General” — his preferred form of address, even after the presidency — were still out and about. Also, Hayes’ guide said that she was working her way through his collected letters. As for Harrison’s guide, she had not heard the (maybe apocryphal) story of Harrison not looking to see which statehood bill he signed first, when he signed both North and South Dakota into the Union at the same sitting.

We satisfied our need for a late lunch that day at a place called Mug-n-Bun, a drive-in the west side of the city. I’m old enough to remember such establishments in Texas, but I hadn’t been to one in many years, and Yuriko had never been to one at all. Along with an authentic atmosphere (as opposed to contrived retro), the hamburgers and such were very good.

More on Friday.

Sunday, March 23, 2003


Pleasant day outside. I even spent some time sitting around in the back yard. The downside: mud on my cast.

The economic model of, as I understand it, lets me trade space on the Big Thumping Server in return for ads at the top of my blog. I don’t mind. I’m also vaguely aware that the ads change, and sometimes have something to do with the content. I don’t mind that, either.

I like to think that unemployed dotcomers are working from home at all hours of the day and night reading these things — piecemeal work, that would be — and recommending ads to match the content. Of course, I know better. The Big Thumping Server at blogspot has help, but I’m fairly certain it involves other computers programmed to look for hot-button words.

So when I bloviated at length about Cat Stevens last Tuesday, that seemed inspire ads for “Al Hannah Islamic Clothing” and “Buy Al-kafi book,” the next day, perhaps because I used the term “Islam” and its variations a few times. Very interesting.

Incidentally, I wonder if the purveyor of “Islamic clothing” has a line of burqas. Imported from Afghanistan, very cheap. I don’t think women should wear them. Instead, they should be de rigueur for male hip-hop stars. That, and they should be confined to their homes, except in the company of female relatives. (Is that the plural of burqa? I don’t have an Afghan handy to tell me.)

This makes me want to play with the computer scanning my blog. How many times would it take me repeating “Buddhism” to get an ad, say, promoting prayer wheels used by the Yellow Hat Sect?

Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism Buddhism

We shall see.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Shock and blog.

A slate gray day, this Saturday. Lilly and I stayed home; Ann and Yuriko went north to the supermarket formerly known as Yaohan, which is under a different name now, but still very much like a grocery store you’d find in Japan, except for certain details, like the pricing in dollars.

Ann update: she’s smiling now. (Well, actually, she’s sleeping now. But she’s able to smile.) She smiled at me for the first time this week, a genuine smile, not the archaic smile you sometimes see on very tiny babies. Also, she’s just about able to hold up her head. Lilly gave me her fist smile on Christmas Day, 1997.

I’ve noticed that the networks have calmed down a little. This afternoon, most of them carried their usual Saturday ballast of sports programming. War is war, but it can’t interfere with March Madness.

The day the war got under way in earnest, (brother) Jay wrote to me: “The problem with 'special coverage' — meaning continuous coverage — of the war in Mesopotamia (I'm with Churchill on this one) is that even in this electronic, digital age, war doesn’t really move fast enough for it. This means that special coverage is a thin skeleton of reported or suspected fact supporting — as best it can — a bloated body of speculation and opinion, repeated over and over again.

“It would be better if they continued normal programming and broke in for a few minutes when they had something previously unreported to say: Basra Falls to 5th Marines; Nestorian Patriarch Rescued by SAS troops; Saddam Hussein and Mistress Killed by Partisans While Attempting to Flee Into Switzerland — no, that was Mussolini. Instead: “Well, [fill in name of embedded reporter], we've heard reports that some, at least, of the Army Rangers are wearing ‘Hello Kitty’ bootlaces. Is there any truth in this? Have you seen this where you are?”

“Then we go to a colloquy in which three retired generals fresh from the military experts' pool (which has an admirable buffet) discuss how this unlooked for deviation from standard military procedure affects the announced intent of the United States government to ‘shock and awe’ the Iraqi government and armed forces; that is, assuming there's any truth in this report to start with. Und so weiter.”

The thing to do, then, is ignore TV and the radio for most of the day. Usually, that’s easy enough, but war news is a little harder to resist. But I will do my best.

Friday, March 21, 2003

Street bloggin' man.

The Chicago Food Depository Awards Dinner last night was at the Sheraton, which is east of Michigan Avenue and west of Lake Shore Drive, right on north bank of the Chicago River across from Wacker Drive, which is along the south bank. There really isn’t much to say about the event itself; it was the fifth one for me, and it first involves a “mixer” of sorts just outside the hotel’s bland — I mean grand — ballroom, which was as crowded as Groucho Marx’s stateroom. Because of my sore foot, I found one of the few chairs and sat through the mixer this year.

Then came the main event, in the ballroom: dinner and awards given for “Chicago office broker of the year,” “Chicago property manager of the year,” “Chicago developer of the year,” and the like. Companies buy tables at the event, and the money goes to a local food bank charity. Press mice like me get invited to sit at various companies’ tables because, well, these companies want us to think favorably of them (and I do: Equity Office Properties, the largest commercial landlord in the USA, kindly let me sit at one of its tables).

The emcee for the evening, a newsreader on one of the local stations, warned us early on that traffic in parts of downtown Chicago had been bollix’d by anti-war protesters. He gave us updates as the evening went on. Apparently several thousand people started at Federal Plaza, which is in the heart of downtown, and then unexpectedly went eastward and jammed up Lake Shore Drive. From there, they went north and then west, to Michigan Avenue, onto the Magnificent Mile shopping district.

That’s a long walk, from Federal Plaza to the Mag Mile. Plenty of opportunity for mischief, but it seems that the arrests didn’t start until the demonstrators wanted to go south on Michigan Ave. The protesters’ route also represented a long arc around the Sheraton, but all I could see from a window (when I went to the bathroom) were a lot of police cars on Lower Wacker Drive, headed for Lake Shore Drive, which did seem to be empty of traffic at that moment.

At about 9 p.m., at the end of the event, Kevin D. and I got in the taxi queue to go to Union Station. Had my foot been healthy, I might have simply walked the 25 minutes or so to the train station, since the evening was so pleasant (in the 50s F). Kevin later said he could hear protesting hubbub off in the distance from our line in the queue, but I hadn’t been paying any attention, so I missed it. In any case, it took 40 minutes to get the head of queue — and for this, I blame the protesters. In previous years, the queue went much faster. Bah.

So we missed the 9:30 p.m. train to the western suburbs out of Union Station. We repaired to the Union Station McDonald’s to wait for the 10:30. It was just about the only place open (except a bar). A lot of people were there, watching the televisions, which offered up the usual amalgam of breathless speculation and bits of actual war news.

Speaking of breathless speculation, I just heard on the radio that perhaps a division in Basra (8,000 Iraqis) has surrendered — Army psyops has been trying to persuade them to fight like Frenchmen, it seems. Maybe it’s working.

“Shock ’n’ Awe”: the first catchphrase of the war. Someday it might be the name of a heavy metal band.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

The vernal blog.

An early post. Tonight is the big commercial real estate event of the year, the Chicago Food Depository Awards Dinner, more about which tomorrow if anything interesting happens.

Today I got a message from a regular e-mail correspondent of mine today, Peter M, who reminded me (inadvertently) that it’s time to rant about “the first day of spring.”

At the end of his message, Peter said: “The sun crosses the equator over to ‘our side’ at 7 p.m. sharp tonight! It's all over for Saddam AND the southern hemisphere!!”

Of course, it’s the vernal equinox. I almost forgot, even though my DayMinder Brand desk calendar reminds me that tomorrow “Spring Begins.” This calendar is a product of Mead Consumer & Office Products, HQ’d in New York state. Late in 2001, I wrote them this letter:

“To Whom It May Concern:

“Today I received my 2002 DayMinder Brand Monthly Planner, and I want to compliment your company on producing this useful tool. I have used one for many years, and the advent of Palm Pilots and the like will not change that.

“However, I noticed that in your new calendar you’ve omitted Australian, New Zealand and Irish holidays. Perhaps your markets are not very large in those countries, but still I believe all holidays of the English-speaking world should be included in this calendar. The addition of Mexican holidays is nice, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the other countries.

“Also, better “Winter Solstice,” “Spring Equinox,” etc. than “Winter Begins,” “Spring Begins,” etc. The seasons do not begin the same day everywhere, even in North America — that just seems like a calendar fiction to me.”

I received a very polite reply shortly thereafter, essentially telling me that my opinions were duly noted, etc. The letter also mentioned that Mead’s market for these calendars was much larger in Mexico than the Antipodes, and I’m sure that’s true. But I still believe that Australia et al. are getting short shrift. (So I penciled in Australia Day — January 26 — and Anzac Day — April 25 — which I could remember, but was too lazy to look up any others.)

About my comment on the equinoxes and solstices, Mead said nothing. Among other things, I suspect that they didn’t want to confess that they think the words “equinox” and especially “solstice” are just too hard for many calendar users. Talk about pernicious dumbing down.

My question is, what is it about the vernal equinox that makes it “the first day of spring?” Occasionally I pose this question to someone, and sometimes the answer I get is, “It’s officially the first day of spring.” If I’m in a Jesuit mood, I’ll reply to that with this question: “Which office decided that?”

I don’t believe I’ve actually changed anyone’s mind, of course, since I’m questioning a received idea. Also, it might be considered too unimportant to bother thinking about much. But I’m not so sure. What we call our days seems reasonably important to me.

I also think that “the first day of spring” is absurd because it flies in the face of experience — experience anyone can have, just by going outside an assessing the climate. In my case, that of northern Illinois. Air warm yet? Not really. Grass green yet? Nope. Flowers? Naah. Any buds on the trees? No, they know better than that. Is this spring? Sure it is, the calendar says so.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

The road to hell is paved with good blogs.

Does it bother anyone else in the world — in the Western world — that radio stations play Cat Stevens’ songs? Sorry, I mean Yusuf Fatwa, or whatever he calls himself these days. A Chicago station of the canonical rock genre is on fairly often at my office, and on it last week was I forget what song, but it was him.

I never was a large fan of the man, but I had a friend in college who had some of his records, because he’d been a fan in high school. I listened to those, and had a moderate liking for some of the songs.

If I remember correctly, when the theocrats who run Iran decided in 1989 that their idea of literary criticism would mean murdering Salman Rushdie, Cat expressed his sympathy with that notion — on a BBC broadcast, I believe. Back when that little opinion of his was news, I remember seeing a comedian at the club No Exit in Chicago who took up the matter.

“Say, did you hear about Cat Stevens? I mean, Mr. Joe Islam. Someone asked him what he thought about murdering the guy who wrote ‘The Satanic Verses.’ Cat said yeah, that was OK with him. He thought it was a good idea to go kill Salman Rushdie.

“Way to go, CAT! What’re you gonna do, run him over with the Peace Train?”

Of course, Mr. Islam backpedaled from his opinions. Islamic extremism might cut into record sales, after all (and did, but memory is short). But then there’s the matter of Cat’s inability to visit Israel. It’s happened twice now. The Israelis say he has given money to Hamas. What a faux pas, eh?

Maybe you’re not inclined not to believe the Israeli government in this matter. On the other hand, maybe you’re not inclined to believe Cat. I know I am.

Enough of that diatribe. Quite a busy day. The next issue of Real Estate Chicago is all done, except for a few details, but the devil is in the details. But it will be wrapped up before tomorrow is over.

Rain today. My broken ankle hurt a bit more than yesterday. According to Yuriko, when she broke her foot some years ago, it ached a bit during periods of rain or snow for about a year after it healed. Something to look forward to.

Exciting news: despite war and international brouhaha, next week I will be traveling. To exciting… Indianapolis. It’s a business trip, but we are all going, wife+children, packed up in the Sienna. It isn’t Berlin in the ’20s, but I’ll take what I can get. I’ve learned to like Indy over the years. A little.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Howard the Blog.

The last time I saw Howard, I was doing booth duty at the one-day Association of Industrial Real Estate Brokers convention at a hotel near O’Hare, representing what was then my new magazine, Real Estate Chicago. It was September 2000; I hadn’t seen Howard in about 10 years.

For many years, Howard had been an advertising space salesman for the real estate publications of the Law Bulletin Publishing Co., which happened to be my first employer in Chicago, from 1987 to 1990. That’s how I met him. We got along well enough, though Howard — to be very generous with him — had an acid tongue, and something of the same acidity permeated his character.

But I will not speak ill of the dead (today, anyway). Howard died of cancer in the spring of 2001, about six months after I ran into him. Why he was at that show, I don’t know, since he was retired. But I think he still had a fondness for the commercial real estate circuit, and so there he was. I recognized him at once. His hair and beard were good deal grayer, and he was more lined in the face, but his paunch was about the same.

His first words to me in ten years were: “Hey! How’ya been, ya fat bastard?”

I think of Howard now because yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day. One year on March 17, back when we were both at the Law Bulletin, he showed me a gimmick card he said he had carried around for years, “to show any Irishman who needed to see it.” (Howard was not known to be of Irish decent; and I am not.)

It was the size — and more importantly — the same orange color as a Chance card in Monopoly. Printed on one side was: “Happy St. Patrick’s Day, You Irish Bastard.” Just beneath that was another line: “Printed in England.” Howard thought this strangely hilarious, and I thought it was… well, hilariously strange.

I could tell other Howard stories, but that will suffice for today.

RIP, Kenneth Arnn: husband of my mother's sister Sue, father of my first cousin Ralph, grandfather of three. Except for my great-uncle Ralph Henderson (d. 1971), Ken is the only uncle I have any clear memories of. He died in December, and his ashes were interred at Ft. Sam Houston yesterday.

Monday, March 17, 2003

C’est la blog.

I will not be a war blogger. There are plenty enough of those. But I made a point of watching the President’s speech this evening, the first time I’ve watched him speak since September 20, 2001. I’m not fond of him or his administration or his party, but at times that’s irrelevant. Now is one of those times.

It seems to me that many of the people protesting this war aren’t actually protesting this war, in particular. To them, “Iraq” is less than a shape on a world map, since people are notoriously bad at geography. No, they are protesting the whole sorry history of warfare since 1914 at least, though I doubt that very many are acquainted with the particulars of that either.

Certainly I sympathize with that. But I can’t be against this war. To hear some tell it, we’re attacking a place as innocuous as New Zealand or Liechtenstein, instead of a loathsome, genocidal dictatorship that hates us.

Besides listening to a televised ultimatum, it wasn’t a bad day. I’m adjusting to my cast — walked several blocks on it, I did. And I wanted to walk, since Winter begrudged us another day of warmth. Rumor had it that it was 70 F at one point. But the end is in sight. The heat will be going back south again beginning tomorrow.

Busy day at the office. We’re almost done with the next issue of Real Estate Chicago magazine, but the catch is “almost.” I’m typing so furiously that my right hand aches. So does my right foot, since it’s bearing the brunt of walking. Hurts more than the broken foot.

Would that count as ironic? I thought of a new “high school definition” of irony today. The old one I learned long after high school, from an old friend who went to Vanderbilt with me (we’d long graduated from there, too): Irony is the firehouse burning down.

The new high school definition of irony: tripping over your cane. I haven’t done this yet, but had a few brushes with it, before I appreciated the solidity of my cane.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Huevos blogos.

It must have been about 60 F for a while this afternoon.

We are orphans up here, and Climate personified doled out a day of spring into our little bowls, here in March. One among us asks, “Please sir — can we have some — more?”


A while ago, my cousin Jay (not my brother Jay) wrote to me, after reading something I’d written about the weather. My cousin Jay, who is a few years older than my brother Jay, is a lifelong Mississippian.

“I especially like the references to the cold weather that the Second City experiences,” he wrote. “The coldest that I have ever been was during January 1986 (+ or - a year) when I was there for the HIA show. All the natives were commenting on how warm it was. My face froze off.”

On the other hand, come about July, there will be a day when the temps exceed 90 F. Those same natives, so bold in the face of subarctic chills and screaming voids below zero, will get that wilted look in their eyes, and that hissing sound from behind their ears. Much grousing will follow. But the kicker is, that kind of elevated temps rarely lasts more than a few days, after which it retreats to the 80s or even 70s.

I rarely vocalize the following (I am too polite): You think this is hot? Summer in San Antonio is hot. The likes of you would be liquefy and trickle down the sidewalk, and dogs would refresh themselves by lapping at the puddle that used to be you.

Last night was longer than it should have been. Ann came down with IBS — irritable baby syndrome — and then there was the matter of my new cast. It isn’t onerous during the day, but when I was trying the sleep it felt like my foot had been glommed by a toothless old croc. Not a biting feeling, just heavy pressure all around. I’m sure I will get used to it.

Early in the morning I learned how to take a bath with one foot sticking out, and then we all attended the 9:30 service at Holy Nativity. Nothing like a six-week old baby no one has ever met to spark conversation, so we stayed unusually long at coffee hour. Boy or girl? (We hadn’t dressed her to cue a gender.) Name? How old?

IBS had disappeared by this time. Ann slept through her first church service, and then her first breakfast outside the home.

Breakfast — one of those noontime breakfasts — was at the Moondance Diner. We go there every three or four months. Always fine eatin’ at the Moondance. Highlight of the day. We even enjoyed waiting for our table, since we got to sit outside. Mr. Sun was a kind old uncle we hadn’t seen in months, not the sky-bleaching tyrant he will become in summer. When we got our table, I got huevos rancheros, and I quote from the menu: corn tortillas layered with two eggs over medium chorizo combo cheese, avocado, salsa and sour cream.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

The Ides of Blog.

Caes: (To the Soothsayer) “The ides of March are come.”

Sooth: “Ay, Caesar; but not gone.”

— Julius Caesar, Act III, scene i.

Today Mrs. Quarles comes to mind. I learned Latin from her for a few years at Alamo Heights High School. A Henna-headed eccentric, a woman who had traveled a lot, and someone with a tart sense of humor, I remember her better than most of my teachers. Not so much for the Latin language; only fragments of that remain. She was never short on stories about Rome and the Romans — those I remember.

Last I heard, she was still alive, though she would be quite elderly indeed by now. In 1999, I dug up her address and sent her a copy of a magazine I had edited. I’d managed to work some Latin into one of the illustrations for one of the articles: the first lines of Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries. I had learned them in her class. I did not hear back from her.

Every day, Mrs. Quarles would write the date in Latin on the chalkboard — the kalends, nones and ides system. I still remember how to reckon that too, a remarkably useless skill. (A man without any useless skills is going to live a drab life, I’m certain.) On every March 15, she would write the Latin date using black chalk, which as far as I remember she never used on any other day. “Today,” she explained, “is the day Caesar died.”

Today, in AD 2003, is the day I got a real cast for my leg. Went in to see my substitute doc this morning. He looked at my x-ray and said, “So you broke it!” He seemed in a better humor today. Less tired, I figure. He proceeded to put on a cast, but the heel he used was so tall it would have caused me another spill, so he took that one off using a scary-looking tool (a “cast cutter” according to the label), and then built a better one.

Today also happened to be the warmest day in months. Yuriko, Lilly and Ann went to a nearby park, and some other places, while I stayed on the couch and watched “True Grit.” An excellent movie. I was inspired to watch it because, when my brother Jay was visiting last December, he mentioned a line Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall) says to Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne). Marshal Cogburn, though hopelessly outnumbered, demands that Pepper surrender, who answers: “That’s mighty tall talk for a one-eyed fat man.”

Friday, March 14, 2003

All God’s Chillen Got Blog.

Part of my job is to edit and upload real estate stories onto my company’s Web site, As my boss is careful to put it, that is an “Internet-based news service” not a dotcom, but in any case as Midwest Bureau Chief, I handle commercial real estate stories from Chicago, Detroit, Denver and Philadelphia, which come to me by e-mail every day from correspondents in those places.

The other day I got a story from Denver with the pedestrian headline, “Grubb Sells Apartment,” Grubb (& Ellis) being the brokerage company that arranged the sale. Further reading revealed that some group had bought a property called the Cloud Nine Apartments and had plans for a condo conversion. I take my job as editor seriously — my goal is to improve the copy, make it a better read. So I re-titled this story:

Investors Buy Cloud Nine, Plan Condos.

Yep, that sounds like real estate development to me.

On Wednesday I bought a cane at my neighborhood drugstore, and am learning to use it. More exactly, I’m learning to use it to walk. This is an education in personal physics, since I’ve never been obliged to use a cane or crutches. The cane goes on the same side as the good foot. This is counterintuitive, but it’s remarkable how much stress that takes off the bad foot. When walking, you’re making an equilateral triangle at all times, with the good foot taking the brunt of the weight in the center of the formation.

Gives me a new appreciation for that absurd euphemism “differently-abled.” Because of a temporary minor disability, I have a cane. That makes me able to wave it in people’s faces now, if they are half my age (20 or younger) and annoy me. I’m even able to give ’em a good whack if it comes to that. Now that’s ability.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Ceci n'est pas une blog.

Heard about “Freedom Fries” on the radio over the weekend. Worth a snicker — a geefaw? Maybe just a chortle, whatever that sounds like. This year’s best candidate for Trivia of the Future™. See also: Liberty Cabbage.

To put my injury in perspective, I’m reading a book — on the train, just about the only time I can read an actual book — called “Back to the Front.” The author of the book, Stephen O’Shea, spent several summers in the late ’80s and early ’90s walking the length of the former Western Front, from the North Sea to Switzerland. This is his account of those travels. It is riveting.

He describes what he sees as his goes along, then offers accounts of what happened at those spots during the Great War. I’m familiar with a lot of the historical narrative (not all), but having it described in this way adds immediacy to it. I hardly have to say how horrible the stories are.

Truth be told, I was reading this book before I slipped on the ice, but hadn’t gotten very far. So maybe my choice of reading material is really G-d reminding me that, indeed, I have no real problems, ankle or not.

The ankle? The x-rays have been read by x-ray readers. I have “an oblique fracture of the distal fibula.” Love that Latinate. A crack at the bottom of my leg bone, to render it in Anglo-Saxon. So much for the ligament theory. But maybe it’s both. Sure is sore.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

The Amazing Shrinking Blog.

Lots of meltage out there today. With my ankle sore, I’m only too happy to see the ice vanish into little puddles that drain all the way to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi watershed.

My usual doctor, whose office is conveniently located about five minute’s drive from where I live, had no time for me yesterday, but one of his partners did. My regular doc is about my age, bleary-eyed, and not very comfortable with small talk. I don’t mind that. Best that doctors, and barbers for that matter, stick to business.

Had a bit of a wait, of course. Waiting rooms of this kind offer a cautionary tale: namely, don’t get old. (But how?) Yesterday was particular busy, with a generally elderly crowd plus a contingent of younger, well-dressed people. After a few minutes, I realized that this younger crew was made up of pharmaceutical salespeople. I can only imagine the largess stuffed in their pockets and bulging out of their briefcases. It’s invisible to the eye, but I know it’s there.

Waiting rooms also offer magazines that you usually don’t read anywhere else. In this case, magazines put out by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — something I’ve never found in any waiting room before. Who put them there? The receptionist? One of the nurses? One of the doctors? Or are they all PETA supporters in that office? I forgot to check to see if any of the staff was wearing leather. Some of the staff would have to work awfully hard at vegetarianism to become as big as they are, but still…

I didn’t examine the PETA publications this time, but I did during my last visit in December (for a checkup). They’re more interesting for their tone than the actual written content. The subtext of the magazines is this: if we had power, we would ban meat eating and other barbarous practices involving animals. If you disagree with that policy, we will build re-education camps and put you there. On a macrobiotic starvation diet.

My substitute doctor, also bleary-eyed but a decade or so older, probed my left foot with his fingers. “This hurt?” No. “This?” No. “How about this?” ARGH!

Perhaps torn ligaments. A sports injury, it sounds like to me. Yes, I had a skating accident. He gave me an ankle supporting-type wrapping-device to wrap around my ankle, and wrote a note to get me an x-ray at a place called the DuPage Imaging Institute. Or was it the Imaging Institute of DuPage?

Anyway, I went there and soaked up some rays. Roentgen rays, that is. Results due soon. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Blog on ice.

For nearly five years, I’ve walked about a half a mile through my suburb each workday morning to the Metra commuter train station nearest to where I live, and the same distance in the afternoon or early evening when I return home. If I’m tired or otherwise distracted, it’s a chore, but most of the time I enjoy the walk. My mind can — and does — roam, I can sense the passing of the seasons, or note some subtle change in a neighbor’s house. Some days, I even catch the smell from the P Farm cookie factory, about a mile away. If you’re going to live near a factory, a cookie factory is the thing. We didn’t know about it before we bought our house, so it was a bonus extra.

I’ll walk through any kind of weather: zero degrees with wind chill, pleasant spring rains, dry warm May days, hot summer mornings, humid August afternoons, brisk fall days, drizzly fall days, December days on the verge of winter, but enjoyable anyway. One day in April, I’ll notice that the grass has turned green, seemingly overnight. A little bit later, I can see various trees as they shoot out their greenery in the spring; and come fall, they turn color and lose leaves according to some internal timetable. I like all that, even though I am not interested enough in natural history to ever learn the names of the different species (which I would forget anyway). I can see the changing moods of the sky, blue or dark clouds, rain or intense sun. I walked through a hurricane once. In a manner of speaking. It was a November 1998 storm that blew across the Great Lakes region, and according those who study these things, it would have been a hurricane had it passed over water instead land. My most lasting memory of that evening is the way twin pine trees, fixed firmly in a yard a few blocks from my house, blew and swayed and shook.

I see joggers and kids going to school, municipal vehicles out to do something or other, random dogs and cats, bicyclers and skateboarders, people in their yards and the blue of televisions in dark rooms. I know most of the sidewalks and their idiosyncrasies — bends, cracks, and one old stretch with the words “E.D. Otto 1923” carved in it. I suppose the local historical society could tell me about that, but I’d rather speculate that he was a cement purveyor who had a good gig in our town a few years after it was incorporated.

Yesterday I was walking home. The sun had just set. For minor fun, I cracked bits of ice on the sidewalk as I went by. About three blocks away from home I was getting ready to cross a street, and the ice had its revenge. Down I went. With the suddenness of any full-body fall. Made a three-point landing on the asphalt — ankle, knee, palm. Pain. I’ve had worse, but this was bad enough. I hobbled home and in due time came to understand that my left ankle hurt the most.

It was an evening of ice packs and limping around. Aspirin to help me sleep. As it turned out, I’d done minor damage to some ligaments; no fractures. But what a nuisance, crossing that line between able-bodied and not, even if only briefly.

Tomorrow: A visit to the doctor.

Monday, March 10, 2003

The Goodyear Blog.

Spring is coming. How do I know? At about 4 p.m., the sun reflected off the glass skin of the One North Wacker building, which is across from the building where I work, and then came into my office and onto my computer screen — washing it out for a few minutes. As sure a sign of spring as the early setting of the constellation Orion.

Of course, it was +2 degrees F in Chicago this morning, so I can’t get too worked up about spring just yet.

To recap (see yesterday’s blog first): in September 1986, I finagled a ride on the Goodyear Blimp. All I had to do was drive out to the Smyrna, Tennessee, airport, and present myself. The Blimp was operating out of that airport, perhaps 30 miles away from the city, because the metro Nashville airport was far too busy.

My coworker Stephanie and I drove out to Smyrna that morning, getting lost on the way, and then getting a speeding ticket once we got to Smyrna. (I was driving. Of the policeman, Stephanie said, “That was the nicest cop I’ve ever met.” He was very polite in fining me for speeding, calling me “sir” and using “please” a lot.)

The blue-and-white Goodyear van took us from the hanger area of the airport to the Blimp staging area — a spot on the tarmac where a number of Goodyear employees, dressing in blue and white, were standing by. It took nine people to land the Blimp: three to grab rope hanging from the red nipple that marked the very front of the airship, the other six to hold other ropes attached to other parts of the structure.

We were guided closer, and got a look at the Blimp up close and at the bottom. Its bottom half was covered with row upon row of what looked like bicycle reflectors, blue, green, red and yellow. Each reflector was attached to a grid of wires lacing the airship’s belly. It was the very mechanism that had spelled letters for me years before (or like it; there's more than one Blimp; this was the "Columbia.") The captain popped out of the gondola to greet us. With his silver hair and tanned face, he looked like a commercial airline pilot, and probably had been one until he got this gig.

He was good enough to warn us: “She moves around a lot, depending on the wind,” That meant getting on and off as fast a possible — up a short ladder and into the gondola, which seats six, two up front, two middle, two back. Inside the gondola, the blue and white theme continued, with a sort of industrial blue being the predominant color.

There were a lot of dials on the control panel, but it didn’t seem as complicated as that of an airplane. Two dials indicated helium temperature and, I think, pressure. The captain sat in the seat to the front and to the left, and rolled a wooden wheel with his right hand. This made the nose go up and down. His foot pedals made the Blimp go right or left, and the knobs at his left-hand side controlled the engine’s speed.

Up we went. It was something like going up in an elevator — an elevator that pitched a little in the wind, and had a lawn mower engine attached to it. We tooled around the greater Smyrna area at altitudes of 150 to 500 feet. Visibility was five miles or so, meaning we couldn’t see the Nashville skyline. Still, I saw an eyeful everywhere: dirt and paved roads, electric transformers, a scummy pond, apartments finished and under construction, enormous patches of green betraying only a hint of fall coloration.

We buzzed over the Nissan plant, a vast gray structure nested in a huge parking lot, which was stocked mostly with the trucks that Nissan builds there. We flew over some of the lakes (mostly manmade) that stretch across the southwest part of Davidson County — from the air, you can see how twisty and irregular they are, and at one point it looked like the whole Earth was water broken only by curlicues of land covered with trees and occasionally punctuated by boat docks.

“Usually they wave back,” said the captain as we passed some people down on one of the boat docks. He was waving to them. He seemed like he was enjoying flying the Blimp. I know I enjoyed riding it, and Stephaine did too, especially the view from up front.

But I have to wonder — is it still possible to do what I did 17 years ago? Or is Goodyear too concerned with liability to allow it any more? Or the FAA too concerned that some fool might highjack it and use it to distribute sarin gas? I don’t think I want to find out.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Boys’ own blogs.

Without intending to, I see that I’ve given a “boys’ own” theme to most of last week’s blogs. Great buildings! Tearing around in a Hummer! Battles to the last man!

Well, in keeping with that theme, it’s time to tell of Riding in an Airship!

True story. I was an associate editor of “Advantage” magazine in Nashville in the mid-80s. Another magazine owned by the same company was “Contemporary Long-Term Care,” whose editor was an entertaining fellow named Steve, who was about as old then as I am now. One day he described making a list of things he wanted to do before he died — things within reason, not flying to the Moon — and how he had been pursuing that list since. I don’t remember how it came up, but one thing on his list was taking a ride in the Goodyear Blimp. Which, he said, he had done a few years earlier.

I was all ears. I have early memories of the Goodyear Blimp. I remember standing in my grandmother’s front yard one evening in the summer of 1968. There was a World’s Fair in San Antonio that year, and the Blimp must have been visiting for that event. There it was in the twilight, flying low enough to seem huge, and so close I could hear the hzzzzzzz of the engines as it crawled across the sky. The icing on the cake was the flashing letters on the side of the Blimp, the kind of letters you might see on the scoreboard at a sports stadium. I don’t remember what the message said — no doubt an advertisement — but it didn’t matter.

Flash forward to 1986. Steve had ridden in the Blimp. How was this possible? He was a newspaper reporter then, and they had invited him, he said.

Very interesting. I returned to the editing tasks at hand. Only a few days later, however, I looked out a window, one that had a fine view of West End Avenue heading away from downtown, and what did I see? — the Goodyear Blimp.

This was in the days before Google (heck, we did our writing and editing work on typewriters), so finding out exactly whom to call took some persistence. Eventually I got Goodyear’s HQ number in Akron. I talked to their media relations department there, who referred me to the public relations man who traveled with the Blimp. (Who would have thought?) Somehow or another I got in touch with him that day, and explained that I was a member of the Nashville media, and was interested in riding the Blimp. I was fully expecting him to brush me off.

“All right, you and an associate can fly tomorrow at 10 a.m.,” he said. “Come to the Smyrna Airport and ask for me.”

I’ll finish this story tomorrow…

Saturday, March 08, 2003

Raw Blog.

It will necessarily be a short blog today, the side effect of a superb dinner at a place called Kurumaya, a Japanese restaurant in Elk Grove Village. A friend of a friend of Yuriko’s runs the place, and it came highly — and justifiably — recommended. We began with a sashimi appetizer and proceeded through delightful karoke (potato croquette), light and crunchy shrimp & vegetable tempura, and a centerpiece of sushi. Management thoughtfully provided yakisoba for Lilly, on the assumption that a child wouldn’t eat sashimi or sushi. Only half right: Lilly was very eager to put away her share of the sashimi. The wasabi component puts her off sushi, but I suspect that she’ll learn to like it eventually.

It was Ann’s first visit to a restaurant. She enjoyed the liquid nutrition that Yuriko carries with her everywhere she goes. That, or she slept. Even if Ann had made noise, it would have only bothered us, since we had the back room — the tatami room — to ourselves. (Business seemed fairly light at Kurumaya. I blame the weather. More on that shortly.) Tatami is a tightly woven Japanese mat, typically forming part of a floor. Can’t remember exactly what it’s composed of — a hemp-like substance. You can find it in hotels, restaurants and many homes in Japan. Ah, the smell... The smell is enough to remind me of my years in Japan, more than any food.

Lilly’s first restaurant was in the city, on the day she was exactly a month old. It was an Argyle Street Vietnamese phó shop, called “Phó Hoa” I think, which is merely their name for a meal-in-a-bowl soup. Also a fine place to eat, and the only place I know where bible tripe comes in some of the dishes.

The day began drippingly outside, with temps this morning in the 40s F. The snow was melting fast, but not so fast that Lilly and I couldn’t spend a while playing in it. Ostensibly, we were out to build a snowman, but before long things degenerated into a snowball fight. Maybe “fight” is too strong a word. More like a “vigorous toss” in the general vicinity of the other person. Some of her snowballs approached cantaloupe size, but they tended to break up in flight. Mine were lean and closer to the mark.

In the afternoon, clouds moved in, followed by a touch of rain. Then the temps fell as fast as Enron stock. Just an hour ago, I saw a bank sign that registered 9 F. At least it’s above zero. But it has the unfortunate effect of solidifying all that snowmelt. Some patches of our sidewalk are now ice sheets, just waiting to slip us up.

Friday, March 07, 2003

Blog’s last stand.

We broke the freezing point today, got on the high side of maybe even 35 F, melting some of the accumulated snow. More will melt tomorrow. Mud season is almost here, and I’m glad I have access to paved roads.

My brother Jay — very likely the only one reading Been There, Seen That with any consistency — sent the following lines about playing “Alamo.” (See yesterday’s blog.) He is nine years older than I am, so he had a significant head start in playing with toy soldiers.

Male readers may be interested to compare our experiences with their own; female readers might not be so inclined. On the other hand, our Aunt Sue had a fine collection of metal toy soldiers she played with in the late 1930s. They were still at my grandmother’s house before she died in 1971.

Jay writes: “Most typically, if I recall, the Disneykins and Tinykins, hearing rumor of barbarian invasion, fortified one or the other of the bedsteads of the twin beds, after which they spent a good while fighting against overwhelming odds to the last man (or whatever). The scenario doubtless owed a good bit the Alamo, as you point out.

"Other influences that come to mind are the film “Pork Chop Hill” in which Gregory Peck and his men faced attacks by massed Chinese infantry (it's a Korean War movie) and also “Zulu,” of course, which deals with the defense of Rourke's Drift. My mental image of the attackers owed something to the illustrations of the Aztec warriors in the Classics Illustrated comic book version of Bernal Diaz's “Conquest of Mexico.”

"I also recall reading a story by Harry Harrison in Analog about that time that may have had some influence. I can't remember the title, but the story involved a group of space colonists, two or three thousand in number, who are attacked by fanatical if primitive aliens many times more numerous.

"The attackers [in our play] may have sometimes been referred to as Zulus, but my recollection is that when this game first developed (about 1965) we called them Zougondis, a group of warlike savages invented for purpose of being the enemy. The name doubtless owes something to Zulu, and possibly also to Zouave.

"In any case, they didn't have many cultural attributes. They were very numerous and apparently spent all their time and energy in battle and slaughter. They were not concerned about their own casualties. Generally they didn't have firearms or cannon, but they did use catapults and bows and arrows. Sometimes they were assisted by another group of savages called Arkentondis, distinguishable from them only by name. There may have been other groups of attackers as well, but they have left no residue of memory."

C'est la guerre.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Remember the Alamo! (And don’t forget to blog.)

Growing up in Texas, in San Antonio especially — where I moved when I was 7 — leaves you imprinted by the Alamo. You may go on to accept revisionism about that event, or you might ignore it all together, but the imprint is still there.

Every kid knew the story of the Alamo in some detail; every kid I knew, anyway, even the girls (some of whom grow up to be Daughters of the Texas Revolution). But it was more than just knowing the story, which really didn’t come up too often in daily life. Years later, I realized that I periodically re-enacted the story during play, with some names and details changed, behind Lincoln Log fortresses on top of card table hills. And not just me. I had friends who would help me set it all up and see it to its inevitable conclusion.

Of course boys play war games. My older brothers had battalions of toy soldiers that I largely inherited, and various kinds of war raged through our bedrooms and other domestic locales. One longstanding favorite involved a garrison facing impossible odds, standing to fight anyway, and dying to the last man.

At some point before I was born, or when I was very small, my brothers acquired two sets of figurines, known in boyhood parlance as “Disneykins” and “Tinykins.” (“DTs,” collectively.) The former were based on Disney characters, the latter largely (I think) on Hanna-Barbera characters. Very well-made figurines, I might add, about two inches tall with detailed paint jobs. No doubt someone collects them. But ours did not stay in mint condition, because we had things for them to do.

More than once I remember pressing the DTs into service, outfitting them with plastic weapons and forcing them to man toy cannons. Their assignment was to defend a fortress against impossible odds… perhaps you get the idea.

Actually setting up the force besieging the DTs was too much trouble, so the massed armies tended to be invisible. Sometimes just nameless hordes, but sometimes — originally inspired by the movie “Zulu,” no doubt — they were invisible Zulus. By tradition, Capt. Hook was in command of the fortress, and Top Cat was his lieutenant.

The Zulus massed for the attack. They lobbed shells into the fortress. Some of the defenders died; injured ones were attended to by Doc (the dwarf). The first Zulu attack was repelled, but they massed again. All talk of abandoning the fortress was rejected. The second wave came, cresting at the outer wall. More dead defenders — maybe Boo Boo Bear took a direct hit by a shell, or Peter Pan got shot in the gut (yes, he served loyally under Capt. Hook).

The climax, naturally, was the third attack, during which the Zulus overwhelmed the defenders. Also by tradition, Donald Duck died last, blowing up a supply of gunpowder along with himself and several hundred attackers.

What does it all mean? I don’t know. I didn’t grow up violent and I never went to war. Only the most literal-minded Elmer Fuddist really believes in that kind of cause and effect anyway. I’m middle-aged now and have slightly more sophisticated (but not revisionist) opinions about the Alamo, and about Zulus for that matter.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

The Blog from the Black Lagoon.

A tough, noisy night at home, plenty of upset baby time, with snow falling all the while (which didn't bother any of us). Got out of bed at 6:45 am and in rapido succession, gave Ann 2 oz. of formula, showered, dressed for the cold, shoveled the eight or so inches of fresh snow from (part of) my sidewalks and (part of) the driveway, walked a half a mile, and caught my train just past 8 am. Whew.

Last weekend I did all the grocery shopping, since Ann is still a little small to go out regularly, and her mother is usually worn out from nursing. At one point, my route took me down Ogden Avenue, where I spotted a Hummer H2 on a used car lot. Not on a used car lot attached to a mainline dealership, either, but at one of the many nondescript independent used-car mongers along Ogden, a big commercial street in central DuPage County. I suppose it might be called a mom-n-pop operation, but more likely it’s a pop-and-Uncle Bill who’s-so-drunk-can’t-get-a-job-anywhere-else operation.

Be that as it may, I had to wonder how that Hummer ended up there. Probably someone bit off more than he could chew, financially. Indeed, a Hummer would be a chewy slab of buffalo meat, financially speaking. You can get a house in some parts of the country — a crummy house, but a house — for the price of a new Hummer.

But this isn’t going to be a SUV rant (see my Feb. 28 blog). No, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Hummer, though I wouldn’t recommend that anyone actually buy one. It might be just another very large vehicle on the road to me, but for one very important thing: I got to test drive one.

Back in the spring of 1996, soon after I’d joined the editorial staff of “Fire Chief” magazine, the editor, Scott, came into my office and asked, “Would you like to drive a Hummer?” Not a question you hear every morning.

AM General, manufacturer of the Hummer, had invited Scott and some other editors to come tour the factory and take a test drive at the company’s test track in South Bend, Indiana. Scott couldn’t go, and our publisher was courting AM as a once and future advertiser for the magazine. So someone needed to go.

No strings were attached. I didn’t have to write a line about the experience — professionally, that is, since I’m clearing doing so now. Of course, if I did write about it, that would be swell as far as AM was concerned. Though the original civilian Hummer, and the H2 for that matter, are known to the public as rich men’s playthings, AM was eager for the world — a certain, vehicle-buying slice of the world — to learn that the machines were useful for fighting fires, mining, and other intense work.

Did I want to drive a Hummer? Yes. Absolutely. It was something all former boys could aspire to. But I have to report that a fair number of former girls came to the test track to drive the things, too.

It was a nice spring day, and first we toured the factory, and then sat through a slide show and heard entirely too much technical detail about the machines. All that was all just automotive foreplay, however, leading up to a session on the test track, which consisted of an oval course with various obstacles built in, plus 300-some acres of woodland crisscrossed by trails and studded with more obstacles. Two editors got in each Hummer, wedged into the uncomfortable seats, along with one member of the AM staff in the passenger seat to make sure we didn’t do anything really stupid. The editors then took turns driving over bumpy trails, logs, rock piles, and steep grades, and through muck, ditches, and a scummy pond deep enough to come half-way up the side of the door.

It might be ridiculous to go buy one, but it made for a fine day away from the office.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Every morning, every evening, ain’t we got blog.

The weather augurs didn’t foresee today’s snowstorm until it was practically upon us. But they were all in a tizzy once they did — four to eight inches! Maybe a foot! The biggest snow of the year!

Everyone was up this morning before I left for work, and Lilly had tuned into Channel 11. No, not that. Anything but that… pledge week on PBS, including begging during Kids PBS, the cartoon time. I would be more sympathetic to the station's financial needs if there were no commercials on PBS, especially one by a certain maker of “educational” toys. (Actually, that company is not really a toy maker, but an importer of brightly colored plastic shapes made in China.) Anyway, this commercial appears three or four times on any given PBS Kids day, featuring a bubbly toddler and a fatuous voiceover by mom, gushing about all the things her precious is going to teach her. Arrrrrrgh.

As I was putting on my space suit to go out into the cold March, I overheard a bit of “Arthur,” and Arthur the main character happened to mention that one of his friend’s parents were divorced. This got my attention. The adult characters on PBS cartoons never do anything very adult, like getting divorced. I can’t imagine Caillou’s parents splitting up, or George Shrinks’ parents either, though the father seems like a ne’er-do-well to me. Even the parents of the girl who owns Clifford the Big Red Dog seem to stay together, though the stress of caring for a dog two stories tall would send me running for the door.

Then again, it wasn’t Arthur’s parents fighting about visitation or late child support checks, but the parents of a supporting character, the white rabbit I think. And they didn’t do any of those bitter-divorce activities, either; just the fact of the divorce was mentioned, and it had something to do with Father’s Day, but I didn’t stick around for the whole story.

“Arthur” has a curious reggae song for an intro theme. A sunshiny happy reggae song — it be no tale a-woe on da hard streets of ol’ Kingston town, mon. As I was walking to the train, I came up with some new lyrics for the “Arthur” theme:

“SAY HEY! What a wonderful kind of day! I can light up for Jah and say! I want to light another!”

Monday, March 03, 2003

These are the blogs that try men’s souls.

Ann began the day with wah! wah! WAH! In this case it meant a hazmat discharge from the vicinity of her backside. This effusion was some time in coming, so it was large and escaped the bounds set by her diaper. I got to be the engineer in change of disposal. Yuck.

Human beings are nothing if not versatile. A few hours later, after an hour’s drive northward, I found myself in the conference room of a new office building in north suburban Skokie, exercising a different skill set by interviewing several top executives at the Alter Group, thereby generating material for the next issue of Real Estate Chicago. Among other activities, the Alter Group develops properties in various parts of the country — “big box” industrial for instance. I’ve always liked that bit of real estate argot, the “big box.” It’s as clear as can be, and it usually applies to warehouse/distribution facilities, as in this case, or to monster retailers like Costco or Home Depot. In industrial usage, big box means maybe 400,000 square feet, and if you can't quite picture that measurement, imagine that your house is 2,000 square feet (a common size). Now imagine 200 of your houses under one 28- or 30-foot roof. Those ultra-efficient, computer-operated internal racking systems, and all those fork lifts, will probably keep you up at night.

Alter also develops that odd hybrid property, the call center. It’s a big-box structure very like a warehouse, but meant for people to occupy, those poor souls who deal with mass incoming and outgoing calls — so it might have the parking and communication needs of an office building. Dial up the customer service department for some credit card and you might talk to a part-timer in a call center built by Alter in one of the Great Plains states. Or you might talk to a resident of Bombay. Such is globalization.

After the interviews, I drove to the Pita Inn, at Dempster and Crawford in Skokie, for lunch. This is my kind of place. A fine shawarma sandwich (thin beef, lettuce and sauce in pita), a tasty plate o’ hummos + more pita, and a small, tart lemonade: just under $5. Goodgoodgood. The place had remodeled since I last visited a few years ago, adding seats and windows for a more open effect. But the décor was never the thing. Only the food.

After lunch I went to my office downtown, and since in the evening I had to drive home, via Lake Shore Drive and then the Stevenson Expressway, there was one more skill set to be exercised, while the fresh snow fell — cursing the weather. And the (other) morons driving in it.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Texas Independence Day (and a fine day to blog).

We had a heavy snowfall last year on March 2, the heaviest of 2002 I believe. That day was a Saturday, and the next day we took a drive through the nearby Morton Arboretum to see its hundreds of trees all caked in sparkly white. A cold wonder, except for the distraction of actually having to pay attention to the Arboretum’s twisty little roads, avoiding the many other cars.

Today, snow fell again, but barely enough to cover the brown grass. The weather gurus are predicting bitter cold once again, before a modicum of warmth comes our way. So it’s still cold here in Illinois, but on the whole we’ve dodged most of the snow & ice bullets in the winter of ’03.

Word from my brother Jay came last week on conditions in Dallas, during his morning commute: “I decided to try driving to the train station instead of walking the half mile to the nearest bus stop. The train station is about three-and-a-half miles distant. The streets in the neighborhood were completely glazed, so I drove 5 miles an hour, barely touched the steering wheel, and depended on gravity to stop. Ten minutes got me to a major street, one lane of which had two ruts visible through the ice. Fifteen miles an hour now. I arrived at the station, finally…”

This winter has seen the East Coast, Tennessee and other places in the mid-South, Missouri, and now Oklahoma and North Texas clobbered by cold storms. Places, except for the Yankee parts of the East Coast, that aren’t equipped for frozen precipitation like we are in metro Chicago.

Still, that doesn’t mean it's been pleasant here in the mid-upper-Midwest. Just been plain stinking cold. If I could pick one place I’ve lived as best in terms of weather, Nashville would win that one. Four more or less equal seasons: winterspringsummerfall — cold, warm, hot, cool. A good snow once or twice each winter, just enough to keep things interesting, and not cold all day every day like Chicago. Fine spring days occasionally punctuated by terrific all-hell-out-for-a-stroll thunderstorms, one of which scared the wits out of an Englishman I was rooming with in the spring of ’84. Hot summers, but not hot every day (as it usually was in San Antonio) and not sticky every day (as it usually was in Osaka). Excellent blue-sky gold-foliage fall days.

Nashville had a lot of other things going for it, too, as a place to live. I didn’t appreciate them nearly enough when I lived there. On the other hand, the promise of warm days in Chicago is glorious. It’s just that that train is always late in coming.

Saturday, March 01, 2003

Blog is here to stay.

March First! We are always well-shed of February here in Chicago. The Romans, who knew what end was up most of the time, wisely kept the month short. I believe King Numa was responsible for it originally, to give credit where credit is due.

I’m fairly certain that Nature doesn’t care about our calendar conventions, but it’s still psychologically healthy to emerge from February. Only 60 more days till sustained warmth! (Give or take 30 days.)

More thoughts on the BITE ME man (see yesterday’s blog). It would be childish fun to send this man an anonymous little card.

“Dear Loyal American,

Thank you for your support of jihad, by way of the many fine petroleum products you buy.

Yours truly,
The House of Saud

PS: Other Americans will not BITE YOU. We will be glad to.”

As I said, childish fun, so I won’t actually do it.

As I was walking home from the train station on Wednesday, the cell phone in my coat rang. It was the phone I acquired when the baby was imminent, and since I have a year’s contract, I still carry the damn thing around, when I remember to. Good to have an emergency phone, I suppose, though I’d lived to be 41 without carrying one. Anyway, only Yuriko has the number, so it was either her (not good, some kind of problem at home), or a wrong number.


“Daddy! Where are you?”

“Hello? Lilly? Is that you?”

“Daddy! Where are you?”

“Lilly, is that you?”

“Daddy! It’s Lilly, bucko!”

Where she picked up bucko, I don’t know, but at certain times over the last few months that’s what I’ve been called. It turns out that this was Lilly’s first phone call. She had wanted to talk to me, and asked her mother to call me. Yuriko said that I was probably already gone, so that I won’t answer my office phone. Lilly wanted to call anyway, “with the phone number.” Eventually Yuriko realized that she meant the cell phone number, which she (Yuriko) carries in her purse.

She gave Lilly the number and Lilly dialed it. Not as hard as it sounds, since every time I’ve made a call from home recently, Lilly has wanted to dial it. I tell her the number and she pushes the buttons.

Some insanely large number of people in the world have never actually used a telephone — two billion, three billion? Great swaths of Chinese, Indians and Africans, I reckon. Now Lilly has joined the telephone-users of the world.