Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Anne of the Thousand Blogs.

A mid-sized thunderstorm this morning. The weather savants talk of a “rain deficit” these days, so this may be a good thing. It ought to green up the neighborhood. If only the downpour would pause while I’m walking to the train station. It didn’t.

Brother Jay writes: “I wonder how it is that I missed the great San Antonio blackout? It's a bit worrying that I have no recollection of it at all. I moved back home, you'll recall, that spring [1977], and I lived in San Antonio until January 1981, when D & I moved to El Paso.

“Perhaps I was out of town. I spent at least a week in Boston, perhaps ten days, about the beginning of November 1977. I was in Houston, too, for two or three days in December (looking for work, a quest that also involved a singularly unpleasant drive down I-10 to Beaumont and back, through constant driving rain and bumper-to-bumper 18-wheelers). I may have made one or two other short junkets (either to Houston or Dallas) during the period too. Still, even if I was out of town, it's the sort of thing I would have heard about.

“On the other hand, I do remember the flooding in 1970 you mentioned some time back, when the water ran a foot-and-a-half or two feet deep on Broadway [a main thoroughfare on the north side of San Antonio]. I had gone with mother to see “Anne of the Thousand Days” at the Broadway Theatre. We were unaware that it had even been raining until we emerged from the moviehouse.

“Thinking of the night sky, it's my recollection that when we were living in Denton [Texas, just north of Dallas], only three or four blocks from the courthouse, quite a lot of stars were visible. I used to go out in the backyard with H.A. Rey's “The Stars” and pick out constellations from his diagrams. After a time I could pick out a good many constellations — 12 or 15 perhaps, maybe more — and identify quite a few individual stars without recourse to the book.

“It seems to me that the Milky Way was visible at times, but I may be mistaken. I do know that the Pleiades were visible in the right season, at the tip (at Rey drew it) of one of Taurus' horns. For some reason my recollection of the winter sky is much sharper than my recollection of the summer sky; perhaps because we obtained the book sometime in the Fall. Or perhaps because the lack of mosquitoes in colder weather, made protracted viewing more pleasant.

"We also had a small telescope, but, as you may remember, the only thing we had much success in finding was the Moon. It had an altazimuth mount, which meant, as I discovered, that it looked where you pointed it; it couldn't be set to a specific location; nor could it be made to follow the path of a celestial body. For these, you need an equitorial mount. As a result, anything smaller than the Moon was almost impossible to find, and if found, impossible to keep in view. We may have managed to get a look at Jupiter once or twice, but I'm not sure.”

My comments: I find that events that happen while I’m out of town — except for the highest-profile, we’ve-had-an-earthquake sort of events — go right down the memory hole. “You know, we had a blackout while you were gone.” “Really? How interesting.” HIT ERASE BUTTON.

On the other hand, I don’t know for a fact that Jay was out of town, because short of consulting San Antonio Express-News microfilm archives for 1977, I won’t be able to pinpoint the date, though I’m certain it was that fall, since it involved Belinda C. I consulted the planning calendar I kept through most of high school, which resides in a closet with the rest of my papers, but no luck. Maybe it’s just a matter of the passage of 25+ years, which has a way of effacing details.

“The Stars,” a stargazing and astronomy primer, is an admirable book. H.A. Rey is far better known for the Curious George series, which I didn’t fully appreciate until Lilly took a liking to them. By the time I inherited our copy of “The Stars,” it was beat up pretty badly, but I spent a lot of time with it. Later, in the late 1980s, I bought another copy, which I still have.

The winter sky in the Northern Hemisphere has more bright stars than the summer sky, so it’s no surprise that wintertime stargazing would be more memorable. Still, I enjoy the stars that form the Summer Triangle — Deneb, Altair, and Vega, and their respective constellations, the Swan, Eagle and Lyre.

That telescope was pretty well beaten up too, at least in my recollection (as are many books and toys in the memory of a third child, but I was really no worse off for it). I remember seeing the Moon, and Jupiter and its moons more than once, and Saturn and its rings at least once.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Bowler blog.

Trend watch: I saw another man wearing a bowler hat today in downtown Chicago. About the fourth I’ve seen in a year or so; there must be something to this. Of course, bowlers could have come and gone among the Beau Brummels of the Upper East Side, and I would have missed it all together. But I know what I’ve seen in Chicago.

I’m tired of business casual, so I wouldn’t mind if we (men) all had to dress in the office like Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray in “The Apartment,” for a while anyway. As long as we wouldn’t be stuck with it for the next 20 years.

Yesterday’s blog evolved into the story of the 1977 San Antonio blackout, but I started off to describe stargazing. So I will pick up that thread. The thing about going out to see the stars in dark, dark conditions — an activity I recommend to anyone — is that you need more than dark skies for the experience to be worthwhile. A few years ago, we had visited Death Valley National Park, and were returning to Las Vegas after sunset on U.S. 95. Yuriko marveled at the dark sky and stars she could see from the passenger’s seat, but as the road went by, I couldn’t find a place to pull over safely to get out of the car and see myself. (Death Valley itself, though, strikes me as a fine place for stargazing; but I had a convention back in Vegas to attend).

So you not only need a pitch-black sky, you need someplace to relax and take your fill of stars. Or at least someplace to sit down, since relaxation may not be part of it. In March 1981, two friends and I were visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We started out from Durham in the morning and made it over the course of the day to Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Bros. flew, and Cape Hatteras, where the famed lighthouse was still in its original place. We caught a ferry to Ocrakoke Island, and planned to catch another one back to the mainland, but we missed the last ferry for the day.

So we were obliged to spend the night at a campground at a beach on Ocrakoke that was actually still closed for the season. No one else was there. It turned out to be a long night, because it got pretty cold. But, looking back, the fact we couldn’t get the camp stove working and so had little to eat, or that the sand was hard and lumpy, or that the temps hovered near freezing and the wind sometimes blew off the ocean and made it worse — all background detail. The night was clear and the March stars at about 35° North were as bright as I’d ever seen them.

Best of all, without the obstruction of mountains or trees, the whole sky was overhead. I didn’t have any kind of guide with me, but I had spent enough time with star books to recognize things I’d never seen in the hazy city skies. I saw, for instance, all of the stars of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), which you need non-urban viewing conditions to see. And there was the luminous Milky Way, inching across the sky.

In the summer of 1989, I found myself in rural Idaho for a week, and it was neither cold nor uncomfortable, and I had guides to consult. There were trees to avoid, but I did get a good look at certain parts of the sky, and traced a number of difficult constellations, such as Hercules and the entire Big Bear (Ursa Major).

Monday, April 28, 2003

Stelliferous blog.

By this morning, I’d acquired post-nasal drip. I think this came to me ultimately by way of Lilly, who had it not long ago, and then Ann, who was drippy yesterday. Mild, but annoying. Even Ann didn’t get too worked up about, and she cries about a lot of things.

Rockford was a pleasant day trip. More on that in a few days, but I’m on an astronomy kick at the moment, and I won’t interrupt it. The flow of the blog is taking me skyward, at least for the moment.

Yesterday’s blog was about planetariums, which sometimes are substitutes for the nighttime sky. As for the real nighttime sky, it’s an unfortunate side effect of an urban and suburban life in our electrified age that the vault of stars gets washed out. Not completely, at least where I live, since there are a fair gathering of stars some nights of the western suburbs — one reason I don’t always mind taking out the garbage on Thursday nights. But those occasional times under the full panoply of stars let me know what I’m really missing even under clear suburban skies.

“You have to be far away from the city to see it, far up in the Hill Country at least,” I remember hearing at narrator at San Antonio College’s planetarium say more than once, when discussing the luminous, but faint Milky Way. Out in West Texas would be more like it, since plenty of people with sky-washing lights live in the Hill Country. But one time the darkness of country came to San Antonio, and that’s my first memory of seeing the Milky Way.

In the fall of 1977, a blackout struck the city of San Antonio. It was on a Sunday afternoon, and into the evening. A blackout in the classic sense: all the city’s power out, suddenly and without warning. Of course, it attracted nothing like the national attention of the infamous New York City blackout of the summer of ’77, since New York is New York, and the San Antonio blackout lasted only a few hours with a minimum amount (none that I recall) of colorful looting.

I was out that afternoon with a girl I knew, Belinda. I had gone with her to some church function (her church) that involved meeting at one of the church buildings for something-or-other involving watching a short religious movie and then meeting again at a member’s house for another something-or-other involving eating.

As we were filing out of the church building, the lights went out. “Hey, who turned out the lights?” was the general reaction — it seemed like someone had been eager to switch them off, and couldn’t wait for us to all get out of the room. Driving to the next member’s house, we notice some odd things. I don’t remember if Belinda or I tried the car radio and couldn’t get anything but static — that might have made me wonder if World War III was getting under way. But I do remember coming to a major intersection and realizing that the traffic lights were off. I was driving, having been licensed to do so only a few months earlier, and this provided an antsy moment. Of course, you’re supposed to treat it like a four-way stop, and I knew that, but that matter is a little tricky when 16 lanes of traffic — four from each direction, plus turning lanes — try to treat the intersection like a four-way stop.

But we make it unscratched. The sun was about to set then. At our destination, we found out for sure it was a blackout (at least, no one had any electricity). It was decided that staying put was the thing to do for the time being, so we went ahead with the event, whatever it was, by candlelight. Later, Belinda and I decided to take our chances driving home, and by this time it was dark. Very dark.

The house was in a cul-de-sac, and mature trees lined the street, so a lot of the sky was blocked. But through the middle of the trees, I looked up and saw the Milky Way overhead. I probably didn’t marvel at it as long as I should have, but the memory did stick. Soon the lights were back on, but for a moment, the Milky Way had come to the city.

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Sunday, April 27, 2003

Cernan Space Blog.

Last Thursday, Lilly went on a field trip with her Montessori class to the Cernan Space Center, which is part of Triton College in River Grove, Illinois, which is northeast of where we live. I told her she had been there before, and she denied it — the name certainly didn’t mean anything to her. But afterwards she said she did remember it.

It was a long time ago for her — last fall. We went because I had read about it, but had never been. It has a small collection of items on display, including an Apollo test capsule (all the real capsules are in bigger-budget museums, I’m sure) and one of Eugene Cernan's space suits, from Apollo X; he was also on Apollo XVII, and walked on the Moon. He grew up in the vicinity of River Grove, and so got his name affixed to the facility, as a hometown astronaut.

It's a nice little planetarium, with stadium seating. The older ones don't have that, making viewers crane their necks sometimes. The show we saw that afternoon was for children, ages 3-8 supposedly, and it wasn't bad. Lilly seemed to like it, especially the pictures of the nine planets. Previously, I had encouraged her to draw pictures of the planets, with some success. Pluto is still a planet, according to Triton College. Good deal.

From about 1970 to about 1974 I went to the planetarium at San Antonio College once a month. Instead of a taped presentation, those were narrated live — all sorts of space subjects, including annual favorites like “What Was the Star of Bethlehem?” and shows with local color, “The Sky on the Night the Alamo Fell.” In those days, they didn't have any shows for small fry. No kids under six allowed, I remember. If you were an older kid, you went in and watched the same show as the adults.

Planetariums (-ia) are another venue that shouldn’t be limited to youthful audiences. While I don’t visit one every month any more (though I might start again someday, to take my daughters), I occasionally still visit them, especially when I’m in another town. Unfortunately, the quality of the scripts often doesn’t live up to the marvel of the planetarium itself, with its blank dome enlivened by pinpoints of light from a pockmarked machine that looks like no other kind of machine.

One especially bad show I recall was years ago in Memphis. “There are many neat things in the sky,” was the theme of the show, “and we’re going to talk about them more or less at random. And we’re going to assume you don’t know a damn thing about astronomy.”

In Hong Kong, on the other hand, I saw a terrific show that didn’t involve astronomy at all. It was about putting out the Kuwait oil well fires in 1991, presented at the Star Theatre of the Hong Kong Space Museum, located prominently at the southern tip of Kowloon. An overhead dome works well for that story: blazing wells all around you, across a wide spread of desert. But the scriptwriter did more than make a spectacle out it. There was narration and pics of the Gulf War leading up to the Iraqi arson, and then an intelligent discussion of how the engineers went about capping these wells, and how they did it faster than anticipated, and what some of the lingering environmental unknowns were.

It was in English, by the way; shows alternated between English and Cantonese, but there were earplugs that offered other languages as well, such as Mandarin and Japanese. It was a fine planetarium all around.


Saturday, April 26, 2003

Match-king blog.

I’ve gotten a lot of blogs out of one little trip, but it’s time to wrap it up. Only one more place to note. From Grand Detour, we returned home passing through the town of Dixon, Illinois. We didn’t stop this time, but on September 1, 2001, we spent a while there, on the way to Iowa City and the Amana Colonies for the Labor Day weekend. Dixon is like many small Illinois towns, in its rambling old houses, evidence of ag business scattered around, and a downtown being strangled by the WalMart on the Interstate.

Also, before he became a B film star, labor boss, Borax shill, governor, president, or afflicted former president, Ronald Reagan passed his adolescence here. A pleasant white house, were he lived in the 1920s, attests to that. The tour was refreshingly informal. They didn’t seem to mind Lilly fingering everything in sight, perhaps because absolutely nothing in the house actually belonged to the Reagans — the décor was merely in the style of a modest home in the ’20s. On the lot next door was a remarkably mediocre life-sized statute of RR, as president, dressed in a suit, and cupping kernels of corn in his hand. Why? He was never a farmer or anything, but according to the inscription, cupped kernels were appropriate since he was from that corn-growing state, Illinois.

Tomorrow we are going to Rockford. I’m taking Lilly to a children’s matinee concert (a Kinderkonzert, they call it) by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. I ought to get some fresh material out of that.

A while ago, I mentioned “Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary” (Merriam Webster) and how I use it not only as a reference work — it has been at my desk at all my workplaces since I bought it 20 years ago, except for those in Osaka — but also as a source of browsing pleasure. It’s not the only reference book I use in that way, of course. At my desk within arm’s reach are standard dictionaries (American Heritage and Simon & Schuster) an almanac, a few atlases, diverse style manuals, Fowler, and Merriam Webster’s “New Geographic Dictionary” too, though that last one has aged badly. I need a new “New Geographic Dictionary” to keep up with the world.

An odd pastime, maybe, especially now that the Internet is available. But I have no regrets about my enthusiasm for reference books. You find remarkable things in them. For example — just leafing through the biographical dictionary, I found this:

“Kreuger, Ivar. 1880-1932. Swedish industrialist, financier, and swindler. Founded (1913) a match company; during World War I concentrated entire Swedish match industry under Swedish Match Company with himself as managing director; after the war, developed an international match monopoly; engaged in vast financial operations, including loans to various governments in return for industrial concessions. Financial stress beginning in 1929 forced collapse of his enterprises; committed suicide; subsequent investigation revealed vast irregularities in the finances of his various enterprises.”

Now that’s a story. The Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt of matches — a ruthless Swedish robberbaron — since when do the Swedes produce monopolists? — and how do you monopolize something as easily made as matches? — someone who lends governments money, and it all come crashing down because of the Depression — and then the match-king offs himself. But there’s more! Postmortem swindles to make Enron look like a pickpocketing ring! I’ll bet if you dug a little deeper, you’d find that he dallied with someone like Marlene Dietrich.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Blacksmith Blog.

At the John Deere Historic Site in Grand Detour, Ill., a sign promised a blacksmithing demonstration that day, the day we visited, and we got one. The smith was an enormous man in overalls. A few years older than me, and bigger than me, and that’s saying something — taller and fatter, and the overall impression of size was augmented by his bushy, light-colored beard of near-ZZ Top proportions. When we arrived at the re-created smithy for a demonstration of his skills, he had just finished his lunch, and was conversing with his wife about what to fetch at the grocery store for dinner. She left and he took up his tools again.

The re-created smithy was, he said, the exact size of John Deere’s original Grand Detour shop, not including a latter addition, and presumably the original didn’t devote about a fifth of its space to a railed-in section where tourists stood. Otherwise, it was an evocative re-creation. A lot of iron & steel tools and implements on shelves, hanging on pegs, scattered around on various tables and benches. A bellows and a coal-burning furnace, which was glowing. A real anvil and some mean-looking, anvil-beating tools at hand.

Naturally, he was most concerned with impressing Lilly. Gets a lot of school groups, I figure, but she was the only child around at that moment, except for a sleeping baby off in a stroller in the corner. He held up a steel rod, maybe two feet long and half an inch in diameter. “See that?” he asked. He had his show down pat. “See the leaf in there, crying to get out? Can you hear it? ‘I want out! I want out!’ So I’ll see what I can do about that.”

He started pumping the bellows, explaining how it worked — something I didn’t catch about having two chambers and being a good way to create a fire a few thousand degrees Fahrenheit, provided you had a certain kind of first-rate coal from Pennsylvania or somewhere. The coal glowed. In went the steel rod. Out it came, glowing, over to the anvil. BANG! BANG! BANG!

Back to the coal fire. “A blacksmith has to know his timing,” he said. “The fire is so hot that the steel will melt if I leave it too long.” More priming the fire with the bellows. Out it came again. The flattened end of the rod was glowing even brighter. BANG! BANG! BANG!

Lilly was watching. Yuriko was watching. I was too, thinking what a lot of hard, hard work the 19th-century version of this job must have been. That century was full of hard jobs.

“Now, I want to give it some kind of leaf shape.” BANG! BANG! BANG! “I’ve made a lot of leaves over the years, and it used to bother me that they didn’t come out perfectly round. Then it occurred to me that God doesn’t make perfectly round leaves, so why should I?” The emerging leaf looked fairly round, if not perfectly.

Back to the fire. Another tool at the ready. Out of the fire. “Now I want to give it some veins.” TINK! TINK! TINK! “And, let’s see, a little curl on the tip.” TINK! TINK! TINK!

Satisfied with it, he took it glowing red leaf to a barrel of water. “This is how hot the metal is,” he noted, plunging it into the water. HSSSSSSSSSS. “If you touched it while it was hot, that sound would be your hand burning — if you could hear it over the screaming.”

The metal cooled remarkably fast in the cold water. He took it out and touched it. He invited us to touch it — it was cold and black, and looked like a curly steel leaf. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to keep it.

I asked him how he became a blacksmith, here in our time when smithery isn’t in great demand, and he said that he had learned to shoe horses that an ex-wife had owned, while his regular job was in the Air Force. After he retired from the Air Force, he found that the John Deere Historic Site needed a smith for demonstrations, and got the job. Best job he ever had, he said.

This was the highlight of the trip. It brings to mind another long-held notion of mine, one that has taken me a lot of places: This sort of thing — a minor museum or an educational display or a historic demonstration like this — isn’t just for children. In fact, it would be wasted on a lot of kids (but not Lilly, not yet anyway). No, an adult mind can and should sometimes wrap itself around a place like this.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Ogle Blog, Continued.

After we ate lunch at Jay’s Drive-In in Oregon, Ill., Ann decided it was her turn to eat, and so Yuriko fed her in the Sienna as it was parked across from the Ogle County courthouse, not too far from the drive-in. Lilly to decided remain in the car and draw, so I was turned loose for a few minutes to walk around the square. Courthouses are often worth seeing, and this one wasn’t bad, a sturdy brick structure dating, as courthouses tend to, from the late 19th century. Pleasing to the eye, except for the butt-ugly annex added, probably, in the 1960s.

The afternoon was getting on, but we had one more destination. We headed south on Illinois 2, a road that follows the Rock River as it heads south, and before long we came to Grand Detour, Illinois, an unremarkable burg except for one thing: John Deere used to live here.

More than that, he had a smithy in the town, and there he invented the self-scouring steel plow in 1837. In its way, as important to the settlement of North America as railroads, canned food, the six-shooter or whiskey. But I’m not expert on the history of agricultural technology; let the speak:

“Born in Vermont in 1804, the young Deere worked as a blacksmith's apprenticeship. By 1825 he was famous for the literal and figurative polish of his farm equipment; but later, when Vermont's economy began to suffer, he decided to emigrate to the Midwest (1836). Two days after arriving in Grand Detour, Illinois, Deere had built a forge and was back in business.

“From his new customers Deere learned that the cast-iron plows they brought with them from the East were unable to cope with the thicker, tackier soil of the Midwest. While plowing, farmers had to stop every few feet to scrape off the damp earth that clung to the plowshare (the cutting blade).

“With some help from a fellow Vermonter, Major Leonard Andrus, Deere invented a remedy. He shaped steel from an old sawmill blade for the plowshare, and joined it to a specially curved, wrought-iron moldboard (the blade that lifts and turns the soil). He polished both parts so smooth that the damp soil would not stick to them. Deere's Self-Polishing Plow, later patented (#46,454), was a sensation from its first trial run (1837).”

In the mid-20th century, the John Deere Co. of Moline, Ill., maker of all manner of ag equipment by that time (and still today), took an interest in its roots, and arranged for the excavation of the site of Deere’s smithy, which had burned down long before. Now the site is covered by a building, and the excavation is an exhibit inside. Nearby are Deere's house, furnished in antebellum Midwestern style, a re-creation of his blacksmith shop, and a former neighbor’s house that’s now doing duty as offices and a gift shop.

I’m happy to report that Lilly showed some interest in all of this. Not in the historical or agricultural aspects of it — you can’t rightly expect that from a preschooler — but in all the neat stuff. The replica 1837 plow, hanging from the ceiling all bright and shinny, the bottles and nails and dozens of tools on display, and even the short video we saw, sketching the invention of the plow using a lot of pictures of horses and smiths and the like.

Interesting, but even more so was the re-created blacksmith shop, with its implements and bellows and anvil. Coolest of all, though, was the blacksmith and his demonstrations. A blog for tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Blog-in curb service.

After seeing the Black Hawk statue, and letting Lilly play a little in the park, our thoughts turned to that long-standing travelers' concern, lunch. So we drove into Oregon, Illinois, proper for a look-see. A fairly active downtown, all things considered, even a few retail establishments among the usual service-business storefronts (realtors, a law firm or two), and a real courthouse square. WalMart hasn’t completely leveled the retail in the town, though I’m sure it isn’t for lack of trying.

I had done no investigation on what might be good to eat in Oregon, so we took the hit-or-miss approach, and gravitated to a drive-in with curb service. That isn’t something you see in every little town any more, and maybe no one saw them everywhere, even in their heyday. That’s the kind of ordinary fact that gets lost in the haze of manufactured nostalgia.

Anyway, I was willing to give Jay’s Drive-In a chance. It had a beat-up but not too seedy look, painted mostly in red and white. At some point, it looked like management had decided that the place needed a few retro touches, and they did this mainly by posting signs on the awnings that protect cars from the rain, signs that had a famous singer (of the 1950s), with a song of his or hers listed on the next line, like so:



I didn’t make notes, so I forget the others, but they were all familiar names. Also, a handful cut-out cartoon characters were stuck to the walls, L’il Abner knock-off characters by the looks of them. How this added nostalgia value, I’m not sure. There was an inside with tables, but we wanted curb service. When I did go in to go to the bathroom, the only other customers at the time were a Spanish-speaking family.

The burgers: passable. Fries: passable. The shakes were very good, except that what they called a strawberry shake that was clearly a cherry shake, right down to the pieces of cherry in the mix. Mediocre all together, but worth patronizing to support the Idea of the Drive-In.

I suppose drive-ins got their sticky nostalgic flavor from movies and TV — “American Graffiti” comes to mind, along with lesser imitations, such as the execrable “The Hollywood Knights.” (1980) (A major haw-haw scene in that movie involved a main character farting repeatedly into a microphone at a school function; I guess it was ahead of its time.)

We had Sonic Drive-Ins in the San Antonio of my youth, but they are not part of mass-marketed ’70s nostalgia. But there was the time, during high school exams in the spring of 1977, that about ten of us jammed into a car driven by the only one of us who could legally drive, Dru S., and descended on the Sonic on Broadway in Alamo Heights. It was the stuff of potentially lurid headlines: HEIGHTS TEENS SPUTTER AND FRY IN FIERY WRECK. But Dru delivered us there safely, and we spilled out onto pavement and on top of the hood and trunk to eat our lunch, surprising the waitress.

Which only leads me to state a long-held opinion: Nostalgia is a fine thing, but not the kind sold in stores.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The Black Hawk Blog.

The cast is gone! My foot is liberated! The bone is healed, but some of my foot muscles are still stiff. Now I have a removable Air-Stirrup® Ankle Brace for support, and it’s sometimes irritating. But I can take it off.

Last Friday, the first place we drove to was Oregon. Oregon, Illinois, that is, the county seat of Ogle County. My ambition there was to see the Black Hawk statue.

(On U.S. 2 in western Massachusetts going westbound, there’s a bend in the road that suddenly reveals a large sign: ENTERING FLORIDA. The hamlet of Florida, Mass. I always got a kick out of that sign.)

Black Hawk can be found in Lowden State Park, which is just north of Oregon. At 207 acres, Lowden isn’t very large as state parks go, and with its picnic grounds and playground equipment, it looks more like a city park. But it does have camp grounds and ranger’s quarters. Like elsewhere, the trees were only beginning to bud, but the grass was green.

Small road signs in the park said, “Statue —>”. These lead to a small parking lot behind the Black Hawk statue, and you need to walk around it to see his frontside. The statue, made of concrete, is about 50 feet high and stands on a bluff overlooking the Rock River and some of the town of Oregon. The head and neck represent an Indian, looking pensively off into the distance. His arms are folded in front of his chest, and from there on down the statue is less representational, but is clearly a human form. The view from the foot of the statue is that of an impressively large blob of concrete topped by its Native American head & shoulders. From down below on the river, I suspect it looks more like a large, looming figure.

It's known as the Black Hawk statue, though I’ve read that the artist who created it, Lorado Taft, didn’t call it that. His name for it was the “Eternal Indian.” The following is from the Lowden State Park Web site:

“Lorado Taft, who created the statue as a tribute to Native Americans, is said to have thought of the figure one evening as he and other members of the Eagles' Nest [artists’] colony stood gazing at the view from the bluffs. According to a story attributed to Taft, he and his colleagues tended to stand with their arms folded over their chests. The pose made him think of the Native Americans who were so reverent of the beauty of nature and who probably had enjoyed the same view.

“With the help of John G. Prasuhn, a young sculptor of the Chicago Art Institute, Taft created a figure almost 50 feet tall, including a six-foot base. Reinforced with iron rods, the hollow statue is eight inches to three feet thick. The interior is accessible to park employees through a door at the base. The outer surface, composed of cement, pink granite chips and screenings, is three inches thick.

“The figure is estimated to weigh 100 tons and is thought to be the second largest concrete monolithic statue in the world. Although Taft dedicated the statue to Native Americans, it has become commonly associated with Black Hawk.”

And where is the largest? Perhaps an old commie monument. It's just as well that the statue should be associated with the Indian chief, since Black Hawk lived around the Rock River, and the area was the scene of his resistance, ultimately futile, to being resettled across the Mississippi. That incident, called the Black Hawk War, occurred in 1832 in this part of Illinois and in southern Wisconsin, and involved the participation of (among many others), Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Zachary Taylor.

From Merrian-Webster’s “Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary,” 1983 edition, which has provided me much happy browsing over the years:

“Black Hawk. Indian name, Ma-ka-ta-i-me-she-kia-kiak. 1767-1838. American Indian leader, b. near present Rockford, Ill. A leader of the Sauk and Fox tribe; ally of the British in the War of 1812; rival of pro-U.S. Keokuk; returned from Iowa to original Illinois lands with 1,000 followers (1832); failed to gain assistance of other tribes; defeated by Illinois militia and U.S. army troops at Bad Axe River, Wis. (Aug. 1-2, 1832). Ward of Keokuk (1833-38).

“Taft, Lorado Zadoc. 1860-1936. American sculptor, b. Elmwood, Ill. Studio in Chicago (from 1886); taught at Art Institute of Chicago (1886-1929); exercised important influence on development of sculpture in Middle West. In addition to many portrait busts, executed “Solitude of the Soul” (1911), “Black Hawk,” a heroic statue in Oregon, Ill. (1911), Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, DC (1912), Fountain of the Great Lakes (1913), the colossal Fountain of Time (1922) in Chicago, and the Thatcher Memorial Fountain in Denver (1917)…”

Monday, April 21, 2003

Good blogday.

On Good Friday we set out for points west, the four of us in our green Sienna. Not too far west, only to Ogle County, which is still in Illinois. Not as far as the Quad Cities, but beyond the urban-suburban glop known as metro Chicago. Ogle County’s main geographic feature is the medium-sized Rock River, which gives its name to the city of Rockford further upstream, and eventually becomes one of the rivers that melds to make the Mississippi mighty.

The purpose of this trip was merely to get out of town: a microburst of travel. It may be evident by now that whenever I can spare the time and money, I go somewhere. Yuriko is of a similar inclination (but maybe not quite as avid), which is one of the factors that makes our marriage possible. People who have both time and money and who yet seldom go anywhere mystify me.

A good many years ago, I had a girlfriend who suggested that I not mention to her parents the fact that I had spent an entire summer in Europe, instead getting a job immediately after finishing university. “To them, spending a few thousand dollars going on a trip somewhere would be like going out and buying a few thousand dollars’ worth of gumballs,” she said.

I took her advice on that occasion, but I never could understand that line of thinking. It wasn’t as if they didn’t spend money on luxuries. Her father was a wealthy surgeon who seemed to have few interests, but her mother’s overriding passion was showing her poodles in dog shows, which must have cost an insane amount of money. On the other hand, perhaps I misread them. Maybe later in life, like Johnny Carson, they took a serious interest in a place like subsaharan Africa, spending some of their retirement there, learning Swahili.

Or not. In any case, no one will persuade me that money spent on travel is wasted.

Besides, the entire tab for our Good Friday outing was about $35. Well worth it, I think.

We drove west on I-88, then north on I-39, then west on Illinois 64. It's still a little early — a few weeks early — to enjoy much greenery from the road. Some plowing has been going on, but the only serious green I noticed was at a large turf farm not too many miles away from home. Mostly, though, northern Illinois is still cloaked in winterish browns and grays.

As the drive wore on, complaints began to drift forward from the back seat. “Daddy, why is the drive so far?” There’s only so much reasoning you can do with a five-year-old, and eventually I told her to be quiet and be patient, or else something serious would happen, like no computer games when we got home. But she was oddly content when I was playing a CD I borrowed from the Indian Prairie Public Library in Darien last week, “Songs That Won the War.”

Just the latest expression in a longstanding interest in World War I and World War II songs. These songs and I go back aways. When I was in elementary school, we had a couple of albums at home that were companion records to the large general (and lavishly pictorial) histories "World War I" and "World War II" published by American Heritage. These albums had voice clips — later I suppose they would be called sound bites — of both famous and more ordinary people involved in each war.

That was interesting enough, but after the voices came songs of the period. WWII didn't have as many songs as the Great War, as I recall. I was fascinated by the WWI songs especially. WWII's "Lili Marlene" was OK, but as a child I couldn't really understand what it was about. Now I realize that most of the songs on these albums were re-creations, and only clips at that. But still, I bet I was the only kid at Woodridge Elementary School who knew "Keep the Home Fires Burning," "Pack Up Your Troubles," and "Over There," among others. Some of the teachers might not have known them either.

“Songs That Won the War” includes, as the title suggests, standards of the time — the war in question being the Second World War. It includes things you would expect, such as “In the Mood,” “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and a part-English version (Lale Andersen) of “Lili Marlene.” There’s also a delightful recording of Irving Berlin himself singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” But when I was playing this disk en route to Ogle County, Lilly said, “Play number seven.”

I took me a few seconds to understand. The CD player display shows the track numbers, of course. “You mean the seventh song on this record.”

“Number seven on the CD, Daddy.”

Which is “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” She sang along with as best as she could (ammunition isn’t in her vocabulary yet), delighted all the way through. Go figure. We listened to that track a number of times on this trip, at her request.

Tomorrow: The Eternal Indian.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Maunday Blogday.

NO BLOG UNTIL EASTER MONDAY. A lot will be going on between now and then — further getting the house ready for the market, a visit to Holy Nativity, another Easter egg hunt & a pleasant (I hope) Easter lunch, plus visits to a dentist and a doctor or two. I’ll be losing the cast on Monday. Not a moment too soon.

Tomorrow, we will be out & about in north-central Illinois, looking for the Eternal Indian. More on that next week.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I saw more than just the ship Achille Lauro (see yesterday’s blog). But I couldn’t remember exactly what, so I consulted my journal for the trip and came up with the following:

“Interesting collection, but the most interesting exhibit was Spin the Wheel, a video-based exhibit. You spin a wheel, and it chooses a bizarre clip from Australian TV for you to watch… and so I saw an Australian commercial, vintage late ’50s or early ’60s to judge by the hair, etc., for a kind of Cadbury candy bar I’d never heard of. A boy, luckless with girls, eats some of the candy and as a consequence, gets to dance with and even kiss a girl. Not so strange for a commercial. But each time he takes a bite from the candy bar — three times I think — an old-style toot whistle (animated) grows out of the top of his head and toots loudly.

“This was unexpected and quite funny. Probably the image lingered longer in people’s memories than the candy or the boy. ‘Remember the bloke with the whistle on his head?’ ”

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Achille Bloggo.

It cooled down and clouded up today, obscuring April’s full moon, known in various farmers' almanacs as the Pink Moon; it was also known as the Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, or the Fish Moon by the Algonquins.

Sometimes, things or people that exist only as a bit of news -- that is, as second-hand experiences -- appear as first-hand experiences, right there in front of you. If this intersection of personal experience and second-hand experience happens unexpectedly, the effect can be memorable.

I’m naturally suspicious of some kinds of second-hand experience, particularly the televised sort. Otherwise intelligent people sometimes talk about this or that celebrity or politician as if they knew first-hand what that person was up to, and as if it mattered. I can’t say I’ve never done this, but I do my best to stay away from it.

But, as I’ve said, things come to you. The report this morning that Abu Abbas had been captured in Iraq reminded me of just such a connection. For those who have forgotten, he was head of the Palestinian Liberation Front, a breakaway group from the PLO, a fact that reminds me of a bit of “Life of Brian” dialogue:

Brian (Graham Chapman): “Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?”

Reg (John Cleese): “F--- off! We're the People's Front of Judea!”

Anyway, Mr. Abbas gained his international notoriety by overseeing the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean in late 1985. During that incident, his men murdered the elderly and disabled Leon Klinghoffer, apparently for the twin crimes of being an American and a Jew.

(Which recalls the topical bad-taste joke of the time, dusted off for this occasion: What does PLO stand for? Push Leon Overboard!)

In January 1992, I was in Sydney, and I went with an Aussie friend of mine, Matt McK., to enjoy a fine summer day at Circular Quay, which is situated at a small inlet of Sydney Harbour -- Sydney Cove -- adjacent to downtown Sydney. We spent some pleasant time tooling around the entertainment venues there and nearby, and also went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is right on the water at Sydney Cove.

When we emerged from the museum, I noticed a sizable cruise ship docked nearby. I blinked a moment at the name on the side -- and sure enough, it was the Achille Lauro. “That has to be the same ship,” I said to Matt. “How many others could there be?”

I’d forgotten about that until today. Prompted by the news reports, I did some searches for the ship. Originally it was a Dutch ship, the Willem Ruys, and now it’s on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. In between, it had bad luck. The following is from a British website that displays postcards of the ill-starred ship:

“The Willem Ruys was laid down in January 1939, shortly before the outbreak of WWII... [She] was finally launched in July 1946, and delivered in November 1947, with the maiden voyage Rotterdam-Indonesia. This service was operated until December 1957, when political changes caused its cessation.

Willem Ruys ran a number of transatlantic crossings before being rebuilt for a round-the-world service, which started in 1959. This was not a great success, and she was sold to Lauro Lines in 1964. She was renamed after her new owner, but did not enter service until April 1966 following an explosion and fire during conversion work. The route was Northern Europe (Bremerhaven, Rotterdam, Southampton)-Genoa-Sydney-Wellington, which operated until 1972, when Achille Lauro became a full-time cruise ship.

“Lauro Lines were in financial trouble by the late 1970s, and the Achille Lauro was arrested in Tenerife in 1982. She lay there for a year, until the Italian government arranged to have her brought back to Genoa. After a further year's lay-up, a joint charter arrangement for Mediterranean cruises was made between Lauro Lines and Chandris Lines. Chandris pulled out after the much-publicized hijacking in October 1985 affected passenger numbers.

“Lauro struggled on until 1987, when it was bought by the Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Co., which rebranded the company as StarLauro Cruises. This venerable ship served with them until November 1994, when she caught fire on a Genoa-South Africa cruise [off Somalia]. The ship was abandoned, and sank two days later.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Waldheim blog.

Yesterday, along the obscure back streets of Chicago, I noted a site of international importance — the site of the Haymarket Riot, a landmark in labor history and, if nothing else, the genesis of May Day as a labor holiday (and I’ve always thought it should be a holiday in the United States, too; mainly because, on general principles, there should be more holidays).

Some years ago I read a “Chicago Reader” piece about the long-running quarrel over what sort of monument to put there. I don’t have time to look for the original article, even if it is on line, but the gist was this: there used to be a statue of a policeman there, erected in the years immediately following the incident. Ostensibly to honor the dead policemen, it was also clearly an insult to the protestors. Over the years, it was vandalized so often that the City finally moved it — to police headquarters, if I remember correctly. The empty pedestal apparently stood there for many more years until it too was removed. Now only the forlorn plaque I described yesterday marks the spot.

Not that it’s completely unknown. Early last May, I walked by the site and noticed that someone had formed, out of rocks and on top of the plaque, the international (so to speak) symbol of anarchism, an encircled “A” with the bar of the “A” extended to touch the edges of the circle. Presumably on the occasion of May Day.

The Haymarket strikers do have a monument, just not on City of Chicago property. It’s at the Waldheim (Forest Home) Cemetery in west suburban Forest Park. Waldheim was founded by German Masonic lodges in the 1870s, so it’s no surprise that a labor monument would have found a home there.

According to “Graveyards of Chicago,” the “Haymarket Martyrs' Monument was erected in 1893… It features a granite shaft and two bronze figures — a woman as Justice placing a crown of laurels on the brow of a fallen worker, while preparing to draw a sword. Sculptor Albert Weinert designed this monument based on a verse from the ‘Marseillaise,’ which [the men] had sung before their hangings.

“On the front of the monument are the last words of August Spies [who was hanged]: ‘The day will come.…’

“The monument was dedicated June 25, 1893. Thousands of workers and visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition marched to the downtown train station and then rode to the cemetery. Floral tributes had been sent by several nations, and red bunting decorated the monument and speakers' platform. Speeches were made in English, German, Polish and Bohemian, and an orchestra played the ‘Marseillaise.’ ”

I went to see Waldheim Cemetery early last September, on a warm day when I unexpectedly had a few hours free. Besides some lawn maintenance men, I had the place practically to myself. It was all you would expect in a cemetery dating from the 19th century, plenty of ornate old headstones set in lush grass, surounded by big trees, and featuring inscriptions ranging from the laconic to the poetic. Many were in German: VATTER and MUTTER were popular on family stones. The Haymarket Martyrs' Monument is near the entrance, and so was easy to find. That day there were fresh flowers at its base and costume jewelry around the neck of Justice and the fallen worker.

The cemetery had other interesting spots, only some of which I could find, considering the maddeningly vague guide pamphlet. I saw the mound that was a burial site for Pottawatomie Indians before the 1830s, which was one of the reasons this area later became a cemetery. I also happened on the large headstone of Samuel Fallows, who was a bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church — a breakaway group from the Anglican Communion — and a lesser-known brigadier general in the Union Army. But I couldn’t find several better-known people, such as Emma Goldman or Billy Sunday. Some other time, perhaps.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Medium blog & a side of fries.

Since the demise a few years ago of the original Gold Coast Dogs at the corner of State and Hubbard — victim, I believe, of a foolish landlord who decided to price an excellent tenant out of its location — my favorite hot dog stand in Chicago has been Fast Track. It’s just south of the El line that runs between downtown and west suburban Oak Park, at the corner of Des Plaines and Lake. It sits in a near West Side location that’s still largely populated by smallish Class C office buildings and surface parking.

It isn’t a stand, in the sense of a guy with a pushcart and a beach umbrella, just a small restaurant that serves hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries and so on. I would call it a greasy spoon, but it isn’t a diner, and most of the food isn’t what you would eat with a spoon. Fast Track has a railroading theme, complete with a three-car Illinois Central model train running along an 0-shaped track suspended from the ceiling. Other decorations include an old-time railroad lantern, a handful of train photos, and, incongruously, a full-sized traffic light, always on red.

The proprietor, or at least the boss behind the counter, is a man in his 50s, a fellow with a touch of gray on the chest hair visible at his shirt front. He has a pronounced Greek? — Albanian? — some kind of Eastern accent, each word enunciated like a hammer swatting a nail, in a way that comes off as brusk. But he never fails to end each transaction — he rings them all up — with “Thank you, my friend.”

But that’s all detail. The smell brings the place alive. Meat hissing on the grill, fries bubbling in the oil, these smells rising from behind the counter to fill the little room. The food lives up to the promise of the smell, too. I like the hamburgers: warm meat working in combination with ketchup, onions, relish and other flavors, held in place by a soft bun. The fries are fresh-cut. The lemonade isn’t the best, but passable. I pay less than $5.

I go there once every month or two, especially when it’s warm. Today it was warm. I walked from my office to the Haymarket Station Post Office first, to mail our tax returns, and then to Fast Track. Its large glass sliding door was all the way open today, so that eating inside is almost al fresco. Fast Track does have an outdoor eating area, marked off by an old rail mounted on posts, and some train-car wheels, but I couldn’t get a seat there, so I ate inside.

The area may be undistinguished now, but there’s some history to it, as I discovered one day after eating at Fast Track. If you walk south about half a block on Des Plaines from the restaurant, and are paying attention, you’ll see a dinged-up plaque embedded in the sidewalk at the mouth of an alley that parallels the nearest east-west street to the south, Randolph. It is the City of Chicago’s afterthought-ish way of commemorating the Haymarket Riot, which occurred here on May 4, 1886. At the top of the plaque, it says “Site of the Haymarket Tragedy,” and then there’s a paragraph of canned history about the event:

“A decade of strife between labor and industry culminated here in a confrontation that resulted in the tragic death of both workers and policemen. On May 4, 1886, spectators at a labor rally had gathered around the mouth of Crane's Alley. A contingent of police approaching on Des Plaines Street were met by a bomb thrown from just south of the alley. The resultant trial of eight activists gained worldwide attention for the labor movement, and initiated the tradition of "May Day" labor rallies in many cities.

“Designated on March 25, 1992, Richard M. Daley, Mayor”

I suppose any more detail is too much to ask of a plaque like this, but a few other things are worth noting. Police action on May 3 had resulted in protestors being shot elsewhere in Chicago, and so another rally was called for the next day. A mass of protests had gotten under way on May 1, when strikers — and estimated 300,000 nationwide and 40,000 in Chicago — had taken to the streets across the country to demand an eight-hour work day.

Afterward, four of the “eight activists” were hanged, one died in prison, and three were pardoned by Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld in 1893, which was political suicide for the governor. At this distance, it’s fairly clear that the men taken to the dock for the bomb-throwing were railroaded, and that Gov. Altgeld did the right thing. It would have made a good Jimmy Stewart movie, with him as the pardoning governor, going at it against all odds. As far as I know, the real Altgelt’s only monument is his headstone at Graceland Cemetery on the North Side, and a minor street named Altgeld, also on the North Side.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Small blog got rained on by his own .38.

A small blog for Palm Sunday. It was too fine a day to spend much of the evening at the keyboard. But I do have Ann and Lilly notes. I can play a game with Ann now. Two games, actually. One is “Grab Daddy’s Finger,” the other “Try to Imitate Daddy’s Facial Gestures.” She is becoming accomplished at sticking out her tongue during that second game.

Yesterday, as we cleaned out the garage and one of our cars, Lilly laid claim to the kiddie in-line skates in the garage that we had acquired sometime before she was ready for them. She decided that yesterday was the day. I wasn’t so sure. She has all the gear: skates in durable plastic, knee pads, elbow pads, and a helmet. After she lobbied vigorously to use the skates, I took Lilly to the same park at which she had hunted for Easter eggs earlier in the day, a place where I knew the sidewalks were empty and level. She put on all the equipment (with some help from me with the actual skates). I held her hand and she made slow forward progress, and seemed to enjoy it. Only one fall, nothing too serious.

Jay writes, referring to my account of representing Iraq in a mock UN (April 5 blog). Dees and Robert are two of my nephews.

“I enjoyed the account of your days as Baghdad Bob. Robert is with the model UN and Dees served, too, I think, in junior high. They watch them too closely for anything like your demarche to happen. There'd be all sorts of trouble, too, if it did. The adults who run the model UN take it very seriously.

Last year a high school member of the program was reportedly barred from further participation after he introduced a resolution calling for the recognition of the use of ganja as a legitimate Rastifarian sacrament. It's not clear whether he was expelled for introducing it, or they chucked him out because his resolution (I've heard) passed. According to that story, those in charge nullified the results of the vote.

Dees and Robert after him have generally represented what were referred to in “Yes, Minister” as TPLACs (tin-pot little African countries), Somalia, for instance, one year, and then the Congo (Kinshasa). When Dees — I think it was — represented Somalia four or five years ago (how can your country be represented in the United Nations if it doesn't actually have a government?), I lent them my Bonnie Blue Flag for use in their display. It's very similar to the flag of Somalia, as it happens, and we figured it was close enough for student purposes. When I delivered it to the sponsor, I explained to her what it was. ‘So that's why they named her Bonnie Blue!’ she said.”

Saturday, April 12, 2003

To boldly blog.

This morning I took Lilly to the municipal Easter egg hunt. Which is what it was called — no weasel words to replace “Easter,” I’m glad to report. It took place on a small section of a nearby park’s baseball field. This year, Lilly got to go with the five- and six-year-old group, which took its turn after two waves of smaller kids. Before each horde of children entered the field, plastic eggs were distributed by people throwing them out of boxes. Then a woman with a bullhorn shouted “Go!” and the kids stampeded toward the egg-field. Lilly scoped up her share, and was satisfied.

I have an pleasant early memory of an outdoor Easter egg hunt myself, though the eggs were on a hill toped by a water tower. I was four or five, and the tower itself seemed impossibly tall and fall away, but I found several eggs on the side of the hill. Colored hard-boiled eggs, I think. I don’t believe that hunt was organized along the lines of the Oklahoma land rush, but instead eggs were hidden all around the green, and a smaller number of kids went off the find them.

On Monday I will ask the youngest member of our staff whether she has heard of Yuri Gagarin. I won’t do this to mock Angie (age 23), who is very bright and knows many things. But I suspect the name will mean little to her. It’s just a gauge of the cosmonaut’s passage into obscurity — a place he should never go.

His flight around the Earth was, of course, 42 years ago today. I was a little young then myself; in utero, in fact. So I had to learn about the flight of Vostok 1 after the fact. But I did learn about it, as I think all children should, along with Freedom 7 and Apollo XI and the whole arc of the early space program. It’s backwards that untold thousands, maybe millions, know more about Star Trek space flight and its bogus physics than the real thing.

I will do my best to pass along what I know to Lilly and Ann. Probably this will annoy them.

They will not have the advantage of being precisely the right age to truly appreciate the glory of manned space flight. As I mentioned, I was born just as Russians and Americans had taken to space. I have fragmentary memories of the Gemini program — I’m certain I saw some of the launches on television. But it wasn’t until second grade that my interest lifted off, so to speak.

Sad to say, I have no memory of the magnificent Apollo VIII mission around the Moon in December 1968. But by the time Apollo IX was launched in March 1969, I was paying attention. That was one of the stepping-stone missions, the first test of the lunar module in space, not around the Moon but in Earth orbit. Essentially, the engineers were making sure that the LEM worked. Not many people remember this mission as anything distinct, but I do.

I watched every Apollo launch after that — my favorite remains the nighttime launch of Apollo XVII in late 1972 — plus the coverage of the landings. I also read about the Apollo program, and other space subjects, learning as much as I could at that age. So, for instance, I understood pretty well why the Apollo XIII astronauts were in trouble, a story I followed more closely than any other news story for many years.

If you have a boyhood enthusiasm like that, it never quite goes away. As recently as 2000, I went out of my way to see Cape Canaveral and the NASA complex there. You can make all the rational arguments you want about robotic spacecraft being better than manned missions — I will not be convinced. The Apollo program inoculated me against that timid, utilitarian line of thinking.

We should launch unmanned spacecraft, of course. A lot of them. Manned and unmanned space exploration aren’t mutually exclusive. Also, I’m not convinced that the current Space Shuttle is a particularly cost-effective way to send people into space. But there’s no substitute for sending people into space — human beings who can see and feel and understand a sense of place.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Hit me with your rhythm blog.

It was almost warm today, even downtown close to the lake, which has a cooling effect. Walked about around noon, savoring the air.

To pick up the thread from yesterday: There I was, part of a performance art session in Nashville in the summer of ’86. The artist Dave Lefkowitz (a painter, mostly) had recruited me for this event, at the behest of Dr. Don E., an art professor at Vanderbilt. The event was masterminded — if that’s the word — by Professor Don, who called it “The Twelve Deadly Sins.”

Of course, medieval tradition only enumerates seven, but for the occasion Professor Don had added five, including “Calumny,” “Rudeness,” “Frippery,” and I don’t know what else. He also provided each of us volunteers with t-shirts with the name of our deadly sin, which we had drawn at random. I got one of the Original Seven instead of the one of the expansion-team sins, and to go with it was a dark blue t-shirt with distinct orange letters: LUST. That was our only compensation for volunteering. I lost that shirt a long time ago, dammit.

We sat in a circle. Ringed around us was another circle of rectangular black boxes, each about three feet high, forming a sort of cheap Stonehenge without the crosspieces. There was one box for each Deadly Sin, and on top of each box were cut-out photographs standing more-or-less upright, supported by sticks glued to their backs. Other photos were taped on the boxes. The photos were mostly of naked people, but not all. President Nixon was on my box. He was not naked, fortunately. But he was taped to the box.

There were other items too. On my box there was a plastic bottle of talcum powder, a woman’s shoe, and a bowl of wrapped candies (little peanut butter cups?). Outside the Stonehenge of boxes were a number of TV monitors, and an audience who could see them. Professor Don had a video camera, and he panned it around from box to box. I believe our directions were to do something interesting with the objects during the time Professor Don focused the camera on our box. We were able to keep track of his movements because we could see the monitors, too.

I hope the audience — a few dozen people — hadn’t paid extra for this show. It was, as I reflect on it now, an imitation of the kind performance art done in Manhattan or London a few years earlier. Perhaps. I have to admit that my education in these matters did not (and does not) extend much beyond the satire of it ca. 1984 in “Doonesbury.”

I did find that later, as I told people about this happening, we got stuck on the concept of “performance art.” It was a slippery thing to describe, much less explain.

I don’t remember there being a soundtrack, though some off-the-wall electronic music might have livened things up a little. Or some perverse narration by Professor Don, but I don’t think he did that either. In any case, I did my little bit when the camera came to my box. First, I squeezed the talc and sent big puffs of it upward. That was mild fun. But then I got the idea of taking the shoe and tapping the box with it. From there to Nixon was a natural progression. Whack! Whack! Whack! Square on the 37th president’s forehead. The audience laughed a little.

At that point, someone else who had candy had the idea of tossing them at Nixon. I wouldn’t call it a food fight — that would have been more entertaining — but the portrait of Nixon did take some thumping from peanut butter cups for the next few seconds. As I recall, that got a giggly reaction from the audience, too.

It was over before long. I haven’t done anything quite like it before or since. I probably don’t need to again, to live an interesting life.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Shoney’s ice blog.

It’s been five years to the day since we closed on our little suburban house. It was a warm day, that April 10, and I remember sitting on the back steps with Lilly sleeping in the car seat nearby, taking in the mild sun. Lilly was very small. Now Ann is. But she will grow, too. The house won’t. It may be on the market as soon as next month.

Like many of us, I read some interesting news reports yesterday. One detail among many caught my attention. The following paragraphs are from separate news outlets:

“One man, in his late 50s, tore down a picture of Saddam wearing his trademark military beret and sunglasses. In a mark of the dramatic changes that were sweeping the city, he took off his shoe and used it to beat the image of the dictator's face — an act considered to be a great insult in the Arab world.”

“Cheering Iraqis, some waving the national flag, scaled the statue and danced upon the downed icon, now lying face down. As it fell, some threw shoes and slippers at the statue — a gross insult in the Arab world.”

You know, I think the Arabs are on to something. Shoes, which trudge through mud and dust and dung, in your enemy’s face. On the other hand, ever since I’ve had one of my feet in a cast, I’ve come to appreciate the engineering marvel that is the human foot. Shoes, those protectors of our feet, ought to get some respect.

I’m reminded of the time I whacked a photo of President Nixon with a shoe, in front of a live audience. I’m not making comparisons: whatever his shortcomings, Richard Nixon wasn’t a Kmart Stalin. Also, I’ve never (thank Allah) lived in a totalitarian state, so I cannot know the full depth of the righteous rage of the shoe-wielding statue-whackers.

Still, I had occasion to hit Nixon’s pic. In the summer of 1986, my friend David Lefkowitz invited me to participate in a piece of performance art at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville. I mention Dave’s full name, contrary to my usual practice, because I want to encourage — however remotely — the likelihood that people might buy his artwork. He’s now a teacher and artist living in St. Paul. I’ve always thought he did interesting works, sometimes fun works, and I own a series of his paintings myself, which I bought in the late ’80s.

(Also, Dave is the brother of the musically creative Paul and Jerry Lefkowitz. I don’t know what either of them are doing now, but 20 years ago, at age 15, Paul wrote a song about Shoney’s I’ve always recalled fondly, for an album called “Metropolitan Summer” by the Young Nashvillians. The song was “Shoney’s Ice,” and it went like this: "Kinda gooey, kinda chewy, kind of in one clump/Shoney's ice tastes like it's been taken from a chemical dump.")

But I digress. And I don’t have the energy to finish the Nixon story. Tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Strike up the blog.

Melting and refreezing left a thin sheet of ice on the grass along my walk this morning. As I went along, sometimes I punched holes in it with my cane, and it broke like cheap glass.

I went to the Union Station McDonald’s for breakfast this morning and the TV there had live coverage of the Great Saddam Statue Pull. When I got to work, I tuned in to NPR — which was carrying the BBC — shortly before a reporter said “It’s coming down! They’re all saying death to Saddam!”

Later, some of the BBC talking-head wankers were worried that there will be “chaos” in Baghdad today. Looting. “People taking the law into their own hands.” Shocking, shocking! More like a big celebration, I figure... and some necktie parties for assorted Ba’athists. I say, let the long-suffering people of Baghdad have fun for a few days.

The newsmen and women were making comparisons to statue-pulling in the former Soviet bloc in the early ’90s. Not all of them went down immediately, however. I distinctly remember seeing a number of standing statues of Lenin in Russia, three years after the fall of the USSR. One was in Irkutsk, in a park I believe, with Lenin boldly gesturing with an arm. According to our guide, a young fellow with considerable English skills, this statue was known locally as “Lenin hailing a cab.”

I wish I could remember that guide’s name. Once, he pointed to some drab Soviet building and explained that the largest church in Siberia used to be there, until Stalin had it destroyed. Someone asked why Uncle Joe had done that. “Because,” the guide answered, “Stalin was a weird dude.”

In St. Petersburg, Lenin still stood at Finland Station in 1994 haranguing a long-gone 1917 audience — and still does, if a couple of Web sites are to be believed. But I don’t begrudge the original bolshie his spot at Finland Station. He’s an important historical figure, after all, and that was an important moment.

In Vilnius (I think), all the Lenin statues were gone (no surprise, that), but I saw some socialist realism still standing at one of the city’s bridges. Four statues, in fact, one at each corner of the bridge, and each representing some kind of Idealized Worker: a buff farmer, a ramrod factory worker, that sort of thing. I have to wonder what children growing up long after communism will make of those stone exhortations to increase centralized production. Probably nothing. They would be about as interesting as Spanish-American War monuments are to Americans now; that is, only of interest to eccentrics like me.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

The blog less taken.

Still a nasty day, but the sidewalks and streets were just dry enough for me to walk to the train station and back home. The snow should all be gone tomorrow or the next day. But it’s an odd thing for the moment, green grass sticking through the snow like chia.

My brother Jay wrote (a while ago, after I discussed seeing the Gothic-style Second Pres in Indianapolis): “Let me know if you do get inside the Second Presbyterian Church. Have you seen the chapel at Duke University? All of the original west campus at Duke, most notably the chapel, is in the Gothic taste. [Jay went to Duke Law School.]

“It was all built in the late ’20s and early ’30s, after the Duke family bought Trinity College. (The east campus, originally the women's college, is Georgian. I believe that was the style of the original Trinity College.) The Gothic architecture is most persuasive in the colder months, especially when the sky is overcast. That gives the place something of the feel of northern Europe, with the gray stones, especially when wet, matching the sky. In the spring, after it begins to get warm and sticky, and the dogwoods are in flower, it looks a bit out of place.

“The chapel itself is as big as a cathedral but I don't believe that it's patterned on any specific building. I found it interesting that there are niches carved inside and out for saints but not a saint standing in any of them, as though they'd all stepped outside for a smoke. (Cigarettes were one of the sources of the money that built the place.)

“There are, however, statues around the main entrance. Above the main doorway there's John Wesley and other Methodist figures a handy Web site has just identified for me as Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury and Thomas Whitefield. Duke is or was technically a Methodist institution, though Methodists were fairly thin on the ground when I was there.

“There are also six statues above and flanking the main entrance, three religious figures on one side and three secular heroes on the other: Girolamo Savanarola, John Wycliff & Martin Luther, and Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee & Sidney Lanier. If the idea behind the religious figures is that they had something to do with the Reformation — with Wycliff and Savanarola, presumably, as proto-reformers — I think the choice of Savonarola is a bit shaky. I'm not sure about the secular figures; all Southern heroes I suppose. The chapel has a crypt, too, which I recall as being closed to the public. Several of the Duke family are buried there. As far as I know, there are no relics, not even a lock of Wesley's hair.”

Sounds like a fine thing to see. I missed it. At least I think I did. I visited Duke one afternoon in March 1981, when I was on spring break in North Carolina. I remember the sprawl of Duke’s campus, the large green spaces and many trees among the academic buildings. I played frisbee with my traveling partners, Neal and Stuart. Spring break had just begun for us; it was a warm, sunny day; unwrapped girls were out and about. No wonder we didn’t have any interest in a Gothic chapel. Even if I did see it, the memory didn’t stick.

I can think of a number of other things I’ve missed, things in the vicinity of wherever I was — and which I would have made time for, had I known about them. For example, I’ve long been fond of “Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up,” one of the last paintings of the doomed Egon Schiele, who died in the influenza of 1918. It hangs in Prague, and I was in that city for about 10 days. But I didn’t know it was there, so I didn’t seek it out. Also, there have been other sites I’ve blown off consciously, such as P’anmunjom, because I was too tired for the excursion. So it goes. It's a maxim of travel: you can't see everything, even everything in the neighborhood.

Then there’s the issue of memory, that trickster. Late last year I picked up the diary I kept in the summer of 1983 and decided to read it cover to cover. I’d looked at it from time to time, of course, but never so closely. It is a travel diary, mostly my first trip to Europe, but also includes accounts of time spent in Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and New York, just before and after my graduation from college. It was a fine time, of course, and I remember a lot of it. But the remarkable thing is how much of it I have no memory of whatsoever — and not even a written account can raise a memory from the catacombs of my mind. So much for the idea that writing everything down will necessarily help you remember.

For instance, in early June that year I was in Cambridge, England, and apparently spent an evening listening to a New Orleans-style jazz band at a local nightclub. You’d think you would remember something as incongruous as that, but no. I read it and thought, “I did that?” Then there was my description of taking an evening walk in West Berlin in July, where I happened across a marvelously lit shopping plaza — colorful and alive with light, without being gaudy in the way such places often are (e.g., a casino in Las Vegas). Do I remember this now? No, I can’t picture it.

Monday, April 07, 2003

The Blog of our Discontent.

I looked out the window this morning and saw snow. That did not bode well for the rest of the day. Both Ann and I had appointments to keep with doctors, so out we all went. Ann’s doc is concerned about her weight, which is on the low side, and asked us to feed her more formula, which we will. Also, Ann got her first vaccinations today. Some other time I might rant against fool parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children. I don’t have the energy at the moment.

Did I mention that it snowed last night? Snow in April. And some ice. My arch-enemy, sidewalk ice, was waiting for me. Since the morning temps were a little above freezing, it was mushy, slushy ice, not the vicious, hard-as-diamond ice that put me in a cast. Still, it represents an interruption of that critical friction between the bottom of my feet and the ground. So I went very carefully to the car.

I could have phoned in my doctor’s visit, for all the doctor did for me today. But at least I was promised an end to cast-wearing, in two weeks.

My old friend Michael J., who attended university with me all those years ago, surprised me with an e-mail recently. Back when he studied engineering at Vanderbilt, he was the chief engineer of the isolation tank five of us lads built in the spring of 1982 (but that’s another blog); these days he runs his own engineering business in Nashville.

Mike said, “I have been reading your blog faithfully [Wow! A reader.], as have I rejoiced in the announcements and pictures of your daughters.

“A note on the headline. Dees the cat is alive and kicking still. Will be 21 in September. He is a shadow of his former self, weighing in at a scant seven pounds. He has become somewhat sweet and affectionate in his dotage, and needs a step-stool to get into the bed.”

There’s another Dees in the world, besides me and my nephew. Sometime in the summer after I graduated from VU, while I was poking around western Europe, Mike acquired an orange cat and named him Dees. It was a little surprising, but I didn’t mind. I’ve met Dees many times over the years, though it’s been a while since I last saw him. I haven’t been to Nashville to visit since before Lilly was born.

If I had had to guess, I would have guessed that he passed on some time ago. But no — a 20-year-old cat. Don’t cats like that get letters from the White House for longevity?

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Daylight Savings Blog.

It’s cold out there. Colder than April ought to be, even in the North. But I will look at the bright side. Now we have an extra hour of sunlight in the afternoon to enjoy the subarctic chills!

Japan does not monkey with its clocks twice a year, as most of the rest of the industrialized world does. As far as I can tell, the reason for that is, “Japan has never done that.” The result was some very early sunrises in summer. My apartment in Osaka — which is roughly same latitude as Atlanta — had no air conditioning, and so some mornings I awoke sweating after a 4 a.m. to 5 a.m. sunrise.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, in terms of seasons. It’s (nearly) Spring here in the Northern Hemisphere, and a (middle-aged) man’s fancy turns to… federal income taxes. I sat down this afternoon and did a dry run of this year’s 1040. Meaning I filled out one of the copies in pencil. No surprises this year, as far as I can tell. I managed to avoid giving the government an interest-free loan again. But barely: the amount I will owe come April 15 is fairly small. That’s all good news. The bad news, the reason for the small amount is that my free-lance writing business slacked off in 2002, so I didn’t make as much.

I see that Presidential Election Campaign box is still there, right under the address label, where it’s been for many years. That seems like a relic of the ’70s to me. We need something more attuned to our times: “Do you, or your spouse, want $3 to go to a fund to blow up more Saracens? Yes _ No _.”

Today I took Lilly to a friend’s birthday party at an enormous house in Oak Brook, a town where large dwellings are the norm. The party started at 2:30, according to the invitation, “with a clown from 3-4.” I dropped Lilly off at about 2:45, and as I was driving away, I spotted some clown driving toward the house. Literally. She (as Lilly later called her) was driving in full clown makeup, as I suppose she would have to, but it made me wonder of the Oak Brook police do clown profiling. Of course they would deny it: “The OBPD does not stop clown cars, unless they are driving like clowns.”

Anyway, Lilly may get a birthday party when she turns 6. But I plan to deprive her of a clown. If she doesn’t like that, she will have to sue me when she comes of age. I don’t hate clowns, exactly, but I don’t want one in my house either. Call me prejudiced.

Saturday, April 05, 2003

The non-aligned blog.

Except for rainy days, I am again walking between the commuter station and home. The bottom of my cast is decaying and dirty, but the heel ought to stay on long enough to get me to my next doctor’s appointment, which is Monday. So my mind has taken to wandering again, during these walks, and the other day I brought back a whole set of memories that had been stored in a dusty filing cabinet somewhere in a mental root cellar.

The cabinet is marked “Odd Experiences, High School.” In the fall of 1978 or maybe in the spring of 1979, I attended a mock UN at a nearby college, Incarnate Word I think. I don’t remember how I got involved in it. Something to do with my affiliation with the NFL — the National Forensic League, that is, the speech and debate club. I was a third- or at best second-rate debater, but the other kids were interesting to hang out with, and the out-of-town trips to speech tournaments were much fun. As a member of the NFL, I went all over Texas: Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston, even picturesque Midland/Odessa once.

But this wasn’t an NFL function per se. I don’t know who organizes mock UNs, or why exactly. To teach high school students the art of diplomatic pettifogging, maybe. I do remember signing up, and being offered one of about a half-dozen countries to represent. I picked the most interesting one on the short list: Iraq.

The extent of my research for the meeting was a few hours in the library, mostly not reading about Iraq, though I did look it up in a couple of standard references. I read enough to know that it was a one-party state, run by the Ba’ath Party. This was just before a certain mustachio’d dictator had consolidated power in that country, though he was on his way up — like Stalin in ’28, perhaps. Anyway, his name didn’t come up. With me in representing the Republic of Iraq was my friend and debating partner, Kevin N.

So one Saturday, we met in a large campus auditorium, in morning and afternoon sessions, with kids from all around San Antonio pretending to represent countries from all around the world. It wasn’t long before the Arab representatives began conspiring to make life difficult for both the Israeli delegation, and the moderator of the sessions — a college girl who didn’t really seem to want the job.

As far as I know, none of the “Arab” delegates were actually of Semitic extraction. We were just role-playing. In case I haven’t conveyed this, this mock UN was just a lark for Kevin and me. Not so, I think, for a few other kids. Especially those who dressed up for the parts, such as the girl who had observer status for the PLO, or the boy who represented Jordan. The girl was quite fetching in her drab green fatigues with Palestinian head-scarf; the boy made less impression on me, but he did have a command of the rhetoric of his position. He prefaced every speech — and there were several — with several sentences about the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

As I said, we harassed the moderator. “Madam Chair, the Republic of Iraq proposes the expulsion of the representative of Israeli, and his replacement by the PLO representative… Madam Chair, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan wishes a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal from lands occupied in the Six Day War… Madam Chair, the PLO observer condemns in the strongest possible language….”

You must remember, at this time the World Trade Center was merely a set of new buildings in New York, and jihad was more of a historical notion. Osama bin Laden was an unknown rich kid who was evidently having trouble picking up girls in Oxford, and as mentioned, Saddam Hussein was still a tyrant-in-training. When people my age thought of the Arab world, we thought of Arab-Israeli wars and OPEC.

For a while the irritated chairwoman swatted down our motions, but after we had a meeting of non-aligned nations in mid-morning, we got more traction. Also, Kevin, who wasn’t always in the room, came back and started putting his knowledge of “Robert’s Rules of Order” to use in circumventing the chairwoman. I think she was glad when the lunch break came.

But we were busy even then. Someone had the idea that being part of the non-aligned bloc wasn’t good enough. We wanted an Arab bloc, with its own meeting in the afternnon. So as soon as lunch was over, we demanded this. Permission denied. If I had been chairing this thing, I think I would have said OK, just to get rid of us for a while, but the girl was trying to run things according to some agenda, and there was no place on it for a new bloc. We demanded it again. Permission denied. And once more. No go.

So, as we had agreed during lunch, all the Arab representatives and some sympathizers walked out of the mock UN. That was the end of it; the organizers called it quits at that point. I suspect no one was more flabbergasted than the organizers, who were teachers.

My experience in diplomacy. We brought the house down.

Friday, April 04, 2003

April, the cruelest blog.

Spring is tugging at Winter. More signs of Spring all the time — buds on certain trees, brave flowers, a half-greening of the grass. At 7 p.m. CST earlier this week (before it clouded up yesterday), just after dark, I could see Orion firmly planted low in the southwestern sky. Orion is a Winter constellation, and it’s preparing a goodbye.

But Winter is still ascendant, for the moment. A namby-pamby Winter, one that never quite gets down to freezing during the day. But cold enough. Last night we had a middling thunderstorm, and thick fog and 40s F were the follow-up this morning. More thunderstorms hit downtown in the afternoon.

Middling would be about 5 on my personal scale of storms — 10 being the violent, loud, singularly amazing tropical thunderstorm I witnessed from under flimsy shelter at the Singapore Zoo on the afternoon of July 1, 1992. Rare is a storm in the 9 to 10 range: the big rain in San Antonio in May 1970; another spring storm in ’77 or ’78 that washed out our plans to go to a Night in Old San Antonio; and some Nashville rains, including a spectacular one in the spring of 1984. In the North, the spring rains are rarely so impressive, but the blizzards are another matter: the January 6, 1996 whiteout in Boston, and the January 2, 1999 big blow in Chicago come to mind.

One thing I’ve learned in the last five years is that big booming thunderstorms are more fun if you live in rental property. But I still enjoy them, along with more gentle rains, provided I don’t have to trudge through them. Saturday night rains are the best, now that I have little interest in or opportunity for venturing out on Saturday nights. The ideal time for it is when it’s warm enough to open the windows and listen to it while drifting off the sleep. (Provided all the electronic gizmos in the house have been shut off.) It’s only monotonous if you aren’t listening. It’s a harmony of several kinds of splash: straightdown rain hitting the ground, plus drops thumping against the side of the house, tap-tap-taping on the roof, trickling off the house and trees, and blup-blupping into puddles.

Summertime crickets are also melodious, as far as I’m concerned. Yuriko isn’t so taken with them, however.

In the summer of 1994, Yuriko and I spent two of the most aesthetic weeks of our lives in Bali. In the town of Ubud, we stayed in a brick shack off the main road, a very Spartan place. One room, one bathroom, a porch. But it had an amenity I’ve never gotten even in rooms costing 20 times as much, the sound of a gurgling creek accompanied by an army of singing frogs (or some kind of throaty amphibians) and a chorus of tropical insects. Every night, as soon as the Sun had set, the concert began. I like North American cricket-song, but somehow temperate-zone insects don’t give off quite the same vibe.

In Candi Dasa on the southeast coast of the island, the nighttime sounds were nearly as good. There we stayed in a hut that was slightly more upscale than the Ubud property. The bathroom was more presentable, and done in Balinese style too — that is, it had no roof. Trees shaded the hut, so when it rained you didn’t get a complete soaking while doing your business, but some drops still fell on you. About 30 feet from our front door, the land dropped away to a crummy little beach about ten feet below (the reason the room was so cheap). Every night the sound of waves hitting the land filled the room — echoing and coming from every direction, it seemed — and one night a storm kicked up and we had wind and waves and occasional thunder.

Of course there were other aural treats in the tropics, like the insects of Taman Negara or the call to prayers in the Cameron Highlands, both in Malaysia. More on these some other time; I’m going to call it a blog.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Hunka hunka burnin’ blog.

This just in, from a press release I received this week: “Berkshire Mortgage Finance recently provided $17 million in FHA MAP financing for the rehabilitation of Uptown Square Apartments, formerly known as Lauderdale Courts. Built in 1936, the subject property of 443 units is currently a boarded-up public housing garden-style apartment complex.

“The City of Memphis has drawn up an exciting master plan to revitalize the Uptown Memphis area, part of which includes the substantial renovation of Uptown Square. Uptown Square is strategically located in the central business district surrounding St Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and because the property includes a former apartment residence of rock and roll legend Elvis Presley, it is eligible for historic tax credits.”

Is there no sphere of human activity that the King does not touch? Music, pop culture, fashion, and now tax policy.

To continue through south-central Indiana: After we’d taken the tour of Columbus, Indiana, and eaten lunch, there was one more place I wanted to go, Nashville. Not the Tennessee city I used to live in, but a small town west on Indiana 46. It once had a reputation as an art colony, so first we make a fruitless attempt to see the T.C. Steele State Historic Site just outside of town. Steele was a muralist who lived in the wooded hills around Nashville, Indiana; but his home and studio were “closed for the season” according to a sign in front. Back in Nashville proper, we spent a while looking around the welter of junk… I mean arts-and-crafts shops on the main street, which feed off the town’s heritage as an art colony.

It reminded me of two other spots we’d seen in the last few years, Bailey’s Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin, and Amana, Iowa — lots o’ shops, lots o’ people tramping through. There was one shop in Nashville that we liked more than the others, however, just a bit off of the main street, and we bought an inexpensive watercolor there. It illustrated the town of Story, Indiana, some miles south of Nashville.

The man behind the counter, burly, tattooed, graying and about 50, told me that Story was worth seeing, very rustic, and that the drive there was hilly, not very Midwestern at all. Then he said, “Thanks for buying my painting. I did that one.” And indeed, his mugshot and a short bio were pasted on the back.

But we didn’t go to Story, because the sun was about to abandon us for the day, and we wanted to eat. We did pass through two towns whose names I liked during this part of the trip: Gnawbone and Beanblossom, not too many miles from each other. I'm always up for interesting town names.

The next day, a Sunday, we returned home to the western suburbs of Chicago in a more or less direct way, stopping for a picnic lunch at a large city park, Eagle Creek Park, in the northwest corner of Indianapolis. The grounds were very damp and at places seriously muddy. At one point Lilly lodged her foot so firmly in the mud that I, heeding tearful cries, had to help extract her. We took a stroll around body of water in the park called “Lilly Lake,” a name that of course pleased us, but actually it didn’t rise to the dignity of being a lake, but was more like a big pond. I figure it has something to do with the Lilly pharmaceutical empire, headquartered in Indy.

Been blogging a week about Indiana — who would have thought the state could be the source of so much material? But it only goes to show that you can find something to see almost anywhere.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

The Columbus Blog.

Yesterday: Mild & about 70 F. Today: Windy and about 40 F. The annual Winter-Spring See-Saw is under way, in earnest. It could sputter along this way until Memorial Day.

Inspired by the warm air, I walked around downtown yesterday more than I have since before the slip & fall. To my bank, to the main post office, threading through the crowds and crossing the streets almost like a normal pedestrian. Walking is no trouble now. But it is wearing on the bottom of my cast, and so I wonder if the heel is going to detach itself at some inconvenient moment. Could cause another slip & fall.

The last time we went to Indiana was a year ago last weekend, and it was an all together different sort of trip than last week's. After passing through Indy (see March 24 blog for a description of that), we continued on to the remarkable town of Columbus, Indiana. No one in my office had ever heard of it; Yuriko hadn’t either; and neither had most of my correspondents. But somehow I had read about it, and had fixed it in my mind to go.

Columbus is down the road southward from Indianapolis about 50 miles — the road being the unremarkable I-65. We arrived on a Friday evening and checked in at a nondescript, but satisfactory, hotel. Our evenings were passed in the room, mostly, or in the pool, where Lilly was almost able to swim in the very shallow part by herself, which delighted her no end. (Now she would have no trouble in that pool.)

On that Saturday morning at about 7:30, while Yuriko and Lilly still slept, I drove into Columbus to fetch breakfast. The previous day’s rain had stopped, and it was warmer, but at that time it was still foggy. Not many other cars were on the roads. Columbus is famed for its architecture, and as I drove around, I was astonished. What I had read about the town hadn’t really prepared me. Even in 15 minutes of tooling around empty streets on a foggy morning, I realized that it was one of the most aesthetic small towns I’d ever seen. Further touring later that day confirmed me in that opinion.

I had booked a tour for 10 that morning through the Columbus Visitors Center, itself a fine old building. We were with a group of about 20 people, touring in a small bus with a volunteer guide, an older gentleman who had lived in town a long time and knew a lot. The town sports a number of fine buildings from the 19th century, such as the city hall, but the real stars are more modern. Eliel Saarinen, the Finnish architect (“we design buildings because our language is so impossible”), designed the noteworthy First Christian Church; his son did another church, the round North Christian Church; Harry Weese of Chicago did some of the schools in Columbus; I.M. Pei designed the main library and the town’s main mall; and other name architects did other buildings.

The most fun was the design of the Ameritech Switching Station, or at least part of it, done by architect Caudill Rowlett Scott in 1978. I suppose this would be the SBC Switching Station now. In any case, the building itself was interesting, but I was especially taken with the multicolor vertical ventilation pipes that line the alley next to the building. It was like a row of giant Pan pipes, all different colors, set up next to the building.

A few of the designs I saw weren’t all together impressive, but most were, especially considering that many of the designs were from the 1950s and ’60s. It seems that the Cummings Engine Foundation, set up years ago by the diesel engine manufacturer, paid the architects’ fees, as a way of improving the town. I don’t think there’s a setup quite like that anywhere else.

(Bumper sticker seen in the Visitor Center Parking Lot: “McKinley-Roosevelt ’00: Strong Leadership for a New Century.”)

At the end of the tour, we walked down the main shopping street and found a place I had seen from the bus, Zaharako’s. It’s an ice cream parlor, first opened in 1900 and not looking much different now, tricked out with oak fixtures, an onyx soda fountain and a mahogany bar. The sandwiches were good, the lemonade better, and the ice cream best. The place also has a working Welte German pipe organ, installed in 1908.

Tomorrow: the other Nashville.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

All blog, all the time.

It took a long time to go to sleep last night. Ann was communicating long and loud in the only way she knows how, off and on much of the night. It was a contrast from the night before, when, after a fit of colic, she slept more than four hours, and then for about three after a 3 a.m. feeding.

As I lay there not sleeping, it occurred to me that TV coverage of the war could be easily rationalized. Just dedicate one cable channel each to certain kinds of coverage. For example, ETV — Explosions TV, which would show explosions live 24/7, or on tape during lulls. Or EMTV — Embedded Media TV, which would show nothing but monocolored, pixilated reports from various battlefields. Or RBTV — Retired Brass TV, which would be former military talking heads day and night, speculating about the fog of war. Or DTV — Defeatist TV, on which the BBC (for example) could come out and say it’s against the war, and do it up like al-Jazeera. Or on the other side, JTV — Jingo TV, which would be led by Fox and other Murdoch minions.

With these channels up and running, regular TV could get back to the business of purveying goods unfettered by anything as unpleasant as war, and war watchers could go to one channel to get exactly what they want. Come to think of it, some of these channels might be big hits with some sweet demographics. I bet Explosions TV would go over well among 18-45 year-old men.

To wrap up my notes on Indy: I had toyed with the idea of extending the trip through the following weekend, but then got an estimate from an electrician on necessary repairs to the house, and thought better of it. Rationally, I know we need to repair these things, especially if we want to have any chance of selling the house this summer. The squeeze is on; the house has shrunk remarkably in five years, and we need a larger one.

Also, there’s the matter of my foot. But it’s such a little break, and doesn’t hurt much any more. It didn’t stop me from climbing to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. So it’s house repair that 86ed the trip-extension plans. As I said, I know this rationally. But lurking in my not-so-unconscious is the burning notion that the money would be better spent seeing parts of southwestern Indiana.

Now, that part of the world may not sound that intriguing, and I will concede the point, mostly. But it has the primary virtue of being near, and the other virtue of being unexplored. Also, there's one thing southwest of Indianapolis that I definitely want to see: the West Baden Springs Hotel. It’s supposed to be a marvel of early 20th-century hotel design, stuck out in the Indiana sticks. There are also mildly interesting spots on the map that may bear investigation: Bluesprings Caverns, and “the Devil’s Backbone.”

Maybe later.