Saturday, May 31, 2003

Mr. Saturday Night Blog.

You'd think there would be more time for blogging on the weekend, but no... maybe I will give it up on weekends. Lileks doesn't, why should I?

Another major storm blew through last night, this one punctuated by funnel clouds throughout the Chicago area, though as far as I know none of them touched down. At the height of the wind, several large branches came unmoored and fell to the street that runs beside our house. Large branches, meaning almost as long as I am tall, bearing a lot of new spring leaves. Would have punched some nice holes in the roof of this house that we are striving to sell, had they taken different paths.

It would have been only the latest in house mishaps this spring -- back in early April, when I still had my cast on, and when there was some slush on the ground, our garage door decided to break. A large horizontal break, all the way across, separating about a fifth of the door from the remainder. The door wouldn't open all the way, trapping the Sienna inside. Who knows how old that rotten wooden door was.

That meant I had to come outside, in the slush, a plastic bag rubber-banded around my cast, avoiding evil ice, to see what I could do. I had to scream at Lilly a few times not to stand under the door, since it was heavy and of unknown stability (it didn't collapse any more, but I don't regret screaming at her a bit). Eventually, I held up the broken section of the door like a momentary Atlas, and Yuriko was able to drive the Sienna out.

At least I knew a company that could be trusted to replace the door without difficulty. That they did, the next day, but it cost much gelt. Our gift to the next owners of the house, I guess. Times like that, the only way to feel is that it's one damn thing after another.

Friday, May 30, 2003

Blog 6.

We leave the light on for you, unless it's broken.

Motel 6, Brookfield, Wisconsin, May 25, 2003.

Good: One night cost about $40. Bad: Crummy common areas, including walls that needed paint, concrete floors that showed the scuff marks of thousands of Motel 6 transients, and a warren-like layout to the place that made no sense at all. Accor Hotels, which is reportedly renovating its Motel 6 brand, hasn't gotten around to this one completely.

Good: Fairly clean inside the room. Bad: The little gizmo that opens and closes the sink broke, in the closed position.

Good: There was an overflow hole, so we didn't care about the buildup of dirty water in the sink. Bad: We did care about it, when Lilly got a notion to play Poseidon Adventure, or somesuch tsunami-based game there.

Good: There was an outdoor pool, small but uncrowded -- zero other people there when we were in fact, at 6 p.m. -- very much to Lilly's delight. Bad: It was unheated, and cold as a claims adjuster's heart. This didn't deter Lilly, however.

Good: Basic cable. This is of course as essential to the hospitality industry now as putting doors on the rooms. Bad: Too much Cartoon Network. As I mentioned earlier, I watch little TV, and hotel and motel stays are the only times I see anything on cable.

Good: Popeye on the Cartoon Network -- ones made in the '30s. Bad: Courage the Cowardly Dog, which has a one-joke premise that was amusing the first time I saw it in California in 2001, less so the next time in Montreal in 2002, and not at all now.

Good: The motel was on a main road, as you'd expect, with plenty of food options. Bad: I fulfilled Yuriko's request for Buffalo wings by stopping at the KFC across the street. The "boneless honey glazed wings" tasted like they'd been burned, then coated with week-old glaze, then kept in an employee's locker for a few days, then coated one more time, and then singed again for good measure. It was a low for KFC and for fast food. Yuck.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

The Flushing Station blog.

Yesterday I attended a meeting also attended by a couple of commercial real estate attorneys, men whose jobs it is to read complicated leases, and understand them. At a certain point, commercial leases -- and especially that subspecies known as subleases -- begin to resemble particle physics, at least in terms of comprehensibility. "Subleases are one thing," one of the lawyers said, "but it really gets tough doing a sub-sublease." And he even spoke of the exotic, seldom heard-of sub-sub-sublease; and I could imagine that such a document would include a codicil on quark and lepton mixing from differential geometry of curves on surfaces.

"One lease took 25 hours to read," he said, half-boasting, "and had about 200 defined terms, not all of which were in the index." That took a moment to sink in. Ten times the effort involved in reading Tolstoy, one-hundredth the satisfaction. Well, at least he's paid well for his trouble.

After we were done with McKinley Beach on Milwaukee's lakefront, at about 4 p.m. last Sunday, we repaired to the coffee shop Yuriko had seen on the way there. It was only a short drive south of the beach, and across from the marina. If it were up to me, coffee shops would shrivel up and die, unless they started selling really good tea. Not even Starbuck's would stand a chance. But Yuriko has a taste for coffee.

The shop was just west of Lincoln Memorial Drive, and at the base of a wooded slope. As we discovered later, just behind that wooded rise is the neighborhood surrounding the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which might help account for the shop's popularity. Popular it was. I encountered a nearly full parking lot, a sizable line to order, and something of a wait to receive your order. It wasn't Marti Gras crowded (in that case, I would have suggested that we move on), but it was lively. Many of the patrons were younger than me, and few others had little kids in tow.

A sign on the building said Alterra Coffee Roasters. Once we were able to sit down outside at a yellow table under patio umbrella, Yuriko with her coffee, me with chai tea, and Lilly with an intense chocolate muffin, I was able to look at the building. The more I looked, the more interesting it got. It was about two stories tall, no bigger than a modest suburban house, and made of a sturdy-looking light-colored stone. Clearly, its life as a head-to-head competitor with Starbucks and other overpriced coffee venues was a recent development. Soon I noticed a date chiseled over the door: 1888.

Naturally this means that when I got home. I looked it up. This from the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance Web site:

"A joint venture between the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District and Alterra Coffee Roasters, the project is devoted to education, ecology, and resource efficiency. The City of Milwaukee constructed the Flushing Station in 1888 to address the growing problem of 'the river nuisance.' Located on the shore of Lake Michigan, the pump was designed to move more than 500,000,000 gallons of lake water per day through a 12' diameter underground tunnel to flush the lower Milwaukee River of excessive pollution and waste. The pump is fully functional and in original condition, although it was converted from coal power to electricity in 1912.

"Currently the building is on the National Engineering Register and the City of Milwaukee Register of Historic Places. The building will be reused as an interpretive center to teach the public about preservation and conservation as well as wastewater technology. Public sculpture in the cafe and extensive sitework will educate the community about Wisconsin watershed conservation and stormwater management. MMSD is widely considered to be a leader in municipal wastewater treatment and the Milwaukee River Flushing Station, functioning but no longer in use, will serve as a fascinating wayside on the road to sustainability."

Maybe the place was too crowded, but I for one didn't see anything about watershed conservation or stormwater management in that shop. It was a nicely done adaptive re-use of the property, but as a casual observer I only observed a thriving business enterprise. I can imagine that as a purveyor of potable substances, perhaps Alterra isn't eager to dwell on the building's existence as a wastewater pumping station. Or maybe everyone in Milwaukee knows that, and it's no big deal.

Yuriko said the coffee was good. I enjoyed my chai. Lilly made short work of the cupcake.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Alewife blog.

I was cleaning out some e-mail this morning, a job like warring with pesky kudzu, when I came across something I'd sent to my staff (both of them) on March 18:

"An editor's pet peeve:

"Human beings never, never, never 'state' anything, unless they are UN officials or members of the French government.

"At least in this magazine."

So there we were, headed north on Lincoln Memorial Drive, which is Milwaukee's equivalent of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, except that it's more of a parkway, with Lake Michigan to the east and a long string of parkland to the west.

"There's a beach! There's a beach!" Lilly said this with an enthusiasm I'm not sure I still have, or could have, or should have, since so many years have passed since I was five.

"We'll come back to it," I said, focusing on the road. It was a dangerous road, not because of the traffic exactly, but because either side was so nice to look at -- swaths of new green trees on the one, a hazy lake-blue horizon, finer than any Turner painting, on the other.

"Daddy, I have an idea. Let's go to the beach! That's a good idea."

"We'll come back to it." I had noticed a nice flat beach out of the corner of my eye. More than one, actually, plus a marina, and some areas where the shoreline was marked by huge squarish boulders, much like in parts of Evanston, Ill. Yuriko had also spied a coffee shop with al fresco seating. People were out and about, walking and bicycling under sunny skies and safe in the knowledge that most of them wouldn't have to work the next day.

"Daaaaaa-dy. I wanna go to the beach!"

The road arc'd away from the lake, just before Milwaukee proper peters out, and connects with a road lined with many fine old houses, and I followed this for a time, a short time --

"The beach, Daddy, the beach!"

There’s no lobbyist in the world like a five-year-old. I turned around and we made out way back to the beach -- McKinley Beach, just north of McKinley Marina. It's a broad, open beach of white sand, but the thing that amazed me was the parking lot. On a Sunday, a warm holiday-weekend Sunday, the parking lot wasn't full. Not even close. This is a distinct difference from the Chicago lakefront, where every available parking space is unavailable all the time, except on zero-degree days in February. Perhaps it's the difference between a CMSA of 9.1 million and one of 1.7 million people.

We really weren't prepared for the beach, and we refused to change Lilly into a swimsuit, since we rightly guessed that the lake was still very cold. It didn't matter. Lilly was in her element, collecting little shells, throwing pebbles in the water, and blowing soap bubbles. Yuriko and I sat around, with Ann in her car seat sleeping, and that wasn't too bad either. We had all the elements at hand: earth, in the form of sand; air, represented by a steady wind from the lake to keep things cool; fire, which was the Sun hanging overhead; and water, everywhere to the east, making gentle little waves.

And we had dead fish. Littered along the very edge of the beach, and in the water immediately off shore, were scores of lifeless silver fish, four or five inches long. Not rotting, yet, but gross enough. Not a complete surprise, either, since I'd seen their mortified ilk on the edge of Lake Michigan in previous years.

Turns out these are alewife, an invasive species in the Great Lakes that got in after the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway (blame Canada!). But as invasive species go, the alewife aren't like gangsters who muscle in on new territory and rub out a lot of happy-go-lucky fish -- no, they're more like the hapless Englishmen in Jamestown, not quite suited to their new environment. It seems that even minor sudden changes of water temperature kill off these fish in great numbers. Which then end up on the beach.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Curb-appeal blog.

Mailing lists work in mysterious ways, even more so in the age of e-mail. I can't claim to receive intolerable volumes of junk e-mail, but I get some. Junk press releases, now that's another story. I get a lot of those. Junk? So sorry, I mean press releases inappropriate to the editorial mission of my magazine.

Just today, the fine people at Rust-Oleum sent me a press release, which they actually called a media alert, a term of some frequency and little meaning in this biz. I have to admit, however, that I didn't know that Rust-Oleum as such had survived into the 21st century, so in that sense the press release was a success -- the editor has been educated.

But it probably wasn't their intention to make me think, "Gee, that name must have sounded Machine Age whenever it was coined, in the 1910s or '20s, I would guess. Now it just sounds old-timey."

The press release’s first paragraph: "Is the front of your home giving off the wrong impression? Does your window trim reflect the past owner’s love of purple? Could your porch use some punch? Is your front door just plain drab? If so, you're not alone. In a recent Rust-Oleum survey asking 1,500 Americans about the curb appeal of their home, the news is that most folks think their home front could use a bit of a facelift. In fact, the survey showed that 82 percent of homeowners indicated that the front of their homes need a little (or a lot!) of work."

I myself have been working on the curb appeal of my house. First I got rid of the couch on the front porch, then I chased the chickens into the back yard. I have a feeling they'll sneak back. But no matter what Rust-Oleum says, my hound dog stays.

And what does Rust-Oleum have to do with the continuing crisis in curb appeal? I didn't get that far. Education has its limits.

We spent 31 hours going to, staying in, and returning from metro Milwaukee on Sunday and Memorial Day. I've neglected Milwaukee as a destination for years, and I can't say exactly why. I've been there, of course -- always day trips, to such spots as the Milwaukee County Zoo, and parts of downtown; as it turns out, not the best parts.

We had good weather for it, too, at last. It was warm at home when we left at 11 a.m. Sunday. According to Rand-McNally, the distance between Chicago and Milwaukee is 92 miles. According to me, that's about one AU -- Austin Unit, which is one-millionth the distance between the Earth and the Sun. "Austin" because 90 or so miles is the distance between San Antonio and Austin, a drive I did frequently in my early and impressionable driving days. When I'm on a long drive, and I see that the destination has dipped below 100 miles, I realize that it's only like driving to Austin from that point on. It's a comforting thought, since to a Texas-trained driver like me, that's not very far.

Unfortunately, the Interstate run up to Milwaukee is even less interesting than San Antonio-Austin, mainly because there is no Snake Farm in, say, Gurnee, Illinois (but there is a Six Flags). Or more precisely, because there are no amateurish billboards every five miles advising motorists to SEE some-animal-or-other AT SNAKE FARM, a caged-animal tourist trap near New Braunfels, Texas (PETA fanatics, take note).

After you cross the Wisconsin border, there are a few spots of roadside interest, including two dirty book & video stores, a field with a small collection of military aircraft (I'm not sure what that's about), and Mars Cheese Castle, but that last one doesn't look much like Mars, or a castle, or even cheese, though they do sell a nice selection of Wisconsin cheese inside.

I-94 takes you into Milwaukee, and then the spur I-794 trends toward the lakefront. This was our primary goal.

Tomorrow: Dead little fish.

Saturday, May 24, 2003

One more late-night blog.

NO BLOG TOMORROW OR MONDAY. We’ll be out and about. More on that when we return.

’nother busy day, today, roughly in this order: yard work, preparing the house for show, seeing a handful of houses ourselves way up in the northwestern suburbs, more yard work, watching (but not too closely) someone walk through our house — the first person to do so, a woman whom I suspected was looking to live somewhere alone. This would be a good house for a single, or a couple. Add a few kids, and things get tight.

So far we’ve poked around seven houses in two weekends. Don’t let anyone tell you that suburban housing is homogeneous. We’ve seen a couple that we might like to live in, and others that made us wonder what the builder was thinking. My own favorite oddity was a house in Palatine that, instead of actually having a back yard, merely has two oversized side yards, including one fenced in like a back yard — but only a decorative fence, without a lick of privacy. Inside, brown wood panels and faux wood were practically everywhere. Put a couple of moose heads on the walls and you’d have a hunting lodge.

Another house, which fronted a busy street, was floor-to-ceiling in southwestern-style gewgaws, though of course the numerous bits of décor would presumably be going with the sellers. The kitchen was phone-booth sized, which is a no-go from the get-go, especially since there was no dining room. In the basement, there was a fancy drum set, and a Jacuzzi room in which the owners had clearly spent a lot of money. It was not a house that had any small children in it, and I pity the fool who tries to raise any there. Bonus: the back yard had almost no grass.

Friday, May 23, 2003

Late-night blog.

Almost, almost warm today. Call me a traditionalist. Even this far north, it ought to be warm each and every day by late May. It seldom is, but I’m only carping. It was clear and the winds were calm today, and even downtown the temps were about 60º F.

While everyone was gone from the house, Realtor Gnomes® erected part of the for-sale sign in our front yard — the gamma-shaped part, with actual sign to appear tomorrow, according to Barb the Realtor. It looked a little strange, standing out there without a sign; and it gave me the feeling of, here we go. We’re at the top of the roller coaster.

Anticipating the Memorial Day weekend, Real Estate Media turned us loose after lunch, and that meant one thing: I got to go see a movie. An actual movie in a retail establishment built for the purpose of showing them, with comfy seats and a concession stand in the lobby, and other people watching it in the same room as me, and — well, the works, right down to the scent of overpriced popcorn and the trailers for movies I’d never pay money to see.

I can’t remember any of the specifics of the trailers even now, less than 12 hours later. Except that that Nick Nolte is clearly ready for AARP membership — and he appears in some formula heist movie that pairs him with a svelte woman of perhaps 25.

At this point in my life, I go to the movies about once every six months. I can’t precisely remember the last movie I saw in a cinema, but I know it was in 2002. Maybe it was when I took Lilly to see “Lilo and Stitch,” which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t made with my age cohort in mind, either.

Ultimately I decided to go a 21-plex on East Illinois, not far from Navy Pier. Out of 21 screens, there was exactly one movie I had an interest in seeing, “The Quiet American.” It was superb. If I have time tomorrow, and if I can pry Lilly away from the iMac long enough, I will write my impressions of it.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Mein blog.

If I blog any more about Hitler, I might start seeing “Mein Kampf” for sale (by Amazon) on the ad banner at the top of the page, which I’m not sure would be a good thing. Lately, I’ve noticed, the banner has been selling weather gizmos, including digital anemometers, even though it’s been some time since I’ve written about the weather.

(Too damn cold for May, that’s the current weather — unless you live on Ellesmere Island.)

By golly, that’s what I need for the new house, an anemometer. I used to walk by one regularly near Yodoyabashi (the Yodoya bridge) in Osaka, which I suppose belonged to the Japanese equivalent of the National Weather Service. Rumor also had it — gaijin lore, that is — that the bridge was the site of a smog-alert light at one time. But it had been removed because its constant red-light alerts embarrassed the municipal government.

Or maybe I should just hang a windsock at the new house, for the amusement value.

Yesterday after work I attended an event at the Winter Garden of the downtown Harold Washington Public Library, a party given by one of the larger commercial real estate companies in town in honor of itself. Its twenty-fifth anniversary, if I remember correctly. My experience with the company goes back to about 1988, when I interviewed its president and some of the other execs, and put them on the cover of “Metro Chicago Real Estate.” That was a good cover, because behind them was a large banner that (I think) hung at one of their properties. The banner sported a painting of a kangaroo, which probably made it the only marsupial to ever appear in the Chicago real estate trade press.

Anyway, the Winter Garden was a fitting space for the function. It’s a sweepingly large space, with a terrazzo and marble floor below and a light-admitting sky dome about 50 feet above, which extends the length of the room — about half a city block. Vast, airy, and formal. Very formal, from the latticework overhead to the shiny floor — a room as stylized and polished as kabuki, but not sterile. The sort of place best suited for grown-up events, suit-and-tie events, and for the kind of medium-sized talk about business that promotes cohesion within an industry.

The room was so big, in fact, that the hundred or so people at the function had space to spread out among the tables and food stations and the open bars, which meant that you could retire away from the crowd if you wanted. Waiters with trays of artful food roamed the marble floor, and musicians played pleasant background music.

I spoke with the president of the company, all gray now, who only half-remembered who I was (I’m used to that), plus a handful of other people who work for him. I talked for a time with a former PR woman, someone I also knew during “Metro Chicago Real Estate” days; she’s now a broker with a national firm. I’ll always associate her with the time she took Kevin D. and me to lunch at Shaw’s Crab House, only to be audibly shocked at how much it cost. I’ll bet she’s forgotten that.

Also, I ran into Larry O., aerial photographer and expert witness at zoning hearings. One of the many things he does well is model the shadows that would be cast over the course of a year by proposed highrises, to answer the objections of people who believe that it would cast too much shadow on the neighborhood. Talking with Larry is invariably interesting.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Weimar Blog.

I didn’t do justice to “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” last night because Morpheus was standing over my shoulder while I was writing, and there’s no fighting that fuzzy feeling for very long.

On the whole, it was an interesting production, for a number of reasons. First because of the actor that portrayed Hitler, Robert Carlyle, who is best known as one of the blokes in “The Full Monty,” which only goes to show his range. His interpretation of Hitler is a remarkable mix of obsessiveness, amorality, guile, stand-offishness, charm, mendacity, ruthlessness, perverseness, and blistering anger — all characteristics generally associated with the man.

As the story goes along, it also does a decent job of illustrating how he rose to power, within the context of Weimar Germany, without spending a long time having the characters explain what was going on, though the anti-Hitler newspaperman character did some of that. It helps, of course, to have read about the period, but it wouldn’t be absolutely necessary to appreciate the drama.

A short look around some of the items published about this movie shows that there was a certain amount of hubbub among the yammering classes in anticipation of it. There was even talk that it’s a vehicle for criticizing the current U.S. administration, a sort of veiled warning about concentration of power in the administration. Perhaps some of the movie’s executives thought so — this from the Boston Globe:

“Ed Gernon, an executive producer [of the movie], lost his job last month after telling TV Guide that the social climate in Germany during Hitler's rise was similar to that in the United States as it headed into war with Iraq…. CBS distanced itself from the remarks.”

Television networks can be counted upon to be chicken-hearted, of course, but still I think Mr. Gernon was peddling a facile parallel. To put it concisely, and in the right language, Die USA ist nicht Weimar.

In the movie, during Hitler’s speech to parliament after the Reichstag Fire, when he demanded dictatorial power, the word “terrorism” was used more than once to justify the move; but that was about as close as things got to making allusions to contemporary events. Mostly, I didn’t get the sense that the movie was much of a veiled criticism of George W. Bush or anyone else besides the Nazis, and the members of the Reichstag and the German elite who so spinelessly caved in to them. Generally speaking, the story’s message is hardly new, but it’s a good one to repeat: the dictatorial concentration of power is bad. I can think of a lot of places that still need that lesson.

One other thing I liked was simply the fact that it took Hitler’s rise as its subject. Hitler simply didn’t spring fully dressed from Hindenburg’s head, ranting against the Jews and starting wars and committing mass murder; but that’s the impression we have, with our hindsight. Hindsight sometimes obscures as much as it reveals.

It wasn’t a flawless production. Julianna what’s-her-name, the actress from “ER,” did a reasonably good job as a wealthy woman who helps Hitler in his rise — including preventing him from shooting himself (in a scene that smacked of fictional enhancement) after the Beer Hall Putsch. But a lot of people helped Hitler. Why focus on this person? Because television demands pretty faces.

I don’t know if this movie got good ratings, but if so there’s always the possibility of sequels. Not more Hitler, since the sequel to his rise to power was war and genocide, but other dictators. “Il Duce & His Fascist Friends,” perhaps — certainly the sex scenes would be better than Hitler’s, who, after all, wasn’t known for his romantic attachments.

Stalin could provide some good material, too. Maybe something along the lines of “Survivor: The Great Purge,” with advertising tag lines such as: “It’s 1936 and only one of these old bolshies is going to avoid the gulag — who will it be?” Mao is more problematic, but perhaps Lucy Liu can be cast as Madame Mao in a mini-series based on the Long March.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

TV blog.

Short blog for this evening, only because it’s been a busy day, and the fact that I watched a couple of hours of television this evening. A lot of people give lip service to not watching much TV, but I actually don’t watch much any more, and haven’t since about 1980. Other than “Law & Order,” (original version) I watch nothing regularly, and very little else besides. Because Lilly watches a combination of Japanese cartoons on tape and American children’s shows, I’m much more familiar with that kind of programming than anything else these days (except “Law & Order"), though I don’t really pay them too much attention either.

Mostly, it’s apathy. It’s because I believe that I’ve seen enough television already — enough to last me the rest of my life. If it was on broadcast TV in the 1970s, I probably watched it. Now, if all the broadcasters and cable channels and satellite TV suddenly vanished, I would hardly miss it (and, in fact, I think that would be the case for most people, once they got over the shock).

However, I had read that the “miniseries” about Hitler’s rise to power was pretty good, and so I watched most of the first part of Sunday. In fact, considering that the limitations of the medium — and the necessary conflations and omissions of drama based on history — it was pretty good. So I watched the rest today. Certainly the fellow who played Hitler, a British actor whose name escapes me, turned in an exceptional performance in a hard role, as did the man who played Ernst Röhm, though his character isn’t particularly well known and so the audience wouldn't expect much. The rest of the cast was creditable or better.

Monday, May 19, 2003

TR blog.

Headline in the Chicago Tribune this morning: “Saudis Arrest 4 in Bomb Probe.” The Sun-Times had something similar. It made me wonder how you would say, “Round up the usual suspects” in Arabic.

Speaking of which, just south of the Flatiron Building in New York last week, Gail and I came across a fellow selling “Most Wanted Iraqis” playing cards, or whatever they’re called. The item was too intriguing, and the price fairly low, so I bought a pack. I suppose the pack I have is a copy of the cards meant for American, British and Australian soldiers, since they’re in English.

Fun facts: Three of the four aces are Saddam himself and the fruit of his loins, Uday and Qusay. The ace of diamonds, however, is one Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikkriti, whose title is given as “Presidential Secretary.” He’s a Tikkriti, of course, but so probably are half the pack, so I wonder why the presidential secretary rates so high. Perhaps it’s because he knows where the bodies are buried — quite literally.

Also, for 13 of the cards there are no pictures, just a head-and-shoulders silhouette. Camera shy, perhaps. Probably top men at the Ministry of Love.

The man selling the cards, a stumpy fellow in his 50s, wanted to know if I wanted to buy more than one pack. “Why don’t you get two?” he asked. “You can give one as a gift.”

“Maybe. Do you have any North Korean cards?”


So much for my little joke. I bought only one pack. On 20th Street just off Broadway is the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace NHS. I figured we could drop in there, catch a cab back to the hotel for our bags, then another to LaGuardia; and so we did. It turns out that this brownstone, which is actually brown, is a re-creation of the original Roosevelt manse. But even so it’s about 80 years old, and not a bad job. The rooms contain a mix of period (1860s) furniture and pieces that belonged to the family.

But I liked the two rooms of displays better. Plenty of photos of young and then not-so-young TR, reproductions and some originals of entertaining editorial cartoons featuring him, and assorted memorabilia. Among the items on display are a uniform from the time of TR’s expedition to Cuba, several mounted animal heads and a full-sized stuffed lion done in by the 26th president, and his exercise bicycle, counter-ergonomic-looking sort of contraption.

I could have spent more time there, and even Gail seemed interested, but soon we had to go. The return flight to Chicago was almost full, resulting in the usual complications, especially with cramming things in the overhead bins, but we made it back. Any return flight you can walk away from is a good return flight.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Flatiron blog.

On Wednesday morning, the associate publisher of Real Estate Chicago, Gail, and I had a few hours before we had to go to LaGuardia. Just the thing for a morning walk. It counted as business, however, since we did discuss plans for the magazine along the way — a peripatetic business meeting beats a conference room most any day.

Especially when you’re walking in an urban core as lush as Manhattan. Always something to see, sometimes too much. Our route took us west on 34th, past Macy's, to Broadway. Then we followed Broadway south, through a section populated by jewelry shops, until the Flatiron Building came into view. I’d seen that building 20 years ago, from more or less the same vantage at Madison Square Park (just east of the junction of Broadway and Fifth Ave., and slightly north of the structure), but now I’ve had decades of intervening experience in looking at buildings. It’s a famously triangular office building, 101 years old, which was built to shoehorn into a narrow triangular lot formed by the meeting of those two major streets.

The following is a nice description — a little gushing in some places, which I’ve mostly edited out — from a site called “…The Flatiron's most interesting feature is its shape — a slender hull plowing up the streets of commerce as the bow off a great ocean liner plows through the waves of its domain. The apex of the building is just six feet wide, and expands into a limestone wedge adorned with Gothic and Renaissance details of Greek faces and terra cotta flowers…

“Some consider the Flatiron Building to be New York City's first skyscraper. It certainly was one of the first buildings in the city to employ a steel frame to hold up its 285-foot tall facade, but not the first. Some felt its shape (like a flatiron) was less artistic and more dangerous. They thought it would fall over, and during construction the Flatiron Building was nicknamed ‘Burnham's Folly.’ ”

In its rush to gush about things New York, this particular Web site doesn’t bother to mention that Burnham — architect Daniel Burnham — had come from Chicago for this commission, since indeed he’s one of Chicago’s best-known architects. Still, I suppose that Chicago has so many great buildings that lending a few to New York couldn’t hurt.

It certainly looks like the kind of thing Burnham would build. And not only that, if you look at it from the right angle it looks practically two-dimensional, like some kind of lavish prop from a lost D.W. Griffith spectacle. Not something you see everyday, in New York or Chicago.

Tomorrow: A man, a plan, a canal…

Saturday, May 17, 2003

Village blog.

Last Tuesday at about 9:30 p.m., I found myself in Greenwich Village. Normally at about this time on a weeknight, I would be decompressing for the day, but with only a few hours in New York that weren’t related to my job, I wasn’t going to let go of the day quite so easily. Besides, some time earlier I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted to visit the storied Village Vanguard.

The Village, which is a briar patch of pre-grid streets, has long been a favorite place of mine for walking, since it’s dense with non-chain retailers, and animated at all times of day or night with all manner of passersby. On an similarly abbreviated business trip in late 2000, I was able to spend a while there — much of it in a great used book store — but mainly I remember the Village from August 1983, when I was apartment-sitting for two weeks for a woman I’d met in Germany.

Her apartment was in a building at Sheridan Square, and I passed right through there this time. But I couldn’t remember exactly which building I’d spent two weeks of my life.

I don’t get out for live music much any more, and the last time I did with any regularly was in Nashville in the ’80s (a good place and time for it, I might add). The Village Vanguard is on Seventh Ave. behind a door and down a narrow staircase. The cover probably wasn’t high by Manhattan standards, or by 2000s standards. It was just at the beginning of the first set, and in paying I figured I was not only getting to hear first-rate jazz, and I was also supporting a basement hole-in-the-ground establishment of some historic importance.

Just as I couldn’t be a food writer, I certainly couldn’t be a music critic. What kind of jazz I heard I can’t say. It wasn’t New Orleans style, or swing, or be-bop. It wasn’t fusion either, though I can’t say I really understand that term. Never mind. It was excellent, straight-ahead jazz. Ted Nash, the saxophonist and band leader, was flying; Marcus Printup, the trumpeter and other frontman, roller-coaster’d all over the scale; Ben Allison pulled some fine notes out of his bass; the pianist, Frank Kimbrough, emerged for some remarkable runs; and the drummer, Matt Wilson, did some amazing tips and taps and bings and ba-dangs when he emerged from the rhythmic backdrop.

The crowd wasn’t large, but it grew as the set went on, and was appreciative. To fulfill my drink quota, I ordered a Brooklyn Lager, to continue the New York motif, and nursed it through the set. (Turns out it was brewed upstate somewhere.) I wasn’t fool enough to stay for the second set — I would have nodded off — so left at the end of the first. Half of my waitress’ $2 tip was an Eisenhower dollar I’d picked up (one of five) at the bank a few weeks ago. As I was leaving, I saw her marveling at it.

There was one more thing to do in the Village: find Ray’s Pizza, and relive a small slice of my youth, by eating a slice of pizza. I ate there enough times in the summer of ’83 that I can’t remember how many times, and had fond memories of it. Luckily, I was also a bit peckish coming out of the Village Vanguard. I found Ray’s and I’m glad to report that it’s thin-crust pizza is every bit as good as I remember.

I also confirmed what I’d heard long ago: a cheese slice at Ray’s costs the same as single fare on the New York subways — which, incidentally, had just gone up to $2 (which does not bode well for fares in Chicago). Sure enough, Ray’s was charging $2 for a slice of cheese.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Postal blog.

Nothing like a little walk after dinner, so I set out westward a bit just as the sun was setting on Tuesday, from Eighth Ave. to Ninth, noticing a number of new diners in that area. One, the Tick-Tock Diner, was attached to the New Yorker Hotel, where I was staying. Two others were west near Ninth Ave., and another was a bit south. That last one was the Cheyenne Diner, which was the only one that looked like it had any age to it; the others gleamed with recentness. A trend in Manhattan eating? A coincidence? Who knows? But there they were.

My path took me around the enormous James A. Farley Post Office — enormous because it needs to be, since it was built to be Manhattan’s main post office, taking up the rectangle between Eight and Ninth avenues and 31st and 33th streets, two full city blocks. Often in my travels, I seek out post offices, and sometimes I’ve been pleasantly surprised, such as by the main post office in Saigon, which is a well-kept French colonial structure, adorned inside with a large portrait of Ho Chi Mihn.

The Farley post office mostly impresses with its size. Its highly visible Eighth Ave. elevation is in a pre-World War I beaux-arts style, with a wide set of steps leading up to a multitude of doors. Above the doors, carved in the stone: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Not actually the motto of the US Postal Service, or even its predecessor Department of the Post Office. But it’s been so visible in this spot for so long that the phrase has become associated with the Post Office and then the USPS. Apparently the phrase was chosen William Mitchell Kendall of the firm of McKim, Mead & White, the architects who designed the Farley building, as well as the original Penn Station (which was beaux arts, too). The man knew his Herodotus, who was describing the message-runners of ancient Persia. One wonders if the modern Iranian post office lives up to this ancient communications marvel, of if anyone could.

“There is nothing in the world which travels faster than these Persian couriers,” wrote Herodotus in Book VIII of the Histories. (My Penguin Classics translation is certainly not the one Wm. Kendall consulted.) “The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes — a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time — neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.”

Since these couriers served the King of Persia, I’m certain there would have been severe punishments for dilly-dallying. On the other hand, it probably wasn’t a job that attracted dilly-dalliers, and very likely esprit de corps was high.

I digress. Along the south side of the Farley building (31st Street), which is fenced in and faceless, a ragged man passed me by and said without warning, “You can get a meal over there.” It wasn’t immediately clear what he was talking about until a few moments later. A couple of mobile soup-kitchen vans were parked just west of Eight Ave., with a few clusters of down-and-outers standing nearby, taking sustenance.

It was an odd feeling, walking by that spot, my stomach full of soft-shell crab. It was a twin set of bourgeois sentiments (bourgeois since I can’t claim to be anything else). One sentiment was sympathetic: Here I am, as prosperous as the well-fed fellow on the Chance and Community Chest cards, and the all these poor bastards probably got growing up were regular beatings from a drunken father, when he was around. The other sentiment was pure Dr. Laura: And just what were these bums doing while I was paying attention in school, and then getting up every day for 20 years to go to work?

I walked on. I’d gotten up at 4:30 a.m. to catch my flight, and could reasonably have expected to call it a day at that point. But when I’m traveling somewhere, I’m not reasonable. The thing to do, I decided, was to go to Greenwich Village.

Thursday, May 15, 2003

The 30-hour blog.

Missed the lunar eclipse tonight. Our sky is overcast.

New York IX was a short trip, no more than 30 hours in that city all together. I’ve read that Tuesday flights are the least crowded, and ATA 224 was only about half full, taking off on time and landing at LaGuardia a few minutes ahead of schedule (but, it should be noted, that ATA seems to inflate its travel time estimates, thus scoring more on-time arrivals). Our flight attendant Terry was in a cheerful mood, and at one point she explained that when she was younger she had been a real estate agent in Florida. “I like this a lot better,” she said. Uncrowded flights must always be good; that and the fact that ATA isn’t, say, American or United.

(ATA = American Trans Air, headquartered in Indianapolis, with hubs there and at Midway in Chicago, where I left from. It’s essentially the same business model as Southwest.)

Real Estate Media’s — my company’s — offices are in Midtown, not far south of the Theater District and even closer to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station. HQ is in a class B office building in a district of largely class C retail space, which is to say a moderately grimy area. To reach REM HQ, the cab passed through the Queens Midtown Tunnel and across Manhattan at about 36th Street, which was slow going in late morning.

At times like that, I’m inclined to think that the famous hustle & bustle of Manhattan is just congestion, created by very specific structural circumstances. When the grid that became Midtown and Uptown was created, little room was set aside for alleys. None in most places, it seems. The upshot of that is that most deliveries have to take place on the street, jamming the place with trucks. That, and garbage pickup is from the street as well, which means that it piles up on the sidewalks. Maybe there isn’t enough room on a small island for the luxury of alleys, but in any case I believe it’s one of the main ingredients in Manhattan’s (in)famous urban feel.

I did see one thing on the way in that I’d never seen before: a paper shredding truck. It was a mid-sized vehicle with the company name on the side, and a small window that looked into the truck, where you could see wads of shredded paper. An ad on the side of truck promised a speedy, efficient shredding service that comes right to your office. Interesting that there’s a market for this kind of drive-by document destruction. But the company needed a zippy motto on that truck, such as: “We’ll get there before the SEC does!”

Most of the rest of the day was swallowed up by meetings, or by me visiting with people I know in that office (after three years, quite a few now), especially the managing editor of Real Estate Chicago, whose job is to shepherd the material we in Chicago provide through the production department, which is at the main office. At the end of the business day, my boss Michael took me and the managing editor, Cara, to a place called Murano Ristorante on 36th Street, very near the office.

Had a fine dinner there. But this is why I could never be a food writer: the extent of my knowledge of the soft-shell crab that I ate was this: boy, it was good. I’m not even sure how it was cooked or what kind of spices transformed it from a mere crustacean into a crunchy pleasure. It was a special of the day, and I was intrigued enough to order it when the waiter said that it had recently come into season. Further reason reveals that typically blue crabs lose their shells in the spring, and spend the summer re-growing them. In between, they get to be soft-shell crabs, if they land on a plate.

Tomorrow: Neither snow, nor rain…

Monday, May 12, 2003

Gotham blog.

The "contact" function is up and running, or it was last time I checked, on the off chance that anyone wants to contact me that way. I'm at, in any case.

NO BLOGS UNTIL THURSDAY or so. I’m up early tomorrow to fly to New York. I’ll be back on Wednesday, but I’m fairly certain I won’t be in a blogging state of mind so soon after I return.

This will be my ninth visit to that city in 21 years. The very first time I went there by bus, making a stopover at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The company I work for now has its head offices about two blocks away from that transit hub, and I’ve caught the airport bus there on recent visits.

But all that was in the distant future in the spring of 1982 — I was on a 7,000-mile, month-long trip via Greyhound (those were the days!), and had a layover in NY en route from Washington, DC to Boston. I remember being impressed by the PA Bus Terminal, which looked more like an airport than most of the other bus stations I’d seen, which tended toward seediness. And I remember a fellow who claimed to be a South American striking up a conversation with me and inviting me to his hotel room — a fellow who tried to pick me up, that is. I politely declined.

Ah, memories of New York. This trip will be too short to see much new, but I will try.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Tapas blog.

Another thunderstorm rolled through last night, much like the one Friday night, except that it knocked out the power for a couple of hours. But we were too asleep to notice it. When I got up this morning, I saw that the clock on the stove and the microwave were doing that peculiar “I’ve been unplugged” flash-flash-flash.

And then, this (error-pocked text from the National Weather Service): “A strong low pressure system centered near Green Bay has brought strong winds to much of the upper Midwest today [Sunday, May 11]. Winds over northern Illinois and northwest Indiana has [sic] averaged between 25 and 35 mph with some gust [sic] reported as Hight [sic] as 55 mph.

“The low is moving slowly east and weakening. It will still be strong enough and close enough through Monday morning... however... that winds [sic] will continue to be strong overnight…. A Wind Advisory is issued when sustained winds are forecast to be 31 to 39 mph or gusts will range between 46 and 57 mph. Winds of these magnitudes may cause minor property damage without extra precautions. Motorists in high profile vehicles should use caution until the winds subside.”

Which is to say, a big damn wind is coming your way. It’s a little hard to visualize a “low pressure system” except as a very large L, somewhere up in the sky. Maybe you could see it if it weren't all cloudy. Also, the trees in our yard have more than “minor” property damage in their barky souls, should a strong wind meet one of them at a weak spot. So far (as of this posting) they’ve stood fast, however.

But enough of that. From automotive blogs (see several previous days), my subject naturally turns to… sweetbreads. Only because I made a recent visit to a restaurant called Café Iberico, an excellent tapas place in River North, the district just north of downtown Chicago. My experience with tapas was limited, so when the opportunity arose to do a bid’ness lunch there, I jumped at it — and finagled to get my whole staff (Bonnie and Angie) invited too.

It was the best kind of business lunch, because the person who invited me, Wendy H., had some genuine business things to discuss — a client of hers is going to be on the cover of my magazine later this year. But, since we’ve been friends for over 20 years, we weren’t stuck without anything else to discuss.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Spain, but somehow I felt that the Café Iberico décor reminded me of Spain — two airy rooms, a lot of cheerful wall tiles, and a substantial collection, in cabinets, of what I took to be Spanish ceramic figurines.

But décor is rarely anything but a sideshow anyway. The tapas, with one or two mediocre exceptions, were savory creations. The patatas ali-oli, a dish of red potatoes lingering in a garlic mayonnaise sauce, was some of the best potato salad I’ve had in a long time. Even better was the queso de carlina, goat cheese melted into a tamato basil sauce, which we spooned onto bread. We also ate sauted mushrooms — not bad, but it didn’t quite live up to its fine name, champiñones a la plancha — tenderloin skewer, and calamares a la plancha.

A little rubbery, that last one, but palatable. I was the only one at the table who would eat the baby squid, two of which came with the rest of the tentacle-based calamares. Mm, good. I have to admit, those itty-bitty squids can look a little funny on your plate, especially if the preparer leaves the heads on. It’s the kind of thing you put on a pillow, next to a sleeping head, for a prank.

On the day’s specials menu, I noticed sweetbreads. Well now, how often do you see that on a menu? I insisted that we order some, and when it came, I cajoled my lunchmates into trying them, while helping myself. They were reluctant, but I think everyone tried one. I thought the sweetbread was pleasing — a rich meat in a tangy brown sauce, roughly the size of a chicken liver but nothing like it in taste. There was some discussion at the table about what it was, exactly. We knew it was organ meat, but beyond that there was no consensus.

So, naturally, I looked it up later. From

“Prized by gourmets throughout the world, sweetbreads are the thymus glands of veal, young beef, lamb and pork. There are two glands — an elongated lobe in the throat and a larger, rounder gland near the heart. These glands are connected by a tube, which is often removed before sweetbreads are marketed. The heart sweetbread is considered the more delectable (and is therefore more expensive) of the two because of its delicate flavor and firmer, creamy-smooth texture.

“Sweetbreads from milk-fed veal or young calves are considered the best. Those from young lamb are quite good, but beef sweetbreads are tougher and pork sweetbreads (unless from a piglet) have a rather strong flavor. Veal, young calf and beef sweetbreads are available year-round in specialty meat markets, whereas those from lamb and pork must usually be special-ordered.

“Choose sweetbreads that are white (they become redder as the animal ages), plump and firm. They're very perishable and should be prepared within 24 hours of purchase. Before being cooked, sweetbreads must be soaked in several changes of acidulated water and their outer membrane removed. Some recipes call for the glands to be blanched to firm them, and refrigerated until ready for use. Sweetbreads can be prepared in a variety of ways including poaching, sautéing and braising. They are also sometimes used in pâtés and soufflés.”

Damn. I didn’t know enough to ask what kind of sweetbreads I was eating. Next time.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Hand-crank blogging.

Happy Birthday to my brother Jay — today is his Puerto Rican statehood birthday, that is, his 51st.

Modes of transit in Asia: a topic that could provide many blogs. But for now, since I’m on an automotive theme, I will stick to that, just for one more blog.

Been There, Done That readers, both of you, know that I spent some time in Mongolia in 1994. At that time, there weren’t very many cars on the streets of Ulaanbaatar; and I suspect the situation hasn’t changed much. No doubt Mongolians, like everyone else in the world, itch to own cars, and as a motorized individual myself I can hardly begrudge them their wheels. But such charm as the capital of Mongolia had — and it was thin gruel, since the city was largely built on a Soviet model — was because of the uncongested streets. So much so that I spotted livestock wandering around the streets of this city of about 750,000 people. On more than one occasion.

But there were a handful of cars. Unidentifiable Eastern bloc vehicles, the kind that were never meant to be anything besides a quota-filler, along with a few beat-up Japanese cars. At one point during my visit, I was at the main rail station in Ulaanbataar, one of the few places in town that seemed to have an adjacent parking lot. I happened to be standing in the parking lot, among the Trabis and whatever else they were, and a gentleman with a suitcase emerged from the station and went to one of the cars. He opened it up, put in his suitcase, and in a swift move, took out a hand crank and inserted it into the front of the car, just under the hood. A few cranks started the car, and off he went.

And how long has it been since hand cranks were used in the West? Since Reos and Stanley Steamers plied the roads? I bring this up not to mock this man, or Mongolians — you use what you have, and that’s what he had. I bring it up for its novelty. You never know what you’ll see, if you're paying attention, even in a parking lot.

Friday, May 09, 2003

Trabi blog.

This from a handy automotive Web site: “When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, most of the cars that poured westward out of East Germany were the plastic and fiberglass Trabants. The "Trabi" was a symbol of the exodus, but it quickly became an endangered species. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on the Trabi's legacy in the town of Zwickau, where it used to be built.

“Zwickau, Germany; 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) — The last Trabant rolled off the assembly line at the Sachsenring factory in Zwickau eight and a half years ago. The 1991 model differed relatively little from the first of the more than three million Trabants made since 1957. Made of a synthetic material called "Duroplast," it was flimsy, and it was loud.

“The Trabant had a top speed of 100 kilometers an hour, and its two-stroke, 13.2 kilowatt motor sounded like it belonged to an old motorcycle rather than a car. Attempts by the East Germans to build a more powerful motor were repeatedly quashed by the Soviet Union. Within the framework of Comecon cooperation, Moscow insisted on having a monopoly on strong motors.”

My recent musings about Yugos naturally led me to remember my experience with a Trabant. I can confirm that the things were loud. And not especially comfortable. But, I suspect, they probably lasted longer than any Yugo.

Yuriko and I visited Vietnam nine years ago, and at the end of our stay the taxi that came to take us to Tan Son Nhat (Saigon) International Airport had a familiar look to it. A smallish car… something like a Volkswagen, though without the distinctive hump. Then I realized, from pictures I’d seen, it was an East German Trabant. A Volkswagen’s doppelgänger; or, if you prefer, the Lore to VW’s Data.

So we got in, and went to the airport. I wonder if there are still any loose on the streets of Saigon, but no doubt the taxi owners of that city replaced them with second-hand Japanese and Korean cars, as soon as they could afford them, and as soon as the government would allow it.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Yugoblog, Continued.

I had such a good time writing about Yugos that I had to consult Google. Before long, I discovered that if you search using the words “Yugo jokes,” a torrent of pages will appear. The Yugo, it turns out, is more than just a footnote in automotive history. It may have inspired more jokes than any other car.

For instance:

What do you call the shock absorbers inside a Yugo? Passengers.

What to you call a Yugo with brakes? Customized.

Two guys in a Yugo were arrested last night in Oakland following a push-by shooting incident.

The new Yugo has an air bag. When you sense an impending accident, start pumping real fast.

A friend went to a dealer the other day and said, "I'd like a gas cap (windshield wiper, new headlight) for my Yugo." The dealer replied, "Okay. Sounds like a fair trade."

It’s a kind of immortality.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

The Miniblog.

Lately I’ve noticed a few Minis on the street. I’d heard, vaguely, that this kind of car was coming to the United States, but until recently I hadn’t seen any actual Minis tooling around. But they aren’t Harold Wilson’s Minis, the anemic little boxes produced by a socialized auto industry — 21st-century Minis have some style, at least the export version. Someone went back to the drawing board, or more likely the Power Mac, and came up with an aesthetic little car, with a nice overall shape, good trim and a small but sturdy appearance.

They’re still toy cars, considering the fact that three of them at least could fit inside a Hummer’s glove compartment. (See the March 5 blog for my adventures driving a Hummer.) It’s interesting that Minis and the new Hummer are hitting the streets at roughly the same juncture in history. What does it mean? I couldn’t say.

It reminds me of the time I drove a Yugo. I may be the only person you know who will admit to this, but that’s because I didn’t own one, or even consider it. Back when I worked at Advantage magazine, ca. 1986, a car dealership who had just gotten a stock of these cars, the pride of Serbian auto craftsmanship and Titoist heavy industry, asked us to test drive one (and maybe write about it).

Well, I never did write about it, until now. I’m not a car aficionado — what I want from a car, I get from my Toyotas, namely that they run well. But when I was driving that Yugo around the streets of Nashville that day, even I knew that, to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, I could’ve carved a better car out of a Budweiser can. It was a toy car all right, but the kind of toy that breaks the day after Christmas, and you could tell that by holding the chintzy wheel, shifting the metal tube that passed for a stick, and pumping the scary brakes.

I think history has proven that I was right.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Microblogging ahead.

A period of short blogs to follow. The May/June issue of Real Estate Chicago is in production, and we are packing worldly possessions in boxes, to deal with clutter issues in advance of putting our house on the market. I have a nagging feeling that The Move will soon consume my waking non-working hours.

That, and the basement has been seeping lately. This complicates efforts to put packed boxes down there. More rain is predicted for tomorrow.

That, and I still have to feed the maw of with freshly edited commercial real estate articles every business day.

That, and I have a short bid’ness trip next week — to the New York office to meet with management.

So far this week it has been warm enough to wander around downtown without any kind of coat or even light jacket, and my formerly broken foot is happy, so I spend as much time as work allows on the streets of downtown Chicago, typically at lunchtime with the throngs of other walkers. It’s now Spring, finally, at last, at long last, after endless, interminable, never-ending Winter. It’s like getting out of jail.

Spring is indeed the cruelest month, for expatriate Southerners in the North: mainly because it doesn’t start on time, that is, in early April at the latest. Even now, in May, it could get as low as the 40° F.

Beginning tomorrow, I will take up the short subject of Minis, Maseratis, and Trabants.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Chicago, Assenisipia, blog.

A pretty big storm blew across DuPage County last night, but nothing like the winds that hit Missouri and Tennessee. It’s spring all right, tornado season, that is.

A few more words on “Sinnissippi.” Yesterday I wrote about that intriguing place-name, which sticks like doughnut glaze to the Rock River as an alternate name, and has some currency in parts of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin along that river, including as the name of a 2,855-acre lake in Dodge County, Wis., a county better known as the home of the Horicon Marsh. Being an Indian name, Sinnissippi is of course older than the Anglo culture that supplanted the Natives, and so has a number of written variations, depending on which Voyageur or missionary or unusually literate backwoodsman wrote it down.

Some years ago, I read a curious little document by Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a report to Congress — the Congress under the Articles of Confederation — about how to create states from the Northwest Territory and what to call them.

Jefferson suggested 10 states for the area that now contains six (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin). It was an exercise in hyper-rationality and hyperliteracy, though if his suggestions had been used, they would be normal and even venerated names — such is the power of custom.

Hyper-rational because, instead of paying attention to natural features, Jefferson cut the district into rectangles measuring two degrees of latitude north-to-south and roughly four degrees of longitude east-to-west (“roughly” because the irregular Mississippi River forms the western boundary of the territory). Besides the Mississippi, geographic form did intrude in what we call lower Michigan — even Jefferson wasn’t going to ignore lakes Michigan and Huron in drawing lines — as well as a few other places on his map, but he was doing his best to apply Longitude and Latitude to the new states’ boundaries. It was as if Colorado- and Wyoming-shaped states were to be created in the Midwest.

To be fair, the fact that people could measure the Earth in this way was rightly considered a triumph of empirical observation during the 18th century. The problem of measuring longitude accurately, after all, had only been solved by John Harrison within living memory of when Jefferson was writing.

Hyperliterate because of his proposed names, a mix representing Greek and Latin roots, Indian names, and names to honor George Washington and the Revolution. It’s a great what-if, geographically speaking.

The names are (north to south, east to west): Washington, Cherronesus, Metropotamia, Saratoga, Pelisipia, Sylvania, Michigania, Assenisipia, Illinoia, and Polypotamia. My own favorite is Cherronesus, mythical capital of the Amazons, which Jefferson called what we call lower Michigan (mostly). Of course, he did propose a form of Michigan, but stuck it on Wisconsin — and since it was already the name of the lake, I suppose there was no logical reason not to name lands to the west of it ‘Michigania,’ as opposed to those east of it.

Illinoia is the middle section of modern Illinois. Where I live would have been in Assenisipia, that variant of Sinnissippi. So it might have been Chicago, Assenisipia.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

Sinnissippi blog.

While we were in the Coronado Theatre, Yuriko was in the meantime in Rockford’s Riverfront Park with Ann, who had had limited experience with flawlessly warm days… for her whole life, actually. Temps were well above 70° F, the sun a friendly yellow ball. After the show was over, Lilly and I meandered over to the riverfront, and eventually linked up with Yuriko and Ann.

We drove a short ways north of downtown, looking for a more expansive park at which to finish off the afternoon. We found it on the other (west) bank of the Rock River, at the Sinnissippi Gardens and Park, which had a greenhouse that was already closed, and some gardens that were barely planted, but some benches to sit on and a lagoon with little rocks nearby — the kind Lilly enjoys heaving into the water.

By and by we wandered away from the gardens to an adjoining walking/bicycling path, appointed with greenery and benches, that parallels the Rock River. Rockford was out in force for the day, walking, jogging and bicycling along the path, but it wasn’t as crowded as the path in Chicago that runs along Lake Michigan. That was good, since it meant fewer of the kind of bicyclists who consider pedestrians as insubstantial as shades in Hades, meaning they can sail right through them.

We wandered northward on the path, away from Sinnissippi Gardens, going as far as an ice cream stand. It was good to have my feet back. Though I still had a minor limp and some muscle aches in the formerly broken ankle, last Sunday along the Rock River I was walking for pleasure once again. (Today, a week later, the aches are almost completely gone.)

I wouldn’t be much of an editor if I didn’t have an enduring fascination with words, and that includes place-names. Sinnissippi naturally got my attention. So like Mississippi, but that lead sibilant smooths off the first syllable. The curves of the S, you’d think, might be more fitting for that famous old river, bending and twisting as it does.

When I was able, I fed the name Sinnissippi into Google, the marvel of our age, and before long found an essay about the name Sinnissippi in a publication called “The Voice,” which sounds like something a cult aiming at respectability might produce, but in fact it’s put out by the Greater Rockford Chamber of Commerce. Which isn’t really a recommendation, since C of C publications have a way of being flaccid.

But the article was interesting. An obscure subject in an obscure publication: right up my alley. The essay was called “Rediscovering our region’s name of Sinnissippi.” A CPA named Dan G. Loescher had written it for the October 2002 issue of “The Voice.”

“Our region (the five-county territory of Winnebago, Boone, Stephenson and Ogle in Illinois and Rock in Wisconsin) may well be described as the Sinnissippi watershed,” Loescher begins.

“The Sinnissippi (Rock River) originates in Wisconsin near the Horicon Marsh in Dodge County, widens into a lake, flows in a southwesterly direction through Rock County, weaves through Illinois, and eventually deposits into the Mississippi River at a point just below Rock Island, Ill.

“The name Sinnissippi derives from ‘Assini-sippi,’ meaning ‘Rock River’ in the language of the Sauk and Fox tribes… The river was also called the Rock River by the early Illinois tribes, the Potawatomi and the Winnebago…

“Sinnissippi has been spelled ‘Assenisipi,’ ‘Ossinisipi’ and ‘Sensepe.’ The Sinnissippi name is commonly used throughout our five-county region even to this day in various organizations, such as the Sinnissippi Council of the Boy Scouts of America in Rock County; or in our parks, such as Sinnissippi Park in Rockford; and in our businesses, such as Sinnissippi Forest tree farm in Oregon, Ill.

Historically, a strong case can be made for the precedent in calling our region ‘Sinnissippi.’ Maybe our biggest challenge is in learning how to spell ‘Sinnissippi.’ Just think 'M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i.' ”

I’m just an interested outsider, but I think Mr. Loescher doesn’t go quite far enough. “Rockford” isn’t a bad name, but it’s a little pedestrian. Sinnissippi, on the other hand…

Saturday, May 03, 2003

Tyrannosaurus Blog.

The KinderKonzert at the Coronado Theatre in Rockford on Sunday was reasonably entertaining. Lilly fidgeted some, but perhaps, as she said, that was because she found it hard to see. She did seem to enjoy the fact that there were a lot of violins on stage, including some “really big ones,” i.e., cellos and bass.

Sometimes children’s shows are just that, for children, and this one involved abbreviated pieces of classical music — a bit of Saint-Saens, a stretch of Pachelbel — that were supposed to evoke time travel back to the age of Tyrannosaurus Sue, which is what the Field Museum in Chicago calls its tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Then the orchestra played “Tyrannosaurus Sue, A Cretaceous Concerto,” by composer Bruce Adolphe, which I understand was commissioned for the unveiling of that particular fossil at the Field Museum.

Adolphe’s piece was played in conjunction with narration by a local palaeontologist (he may be the only one in Rockford), plus cartoon illustrations of the life and times of the eponymous reptile. Not especially sophisticated illustrations, but I think the konzert went over well with the kinder.

I was never a big palaeo-enthusiast, myself, though my brother Jim was and is. Still, I’ve seen a few interesting dinosaur exhibits, including Sue. There are some marvelous skeletons at the New York Museum of National History that I liked, and closer to where many dinosaurs are unearthed, I got to see the fine collection at the Natural History Museum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Funny thing, while the bones were impressive enough in Mongolia, what I really remember was the fact that visitors to the museum were required to pay a fee to take photos of the exhibits, but no one bothered to enforce the prohibition against taking pictures without paying. The big dinosaurs were in a big room that reminded me of a high school gym built in the ’20s, and no guard or anyone else was there to stop members of our group from taking free snapshots.

Friday, May 02, 2003

The darnedest blogs.

According to the weather wizards, the Wednesday-Thursday storm was the most intense in many months, including tens of thousands of lightning bolts, and more than three inches of rain in DuPage and surrounding counties.

Art Linkletter was able to make profitable hay out of the “darnedest” things. I prefer it when kids say the surrealist things.

Last Sunday I was the helper in Lilly’s Sunday school class, a pre-K/K gang of a half-dozen or so kids, as I am about once a month. Sometimes the helper is called on to help the teacher with tasks that require two adults, but mostly he sits around, reflecting that he could never teach a class of children this young. I do that, anyway; I can’t speak for the other helpers.

At one point the kids were making Play-Dough crosses, the stone in front of the tomb, and other items relevant to the Resurrection, which was under discussion on this first Sunday after Easter. One little boy, while processing the story according to his own lights, rolled his clay into a long cylinder. “Some very, very bad men made Jesus into a hot dog,” he said.

After church and Sunday school, we hit the road briefly again, this time skirting the western suburbs and then heading northwest, with Rockford as the goal. Rockford is actually a sizable city, about 150,000 — making it the second-largest city in Illinois, with Aurora and Naperville next at over 100,000 — though when Yuriko asked me what the main business was there, I was stumped. Formerly industrial, would be my guess. And now? It turns out that companies still do make things there, such as aerospace components, screws and fasteners, machine tools and environmental controls. These are the kind of manufactures that are invisible to the everyday world, since you can’t pick up a mess o’ aerospace components at Wal-Mart. But in fact the largest employers are the local school district and several area hospitals.

The town is big enough to support the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, which calls the downtown Coronado Theatre home. Last fall, I found out that the RSO was giving a children’s concert there, and I set my sites on it, partly as part of Lilly’s ongoing education on Things Out in the World, partly for my own satisfaction of seeing that theater. It’s a theater in the old style, a movie palace of the 1920s, which I’d read was newly renovated.

The overall impression inside the Coronado is of velvet seats and gilt above. More gilding than your eye knows to do with, and the more you look at it, the less thematic it becomes. Apparently, it was designed to be eclectic.

A capsule description from the theater’s Web site: “The Coronado Theatre, Rockford's ‘Wonder Theatre,’ was originally built in 1927 as a movie house and vaudeville theatre. [It] is a classic example of the ‘atmospheric style,’ featuring a mixture of Spanish castles, Italian villas, Oriental dragons and gold-encrusted figures. The theatre recently underwent an 18-month, $18.5 million renovation and expansion. The Coronado Theatre re-opened its doors in January, 2001....”

“Atmospheric style,” eh? Whatever the architect felt like throwing in. But on the whole, it’s a good effect. Frederic Klein was the architect, about whom a search — an admittedly cursory one — reveals that he’s also known for some bungalows in Peoria. He’s not in my “AIA Guide to Chicago,” so he either did no work around here, or isn’t remembered for it. But surely it’s enough to have designed one fine movie palace that, unlike so many others, has survived into the 21st century. Most people don’t even get that small measure of posthumous fame.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

The Southern Blog.

May Day Update. A large thunderstorm rolled through metro Chicago last night, lasting well into the wee hours, drenching everything. The grass looked happy this morning.

Ann, now three months old, is alert and active. She flails with vigor, both arms and legs when she’s so inclined. This is pre-sitting up, pre-rolling over activity. Her colic is diminishing, but it still occurs — such as last night, during the storm.

Lilly, at five years and five months, has sprouted her first permanent tooth, a bottom incisor. She’s early in this, but she's also taller and weighs more than most of her peers.

Back to more recollections of times and places past. On New Year’s Day 1992, I was in Perth, and the next day I went south from there with a friend of mine, Simon, to poke around the wine-producing areas around the Margaret River, and to visit Cape Leeuwin. That prominence is considered as far southwest as you can go on the continent of Australia. There’s a lighthouse there, and a brown sign that informs passersby that to the right of the sign is the Indian Ocean, and to the left of the sign is the Southern Ocean, which is what the Australians call that yawning patch of water between them and Antarctica.

It was a pleasant early summer day — the temps in Western Australia hadn’t yet pushed toward 100° (that is, 35°+) as they would a few days later, but the sun was high and the wind warm. The view from Cape Leeuwin was an expanse of deep-blue ocean, and I looked to the horizon thinking that the next landmass in that direction would, indeed, be Antarctica. You feel like you’re at the end of the Earth there, because you are.

That night we stayed at a vacation cottage (or was a holiday bungalow?) owned by Simon’s parents. It was south of Perth quite a ways, and so the night was terrifically dark. I saw a new panoply of stars — southern stars. I spent a long time watching then. Simon, who was always eager to boast about Australia, assured me that this was the darkest place on Earth that wasn’t on the ocean or in Antarctica.

Maybe. But it was dark enough. The Milky Way was visible, of course, but better yet were the two fuzzy balls called the Magellanic Clouds — they look like pieces of the Milky Way that somehow drifted away, and they’re only visible from southern latitudes. They’re actually dwarf companion galaxies to the Milky Way, and up until that time for me had only been intriguing spots on sky charts. Orion, a “winter” constellation, was up — but standing on his head. Strange to see something so familiar, and so seemingly fixed, looking so different.

Later in the evening, other natives of the southern skies, Alpha and Beta Centauri, showed themselves as bright stars in that sky among stars in the impressive constellation Centaur. Nearby, the Southern Cross made an appearance too. But we were old friends by then. Early on the morning of December 28, while I was still staying with different friends on the coast of the Tasman Sea southeast of Canberra, I woke at about 3 a.m. and decided to go outside and look for it, since I hadn’t been able to see in the early evening sky. I wasn’t disappointed. Though that part of the country isn’t particularly dark, the Southern Cross formed an elegant little pattern nonetheless. It wasn’t the only thing I’d come so far to see, but it was one of them.