Monday, March 29, 2004

SPRING BREAK ahead for blogging. I'll be back next Monday.

Just when I thought I'd heard every sort of sound coming from a cell phone instead of a ring, this morning on the train I heard the distinctive opening notes from "Play That Funky Music." The owner of the phone was a fellow who didn't look quite old enough to have been listening to the radio in 1976, but I guess that doesn't matter. These things sometimes echo down a generation or two. If it were important to me, and if it were even possible, I might well program the opening of "Crazy Words, Crazy Tune" or "Yes, We Have No Bananas" into my cell phone.

It's not that important to me. Still, I hope that one Rob Parissi, who wrote "Play That Funky Music," gets a penny or so every time that phone rings. If not, get ASCAP on the case. He had only one hit, and that was it. (I had to look Mr. Parissi up at the AMG All Music Guide website, lest anyone think I'm completely addled.)

When I got to my office building, I noticed that Wacker Drive, the street in front of the building, was blocked off to traffic for a block. Then I noticed the fog machine. That could mean only one thing: a movie was being filmed there.

Sure enough, the word on the street -- literally, since I asked someone standing around -- was that crew was out to shoot scenes from a movie called Weatherman. Never heard of it. Evidently the director wanted a cold, wet scene, some weather for the weatherman, since besides the fog machine, I saw patches of cotton at the curbs, doubling for snow, and a fellow out with a spray can, wetting the movie cars that were on the street. Word on the street also said that Nicholas Cage was around, but I didn't bother to verify this.

I've seen a couple of movies being made over the years near a couple of different buildings I've worked in, namely the Wrigley Building and 35 E. Wacker Dr. The most interesting thing I ever saw was a device that created shadows for the camera. It looked like a giant cherry-picker, except that instead of a basket, it had large, flat panel on its mechanical arm that could rotate any which way, to block the sun. Mostly, though, it looks like making a movie, for members of the crew anyway, means a lot of standing around waiting to be told to do something.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Pho blog.

Terrific winds early in the day, followed by terrific rains in the afternoon. Been raining on and off for more than a week. Discovered that that much rain leaves a square patch of standing water on the site of the future garden in our backyard, which had clearly been a garden in the days of the previous owners. If we really do plant anything -- and we've got till about May 15 to think about it -- we'll have to bulk up the area with purchased soil. Our neighbors to the west have it even worse. Way back in their back yard is a huge puddle.

The rain slacked off in the early evening, and we had pho for Sunday dinner: Vietnamese beef and rice noodle soup, seasoned with the likes of ginger, star anise, peppercorn, garlic, other mysterious flavors. Comes in enormous bowls, makes quite a meal. Smells like heaven. You add some additional spices at the table -- mint and lime, for instance -- and go at it with long chopsticks and a Chinese-style soup spoon. We used to visit a joint near Argyle Street in the city, when we lived near there, but now that would be quite a trip. That place was merely called Pho. In fact, it was the first place we ever took Lilly, when she was exactly a month old.

We'd been looking for a pho place here in the northwest suburbs, and someone had recommended Pho Ha (the Laughing Soup?) in Glendale Heights, a couple of suburbs over and one down. It had that storefront ambience: mostly bare walls except for calendars advertising some Asian beer, plus first-generation Vietnamese immigrants sitting at nearby tables, smoking and eating pho. The main differences in the various pho on offer at a place like this seem to be in the cuts of beef that go into it. Back near Argyle Street I remember ordering pho with bible tripe sometimes, which I later found out was not just cow stomach, but the third stomach. I didn't see that on the menu this evening, but no matter, our suburban pho was good.

Saturday, March 27, 2004


My nephew Sam e-mailed me to say that a hundredth of a euro in Italy is called "uno centisimo." Two would be "due centisimi." Didn't coin any new words for the new coins, I see.

The following was undated -- very rare for my documents -- but I think it was the spring of 1993:

Occasionally I still find things written on various surfaces in Japan that still surprise me, though mostly I'm inured to fractured English in public places. But one of the inscriptions I found this week was in Latin. I've seen a lot of English, plus some French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Chinese and even a little Arabic and Greek written for public view in Japan, but this was the first Latin. It really is an inscription, too, Roman-style on a freestanding column.

I was in Amagasaki, which is between Osaka and Kobe, walking near that city's performing arts center. It's set in a small park, and in one spot, surrounded by trees, is an off-white concrete column mounted on a pedestal of cemented stones. The column is about six feet high and two feet in diameter. Written on it is this (I copied it, I was so impressed):


My guess is that this is a copy of a road or bridge marker from the time of the Septimus Serverus, Caracalla and Geta, which, I remember, was a pretty thin slice of the early 3rd century AD, since Caracalla rubbed out Geta in 212, as soon as he got the chance, to become sole emperor. The real question is what this is doing in Amagasaki. There are no other markings or signs in any other language, much less Japanese, to explain it.

Also found recently, on the plastic package of two little pies ("tarts"): "Enjoy a delightful tart, sitting in your favorite chair," and "Visit your friend with these exquisite tarts, to enjoy together." My Australian friends got an enormous kick out of those two lines.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Postcards from the edge (of the world) blog.

Postcards from different ends of the Earth have arrived recently. One carries the image of a "Portrait of a Girl," by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525), which is now found in a Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. Even a postcard can be an education; I didn't know that particular artist, but I do now. My nephew Sam, in the middle of his semester in Florence, sent it on March 16, according to the postmark, and it arrived yesterday. Not bad for the Italian post office. Cost to send a card from Italy to the USA: 0.70 euros. Roughly comparable to the price of an overseas card from the United States. It occurs to me that I don't know what a hundredth of a euro is called.

Two cards mailed on March 19 from New Zealand came today, from Ed, who ought to be back in Arizona by now, but still in recovery from the long plane ride. Bride magazine paid for him to go, so he could write an article about the place, as a honeymoon destination, I suppose. Now that's a fine writing gig. Cards from those islands cost NZ$1.50.

One card is of Wellington, on which he tells me that the national capitol of the country is nicknamed the beehive, "for good reason." The second card is of Mitre Peak, a remote-looking place on the South Island. "Overall, NZ looks much like Canada," he notes. "Like a very pretty part of Canada. Maybe it's a latitude thing. Maybe it's a Commonwealth thing. But last night, on a ship in Doubtful Sound, I went under a clear sky that looked entirely wrong."

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Runcible blog.

Many tasks for the day, but no more hours in which to do them.

The following is from Geof Huth, who asked me to use his full name, instead of "Geof H.," which he says makes him sound like a criminal.

"We, of course, own Spirited Away, which I think is probably the best animated film of the last few decades. (I'm still an aficionado of animation, and I love Pixar films, so this is no easy toss of a phrase.) Also, Nancy [his wife] brought home the same Citizen Kane DVD you wrote about, but she didn't want to watch that little feature about William Randolph Hearst fighting Charles Foster Kane."

At first I thought that was a slip on Geof's part, but then I decided that in fact Hearst was fighting Charles Foster Kane, in a sense. A real millionaire doing battle with a fictional one, and, as the American Experience episode about Citizen Kane pointed out, Hearst lost. Lost in the sense that more people would probably think of him as being like Kane than the other way around. As a historic figure, he's been crowded out by a fictional one.

Then again, maybe that's intellectualizing the dispute too much. It could well be, as many have asserted, that the old man was really upset about how Marion Davies became Suzan Alexander Kane. Not a particularly flattering transformation, that.

Geof continues: "By the way, Hearst Castle is pretty much worth the visit. A beautiful place. I will never forget learning the term marrow spoon there. (Why people would eat marrow -- out of bones, not out of garden patches -- enough to require a special spoon is beyond me.)"

Me too. But it would be even more remarkable if they had a runcible spoon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Elevator microcosm blog.

Spam with this subject line today: "Crud." That's going to make me open it up. I was just thinking the other day how low we are on crud. If I can order it on the Internet, I won't have to go to Costco to get a five-gallon jar. Or the dry kind that comes in 20-lb. bags. No, wait, that's dry rot...

Rain today, not snow. A warming trend ahead. This is how March should be: warm from now on, till the high hot days of summer. Of course, it won't be. The warming trend will run out of oomph, and rear-guard winter will be back.

Had a good interview with an elevator engineer today. I like interviewing people who work in completely different microcosms than me, if only to be reminded of those myriad, partly overlapping worlds. This fellow's specialty is overseeing the modernization of elevators all over North America for Kone, a giant in the elevator field. Since elevators are so variable, it's essentially custom engineering, and an intricate process. And completely invisible to the average elevator-rider, unless something goes wrong.

The talk reminded me -- it should be no surprise -- of something I saw once. Not only saw, but rode in. Yuriko and I had occasion to visit a short office building in Prague once, only a few years after the fall of communism there, and we needed to go to the fourth or fifth floor. The twin elevator shafts had walls, but no elevator cars. Instead, there were platforms in each shaft. The platforms moved, and when the platform in one shaft was going up, the other went down, and then they would reverse.

Not only that, the platform on which you rode didn't stop at your floor. It was slow-moving, and you hopped on a platform as it came level with your floor, and off again at your destination. What happened if you slipped, I shudder to think. It was an astonishingly dangerous bit of equipment for public use, and I think we walked down the stairs after our business was done. It probably dated from early elevator days, and under communism there was no money to replace it.

One of these days, I'm going to start work on that sorely needed guidebook, Great Elevators of Europe, which ought to give Rick Steves some serious competition.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

AHJS Blog.

Periodically my mother sends me obituaries from the San Antonio Express-News, which is sometimes how I learn about the passing of former teachers, or parents of people I knew in school, or on sad occasion people I knew in school (for example, Stephen Humble, 1961-2002; much too tight a parenthesis). Recently she sent me a notice for Lawrence D. Williams Jr. (1918-2004), who taught Texas history at Alamo Heights Junior School for years on either side of the time I attended, 1973 to 1975.

I didn't have Mr. Williams as a teacher, but I knew who he was. The luck of the seventh-grade draw put me in Mrs. Carico's class (I'm not sure of that spelling). But she was seriously ill for I don't know how long -- six weeks, two months -- and one Mr. Nichols, whom I think had come out of retirement, filled in for her at the beginning of the school year. I remember very little about him, except for the story he told about sailing on a ship through the Panama Canal.

As for Mrs. Carico, I came away from her class with a good dose of Texas history; and she made us memorize all the states of the union in a peculiar down-and-up, up-and-down sequence beginning with Maine, even though I didn't need any help in remembering the states. I also vaguely remember her sardonic streak. Usually she would save her mocking for kids who deserved it. One time we had to pick, hypothetically, a business or job to pursue on the Texas Gulf Coast, and say our choice out loud -- and it couldn't be something someone else had picked.

I said I would open a hotel, an acceptable answer. Most of the other kids had answers, too. When it came the turn of a fellow named Kyle, he said nothing for a long spell. Kyle, as it happened, was a jackass in the way that only seventh graders can be, a fact probably not lost on Mrs. Carico. "So, Kyle," she said. "You're going to sit on your porch and collect welfare?" Now that I think about it, that was a really pointed barb in a wealthy and conservative place like Alamo Heights.

Lawrence Williams' obituary mentions his service in World War II and Korea, rising to Lt. Colonel in the Army; his years teaching seventh graders at AHJS; and his wife, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchild. It also has this to say: "He visited all seven continents, dipped a toe in each ocean, had his landing craft capsize at Pitcairn Island, and was shipwrecked in the Solomon Islands. He turned 82 in Borneo, flow around Mt. Everest, and went to seldom-visited lands."

So long, Mr. Williams. I'm a little sorry I was never in your class.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Koz blog.

I've been posting entirely too much about the likes of The Sun Also Rises and Citizen Kane lately, so it's time to turn my attention to another long-lasting cultural icon, the Three Stooges. I've mentioned them before (Dec 1, 2003), but it's time to re-visit, especially since Lilly and I have made it a habit recently to watch a show on Saturday nights called Stooge-a-palooza, which, as it turns out, is a local show produced locally, for a local audience.

Moreover, it airs on an independent UHF station: WCIU, Channel 26. I discovered that business fact recently, and it was like finding a genuine, locally owned diner, or a non-chain motel run as a family business. Mostly, WCIU airs schlock sitcom reruns from the '80s or other low-budget comedy -- Judge Judy et al. -- like that old diner might serve mostly greasy hamburgers and fries. But it also shows Stooge-a-palooza, which offers a different set of Columbia Stooge shorts each week, plus commentary from the show's host and producer, Rich Koz.

Koz has been a Chicago-market TV producer and host since the '70s, and also hosts (wearing a lot more makeup) a bad horror and/or SF movie show right after Stooge-a-palooza. When I say bad, I mean really bad, not campy bad, or some other interpretation. I suppose Koz and WCIU get what they can, cheap.

Anyway, Koz reads mail to the Stooge show on the air every week, and this time I was inspired to write my own letter:

Dear Mr. Koz,
I watch Stooge-a-palooza with my six-year-old daughter Lilly, who loves the show. You're doing your part to make Stooge fans of the next generation.

Last week you mentioned songs with the Stooges in their lyrics, but I didn't hear you mention Timbuk3's "Hairstyles and Attitudes," which goes like this:

"I've done lots of research.
It may be just hype, but the latest findings cause me to tremble.
They categorize us into three basic types,
According to which of the Three Stooges you most closely resemble."

Also, though it isn't a song lyric, humorist P.J. O'Rourke wrote: "All of existence can be analyzed in terms of the Three Stooges -- everything in life being either stupid and nasty (Moe), stupid (Larry), or very, very stupid indeed (Curly)."

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Hot and cold running weekend, the blog version.

A strange, two-headed weekend. Saturday was so warm (60s F) that we were out most of the day, for a while at the Spring Valley Nature Reserve, one of the least-developed parts of Schaumburg. But as the sun started to go down on this equal day-night weekend, we couldn't leave it at that, and we went to inspect consumer electronics at a well-known consumer electronics megastore near the Woodfield Mall, which is the heart of hyperdeveloped Schaumburg.

After all that, when I finally got home, I had no taste for keyboards or iMacs or digging through old papers looking for something interesting to publish at this site. March has been a hard month for that. Historically -- speaking in terms of personal history, that is -- March usually isn't that interesting.

Sunday, to pick up the two-headed analogy, was so cold (30s F) that it was hard to go outside, so we didn't very much. Spent a lot of time with the new electronic toys, as usual with new toys. The toys encouraged us to stay home and pursue video zombification. For one thing, the RF modulator has made it easier to play back some of our home-made tapes (8mm) and watch them on the TV. Over the years I haven't been zealous about videotaping, though I do have a few tapes from some of the trips we took when Lilly was a toddler, and for some reason she gets a kick out of seeing them. She was less interested in some of the footage we made before she was born.

Kids! No interest in history.

(When I hear some sentiment like that, I usually don't take it too seriously. What people often mean is that people younger than themselves have no interest in the older person's nostalgia.)

Played around with some of the features that make DVD a value-added video proposition, such as the fact that you can change the movie's language, within certain limits. One of our purchases on Saturday was the DVD of Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi), Miyazuki Hayao's exceptional animated feature. Built into the disc are the original Japanese, English and I believe a French soundtrack. Also, I watched the companion piece to Citizen Kane, the American Experience episode called "The Battle Over Citizen Kane," a fine documentary in the shape of twin mini-biographies of Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst.

Watching this kind of thing can have peculiar side effects. This particular documentary made me want to go off and see the Hearst Castle, if not Xandu. We were nearby the Hearst Castle on a family vacation in 1973, but didn't visit, because we would have had to wait all day to get in.

Friday, March 19, 2004

MCI blog.

Normally I keep my office work out of this blog, but today I will make an exception, and offer up an edited version of an e-mail I sent recently. It doesn't really reflect on my employer, or even offer any information at all about my company, except that we have MCI as our phone provider. So I don't believe I'm violating any company rules.

Not long ago, our IT man asked me for a wish list of improvements to the phone service.

Sydney -
You asked for an MCI wish list a while ago. Here's mine:

1. That all former WorldCom execs do their time in unheated prison farms in North Dakota...


You know we want to pick up the other phones in the office without having to leave our own desks, but MCI prefers that we get up. Guess we'll live with that for now. MCI wants us to exercise, I guess.

1. Customized voice-mail greetings. That I would actually be able to record a message saying I'm out of the office, etc. The inflexible, one-greeting only system we have now was clearly designed by people looking to lighten their job loads, with no thought to end users in actual business settings.

2. Voice mail that I can access by calling in once and once only. About 80% of the time, the voice mail has to be called twice in rapid succession before I can access my mailbox.

3. If I pick up the phone and hesitate for all of five seconds or so, the most God-awful electronic noise emits from the receiver. BAB! BAB! BAH! BAH! BAH! BAH! I want this idiotic sound to go away, or at least wait half a minute or so before ringing in my ears.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Charles Foster Blog.

Some more spam poetry. "Freya carthage bowl meteor egypt," by one "Phoebe Melvin." Then the message from a "Forest Hathaway," noting: "Re: Decrease Schlesinger," which is a nifty name that reminds me of Increase Mather. Decrease's parents, however, were clearly not very optimistic. Maybe they were members of the Lost Generation.

"Lost Generation" I can live with. Maybe it's my fondness for Hemingway and Fitzgerald, or maybe because they’re almost all dead, and there are no fatuous newspaper trend pieces about the Lost Generation. (But then again, in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway wrote: "But the hell with her [Gertrude Stein's] lost-generation talk, and all the dirty, easy labels.")

Other generational nicknames are just annoying, mostly because of the stereotypes that stick to them like syrup. "Greatest Generation" is a pandering term, invented to sell books; defeating the Axis was certainly a noble thing, but you can't tell me that human beings of that generation were more noble than any other -- if fighting in a bitter war is all it takes to be the greatest, why not the generations that fought the Revolution, the Civil War or World War I? "Baby Boom(er)" almost guarantees that some silly notion is being discussed, unless it’s how that demographic is going to be shorted by Social Security. "Generation X" caught on, I believe, because people wanted a place to hang stereotypes about people born after 1964, or however it's defined.

Watched about a quarter of Citizen Kane last night because Law & Order was a rerun. The stop-motion feature proved itself during the "News on the March" newsreel-within-the-movie, when the significance of Kane's death is illustrated by flipping newspapers one atop the other, each with a headline about Kane. Several English-language papers flip by first, to anchor the scene with an English-reading audience, and then there's a rapid succession of other languages: French, Spanish, Russian and lastly Japanese.

I froze the image to look at the Japanese paper, and I could make out several words -- the katakana for "Kane" and the kanji for "newspaper" and "world" and "die." I asked Yuriko to read it, and sure enough, she confirmed that it read like a real paper, with headlines about the founder of the world's biggest newspaper company dying. Nice touch, Mr. Welles.


Wednesday, March 17, 2004

DVD blog.

Video has been on my mind lately, since we've acquired a DVD player, which I made fully functional just last night. This took some doing, since our television was manufactured back around the founding of Ur -- well, actually ca. 1995 -- and the instructions for connecting the DVD to the TV assumed that the TV has certain female connections that it does not. Complicating things was the fact that we wanted to maintain the VCR, too.

The DVD instructions didn't acknowledge that anyone with a DVD could even have such an old TV. Remarkable that something as dry as a consumer electronics instruction manual can have a subtext, but it does, and this is it: Go out and buy a new TV, old man. It will be obsolete in about six months, by the way.

Which in turn makes me think of the push toward high-definition television. What for? Cui bono? I've never seen a satisfactory explanation of why it matters if TV pictures are so much clearer, and why it's worth spending any money to achieve that end. The argument for HDTV seems to boil down to this: It's the wave of the future because, well, just because it is. Go out and buy a new TV already.

Anyway, I didn't buy a new TV, but instead an RF modulator, which I learned about by running "DVD VCR Connection" through Google. This turned up a number of articles, all of which pointed to the RF modulator as the solution. It sounds like the device Marvin the Martian used, but it's essentially a box into which all the relevant cables from the TV, VCR and DVD connect. It then sorts things out.

Amazingly, I hooked it all up, and it worked. Just amazing. No mysterious failures not explained in the manual, no crucial steps overlooked by me, no need to go out to buy some missing auxiliary part. I then took Lilly to the video store, and rented her choice of disc: Barbie as Rapunzel (not as bad as it sounds). The store we went to had almost nothing older than about 1960. Grrrr. I got one of the few older titles they did have worth seeing with a clear stop-motion capacity: Citizen Kane.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Saumrai blogger.

About a month ago, Yuriko and I went to see The Last Samurai in the theater. It had its moments, but wasn't all that good. Not long ago I got an e-mail from the most erudite movie aficionado I know, Kevin D., who offered this take on the movie:

"I went to see The Last Samurai last night at the second-run shows and left after an hour. I can't remember the last time I walked out on a movie. But with this one, I think the realization that I still had 90 minutes to go caused me to flee.

"Talk about a movie in need of an editor. I felt that easily most of the events in the first hour could have been condensed. While I've liked Cruise in other things, I found him flat, silly and sullen. I know this was the character, but I found him unbelievably phony.

"And then there was my big bugaboo, the score. That's what probably what drove me from the theater. Why the director would take the pains to have such lovely cinematography and set design in his movie, only to have it sabotaged by the droning of caterwaulings of Hans Zimmer (my least favorite film composer of all time) is astounding. I hated it and the idea of having to listen for another 90 minutes was the deciding factor. No attempt to define musically the film's setting or period, and each scene scored with the same heavy-handed style.

"This thing made The Barbarian and the Geisha (John Wayne as Townsend Harris, one of my least favorite Waynes) look like Gone with the Wind."

I answered (spoiler included): "Well, I think of it as a mediocre movie with a few good scenes and a terrible finish. The final battle scenes were well done. And I was quite fond of the evocation of old Tokyo. But the story was weak, and the end was truly awful -- pure Hollywood tripe: sentimental, historically absurd claptrap, added perhaps because focus groups couldn't stand seeing Tom Cruise die.

"You see, he didn't die in the final battle with the forces of greedy modernization. Ken Watanabe did. But somehow or other, Tom Cruise didn't. Wounded, yes. Dead, no. He didn't die like a samurai, dammit."

[Cruise plays a Civil War veteran who, in 1876, goes to assist the new Japanese government in suppressing a samurai rebellion, but ends up admiring the samurai, going native, and fighting against the government.]

I continued: "Then, some time later, he limps into another audience with the Emperor Meiji. (Why Cruise isn't in prison instead isn't explained.) At which point the Emperor, on the verge of signing an arms treaty with an American delegation, changes his mind in a fit of patriotism, and promises "Japan for the Japanese" or some such unhistorical rubbish. Then the narrator says that no one really knows what happened to Cruise's character, but maybe he went back to that village to live with Ken Watanabe's widowed sister... and we see scenes of the two together. Ugh.

"I'll take you word on the score. I don't remember a thing about it."

Kevin answered: "Well, it sounds like I made the right decision. I'll stick with Kurosawa and Mifune in the future, thank you very much. I wonder if the focus groups will change the upcoming The Alamo, so that Crockett, Bowie and Travis survive the battle to continue to fight for Texan independence."

I answered: "It's also hard to go wrong with Itami Juzo. As a young man, Ken Watanabe was in Tampopo, a delightfully strange movie. It's hard to believe he's the same man, he's aged so.

"I'm not looking for good history in the new Alamo. Of course, the Duke's version wasn't strong on that, but it didn't matter. The main thing is to get this formula right: brave men die for freedom in a spectacular battle. John Wayne did that in his movie (eventually). I'm not so sure contemporary filmmakers have it in them."

And finally, Kevin had this to say: "While suffering through Mr. Cruise's epic last night, I was flashing back to a movie I've always enjoyed called Red Sun. I think circa 1971, it starred Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and (hubba-hubba) Ursula Andress. A western filmed in Spain, Mifune played the Japanese ambassador traveling through the western U.S. when his train is attacked by bandits. His ceremonial samurai sword is stolen by the robbers (I think he was going to present to the U.S. President as a gift from the Emperor) and teams up with Bronson to track the bandits and reclaim the sword.

"Very enjoyable and the situations and discussions about the different cultures (American vs. Japanese) was more interesting and profound than Last Samurai, and it only lasted two hours and was entertaining and pointed without being preached to, as I felt I was last night. With Red Sun, the teacher was breezy and entertaining, while the Last Samurai teacher was an incredible bore who didn't know when to stop."

Monday, March 15, 2004

Sikh blog.

(Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar. See last year's March 15 blog for more on that.)

I met Dr. Kathuria briefly this morning. In full, Chirinjeev Kathuria, MD, MBA, who is to my knowledge the only Sikh running for the U.S. Senate. He's running in the Republican primary, which is tomorrow, and he was out pressing the flesh outside Union Station when I emerged from my ride into town. Some of his campaign workers were handing out leaflets, and I took one and asked where the candidate was. I was directed to the right person: a dignified-looking fellow, about my age, wearing a suit and a turban.

I shook his hand and said, "Good luck."

"Thanks," he said. "That means a lot to me."

And maybe it did. I understand he's been getting a lot of hate mail, which is a damned shame.

Normally, I would say that identity politics is a bane, but the Senate would be a more interesting chamber, visually at least, if it had a Sikh member. That doesn't mean I'm going to vote for Dr. K for that reason alone, or at all, but I'm glad he's running, even though the odds of him being the nominee are slender -- he's "more likely to go to Mars," according to the Chicago Reader in its assessment of the primary.

His leaflet's also like no other political tract I've seen, in that it has a short lesson on Sikhism, with these subheads: Why the Turban? Sikh History. What Sikhs Believe.

Then there was Sikhs and California Peaches: "There is a saying about Sikhs that they have the power to make the desert bloom. Today, Sikh farms in Yuba and Sutter counties account for the production of fifty-five percent of California's cling peaches." Now that's a fact worth getting out of bed on Monday morning to learn.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Onsen egg blog.

Item from the early '90s. Nippon days and nights. The holiday I refer to is March 20 or 21, the spring solstice, a legal holiday in Japan.

March 22, 1992.

I just returned about an hour ago from an overnight onsen trip. The hot springs were pleasant, and not nearly as crowded as I thought a holiday weekend might be. We went to the ordinary public bath in the town, not the somewhat expensive small resort nearby, called "Refresh World," which -- to judge by the brochure -- is a complex of pools and saunas, all fed by thermal springs, like the public path. Maybe the crowds were at Refresh World.

As one place in town, the spring bubbles up into a couple of special outdoor pools; not wells, exactly, but low stone walls that square around the water. That's where you can taste the water -- it's slightly sulfurous -- and boil your eggs. Onsen tamago are what they're called, these eggs, meaning "hot springs eggs." As far as I could tell, they're ordinary chicken eggs sold in groups of five or ten in fish-net bags in every shop in the vicinity, marked up from the already outrageous price of eggs.

Once you buy a bag, you tie it to the bamboo poles crisscrossing the stone square, so that it dangles in the bubbling water, and wait 12 minutes. There's a big clock on a nearby pole for timing your eggs. Boiled, the onsen egg is a little hard to peel, slightly sulfurous-tasting, and otherwise very much like a boiled egg. I asked if egg-boiling is the custom at all the onsen. My companions, Japanese all, said yes. Actually, they said, "so so so."

On the way home, really a little out of the way from straight home, we visited the Tottori Sand Dunes, a park along the Sea of Japan. Pretty fair-sized piles of sand, with a nice vista from the top. They reminded me of the dunes on the coast of North Carolina, minus the hang gliders. There were a couple of parasailers (parasailors?), but they were down on the beach, and they never seemed to go anywhere anyway. Since these were sand dunes, some entrepreneur brought in some camels, three or four of the beasts, and was charging for rides. It was a mild novelty, but not worth Y2000 for a few minutes' ride.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Colorful clouds blog.

My last year in school, I was the news editor of the student paper, the Vanderbilt Hustler. It came out twice a week, and usually it meant a late night to put the paper out -- sometimes I wouldn't get home till 2 or 3 a.m. on deadline days. For some reason the editor wasn't around for the closing of the March 1, 1983 issue, and the rest of us had to finish things off.

It got late, and way back on page nine of that issue (it had 12 pages), we were short a couple of column inches. I don't know how it came up, but I had also been talking about the weather, describing the gray and silver and red snow clouds I'd seen at the beginning of that weekend. I can't remember who got the idea, but we filled the space with the following. (Room 138 of the Sarratt Student Center was where we worked on the paper.)

Headline: Weather Discussed

Dees Stribling, Arts and Science senior, delivered a talk on "Weather Weirdness" at 1:30 a.m. Monday morning, Feb. 28 in Room 138 of Sarratt Student Center. The talk concerned the unusual weather in Nashville on Friday, Feb. 25.

Said Stribling, "Friday's weather was probably the strangest weather we'll see before the end of this century. It snowed on and off all day, usually when the sun was out, but if there were clouds, they were all of extraordinary color."

Friday, March 12, 2004

Dada spam blog.

Andre Codrescu, one of my favorite voices in radio, had a piece the other day on spam poetry -- the strings of words sent as subject lines on some spam. I think he compared it to Dada, as well he should. Got a good one myself today: this was the subject line, verbatim: chord halfhearted adjoin hosiery cube.

No definitive word on which set of barbarians blew up those trains in Spain, but it's more than enough to give a daily rail commuter like myself pause. It would be all too easy to do the same here. Sometimes, in fact, I marvel a major act of train terrorism hasn't happened in North America yet. But I expect it's just a matter of time.

Do I quit riding trains? No, of course not. Trains are an amenity of the Chicago area that I really like. Without them, Chicago roads would be horribly congested, as opposed to ordinarily congested. Then again, in some ways road congestion is just an unintended consequence of custom anyway. Once I offered this idea to some co-workers of mine: "There wouldn't be traffic jams every day," I suggested, "if our employers didn't require us all to come to work at the same time." Reaction: Blank faces.

Besides, I can read on the train. I finished Lindbergh some time ago and I may be on the verge of a Hemingway bender. Both of my readers might remember my fondness for The Sun Also Rises, which I read roughly once every Olympiad (see July 22, 2003, "The Blog Also Rises"). I decided to pick it up again and am most of the way through. I have a mind to dig up some of his other works after that, even the handful that I've never read. Maybe.

Though a serious book, it's got comedy. The following might mean that one of the characters was the first Log Cabin Republican: "Listen. [Bill Gorton says to Jake Barnes, as they prepare to go fishing.] You're a hell of a good guy, and I'm fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn't tell you that in New York. It'd mean I was a faggot. That was what the Civil War was about. Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with General Grant. So was Jefferson Davis. Lincoln just freed the slaves on a bet. The Dred Scott case was framed by the Anti-Saloon League. Sex explains it all…."

Bet that didn't make it into the 1950s movie version. Which I won't watch, because I like the book too much.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Elvis Cablog.

For days now, the weatherpeople have been atwitter about snow. Any snow in March must be more of a story than in February or January, but the weather hasn't obliged. We've only gotten a smattering of snow this week. Which isn't to say that it hasn't been windy and cold -- lows of 15 F predicted for the wee hours tonight. This only means that the long slog into Spring is under way, with Winter no more willing to give ground than the Japanese on Iwo Jima.

Got in a cab this morning, and a look at the license told me that the owner was the Elvis Cab Co. I forgot to check to see if that was written on the outside of the vehicle anywhere, but I don't think it was. The driver wasn't an Elvis impersonator. He was of Middle Eastern descent, but I don't see that as an obstacle to pursing greater Elvishood, which is open to all humanity. So he could have been. An Elvis cabbie might be a better fit in Las Vegas, however.

The cab took me to the Maggiano's in River North for a meeting. For a restaurant that's actually part of an enormous restaurant company -- Brinker Family Restaurants, which at last count had 1,400+ restaurants, including many Maggiano's -- this particular location does a decent simulation of a standalone restaurant, unlike Brinker's best-known brand, Chili's, which could never be mistaken for such. I've never been to a Chili's. I can't say why exactly, but maybe because somehow I've gotten the impression that I'm not missing much.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

P.O. blog.

Went to the Haymarket Station Post Office today, and wondered on the walk back about the future of the post offices. Will they vanish as completely as whaling stations someday, victim of e-mail and Web logs like this one? Maybe not, since I went to the p.o. today to mail a box, something that can't be sent electronically.

You can imagine a future in which the libertarians have taken over -- so to speak -- and instead of post offices, the likes of Fedex and UPS are all we have. They would busy themselves consolidating, eventually forming a monopoly-like cartel of privately owned delivery services... which would function like the post office, but not necessarily be any better, and possibly more expensive, while cutting service to areas without enough volume.

Just a thought. I don't want to see it happen, since I think the post office should be a quasi-public utility. I've never disliked the USPS the way some people do. It could, of course, be more efficient, and cheaper, but it isn't particularly inefficient or expensive. Compare it to: Japan and Britain for expense, or Canada and Italy for efficiency; I think the USPS does all right by those comparisons. Of course, a place like Germany might be have a better and cheaper post office. All that means is the USPS ought to hire German consultants.

Besides, I like some post office buildings, especially the older ones, and the ones with that WPA flavor to them. The Uptown p.o. in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago is a little run down, like the neighborhood itself, but it’s got some fine WPA murals inside. The Miami Beach p.o., which I've mentioned before (January 23), not only had a (dry) water fountain inside, but also History of Florida murals that depicted Indians and Spaniards with great style, but in a way that probably wouldn't pass muster these days.

But my favorite post office isn't part of the USPS. It's the main post office in Saigon, Ho Chi Mihn City if you prefer, at least as it was in 1994. It was a remarkably preserved piece of colonial architecture, yellow outside, with an enormous vaulted ceiling inside. It looked like the French had just stepped out, but it was also unmistakably Vietmanese: inside, a big portrait Uncle Ho looked down on everyone.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Report card blog.

Lilly update. Lilly's second-semester report card came home today. I don't remember if I received an actual report card when I was in kindergarten, but somehow I think that was a formality Favor's Kindergarten in Denton, Texas, did without in those long-lost days in 1966 and '67. But that was then.

"The Purpose of the Progress Report Card is to [says the report card about itself, using its capitalizations]: Provide a framework for promoting student progress and growth based on the Illinois Learning Standards..." That is, we're already thinking about standardized test scores.

The report card isn't actually a card, not in the style of a folded piece of paper with letters inked in columns by the teacher. It's the printout from a computer; but I have no doubt that Ms. Sullivan, Lilly's teacher, put the letters in. Except that they aren't letter grades. They're "terms." NE = Not Evident. B = Beginning. D = Developing. CD = Consistently Demonstrates.

I won't list all the "skill descriptors," as the card says, though they are categorized as Literacy Concepts (that's two Rs); Math Concepts (one more R); Work Habits and Social Development; and Fine Motor Development. I also won't gloat over the little one's successes at this point -- "she's on the road to a PhD in Lunar Biology, I tell you... and a Nobel Prize in Vexillology!" -- but it does seem that things are coming along, mostly Ds and CDs. The only flat-out NE in the second semester is "Rhymes words," which mystifies me, since I've heard her rhyming at home with my own ears.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Chicken feet blog.

Yuriko was feeling a little poorly today, so I did some grocery shopping for her this evening, to that world food emporium called Valli, which I've written about before (see Sept 9, 2003). It's full of minor marvels, for those who bother to look around.

Next to the small tubs of chicken livers -- I bought one of those -- was a selection of chicken feet. Each package had about a dozen of the things. A bundle of chicken feet wrapped up and ready to go. Not something I'd ever seen outside of China, or Chinatowns, and even there they weren't packaged in plastic like at an American grocery store. I forgot to check the price.

I'd read that there might be a shortage of chicken feet, because of the bird flu in Asia. So I would have stocked up, had I been in the market. But I've tried chicken feet, at least twice, at two different dim sum venues, and I never acquired the taste. Something like fried bones, they were.

"The foot of the bird contains only part of the ankle bones," says the University of Illinois Extension Web site. "In mammals, all of the ankle bones are included as part of the foot. Poultry raisers use the term 'hock' synonymous with the ankle region and 'hockjoint' with ankle joint. The bird does not have a well-developed calcaneum, which forms the heel of man.

"No bird has more than four toes except chickens of the Dorking, Faverolle, Houden, Sultan, and Non-bearded Silkie Bantams, all of which have five toes. In these breeds the extra toe arises above the base of the hallux and projects upward, never touching the ground. In the Silkie, the extra toes often lie nearly in the same plane as the hallux. Some birds have only three toes, while the ostrich has two toes.

"In poultry literature, reference is made to booted and booting. This refers to feathering of the metatarsus rather then to a fusion of scales. 'Ptilopody' would be a better term to designate leg feathering."

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Sakai blog.

Items from the past, in this case a passage from a letter I sent from Japan. I'd forgotten I'd taken such an interest in a place called Sakai.

March 13, 1992.

Sakai is a southern suburb of Osaka, these days an agglomeration of quayside factories, boxy dwellings and traffic, home to about 800,000 people. In modern times, it's a place of no particular distinction. But it has a history, traces of which remain. Before the Edo era, it was the main port of the Kansai, not Osaka, which could properly be described as Sakai's northern suburb in those old days.

St. Francis Xavier landed in Sakai en route from Kyushu to Kyoto, and succeeded in making converts there, the most noteworthy being the daimyo of Senshu (the ancient province centering on Sakai). Looking further into this, I've discovered that there's a park in Sakai called Zabieru-koen -- "Xavier" rendered into Japanese + "koen," park -- dedicated in 1949, 400 years after St. Francis Xavier landed in Japan. During the Tokugawa suppression of Christianity, evidently a nucleus of Sakai-area Japanese Christians went underground; at the time of the Meiji revolution, they re-emerged. A similar dynamic played out in other places, most famously Nagasaki. Now Sakai has a relatively large Christian population, and a number of churches. But that is relatively speaking, since overall Japan's Christian population is about 1% of the total, I think.

There are other spots of interest there, too, including a 5th-century tumulus that bears distinct design similarities to sites in Korea.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Head cheese blog.

First things first: REMEMBER THE ALAMO.

More items from the past. These notes were written very early in my living in Chicago. In fact, I’d been there -- living in a fine apartment in a neighborhood called Andersonville on the North Side -- about five weeks. It got unexpectedly warm, and I hit the roads to see what I could see.

March 7, 1987.

A 70 F March day in Chicago: will I see the likes of it again this century? And it happened to be a Saturday, too. I skipped through some of the suburbs today like a flat stone on a lake, my mind wandering like unfenced cattle, wearing my green Reggae Festival t-shirt (a relic of an outdoor festival on the Vanderbilt campus in 1984). I wore it on footpaths, in a grocery store, at the Chicago Botanic Gardens -- actually near Northbrook -- in traffic on straight, crooked and unfamiliar roads, making it as far as Lake County. Drove by Northwestern, too. To think, I could have gone there. If so, where would I be now? Here? Would I have been a friend of Nate’s there, and met Rich through him, instead of vice versa?

March 10, 1987.

I don't think I'll remember this day for much, except head cheese. Head cheese, as I found out, is "a jellied loaf or sausage containing chopped and boiled parts of the feet, head and sometimes the tongue and heart of an animal, usually a hog." With a definition like that, who knows exactly what I ate today between two surprisingly good slabs of raisin bread, moistened by a little catsup.

Friday, March 05, 2004

States' notes blog.

Rain and wind last night, with the wind continuing into the day. It was so strong (up to 50 mph) that the police blocked a couple of streets downtown near highrise construction sites, lest some pedestrian interface with an unmoored object in a distinctly unhealthy way.

Note to the State of Illinois: At the Volo Bog State Natural Area, there's educational material on the wall of the Visitors Center that claims that the word "bogeyman" evolved from "bog." I think this is folk etymology. I consulted a number of dictionaries on the matter, and none of them connect the two words in that way.

I spent time especially with my favorite dictionary, the American Heritage New College Edition (Houghton Mifflin), which has a superb appendix of Indo-European roots. According to the AH, the word bog passed into English from Irish and Scots Gaelic. No surprise there, the word's got a damp Irish-sod ring to it, with that old-timey ethnic slur "blogtrotter" favoring the mix. Bog traces back from Celtic to the Indo-European root bheug-(3), which the appendix defines as "to swell; with derivatives referring to bent, pliable, or curved objects." A bog swells with water, and the ground is pretty well bent and pliable.

Another word from this same root is buxom, which passed through the early Germanic tongues as bugan, "to bend." The scholars may say "bend," and curves do seem essential to the concept, but I think there can be some swelling involved on somebody's part, too.

Anyway, bogeyman and its many variations -- boogieman, boogyman, boogeyman, bogyman -- are "akin" to bogle according to the AH, which means that no one's sure of the exact path from ancient to modern word. Bogle, which is a hobgoblin, is from Scottish (and/or Welsh) and itself is akin to bugaboo and bugbear, a word not heard much anymore, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Alas, there's no Indo-European root cited for any of these words, which may be appropriate for words associated with the demons: things get murky around Old Scratch and his minions.

None of this set of words, bogeyman and its associated dread-words, is linked to bheug-(3), according to AH. Of course, this isn't remotely a scholarly investigation, so I might be wrong. But I suspect that the sign-writer at the Volo Bog didn't know what he or she was talking about.

Note to the State of Texas: I heard on the radio today that the state is banning high-fat foods in some public school cafeterias. Is this wise? Maybe so. Still, I have semi-fond memories of the chili dogs and greasy little pizzas at my high school cafeteria in the late 1970s. They helped make me the man I am today.

Note to the federal judge who's responsible for it: Martha Stewart is the Antichrist. Throw the book at her.

One more note: To the nation of New Zealand: My old friend Ed, a traveler, a writer, and a travel writer, is coming for a visit soon. Treat him right.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

A year later blog. Almost.

A short and early posting tonight, since I'm off the big event of the year in local commercial real estate, over at the Sheraton, and it will be a fairly late night. I don't expect it to be like last year, and probably not much to write about. I had a broken ankle then, and the war with Iraq was getting under way in earnest, with protestors out tying up traffic here and there downtown.

This year, the downtown Chicago streets are their normal congested selves. In fact, it's raining, so not many people are filling the sidewalks, much less the streets. My foot is well. Sometimes it reminds me of that icy encounter with the ground last March by aching a little. Sometimes the other foot aches, too, in about the same place -- must be out of sympathy.

I will note something I want to take up tomorrow. At the Volo Bog, one of the educational signs at the Visitors Center claimed that the word "bogeyman" evolved from the term bog. As in a creepy character who hangs out in bogs, away from upright townsfolk. I'm slack on my natural history, but I know a little something about words, and a red flag went up. After a brief investigation, I've come to the opinion that in this case the State of Illinois offered us some folk etymology.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Bog blog.

More than one correspondent has informed me that the naturalist, author and Grape-Nuts shill spelled his first name Euell, not Yul. Which only goes to demonstrate what happens when you are your own editor. I must have been thinking of the famously bald, Russian-born actor who starred in Westworld and some other fine movies.

From where we live, the Volo Bog was about a 25-minute drive, along surface roads into the semi-suburban, semi-rural Lake County, Illinois. Through some of the Barringtons, too -- a clutch of burgs that includes South Barrington, North Barrington, Lake Barrington, Barrington Hills and plain old Barrington. The name has cachet, since very rich people build very large houses in some of these towns (five-acre lots are the minimum in Barrington Hills, I think).

The bog is off U.S. 12 north of the Barringtons, along a little road. Not many people were there on Sunday. Probably not many people have heard of it. Next to the parking lot is a field of solid ground, not watery, with picnic tables. We had lunch there, and then visited the Visitors Center on the edge of the bog proper. It turned out to be a handsomely renovated dairy barn; hard to believe it was once a home for cows. Now it greets and educates those who wander in with a number of exhibits, stuffed animals, etc.

There was a row of microscopes at one table, with generic insect and animal parts in glass slides in boxes nearby. Lilly took to this as soon as I showed her how to use one of the microscopes, and she spent time looking at bug legs and other micro-curiosities. I was surprised to see that a newly hatched silkworm is bright red.

There's a short path (a half mile) that loops through the bog from the Visitors Center, and a much longer one (more than two miles). I'm happy to report that Lilly would have walked the longer one if we'd led her, but we had Ann and her stroller to consider, so we took the shorter one -- a wooden plank walkway. Ann was strapped into the stroller, so there wouldn't be any Baby in Bog headlines, and Lilly proved surefooted, though there was a moment or two when I wasn't sure. After we walked all the way through, Lilly announced that she wanted to do it again, so I went with her, around the loop, though in the opposite direction from our first time. Yuriko and Ann waited for us at the picnic grounds.

Here's where my feeble grasp of natural history comes into play. This is what I noticed, crossing the bog: A lot of plants, sprouting form damp ground or pools of water. Some of the plants were taller than me, and surrounded the walkway like paparazzi 'round a red carpet. Big, brown stalks stuck down into patches of water, the surface of which was sometimes layered with moss, or something moss-like, or maybe lily pad-like, though hibernating for the season. Elsewhere, the plants weren't so tall, but were still thick and brown. Other parts of the bog looked like little ponds, and still had a thin covering of ice. On the whole, Volo Bog was a good thing to do on a Sunday Leap Day.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Volo blog.

(First thing to note: It's Texas Independence Day.)

When it comes to natural history, I'm an ignoramus. It isn't that I wouldn't like to know the names, common and Latinate, of all the trees and shrubs and birds and bugs; that I wouldn't care to understand the life cycle of gnats and crickets and pumpkins and yeti; that it wouldn't behoove me to know which wild plants are edible, like Yul Gibbons did. Somehow, that kind of information doesn't stick with me very well. I only remember what I really need to, such as how to identify mosquitoes in the dark -- typically at 4 a.m. on a summer morning -- by their curious buzzing sound.

I've tried my hand at the natural sciences. Dan M., a college roommate of mine, had a copy of one of Mr. Gibbons' books. It might have been Stalking the Wild Asparagus, or maybe his fungus guide Brown and Yeller Kill a Feller, but anyway it inspired us to go out on the streets and especially alleys of Nashville to forage something to eat. We brought home a mess of poke weed, and made a salad. We didn't die, or even feel bad, so in that sense our expedition was successful. But we never did it again -- at least, I never did.

This doesn't keep me from taking walks in the woods, however. When I learned that last weekend was going to be warmish, I immediately took up a map of Illinois with one question in mind: Where can we go on Sunday? It had to be fairly near, cheap, moderately interesting, and most important, someplace new. I found something that met all those criteria: Volo Bog, in Lake County.

From the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Web site: "Volo Bog was first documented by W.G. Waterman of Northwestern Illinois University in 1921. It was originally named the Sayer Bog, after the land's owner, dairy farmer George Sayer. Cyrus Mark, the first director of the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, managed a fund-raising campaign that collected $40,000 in donations from school children, groups and individuals for the purchase of the 47.5-acre bog in 1958. The land was deeded to the University of Illinois, which retained ownership until 1970.

"Volo Bog was originally a deep 50-acre lake, with steep banks and poor drainage. Research on pollen grains preserved in the bog indicates that the lake began filling with vegetation approximately 6,000 years ago. A floating mat, consisting primarily of sphagnum moss formed around the outside edges among the cattails and sedges. As these plants died and decomposed, the peat mat thickened, forming a support material for rooted plants. Because of the lack of drainage and the presence of sphagnum moss, the water in the bog became acidic. This limited the types of plants that could survive and thus created the unique plant communities found in the bog.

"Volo Bog is significant in that it exhibits all stages of bog succession. A floating mat of sphagnum moss, cattails and sedges surrounds an open pool of water in the center of the bog. As substrate material thickens, a shrub community dominated by poison sumac and leatherleaf invades the mat. This is eventually replaced by tamarack forest. Surrounding this forest is a second, more extensive shrub zone which abruptly ends and becomes a marsh/sedge meadow community."

Elsewhere I saw Volo Bog described as the only "quaking" bog in Illinois. I'm still not sure what that means -- no time to look it up -- but it had a cool sound to it, and so off we went. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Depot blog.

This past weekend was like being on furlough -- maybe not from prison, since I don't know what that would be like -- but from somewhere unpleasant. The temps lifted. It was the fag-end of February and it felt like April.

On Saturday we were in Winnetka, the suburb just north of the better-known North Shore suburb of Wilmette, which itself is just north of Evanston, which is just north of Chicago. All of these suburbs line the western shore of Lake Michigan, which does wonders for real estate values in that part of metro Chicago.

Winnetka's not a large town, but it has all the North Shore accoutrements, including a walkable downtown sporting a mix of small shops, from professional services (realtors, doctors, banks, etc.) to overpriced gewgaw -- I mean antique -- shops. We spend some time at a local park playground, and walked along the sidewalks looking at a few of the shops. Ann was thrilled to toddle along the sidewalks. She also took a cotton to Winnetka's bright yellow fire hydrants, which are taller than she is.

For lunch we stopped by the Depot Restaurant. I'd seen it before, and it looked promising, but the only other time I'd wanted to go, it was too crowded. The name refers to the nearby commuter rail station, which is across the street (catty-cornered) and down an embankment. A sign says there's been a restaurant of that name at that place since early in the Coolidge administration. (It actually said, "Since 1924.")

The Depot occupies the corner of a building, and is longer and narrower than most restaurants, with both sides lined with worn-looking booths. Toward the back, things open up a bit, and there's room for a few tables, just in front of a counter that isn't lined with stools. Even though there are windows all along on wall, it seems a little dim inside, maybe because brown is such an important color in part of the walls and most of the booths.

Decor is spartan. Plants in hanging baskets. Small flags in the baskets, too. And a few RR signs on the walls -- including one advertising Amtrak, for crying out loud. Tacked to the wall all the way around, way up near the ceiling, is a model train track. "Tacked" is the right verb, since it looks like a sturdy but amateur bit of carpentry on someone’s part. A three-car model train, bigger than HO but I don't know what size, tirelessly made its rounds.

We were just in time to get a booth. The place was alive with people, and nearly every spot was occupied by families with small children out for a Saturday lunch. We fit right in. Drinks: Diet Coke for Yuriko, Green River for Lilly, lemonade for me. Green River is a sweet, emerald green concoction only available in greater Chicago or on the Internet, as far as I can tell. An outfit named Sethness-Greenleaf makes it, that company is located in the Chicago 773 area code, and the drink's motto is "First for Thirst Since 1919."

Soon after I first moved to Chicago in the late '80s, my friend Kevin D. introduced me to Green River, along with another little-known soft drink, Mickey Melon. That was a watermelon-flavored drink apparently created by Mickey Rooney. It was as awful as it sounds.

But back to the lemonade. It was the best lemonade I'd had in months. My mouth puckers up just thinking about it: a fine harmony of major sour and minor sweet. The best since I discovered a pretty good brew last year at Middle Eastern eatery in the food court of the State of Illinois building.

The food didn't disappoint either. I had a good gyros plate, and they did right by the nachos Yuriko ordered. Even Lilly's dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets were tasty. Total tab: a shade over $20. A very likeable place.