Friday, April 30, 2004

Modern Lincoln blog.

Like most people with access to the American media, I've seen Lincoln Center from time to time as a still or video image, but I'd never gotten around to seeing myself. It never was a high priority, and if I'd had more time last week, I would have gone somewhere else -- I really wanted to see some of the collection at the Met again, for example, after 20 years -- but limited time meant a limited, though not worthless, objective. So I walked to Lincoln Center from Times Square.

As a site for cultural institutions, Lincoln Center certainly has heft. But as I sat there on that sunny day, one thing impressed me most of all: the place is dated. Badly dated. No one would propose such a development now, thank God.

When I got back, I did a little looking around (hardly exhaustive), and got the distinct impression that the design doesn't make too many lists of the architectural marvels of New York City. I found the following at, which shed some light on its origins in the 1950s:

Modern Icon: Lincoln Center
By Kathleen Randall
(Randall is a graduate of Columbia University's Historic Preservation Program)

"Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1955-1969) marked the first gathering of major performing arts institutions of an American metropolis into a centralized location... From its conception, the nation's first 'cultural center' was promoted as a source of benefits that went well beyond providing new performance spaces for ballet, opera, symphony and drama. Commentary surrounding the project documents how the Center's visionaries instilled it with a mission so large it included slowing popular culture's assault on the traditional arts, promoting cultural exchange throughout the world, democratizing the arts and even rescuing middle-class from a dangerous abundance of leisure time.

[Ha-ha ho-ho hee-hee, I would gladly risk the perils of an abundance of leisure time. But that's only one of those things that futurologists predicted that didn't pan out, like cars that drive themselves.]

"These goals demanded a visibility and monumentality, which were achieved by clustering the arts institutions on a super block site and by an architecture wholly different from the surrounding Upper West Side neighborhood. The site was made possible through Robert Moses' Lincoln Square urban renewal project -- a massive undertaking that originally included a skyscraper hotel, commercial theaters and a fashion center along with a new opera house... The project displaced thousands of residents and businesses, generating a swift and organized opposition that had little chance in an era when 'slum clearance' was the strategy of choice for saving cities.

[Robert Moses, pioneer highway builder. I hadn't realized he had a hand in Lincoln Center. My grandfather built roads, so I won't mock Moses for that, but the plaza at Lincoln Center does have something of the sensibility of an empty highway.]

"The first major announcement of Lincoln Center in the New York Times reported that the Center would feature 'an architectural style defined as Monumental Modern.' What monumental modern might be was anyone's guess. Six American architects were awarded commissions: Wallace Harrison, opera house; Max Abramovitz, philharmonic hall; Philip Johnson, state theatre; Eero Saarinen, repertory theatre; Gordon Bunshaft, library; and Pietro Belluschi, Julliard School. Working with Harrison as coordinating architect, the architects agreed on a set of 'unifying elements' before setting out on an architectural adventure that would span more than eight years. Referencing Lincoln Center, Philip Johnson noted the similarity of backgrounds among the selected architects."

I'll say this: it isn't the worst example of Modernism I've seen -- you'd have to go to the former Soviet Bloc for that. But the public area in between the grand establishments of culture is bleak. It's completely paved over, with one fountain, forming an alien presence in the rich tapestry of New York. There is some greenery in a small park cater-cornered to the main plaza, but the vegetation comes surrounded by rings of knee-level masonry. Which is also the only place to sit, unless you park yourself on the rim of the fountain. What is it with modernist plazas and benches? That is, why aren't there any? Yes, something that people would actually use would interrupt the sweeping flow of the design, or somesuch.

At first, I thought the walls of the opera house and the other buildings were dirty, but then I realized that the stone was naturally mottled and dirty-looking. Saves on cleaning, I guess. Could it all have been planned this way? Could the goal of the "unifying elements" have been to produce a barren, ugly place during the day, but which looks mighty spiffy at night, and even better on TV?

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Rupert Jee blog.

Most of the trees are greening and the dogwood and plum are in full flower. Saw the first irises and lilacs of the season today, too. It's warm, but it won't exactly stay that way. Still, we're in that warmish time before mosquitoes. A prelapsarian state, since mosquitoes were surely another punishment visited on Adam and Eve, though Genesis omits mentioning it.

Last Thursday was a warm day in New York City, almost too warm for the suit I was wearing. But I can't complain. Early in the afternoon, I had about an hour and a half to spare, so I checked my handy PopOut map, and picked a course that would take me uptown from the Marriott in Times Square along Broadway past Columbus Circle and to Lincoln Center. It was one of those places I've seen often enough in photos or on TV, so I thought it was time to see it with my own eyes.

Not far into my walk, I came across the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, which of course is where Dave Letterman's show is taped. The marquee is very clear on that point. I haven't watched him in a long while now (I'd rather be blogging), though I have gone through spells of tuning in for a few days at a time, on and off for a few months. He did some great material especially during the disputed election of 2000. My favorite bit of his from that time showed a succession of short news clips of Bush, Gore, Chaney and Lieberman (I forget which order) -- each man making a statement or at a press conference -- and each time a new clip started, the number of U.S. flags in the background grew: two, four, six, more. Someone on Letterman's staff had a sharp eye. Equally funny were the times he had a couple of burly stagehands read verbatim from transcripts of Oprah Winfrey's show, a good way to mock it for a vacuous prattle that it was.

A good many years ago, when I was visiting my brother Jay, Letterman happened to come on and he said -- my brother said, and I'm paraphrasing here -- that Letterman's paid a lot of money to be silly on television. But on the other hand, he was very, very good at being silly. That's about right, even now. He's one of the two current national jesters. Letterman is the darker, smarter, more cynical of the two; Warner to Leno's Disney.

Around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater I took note of the Stage Deli, which sometimes figures in Letterman's antics. I had to have a look at that, so I left Broadway and walked past it. As I went by, for just a moment I saw the proprietor, Rupert Jee, standing behind the counter looking precisely as he does on television. He's the proprietor, of course, so there's nothing really unusual about him working behind his own counter. But it's always a little odd to see the actual person on which a familiar video image is based. But I didn't stare, or buy anything (I'd already eaten). Still, I'm sure that his TV exposure is probably the best thing that ever happened to Rupert Jee's business.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Broadway blog.

The play I saw was Twentieth Century, at the American Airlines Theater, New York, 8 p.m., April 21, 2004. My sources for the following, besides my own eyes and critical judgment, include the issue of Playbill that I picked up at this performance, the imdb, and assorted other references, on line and on paper.

The theater. It's a nice little theater, neither too spare nor overly ornate. It turns out that, as a condition of providing the dosh to renovate it, American Airlines got to name the theater after itself. The deal was done in the mid- to late 1990s, during the most recent golden age of business travel, when AA apparently felt that a theater name on 42nd St. would be a good investment. I'm fairly sure that now such a project would die stillborn on some VP's desk.

For 80+ years before it reopened in 2000, it was the Selwyn, named after Archie and Edgar Selwyn. A modest amount of research reveals that besides developing a couple of theaters in the 1910s (there was another in downtown Chicago), at least Edgar was a writer, director and producer in early Hollywood. Among other things, he directed the obscure Turn Back the Clock (1933), which he wrote with Ben Hecht (more about which later). It may only be remembered now for an uncredited cameo by Ted Healy and the Three Stooges.

The play. Twentieth Century is a farce, set in late 1938 almost completely on the train of that name, which used to run between Chicago and New York. The story revolves around a bankrupt Broadway producer's underhanded efforts to re-sign an actress who used to work for him, and who used to be his lover, but has now hit it big in Hollywood. Hilarity ensues. Actually, it wasn't usually knock-down, out-loud funny like, say, Noises Off, but it was funny enough, with a steady stream of amusing situations and good lines.

The production, by the Roundabout Theater Company, is a revival of the original 1930s play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, former Chicago newspaper men who went on to success writing for Broadway and the movies. Their best-known collaboration is The Front Page. A chance to see a Hecht-MacArthur play was what really caught my attention when I was looking for something to see on Broadway.

Special commendation to the production's set designer, John Lee Beatty. He managed to create a decent illusion that the stage-set train was actually moving.

The actors. I had to think hard about which of Alec Baldwin's movies I'd seen. I had to look it up, ultimately: Glengarry Glen Ross and The Hunt for Red October. His face was thus familiar, but not too familiar. His character, the bankrupt producer, was bombastic, pompous, scheming, and deceptive, but also charming and smitten with the lead female character, so you had some sympathy for him. Baldwin did it well. The lead woman is also known in the movies, but I didn't know her: Anne Heche. Her part was a caricature of a vain and not-very-bright movie star, but she wasn't entirely unsympathetic either, and Heche did well with it too.

Dan Butler was in this. For days I wondered, where have I seen him? Playbill informed me that he's a regular on Frasier. Then it dawned on me: he plays Bulldog Briscoe, the abrasive sports radio talk show host. His character in Twentieth Century wasn't too different, except that he was a comic Irishman, a lackey of the bankrupt producer.

Looking at the Playbill notes for all the actors, one other thing strikes me. Nearly all of them claim appearances in one or more of the Law & Order franchises. Those shows seem to provide a lot of work for actors, but it stands to reason -- the stories involve a steady stream of perps, victims and witnesses.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Bryant blog.

Since New York has had such a heavy concentration of media for so long, the city's most famous landmarks are widely known, and not only in this country, but in a lot of other places, too. I remember a Japanese student of mine who communicated to me, in the most basic English, that he wanted to visit New York someday, so he could see "free girl." A little more probing on my part, and his pantomime of holding a torch up with one arm, revealed that he wanted to see the Statue of Liberty.

Anyway, it's easy to rattle off the famous places: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Broadway, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Bryant Park. Well, maybe not that last one. But it's a excellent little park, and hardly hidden. It's smack in the middle of Midtown, occupying the square behind the magnificent main branch of the New York Public Library, which fronts Fifth Ave. After I finished loading my stomach with barbecue and beer (see yesterday's blog), I had a little more than an hour till curtain time at the American Airlines Theater. I so headed eastward (the grid isn't true to the compass, but it's close enough) until I came to Bryant Park.

Turning now to the Michelin Green Guide for New York: "Located behind the library, this formal garden is Midtown’s only large green space. Built on the site once occupied by the Crystal Palace [an 1850s sort of World's Fair] and the Croton Reservoir, the park was named for William Cullen Bryant in 1884 but remained vacant until 1934, when it was laid out by Lubsy Simpson. Despite endeavors to keep the park a pleasant public space, it soon became a gathering place for the unemployed and homeless, and [by] the 1960s was taken over by drug peddlers. After undergoing an extensive restoration effort, the park reopened to the public in late 1991."

In this case, an "extensive restoration effort" might have included landscaping, but it also must have included police muscle, and closing the park at night. There's been nattering about the cleanup of Times Square, to the effect that driving out the lowlifes mars the authenticity of the place, but as far as I know, no one has made the same silly argument about Bryant Park.

I discovered that it had closed at 7 p.m., just a few minutes before I got there. The park's design is supposed to have been inspired by some of the parks in Paris, and if I remember right closing at night is a feature of some of those, too. I walked around its perimeter and discovered that a promenade directly behind the library building was open, affording a nice view of the open green center of the park, and the more formal landscaping on the sides. The place was alive with other walkers, old people sitting on benches, a man in a tux who might have wandered away from some formal event at the library, a couple making out, a few families.

A seated bronze of William Cullen Bryant faces the park at this promenade, looking a little stern. As a lad, I think I'd heard of him, though I probably confused him with William Jennings Bryan. Maybe he's stern because shares this public space with a statue of Gertrude Stein, who is seated on a pedestal nearby. It's an odd work. I don't think she was especially known for her detachment, but in this depiction, she looks bizarrely like a seated Buddha.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Virgil's blog.

The beer menu at Virgil's on 44th St., just off of Times Square, starts with a heartbreakingly ordinary selection: Bud, Miller, Corona. But it gets better. Among many other choices, picked more or less at random for inclusion here, was Magic Hat Blind Faith, a golden amber lager from Vermont; Xingu, a dark lager from Brazil; Rouge Dead Guy Ale from Oregon, a "German maibock-style beer," according the menu; Scarlet Lady Ale ESB of PA; and Abita Turbodog from Louisiana.

I like beer names, and beer origins, as much as the brew itself. That probably makes me ineligible to be a true beer lover, one of those guys that sets up a BEER IS MY LIFE website, but it's just as well; I'm fat enough as it is. Also, I drink beer only once or twice a month, and that certainly doesn't an aficionado make.

But when I do drink it, I want it to be interesting. I want interesting choices. I don't particularly agree that too many consumer choices are bad for consumers, or for the nation's moral temperament, or something, as some writers have suggested recently. But a large selection can give you a little pause: will I miss something good by picking one and not the others? But the moment passes, you make your choice, and you enjoy it if it's any good. At least that's what well-adjusted people do. I picked as locally as I could: Brooklyn India Pale Ale, made in upstate New York. It was good.

When you're dining alone, it's always good to have something to read, or at least something to watch, and I had both last week at Virgil's. I had the beer menu, for one thing. I kept it after the waitress had taken my order, just so I could read about the beers I didn't order. I had the window as well. Virgil's, which is a Northern outpost of Southern-style barbecue, is a two-level establishment, and I got a corner seat on the second floor next to a large window. It wasn't quite dark, so I could see the passersby on the street below, along with most of Virgil's second floor at eye level.

Virgil's was full that night, a Wednesday. It seems to be well on the beaten path of people who visit New York, helped lot by its location. But even near Times Square, a restaurant probably doesn't live by tourists alone. The place was recommended to me, after all, by a native New Yorker, a fellow in my company headquarters.

It was a good tip. The 'cue was good. Several regional styles were on the menu -- there's that variety bugaboo again -- but I went with the Memphis-style beef barbecue. Few barbecue experiences can compare with Memphis. Kansas City is in the same league, as well as some Texas barbecue I've had, and some here in Chicago (created by Southerners, of course). Virgil's couldn't quite compare with my memories of Memphis, but nothing could. All the same, it had a fine, tangy, smoky flavor, and I couldn't complain.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

New York X blog.

Last week's visit to New York City was tight, circumscribed both in space and time. All visits are limited in those ways, I suppose, or they would turn into residences, but this one was particularly tight. Except for the run through Queens to and from LaGuardia, I spent the entire 30 hours in Midtown Manhattan, and after deducting professional obligations -- I was in town to attend a conference, and meet with my bosses at company headquarters -- free time was short.

In fact, if I'd wanted to, I could have the entire time in the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, which was the conference hotel, and also where I stayed; at my company's HQ in the Garment District; and in cabs between the two. Of course I did no such thing. For one thing, it's only about 10 blocks from the Marriott to headquarters, so naturally I walked that distance. More importantly, even a few free hours in New York aren't something to be squandered.

So I managed to find an interesting restaurant -- barbecue, of all things -- and then see Twentieth Century, a comedy at the curiously named American Airlines Theater on 42th St., featuring (among others) Alec Baldwin, who turned in a superb performance. That was the first night. The next day, I took a noontime stroll up Broadway and to a patch of Manhattan that I'd never made it to before, Lincoln Center, and then walked back by way of Seventh Ave.

New York remains a favorite of mine for walking. So varied, so folded over on itself. Such a human tide. One of the first times I visited the city, I went with a friend of mine, Steve, and we hadn't walked around too long when we crossed in front of a stationary horse-drawn carriage, the kind that ply through Central Park. Maybe we passed too close to the horse. The horse neighed in close proximity to Steve's head, startling him. "Hey kid," said the driver, "watch out. There's a whole world out there."

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Jehovah's blog.

NO BLOGGING till this weekend, at the earliest. Got other things to do the rest of this week.

As I walk to the train station in the morning, the home stretch of my path takes me along a road that leads into the station parking lot, which is enormous. This morning, I noticed a white SUV, one of the relatively small ones, hesitating in the middle of that road, before turning into the parking lot and stopping. A woman gets out of the vehicle and crosses the road, heading toward me. I figure she wants to ask me directions. That happens to me a fair amount; I've even been asked directions in London, more than once.

She was tall, slender and black, no more than 25 and impeccably dressed. "Here, I have this for you," she says, handing me a copy of The Watchtower. "Have a nice day." I thank her, for I am reasonably polite most of the time, and she walks back to her SUV. A few minutes later at the station, I look around to see if she was continuing her missionary work there, but don't see her. Metra, the commuter rail authority, probably takes a dim view of that sort of thing, and I'm not up on the latest litigation on whether Metra can prohibit Jehovah's Witnesses et al. from distributing material at train stations (I would guess that yes, Metra can).

I knew a kid in junior high who was a Jehovah's Witness. That's about the extent of my experience with that sect, besides receiving copies of The Watchtower occasionally, and maybe discussing it a bit in a comparative religion class. It's been a while since anyone came to me proselytizing, but like most North Americans I've been the vector for duos of Mormons, Krishna Consciousness devotees at airports, Jews for Jesus pamphleteers, freelance fundamentalists and others.

Back in '95, Yuriko and I were walking around downtown Manhattan when someone who looked Hasidic approached me and asked, "Are you Jewish?" I told him no, and he wandered off. Guess he wanted to talk secular Jews out of their secular ways. In Copenhagen one day 20 years ago, my friends and I passed a storefront with a young woman standing in the door. She had bright red hair and big fleshy lips -- funny, what you remember -- and suddenly she said to us, in what must have been Danish-accented English, "Would you like to become more intelligent?" She held up a copy of one of L. Ron Hubbard's books. All three of us picked up our pace.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Beverly Lake blog.

When Yuriko and I had arranged to have Lilly and Ann stay yesterday afternoon with friends who also have little kids, we'd planned on unpredictable April weather, and thought we'd go see a movie. But by Friday it was clear that Sunday would be an intensely warm day, and so better for staying outside, which is what we ultimately did. The meteorologists call an April day in the 80s F unseasonable, but I question the term. It's seasonable for the temps to yo-yo around.

First, lunch at a Thai restaurant in Streamwood, Illinois. How long ago was it that you had to go to the city for such a meal? How long before that, that you had to go to Thailand for such a meal? More or less within my lifetime, I suspect. That's progress. That's the world moving in the right direction, amid all the retrograde news. Yuriko and I ordered dishes that were hotter than we usually get, when we have to share them with our children. I had a duck curry, she spicy chicken. Both delicious. It did concern me that we were the only customers (at about 1 p.m.). Culinary progress has to be supported, the people of Streamwood weren't doing their bit. Or maybe it was just a slow day -- everyone was outside.

A map of Cook County, Illinois, has a sort of gamma shape to it. We live in the overhanging part of the gamma, and so do the people who were taking care of Lilly and Ann. We wanted to go somewhere fairly close, but not too close, and not developed. Somewhere to walk. I checked a handy guide I bought years ago called Outside Chicago, and found a spot: Beverly Lake. It's still in Cook County, part of a forest preserve at the extreme western tip of the gamma overhang. It was about a 15-minute drive nor'west on Higgins Road, a major surface road that roughly parallels I-90, that great Boston-to-Seattle road.

Beverly Lake itself is really just a big pond, maybe fed by a creek, but it was hard to tell. We followed a trail from the dusty parking lot to, and then around, this pond, and then into a scattering of low hills crowned by groves of trees or grassy meadows. In winter, the trail serves cross-country skiers.

At one point, the trail looped around a dark stand of evergreens. Not all the deciduous trees or bushes are grasses were green, but that color was gentrifying the browns and grays out of the neighborhood for the season. The air was very warm, but some high thin clouds kept the sun from being too oppressive, and the wind gusted at times. We must have been at the very edge of the air movement that, I've read, caused storms and tornadoes across the Great Plains yesterday.

I don't get ga-ga about spotting animals in the wild (or the semi-wild, like Beverly Lake), and I don't see the appeal in birding, but I don't mind running across animals in the wild, provided they aren't bigger than me or in an ill temper. We saw the white tails of some whitetail deer, since they were running away from us into a thicket. There were hawks gliding overhead at one point, and a variety of other birds around, especially robins. Looking down at the trail, I caught the glint of a couple of greenbottle flies. Green- and bluebottle flies, with their shiny metallic backs, fascinated me as a kid. As we sat on the ground resting at one place, I watched some black ants, who were not resting. No wonder they're anthropomorphized as tireless workers.

As for other humans, we had the trail almost to ourselves. Two men and two boys -- maybe a father, sons, and uncle -- were fishing at the edge of Lake Beverly. Toward the end of our walk, when the trail looped back around to the lake, I heard two young men coming. One of them doing an army marching cadence for the other: I don't know/but I been told... followed by some obscene lyrics. They marched by us, turned around, and passed by us again a few minutes later. Just another minor mystery for those of us who witnessed it. Are one or both are getting ready to join up? An initiation into some club? Applying for a job at the U.S. Department of Silly Walks?

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Elephant & Blog.

More recollections of passing through Thatcherite England, April 1988.

Early in the week I made my way alone to the Imperial War Museum (N. declined to go), south of the river near the Elephant & Castle tube station, which was grimy and graffiti'd and one of the ugliest I saw. The museum is laid out in a U shape, with one wing roughly devoted to the First World War, and the other more or less covering the Second. Mostly the exhibits, which lined either wall, had British military and homefront themes, though there was nodding acknowledgment of other theaters in the two world wars.

In the WWI wing, I spent a lot of time reading the recruitment posters -- Enlist Today -- Is Your "Best Boy" in Khakis? In Not, Shouldn't He Be? That sort of thing. Conspicuously absent in the WWII section was any mention that I could see of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, but on a map depicting the Nazi attack on Poland in September 1939, which only showed arrows depicting German troop movements, someone had inked in, by hand, arrows for Soviet troop movements of the same month, which of course had overrun eastern Poland.

On Thursday we went to the British Museum. N. and I spent time walking around together, but the place is so vast we also focused on different subjects for a while. I went to the classical antiquities rooms -- rooms and rooms and rooms would be more like it. I started with antiquities that day, but wasn't satisfied and went back for more the next day while N. was shopping. The things they have! It can only compare, in my experience, with the Pergamon Museum in East Berlin. It was wearing on the feet, delightful to the eye, a high-protein plate for the mind.

I saw things Greek, Etruscan, and Roman -- statues and friezes, of course, but also a load of smaller items, such as the world's first coins (Asia Minor) and a crown of oak leaves and acorns made of hammered gold. I'm sure I saw that very crown – how many of them could there be? -- on my first visit to Chicago in 1981 at the Art Institute, when it was part of a traveling treasures of Alexander exhibit. There's no evidence linking the crown to Alexander himself, but it was from his time. And I'm glad Lord Elgin went to the trouble to acquire the Marbles.

I passed through other parts of the museum, too, taking a short look at the Sutton Hoo exhibit and the clock room, which I wandered into by accident. There were clocks everywhere. I've never seen so many in one place.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Every Other Blog at the Cleveland.

April 2004: Woke late, enjoyed the bright morning, lunched on the deck, took the family to the Community Recreation Center pool, mowed the lawn, ordered plants for the garden, listened to the radio, watched a little TV.

April 1988: On Thursday [April 14] we took in some comedy. We'd read about it in Time Out magazine, an event called "Every Other Thursday at the Cleveland." It had the advantage of being close by, in the basement of a pub called the Cleveland, on Cleveland St. We arrived a little early and had one of the most satisfying meals of the whole time in London, fish and chips at a storefront spot called Atlantis. Very fresh fish, fresh-cut fries too, and a mere £3 each.

After dinner we hung out in the Cleveland, drinking ale, till the doors opened at 8:15. We paid £2.50 each to get in, another satisfyingly cheap price in this expensive country, and sat close to the stage, which was really just a small platform in the corner of the basement. One comedian came out and did 20 minutes or so of standup, followed by a rotating troupe of others who did a few minutes each. Five men and two women. We'd seen one of the women, a slight blonde with a disarmingly deadpan act, on Channel 4's Friday Night Live the week before. The other comedienne, a large woman all dressed in black and deadpan too, and funny, we saw on FNL the next night.

One of the men launched into a story about his days as a teen in bondage pants. "You got it, all the black leather, all the zippers and chains all the way down, and that was it!" he boomed out, not needing his mike. "That's it, you're it, in bondage pants at a concert in so-and-so park, at least in '79 before all the yuppies moved out there." Somehow he steered the story to punks clamoring onto the stage at the concert, screaming "Lord Louie died for your sins! Lord Louie died for your sins!"

"I couldn't figure out what the [expletive] they were talking about. Lord Louie didn't die for my [expletive] sins. But it was '79. What's blue-blooded and flies over the Irish Sea? Lord Louie Mountbatten." It was manic, this story, just amazing, and absolutely British, but I got a kick out it, even though I didn't get about a third of what he joked about.

Another comic went into a long story about playing Clue with his friends, and how he got pissed at them for keeping secrets -- and making accusations. It was his bizarre delivery that make the story work, as if he were a boob self-righteously unclear on the Clue concept. " 'Hey,' I said. 'We're all friends here. What's this business about keeping secrets and making ac-cu-sations?!?' "

Without warning, some of the comics assembled as a band -- with real instruments. "It's Hot Lemon! A recently formed supergroup of the '70s!" Hot Lemon broke into song, satires of songs from the '70s. The best one was "Seasons in the Sun," a song of the time that everyone hates, but these guys did such a lunatic version of it that it's redeemed in my mind. A little, anyway.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Office space blog.

I go on about the weather. But it's warm. Warmest day since sometime in September, this was. Walked around downtown today in short-sleeve shirt, just because I could. Even now, much closer to midnight than noon, I can open the back door without getting a waft of chill in my face. This is good.

Still, I spent a lot of the day in an office. Words must be put on paper next month, certain kinds of words and not others, and I'm responsible for them. But I didn't mind so much. Just knowing that I could leave my coat on the hook when I wanted to go out made my day.

Other professions have different rhythms. The accountants down at the end of the hall on my floor at the Civic Opera Building -- let's call them Hungadunga, Hungadunga, Hungadunga & McCormick -- closed up shop all day today. Didn't even come by to collect their mail or newspapers. April 15 was done. They were responsible for putting numbers on paper, certain kinds of numbers and no others, and I'm sure a tsunami of numbers has been washing over their desks lately. Now they wanted to spend some time on their backsides. Can't blame them.

Across the hall, a vacant office, empty since an import-export business moved to the suburbs last summer, is being prepared for a tenant. In the real estate biz, the space has been "absorbed." I've always liked that term. Here's the space, and slurrrrrrp! It's gone. The door glass has been painted with a name -- a partnership sort of name, like Shortbread & Snuff -- and workmen are building out the space. Mostly, this means bouts of hammering and thumping. It was quiet today, however. Maybe the workmen had connived a way to spend the day on their backsides. Hope so.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Verdant blog.

Signs of spring ascendant: It's warm. A gnat flew into my face this evening. In the time between my morning walk to the train station and my evening one -- which is now just before the sun sets -- some of the trees acquired a tincture of green. Real leaves are days away. The grass has been green for weeks, but near the train station the dread dandelion has made an appearance. I myself have no quarrel with that innocuous flower, but not everyone in my house feels that way.

But the real sign of spring today was the guy on the riding lawn mower, doing his lawn.

Got a press release the other day: "Beer Hall of Fame Founders to Select Permanent Host City in National Search." I suppose that's related to commercial real estate.

"Severna Park, MD, April 09, 2004 -- The U.S. Beer Drinking Team and Beer Radio announce their national search to select a permanent host city for The Beer Hall of Fame. The Beer Hall of Fame will be the ultimate travel and tourism destination for the 90,000,000 beer drinkers in the United States and hundreds of millions more from around the world."

Well, at least they're thinking big: "The Beer Hall of Fame will house fine beer themed restaurants, a museum of beer memorabilia, Beer Radio broadcasting studios, music and entertainment venue [Ist das ein keg of brew? Ja, das ist ein keg of brew!], education center, and enormous selection of beer and the actual Beer Hall of Fame."

I have no idea if this is for real, but if it is, the organizers are fishing for municipal subsidies for their project. Any city willing to pony up could have it, even, say, Salt Lake City. It worked for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


It's getting warm. Not bad today, 70s F. by Friday. When I got home this evening, the family was out on the deck, and I sat with them for a while as the sun went down. In the park visible from our deck, boys practiced baseball under artificial lights as it grew darker, and overhead Venus appeared as the evening star. Lilly asked if it was Venus, and I said yes. That's my girl. It's too bad that light pollution washes out a lot of the night sky, but that's no reason not to know the objects that you still can see.

Yesterday I read some columns by my friend Ed in the on-line magazine, Motionsickness Magazine ( Ed, who just returned from New Zealand, and who'll be going to Easter Island soon, the lucky bastard. Writing as Ed Readicker Henderson, his latest column ("How to Go to Hell," in Issue 6) uses the occasion of him being paid to drive an RV from Anchorage to Seattle to reflect on the problems of traveling too comfortably, among other things. It's a nice piece of work.

Spot-on quote: "Time and again I meet people used to this ease making unreasonable demands on the world. Their perceptions have sped up, narrowed. I was recently on a boat watching killer whales jump all around us, and one man was loudly whining that they were too far away. And why the hell aren't the bears already on the beach when we get there?

"The less you travel with, the more open you are to the gifts of the world. The lightly burdened shall be saved. And going slowly, they will realize that all that the world asks is your attention. Give that, and you will be richly, richly rewarded.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Cephalopod blog.

Got a message this afternoon on my answering machine at the office from someone at the "NRCC," saying she wants my "permission to use my name in a Wall Street Journal ad." Oh, boy. Now what could that be about? I did a little looking around and discovered that NRCC stands for the (1) National Republican Congressional Committee; (2) National Regional Climate Center; and (3) National Resource Center for Cephalopods, among other things. If only the message had been from the third of these -- an ad in the Journal encouraging fair treatment for octopi, subsidies for squid ranching, or something. But no. I know it's from the first of the three, and they're trolling for money. I didn't call back.

I remember visiting Fisherman's Wharf 30+ years ago, and we had lunch at one of the bayside restaurants. My brother Jay ordered either squid or octopus -- a cephalopod, in any case -- easily the most novel dish of the whole trip. I tried a little, and thought it rubbery. It would be more than 10 years before I tried it again, and not till I went to Japan in 1990 that the cephalopod became a permanent part of my diet. Prepared correctly, squid and octopus aren't rubbery. They're fine eating. I can't understand the prejudice against them among many Occidentals.

Maybe it's because squid and octopi are slimy monsters of the deep. Or so they're depicted in our culture. In Japan, they're usually depicted as cute creatures, like cartoon pigs or chickens are here; cute enough to eat. Anyway, it's nonsense. I've had okra dishes that are a lot slimier than any cephalopod.

An update: Last Saturday, Rich Koz, host of Stooge-a-palooza on WCIU-TV, read my letter to him on the air -- most of it anyway (see the March 22, 2004, blog for the text of the letter). He skipped the last paragraph, instead mentioning that Timbuk3 (whom I cited in the letter) had also recorded the song, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," a fact that I hadn't included in the letter. Lilly got a kick out of hearing her name on TV, of course, and asked if he was going to do it again next week. I told her it didn't work that way. I don't want her to get any exaggerated ideas about the interactive nature of TV, which is almost nil.

I almost missed it. I was in another room when I heard my name, though Lilly and Yuriko were right there watching. Mark R., who works for my company out of his home in suburban Chicago, apparently was watching too. On Monday he sent me an e-mail that said, "I did not know until Saturday that you were a Stoogologist."

Monday, April 12, 2004

Napoleon McBlog.

A small bit of my heapin' helpin' of spam this morning was from "Pelts O. Plutocrat," a name I had to like. Could be the equivalent of Crassus Dives in some forgotten Victorian farce, top-hatted and fat. Another message was from "Napoleon McManus," which also has that Victorian ring to it. Could have been a cavalry commander under Forrest.

My invaluable Webster's New Biographical Dictionary (Merriam Webster) lists no noteworthy McManus in the service of the CSA. The closest entry -- the only McManus -- is George McManus (1884-1954), the cartoonist who created Bringing Up Father. Of course that led me to an intensely detailed web site on that strip, about which I had only a vague notion, and I was astonished to learn that it was finally dropped from syndication only in 2000. The lesson here is that, probably, Peanuts will finally disappear around 2050, provided that newsprint doesn't disappear first.

As for a Google search of Napoleon McManus, it turned up several pages referring to the an episode of the HBO series Oz, "Napoleon’s Boney Parts," first broadcast July 21, 1999. I don't know what that title refers to, but McManus is (or was) one of the characters in that show, which I've seen only once, in a hotel room some years ago. It had all the gruesome violence you could want in cable prison drama, and none you would want on broadcast television. HBO ought to have advertised it, "At least one con offed every episode!"

Easter was a fine, clear day here in northern Illinois, pleasant but for one thing: 40-degree temps. December, January and February are supposed to be cold; that's part of the game, I can live with it. Even March can have its share of chilly days. But when it comes time for April, it should be warm every day. It never is. I go through this every year, and it makes me miss the Aprils of my youth. Easter was always warm, at least in my memory. However, according to my mother (in San Antonio) and my brother (in Dallas), both of whom I talked to yesterday, it was only marginally warmer in Texas yesterday than Illinois.

Those steeped in local weather lore -- like Tom Skilling of radio WGN, who also does the daily weather page in the Tribune, and who's the brother of Enron miscreant Jeffrey Skilling -- say we in the Chicago area were treated to the coldest Easter since 1997. I wouldn't have remembered that. I do remember that on Maunday Thursday (March 27) that year, we confirmed through medical testing that we had indeed set in motion that person we now call Lilly.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

HK blog.

Item from the present: Ann has acquired two extremely important skills. One, and it may not seem so important if you've never had a toddler around, she can lift her bottle up at such an angle that she can drink from it without help. With such gusto sometimes, she swings back like a jammin' saxophonist.

Also, she has a command of the word "Mama." Not quite an accurate command, since she'll say it to me, or even Lilly, but the word is clear, and she knows she's using it to signify something. Thousands more words to go, kid.

Item from the past: Hong Kong. The former colony, now a special administrative region, is more than just the city famed in posters. It also includes other islands -- like the sparsely populated Lamma Island -- as well as semi-rural areas in the New Territories, near China proper.

April 14, 1994.

Been watching a bit of TV in the evenings, but nothing too special. Two English-language channels in Hong Kong, and one of them shows Barney & Friends. I could stand it for only a few minutes, long enough to hear the story of the ant and the grasshopper. [2004 update: I still hate that purple dinosaur.]

But we've been out and about as well. On Lamma Island we walked from the beach at Hung Shing Yeh all the way around the island. The path crosses some grassy, rocky slopes. Some parts of the island had been burned by a recent wildfire -- black and nearly barren. A little further was a lush area, then a waterfront path smelling of seaweed and debris. Eventually we reached Sok Kwu Wan, a small village. It still has some fishermen and their sampans. At first we thought that people might live on these boats, but after watching them tool around the water from the waterside deck of Mandarin Seafood Restaurant, one of a row of eateries facing the bay, we decided that they merely worked on the little boats. In any case, it seemed like an old man's game. The youth of the village probable aspire to office jobs in Victoria, or at least service jobs in Kowloon.

April 17, 1994.

On the 15th we took a little trip out to the New Territories. I had ambitions of hiking a section of the MacLehose Trail, and I still do. But instead we spent the day walking a series of related trails -- "family walks," in the jargon of the Hong Kong park service. To get there, you take the subway all the way to the end of the line at Tsuen Wan, New Territories, a big mess o' danchi and construction sites, and everyday Chinese. Less English and fewer cars than the more urban parts of the colony.

From there, you take a microbus to Shing Mun Country Park, a nice green spot around a reservoir dug in the '30s, according to signs. We followed a path around the reservoir and into the forest a ways. There were almost no other people, though I'm sure this would be different on weekends. We walked under a double layer of shade -- tall trees, and a high thin layer of clouds, so it was cool walking weather, despite being just south of the Tropic of Cancer. Later in the afternoon, we did walk on the MacLehose Trail, Section 6, and climbed a hill to the Shing Mun Redoubt, which was part of the doomed effort to defend Hong Kong in '41. Still in evidence are long, crumbling tunnels of concrete, dug through the top of a hill. The entrances have fanciful names, London streets it seems. Later occupants have added graffiti and litter to the ruins, and nature is slowly eating at the concrete.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Churchill & Wren in Missouri blog.

A week ago today, I wrapped up my business with an early afternoon lunch in a part of St. Louis I'd never seen before, the area around Concordia Seminary. My associate Jeff W. and I lucked into that, driving around, and ate at a coffee and sandwich shop called Kaldi's, right at the corner of two streets downhill from the seminary. The place was popular, and we couldn't find a table inside, but fortunately it was just warm enough to sit outside, looking out to the hill and some of the seminary buildings beyond. The grass was green, the hill wooded, and the seminary had that contemplative air that a seminary ought to have. A couple of tables away some men I took for seminarians were discussing the writings of St. Augustine.

After dropped Jeff off downtown to pick up his car, I headed west along I-70, which was crowded just ahead of the weekend. It's probably crowded a lot of the time, since it passes directly through St. Charles County, which I know from my real estate reading and interviewing as the current development hotbed in the St. Louis area. For the purposes of my magazine, that's good. Gives me something to write about. For the purposes of a leisurely drive on a Friday afternoon, that's bad. Gives me a headache.

But I wanted to make time to central Missouri, in particular to Fulton. Even more particularly, the Winston Churchill Memorial and Museum on the campus of Westminster College. I made it about 20 minutes before closing, and so had a short look-see. The museum itself is in the basement, with the sort of displays you'd expect: photos, artifacts, reproduced news accounts, and assorted other Churchillania, including some of his watercolors. From reading some of the accounts of his speech in Fulton in 1946, it's clear that his visit to Fulton was the most important thing, ever, as far as the town was concerned.

But I don't want to mock Fulton, since it's a justly famous speech by a justly famous leader. Re-reading the speech after my visit to Fulton, one paragraph in particular struck me. Churchill titled the speech "The Sinews of Peace," and in historic lore it's known as the "Iron Curtain" speech, for that durable turn of phrase. But it could also have been called the "I Told You So" speech. I hope the former prime minister got a little satisfaction, the bittersweet kind, from the penultimate paragraph:

"Last time I saw it all coming and cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention. Up till the year 1933 or even 1935, Germany might have been saved from the awful fate which has overtaken her, and we might all have been spared the miseries Hitler let loose upon mankind. There never was a war in all history easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated such great areas of the globe... We surely must not let that happen again. This can only be achieved by reaching now, in 1946, a good understanding on all points with Russia under the general authority of the United Nations Organisation and by the maintenance of that good understanding through many peaceful years, by the world instrument, supported by the whole strength of the English-speaking world and all its connections. There is the solution which I respectfully offer to you in this Address to which I have given the title 'The Sinews of Peace.' "

The museum was interesting enough, but the thing worth enduring I-70 to see was the church on top of the basement museum. It was like wandering into one of Christopher Wren's smaller London churches, full of light and white and space. Actually, this is one of Wren’s London churches, more or less.

From the Westminster College website: "Twice destroyed by fire, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, is part of the Winston Churchill Memorial. The church, which dates from the 12th century, was redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677, after the Great Fire of London. Nearly three centuries later a German incendiary bomb left it in ruin. Slated for demolition, Wren's graceful masterpiece was saved by a bold idea. The structure would be rebuilt on the campus of Westminster College as a permanent reminder of Churchill's visit to the college and his prophetic speech. Stone by stone, architects and craftsmen dismantled the Church and painstakingly reconstructed it again at its present site. Today visitors from around the world may enter Wren's beautiful, light-filled sanctuary."

I was by myself in this fine church. A flawless moment, except for the heavy metal music leaking in from outside. From a frat house cater-cornered across the street, in fact. Ah, well. It was Friday, after all.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The Signing of the Blog.

The capitol of Missouri sits on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, which is a sizable river at that point. A road goes all the way around the capitol mound, and between the building and the river, adorning a small plaza just above the slope down to the river, is a large bronze relief called, "The Signing of the Treaty," which features statues of James Monroe and Robert Livingston sitting at a table, signing some papers -- the treaty that ceded the Louisiana Territory to the United States. Odd to find a such a major monument to a real estate deal. But then again, it was one of the great real estate deals of history.

At the foot of the men and their treaty was a fountain, dry this time of year. On either side of its oval, two centaurs were frozen in mid-fight with one snake each. I looked a little closer and noticed that the centaurs had webbed feet, which may be a storied classical motif, but I think that was the first time I'd ever seen it.

From the vantage near the Signing of the Treaty, you can see the river below, and at that moment I realized how little use Jefferson City seemed to have for its river. Paralleling the river bank were a couple of rail lines with idle cars on them. There was no obvious access to the river beyond -- no walkway, no docks, no evidence that anyone used the river, except some quarries on the opposite bank. Maybe people access the river elsewhere, but you'd think there would be something near downtown.

At the end of a steep slopping street downhill from the capitol is the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, essentially a cluster of old stone and brick buildings dating from before the Civil War -- the Lohman Building, the Union Hotel, the Christopher Maus House, which has a certain ring to it. No one was around on an early Saturday morning, so it was easy to wander around and imagine the place as an actual working landing, when boats stopped there and the steep road was a muddy track a lot of the time, navigated precariously by wagons. The Union Hotel still services at the town's Amtrak station, but according to a sign taped to a window, that railroad's chronic red ink means that the station is only open when a train is due.

Just behind the Union Hotel is a more modern stone that says: "75th Anniversary - Missouri State Parks - 1917-1992 TIME CAPSULE - placed the 9th day of April, 1992, to be opened in the year 2067 - Missouri Department of Natural Resources." About as weak an excuse for a time capsule as I've ever encountered. I hope they didn't enclose anything on any electronic medium, which certainly will be impossible to read in 2067.

A few yards away is perhaps a more lasting item from the past, the Governor's Garden. Nothing fancy, Missouri isn't a fancy place, but a nice rectangle of green grass, some emerging flowers, benches and trellises on the downside of a slope that leads to the Governor’s Mansion. It also satisfied my taste for obscure plaques honoring obscure people. A nearby plaque noted: "In Honor of Juanita McFadden Donnelly, First Lady of Missouri, 1945-49, 1953-57, whose love and care were instrumental in completing the Governor’s Garden in 1948."

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

MO capitol blog.

The State of Missouri must have decided that its capitol building, lording over Jefferson City on what must be the town's highest point overlooking the Missouri River, isn't high on any extremist's list of targets. You never know now, visiting a government building, what to expect in terms of security. I was mildly amazed -- if you can be such a thing -- to breeze right into the capitol of Missouri. The big formal doors at the top of a lengthy set of steps were closed last Saturday morning, and probably all Saturdays, but signs pointed the curious (me) to a less conspicuous door, tucked beside the steps, and in I went. No one at the door, no metal detectors.

Then again, you'd have to pack a really big boom to put a dent in the building, which is classic state capitol style: big and solid, domed and colonnaded, limestoned and marbled. Perhaps the sad experience of two previous capitol buildings, both of which burned down, inspired the Missouri legislature of the early 1910s to make the third one as sturdy as possible. President Jefferson, looking statuesque, greets visitors outside in front, and I understand that Ceres, the very same ag goddess that has a graven image atop the Chicago Board of Trade, is on top of this building, too, though I had to read about that later. From the vantage of the ground, she could have been Liberty or Justice or Sarah Bernhardt for that matter.

There were two staffers at a desk and a few other tourists, but otherwise the place was deserted. Unusual among capitol buildings, there was a museum there on the first floor, off in one of the wings, with display cases about Missouri's past. (More commonly, such displays are tucked away in capitol basements.) I didn't spent a lot of time there, but I did take a look, especially at the Civil War displays, since Missouri had its own civil war, divided as it was. Elsewhere in the building are the normal governors' portraits, group shots of legislatures, plaques of various kinds, busts of Missourians of renown, paintings, ornaments, and old-timey but functioning fixtures (especially in the elaborately tiled bathrooms).

I wish I'd had a little more time to take a better look at the Thomas Hart Benton murals, and the desk was out of postcards depicting the building, but on whole, it was a good capitol experience. It had all the right elements: easy access, monumental scale, echoing halls, things to see inside.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Missouri 94 blog.

Last Saturday was a pleasant, sunny day in central Missouri, with temps in the 60s by noon, a little wind, and blue skies with flecks of clouds. Two-lane Missouri 94 generally follows the north bank of the Missouri River eastward from Jefferson City. That would be in the Missouri River Valley, I suppose, but driving along you seldom see that river. More often you see farms, pastures, hills, bluffs and trees, in various combinations.

Just outside of Jeff City, the road is more or less a straightaway, with farmland on one side, limestone hills on the other. Later, things are jumbled up, with the road twisting through the hills: up to a crest, round a bend, past a cow pasture, and more trees after that; then the road goes down, then around, then up again, trees on all sides, then flat for a while. Then repeat -- in a different order. And hang on to that wheel. There are little or no shoulders to this road, which glides past some deep ditches, gullies and slopes. A small mistake could be disastrous. It wasn't a road I would want to drive at night, or even in heavy rain.

Spring was just under way. Most of the trees had the barest of green fuzz. Some bushes had bloomed, and a few early flowers came up out of the ground. In many of the otherwise brown farm fields, something purple was blooming -- flowers I couldn't see as individuals, only as a low, hazy groundcover of light purple. It was lovely. What was it? Lavender?

Further east, just before the road hit the exurbs of St. Louis and lost most of its driving appeal, I passed through a wine country. This was unexpected. After miles of few or no billboards, or even small ad signs, there were suddenly signs advertising a number of wineries. Sometimes, the vineyards, still bare for the season, were clearly visible from the road. I didn't have time to stop, or I would have, just to take a look around. Perhaps Missouri vintages are among the great unknowns of wine.

Maybe not. In any case, there's a genuine wine country along 94. Plus some towns: Mokane, Portland, Bluffton, Treloar, Marthasville, Dutzlow. All small, easy to blow through, and spread out nicely. Which meant very little traffic along most of the road from Jeff City to Defiance. That was the best part, the part that's essentially to car-commercial driving -- having the road to yourself. I almost did. Few idiots or maniacs to watch out for. Such a rare thing. I had it for about an hour and a half.

I stopped only once, for gas, in the hamlet of Mokane. There, in the smallest of towns, I saw the future of retail, a completely automated gas station. It only took credit cards, slipped into the pump. Problem? Call this 800 number. Talk to someone in Delhi, probably. I had to have gas, so I used it. No need to call Delhi, luckily.

I'd noticed a point-of-interest spot for the "Daniel Boone Grave and Monument" on my map, near Dutzlow, so I turned off 94 onto a road, guided by a sign. Then there was a fork in the road, but no additional sign for guidance, so I took the most promising branch, which led to another signless fork in the road. I gave up. It was just as well, because if I'd found the grave and monument, I might have missed my flight back to Chicago.

When I did get back home, I did a little research on my route and uncovered another thing or two I missed. The following is a note on the town of Washington, which is a few miles off 94, from, which lauds 94 as a fine biking road:

"[Washington] is relatively large by rural measurements [pop. 11,000] and has a large number of attractive homes built in a 'Missouri-German' style that visitors love to see. It is also home of the world’s only existing corn-cob pipe factory, [which] puts out an amazing 7,000 pipes a day, and [which] have been used by famous people such as Mark Twain and General Douglas MacArthur."

Monday, April 05, 2004

Missouri blog.

April has opened colder than it ought to be, and I'm back in my office by day and my suburban hovel by night. Time to start posting again.

The high point of my short trip to Missouri last week wasn't the walking I did in downtown St. Louis or around the capitol in Jefferson City, or the Churchill Memorial in Fulton with its remarkable Wren church, or the good meals in an assortment of styles, or the panel discussion I moderated in the fine setting of the Missouri Athletic Club, or the peaceful confines of two moderately interesting hotels, or even the rare opportunity to see a movie (The Ladykillers) in a movie theater, though those were all fine things.

Better than all that was Missouri 94, at least the stretch from just outside Jeff City -- I heard it called that more than once while I was there -- eastward about two-thirds of the way to suburban St. Louis. I started off Saturday morning in Jeff City, and had a plane to catch in St. Louis in the afternoon, so I was a little pressed for time. But the day before I'd seen the Interstate that more or less connects St. Louis with the capital, and it had been a busy road that gave me a mild headache. I had a hunch that the two-lane state blacktop would be a better drive, and worth the risk of a missed flight.

I was right. Sometimes it was like being in a car commercial. More on that tomorrow.