Thursday, May 27, 2004

Coughing blog.

Time to knock off blogging for a few days, for a couple of reasons. I've had a persistent cough since last weekend (it was really bothering me last night). I expect to talk to a doctor about it today, but my informal diagnosis is bronchitis, and if that's really the case it means I have to wait till it goes away. Mostly, it makes me tired by the evening.

Besides, it's almost Memorial Day, and I'm fond of all holidays. So I'll try to pick up things again next Tuesday.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Detroit CBD blog.

It’s instructive that, when I Googled “Downtown Detroit,” the top site was that of a business organization, Downtown Detroit Inc., whose goal is to “create a clean, safe, beautiful, inviting downtown,” while the second site was a “Downtown Detroit Ruins Map,” which is part of a site run by a Detroit enthusiast who’s clearly infatuated with the area’s many dilapidated buildings, while also deploring their neglect. Downtown Detroit is that kind of place, a work-in-progress of a small number of boosters who have never given up on it, despite pervasive decay.

Which isn’t to say that downtown is a ruin. It’s alive. But even the most casual of walks there, combined with everything I’ve read or heard about the place, left me with the feeling that it’s a pale shadow of the great Northern city center that it used to be, even as recently as the 1950s. People still work there, evidenced by a steady trickle of pedestrians; some shops are still open; and there are a number of handsome older buildings, and even a few newer ones, such as the Renaissance Center, built at downtown’s nadir, in 1977, and which is now GM’s headquarters. But not far away, only a few blocks in some cases, downtown gives way to vacant, boarded-up buildings, empty lots, loose trash, graffiti, and all the other hallmarks of urban blight. Downtown feels like it’s just barely fending off the creep of urban decay.

I’ve visited greater Detroit many times, but I’ve only gotten close to downtown twice. Once when I flew by and crossed over to Canada via the Ambassador Bridge, and again last year, when I drove to the CBD, and then drove out again. This time, I wanted to get out of the car and put my feet on the sidewalk, the proper way to see a city. So after my duties were done last Tuesday, I drove from Dearborn to downtown, parked in a garage, and did a short walkabout.

If I’d had a little more time, I would have looked more closely at Woodward Ave., which is also called Michigan 1, dividing Detroit in two and extending all the way to far-suburban Pontiac, Michigan. Not far from downtown on that street are some well-known sites, such as the renovated Fox and State theaters. But I did get to walk along the avenue right at its beginning, and a few blocks in either direction.

Not far off Woodward is a jewel of a 1920s building, the Penobscot Building, still alive with office workers and retail activity. “For half a century, the Penobscot Building -- at 47 stories high -- was Detroit's tallest skyscraper,” says the Detroit Area Art Deco Society. “Ornamenting the building are American Indian figures and motifs, which are also in the entrance archway and metalwork. Comparable to those of New York and Chicago, it really brought the city into the 20th century world of skyscrapers.” I was especially taken with its interior, which had all the ‘20s detail you could want, including impressive mail boxes with proud brass eagles perched atop. (A relic of the old U.S. Post Office, when the Post Office meant something – the days when bags of letters to Santa Claus would prove his existence in court.)

A couple of other gems clustered nearby, including the Ford Building, a Daniel Burnham design from 1909 with some excellent terra-cotta work, and the Guardian Building, a colorful art deco marvel. From the vantage of Jefferson Ave., a major road paralleling the Detroit River, I got a good look at the glassy Renaissance Center, which looks isolated from the rest of downtown. Then I walked over to the old Mariners’ Church, more about which tomorrow.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Ritz blog.

When I got to metro Detroit, I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Dearborn, which is more-or-less surrounded on three sides by Detroit -- an inner suburb nearly synonymous with the Ford Motor Co. It’s also home to Greenfield Village, the open-air museum that Henry Ford built. Unfortunately, I’ve never been there, but I know it sports an enormous array of historic artifacts, including Thomas Edison’s lab, a working 19th-century railroad roundabout, the complete transcripts of Father Coughlin’s broadcasts... well, maybe not that. I understand that the contemporary Fords and the company go out of their way to disavow Henry’s embarrassing anti-Semitism.

This is the “Property Description” from the Ritz-Carlton website, along with my comments, in italics.

Occupying 6.9 acres, the hotel is a part of Fairlane, a unique business, retail, residential and recreational community in historic Dearborn. [Fairlane is not unique. It’s a mall, ringed by a number of office, residential and other buildings, including the hotel. Of the 6.9 acres, I’d say that half at least is parking lots. But this is metro Detroit, after all.]

The Grill Restaurant, The Lobby Lounge and Two Ballrooms. [The Grill? You’d think they could dream up something, well, ritzier. The Ambassador Grill or Ye Olde Expense Account or something. As for the ballroom, my company held its event there. It was really just one room, quickly divisible by the hyper-efficient and ever-solicitous Ritz staff. It was quite a good place for the event.]

24-hour in-room dining. [Using room service is like buying a jumbo tub of popcorn, a monster soft drink, and a bunch of candy at the movies. Something in me rejects the notion. I’ve only ordered room service once that I recall, several years ago when I was sick.]

Twice daily maid service. [Should be twice-daily. The Ritz did not, I noticed, ask its guests to Help Save the Earth by reusing their bed sheets and towels for two or three days.]

Indoor Swimming Pool and Fitness Center. [No time for these, alas.]

Technology Butler service and full service business center. [Full-service, dammit. You’d think the Ritz could afford to hire someone who understands compound modifiers. As for a “Technology Butler,” I don’t know what that is, but it makes me think of an experimental domestic robot, maybe a Lost in Space robot in a tuxedo that runs amok one night and murders its human master and mistress.]

Cabled and Wi-Fi wireless high speed internet access in all guest rooms and meeting spaces. [Why Wi-Fi is capitalized and Internet isn’t, who knows? If I had a laptop, I could take advantage of these things. I suspect that in a few years, I won’t need a laptop, and this phrasing will be as quaint as “20 degrees cooler inside,” because every room will have a computer built in. Mere access won’t be enough.]

The list also includes “Express arrival and departure services,” which every hotel above Red Roof Inns has; “Personalized wake-up call service,” which actually was a human being, instead of a computer, nice touch; “Complimentary overnight shoeshine,” which I would have used, but the condition of the soles of my shoes is too embarrassing; “Overnight laundry service,” $2 per sock, probably; and “Valet parking,” which at this site, with its generous parking, only the most decadent would use.

One other thing about the Ritz -- and I think I’ve brought this up in the context of office buildings -- why are 18th- & 19th-century fox-hunting prints used so much as a shorthand for posh? Fox hunting is, or was, an aristocratic sport, of course, but so are (were) a lot of other activities. My suggestions for images of upper-class activities: outfitting an Athenian warship; reclining at a banquet in the time of Augustus; watching a jousting match; admiring one’s harem; riding a white elephant; attending poetry recitals by moonlight; using hundred-dollar bills to light cigars. The possibilities are many. Money is ill-used if it doesn't buy a little variety.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Wink blog.

I have to digress a little from my account of Michigan, since I ended yesterday with a reference to Wink Martindale, the very model of a third-tier celebrity, and whom I was surprised to hear on AM radio en route to Detroit last week. Anyone who knows me will realize that I’m not much given to celebrity adulation – in fact, I think it’s a kind of mild dementedness, or in some pathetic cases, not so mild.

Names, by contrast, are fascinating, and Wink’s got a great one for his line of work. One I’ve always liked. Sometime in late 2002, we were having some kind of informal meeting (there were seldom any other kind) in my office, and an industry executive’s name came up – Bob Smith, John Jones, something like that. Some name shared by thousands and thousands of people, and my comment was, “Well, not everybody can be named Wink Martindale.”

The youngest member of the staff, Angie -- who no longer works in my office, and who got married in Iowa yesterday, by the way -- had never heard of him. The older members then told her about his days in the game-show realm, which is pretty much is how he’s known, even though it’s been some time since he did them. I wasn’t sure if he was still alive. He’s that sort of celeb.

Efficient and curious, Angie soon found Wink Martindale’s website, Wink’s World, and determined that he was not only among the living, but still a showman. She sent him an e-mail saying that her boss had mentioned him, and not too many days later we received two autographed photos of Mr. Martindale, one a standard publicity shot, the other of him in a tux next to an electronic game called Wink’s Slots-O-Luck. From Wink’s site:

“Mikohn Gaming Corporation has announced the development of the first in a new line of innovative video slot games, starring Wink as emcee. These machines will utilize Mikohn's patent pending knowledge-based gaming format as part of the company's Think Big! slot series. These new games will not only feature the Wink Martindale name, but also his image, likeness and vocal talents.”

I have to say, that would catch my attention in a casino. But probably not my coins. Wink must not have been doing a radio show in ’02, but he is now, a show with a slightly pretentious title, “The Music of Your Life,” which clams music from “the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.” Some kinds of songs and not others, of course.

Anyway, we taped the two photos above the bulletin board near the reception area where Angie sat. Every now and then, a visitor would make an odd expression and ask either, “Who is that?” or “Why is Wink Martindale on your wall?” The real answer to that second one was, because this is a mildly eccentric office, just like the editor.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

I-94 blog.

Rain all through last night. More to come. Our garden is partly underwater now. Didn’t build it up high enough. Still, the sump pump in the lower level of the house was in fine fettle last night. It might be an inanimate object, but it’s my friend.

In the fullness of its course, Interstate 94 runs from Port Huron, Michigan, at the southern tip of Lake Huron, to a junction with Interstate 90 near Billings, Montana. Or vice versa, if you want. It was the road I used to visit metro Detroit early this week, and to return to Chicago. On the whole, it’s one of the better Interstate spokes emerging from Chicago, in terms of visuals. Instead of the flat, endless corn and soybean fields that you see along I-65 to Indianapolis or I-55 to St. Louis, you get some mildly rolling terrain, a lot of trees, some farm land, and other distractions for the eye. May is especially good, with its newfound greenery.

On the other hand, construction sites were all too common, especially bridge work. Out in the rural stretches, a lane closure usually doesn’t slow things down, but construction anywhere near a town means a slowdown. Part of this is unavoidable. Assuming these projects aren’t pure pork for some state or federal rep, roads need to be fixed, and spring is the time to get started.

But part of it’s also the moron factor. Example: not far outside greater Detroit, westbound on I-94, a distinctive orange sign warned us that the right lane would be closed in two miles. Two miles. Traffic was thick enough, but not so heavy that everyone riding in the right lane couldn’t merge left long before two miles were up. As I watched from the left lane, a string of cars in the right stayed in that lane as the one-mile and half-mile warning signs flew by, waiting until the orange barrels were practically in front of them to merge. Which bollixed the forward flow of traffic, of course.

But that’s a minor complaint. If you bitch about the tedium of the Interstates, I think, you aren’t paying attention (with certain exceptions). Most of the time there’s something to see and think about. Town and road names can have their charms. Paw Paw, Michigan, besides its distinctive name, reminds me of my freshman year at Vanderbilt. There was a vending machine in our dorm that stocked a tasty set of fruit juices bottled in Paw Paw that I haven’t seen since. Also, to illustrate that place-names in North America are delightfully varied, along or near I-94 there’s Dowagiac, Albion, Derereaux, Partello, Vandercook, Waterloo, and two of my favorites anywhere, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti.

Then there’s the life of the road, and the towns served by the road. People who call it flyover territory are fools. I saw a lot of state police out on the road, doing their part to shore up anemic state revenues on an uninteresting and occasionally lethal beat. I-94 is a major truck route, naturally, and I noticed that the 55 mph speed limit for trucks has had some effect in slowing them down. Probably not because the state says so, but because HQ says so, to control insurance costs. I’ve read that GPS and other technical refinements have regimented a trucker’s life fairly tightly; I wonder what it’s like.

There are all flashes of life visible through some of the larger towns. Near Battle Creek, I think, I passed a high school sports field, and a girls' soccer game was in full swing. How many of those kids hate growing up in Battle Creek, which they know from television and movies is nowhere, since all the glamour is in the cities? How many can’t imagine living anywhere else? According to signs, there are a lot of wineries along the route. I didn’t take time to visit any, but I would like to sometime. Must be a tenacious bunch, the vintners of Michigan. “You make wine where?”

If there’s nothing visually stimulating, there’s always rural radio. The dial is infested with genre radio, like it is in the cities, and curiously enough that renders the AM band the more interesting of the two in the long stretches between urbanized areas. Only some of AM is genre. In the afternoons, you can always count on finding Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura offering their syndicated shtick, but also things you can’t hear anywhere else. Semi-professional commercials for community banks, independent drug stores, and farm equipment. Local news from the counties you’re passing through. Every sort of fundamentalist radio preacher you can imagine. At one point I was listening to a syndicated music program that seemed to be founded on Frank Sinatra and pop of his era -- until “Calypso” by John Denver played. The show was hosted by Wink Martindale.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Dutch Village blog.

Evil storm clouds due north of us now, and a tornado watch in effect, so I’d post and get off-line as soon as I can.

I’ve had the idea of visiting Holland, Michigan, for a while now, but wanted to steer clear of the tulip festival there in early May (this year, May 1 to 8). It’s probably a fine festival, but toddler management issues in crowds discouraged me. So I suggested the first Saturday after the festival, and we loaded up and headed out last Saturday.

Truth be told, it wasn’t one of our better day trips. Theoretically, at about 150 miles, it should take two and a half hours each way. That kind of calculation assumes tight control of all the variables. Out on the road, however, all bets are off, and construction- and accident-related backups are all too common, especially as you arc around the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Nothing too terrible happened on the way out or the way back, but traffic was thick enough to increase it to three hours or more each way. Better to have stayed the night.

Also, we fully expected a destination called Dutch Village to have a lot of tulips to look at it. In fact, the site used to be a tulip farm. There were a few beds, only some of which were in bloom, but it turns out that most of the tulip displays were elsewhere in the town, at a garden devoted to them. So a little more research on my part would have been helpful.

Dutch Village wasn’t a bad destination. But Dr. Johnson aptly described my feeling on it: “Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see.” It’s a likable place, a small theme park with one theme, established in 1958 and a leftover from the days when such parks were more common – though even by then, Disneyland had upped the amusement park ante.

From talking to an employee for a few minutes, I got the impression that Dutch Village is still hanging on, but isn’t in the best of economic health. It’s still owned by the family that used to farm tulips on the site, descendants of Dutch immigrants, and I suspect that whatever the state of the theme park, they’re doing fine. Around the park is newish retail development -- a discount strip center and some other shops on U.S. 31 -- all on land formerly owned (or still owned) by the family. Either way, that means big bucks for them.

We ate lunch first, at the Hungry Dutchman’s Cafe. It was really a snack bar, but they had Dutch items on the menu, so I got the metworst, a smoked sausage, and Yuriko got a croquette. Not bad, not stellar. Inside the park, we watched dancers klompen in wooden shoes -- high school girls in a Dutch dance club, costumed like the Dutch Maid cleanser girl. Entertaining enough, but the ornate 1920s street organ that played the dance music was more interesting. According to the emcee of the dance show, it had been acquired in the Netherlands at the opening of park. That was before the Dutch attitude shifted from “You want to buy this old junk?” to “You can’t have this precious piece of Dutch heritage!” The park’s windmill and some of the other structures, such as a barn, small church and water wheel also represent losses to Dutch culture (but heck, the Dutch have always been able to buy more culture).

Lilly spent her fair share of time on the carousel, swing ride and a large wooden shoe with a slide coming out of the toe. There were also some moderately interesting displays of Dutch clothes, farm implements, toys, lace, pottery, etc. A couple of faux canals -- real water, anyway, but not connected to anything -- ran through the park, and there was a replica of an Amsterdam pedestrian bridge. Since this is a family venue, there were no hash bars, or even replicas. No Dutch East India colonial structures, either, which I think would have been a nice touch; and no costumed actors from the time of the tulip bulb mania. But those are just the kind of things I think of when I think of Holland.

Downtown Holland does not have a Dutch theme, except for the anthropomorphic peanut I mentioned yesterday. It did have a nice shopping street, and was near the pretty campus of Hope College, which I’d never heard of before (defective research, again). We’d had enough of Netherlander things, so before we left we ate dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. The pho was good.

Crummy blog.

Came home last night with a headache, mild fever, and all-around crummy feeling. After more sleep than usual, I'm better this morning. Will post again tonight.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Michigan wrap blog.

Of the four days from last Saturday to this Tuesday, I spent about three of them in Michigan. Different parts of the state, but all within easy driving distance of greater Chicago. Easy, if you're by yourself, as I was on the trip to metro Detroit. Not quite as easy if little kids are along, as they were on the road to Holland, near the east coast of Lake Michigan. But both traveling solo and with family each have their rewards, as does Michigan itself.

Holland. Settled by 19th-century Dutch immigrants, whose descendants display their names on various business signs in town -- TerHorst, DeVries, DeKaamp, that sort of thing. Attractions include tulip gardens, a wooden shoe factory, a large windmill, even a Dutch-themed theme park. Downtown has a shopping street, including a candy store that has an outdoor painting of a peanut as a mascot. Something like the Planters' anthro-peanut, but wearing a Dutch cap, dark shirt and trousers, and wooden shoes.

Dearborn. I had business in this company town, the company being Ford. Not business with Ford, but with members of the Detroit commercial real estate community. The upside of this was that I got to stay at the Dearborn Ritz-Carlton. It is indeed ritzy.

Downtown Detroit. One can only take so much ritziness, except for those hollowed-out souls who are addicted to it, so I made time to see downtown Detroit the way a downtown should be seen, on foot. It occurred to me that in about 1970, people were worried that Detroit represented the dysfunctional future of the American city. Luckily, it didn’t quite work out that way in many cities, and even downtown Detroit isn’t a total loss. But it is a sad place.

Marshall. Right in the middle southern Michigan, it has a picturesque, living main street with an assortment of businesses. Must have been overlooked by WalMart, though that's hard to believe. Give them time.

Friday, May 14, 2004

NO BLOGGING till Wednesday or so. Will make a full report after that.

More rain. The yards, the fields, the bushes, the trees, every spot with plants is lush green. In that sense, winter is gone at last. On the other hand, it was about 50 F today, the last (I hope) vestige of brutal temps of winter.

Lately Lilly's been requesting to hear some of the nursery rhymes found in a red hardback book we have, one of a series of six or so published in 1948 by an outfit called the University Society Inc. in New York. I don't remember when I bought the set, exactly, but it was after she was born, probably not long after, and I'm fairly sure I got 'em cheap.

To judge by the preface and the editorial board and other clues, the aim must have been to present nursery rhymes and children's stories framed by whatever pedagogic theories were in vogue at the time. I'm no authority on nursery rhymes, or pedagogy either, but I suspect that the book contains material that would no longer be suitable for framing by current pedagogic theory, like this third verse in "Jack and Jill."

Jill came in, and she did grin
To see his paper plaster;
Mother, vexed, did whip her next
For causing Jack’s disaster.

In the second verse, for those unfamiliar with it, Jack “went to bed to mend his head, with vinegar and brown paper.” Home remedy. Anyway, there’s no mention of Jill actually causing Jack’s fall; in fact, she came tumbling after. But she gets the blame. Seems like a good life-lesson to me.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Hundreds of blogs.

Rains, more rains. In Japan, there's supposedly a rainy season (tsuyu) in June or so, and a lot of people there referred to a rainy season, but I think it represented tradition more than actual weather. "Rainy season" sounds like something in the tropics, anyway. Temperate zones have spring rains.

Blogger has updated its web page, and the process you go through to post. One interesting new feature is that it tells me how many separate postings I've made. This is number 363, or nearly a year's worth stretched out over nearly 15 months. One of the longer diary efforts I've ever made, but not in fact the longest yet. I filled up two fat spiral notebooks back in college, from September 1980 to February 1982, though the second volume got soaked while in storage a in the summer of '82. I still have the pages, long since dried and removed from their spirals, but the entries written with felt tip pens were mostly obliterated. In that way I lost my written record, for one, of the first trip I ever took to New Orleans.

Let's see. 360 x 500 words (I figure that's a good daily average, but it's only an estimate) = 180,000 words. I don't have any figures handy to back me up, but I think that would amount to a fair-sized book. Generally I deal in smaller packets of numbers: a magazine feature is 2,000 to 2,500 words; the The New Yorker was (is?) noted for its extra-long features, inevitably described as more than 10,000 words. On the shorter end of the spectrum, the columns in my former magazine always had to come in at 700 words. I discovered that Lincoln’s second inaugural speech totals about 700, too. So a good deal of quality can be packed into a low word-count, if you happen to be Lincoln.

As for me, my daily ±500 words will last until I get tired of it, or Blogger has a massive system failure, or my iMac dies and I decide not to replace it for a while. That is, an indefinte while longer.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Influenza blog.

I was at the Schaumburg Township Library on Sunday -- planting the garden didn't take all day, after all -- and I passed by a display of new hardbacks. The Great Influenza by John M. Barry was one. I picked it up immediately, and now it's my commuting-time book. I needed one, having finished The Great Hill Stations of Asia last week, a wonderful combination of travel and history.

Apart from a few minor, but annoying writing tics -- such as the overuse of 'and' to begin sentences -- The Great Influenza is fascinating. Morbidly fascinating, sometimes, since it is about a plague. But of course it's more than just the story of disease and death. This, from the prologue: "It is also a story of science, of discovery, of how one thinks, and how one changes the way one thinks, of how amidst near utter-chaos a few men sought the coolness of contemplation, the utter calm that precedes not philosophizing but grim, determined action.

"For the influenza pandemic that erupted in 1918 was the first great collision between nature and modern science. It was the first great collision between a natural force and a society that included individuals who refused either to submit to that force or to simply call upon divine intervention to save themselves from it, individuals who instead were determined to confront this force directly, with a developing technology and with their minds."

So it's a history of science, too, and I think I see where he's going. Inasmuch as there's any discussion today about the reaction to the pandemic, it's limited to noting that public meetings were banned, and people wore masks, and none of it did any good. I suspect Barry's out to revise that notion, and posit that the reaction to the plague was a good deal more sophisticated than that, and perhaps did do some good.

Part of the attraction of a book like this is learning more about something important that I only know in outline, and that it feeds my enduring interest in my grandfathers' time. But it also makes me wonder about the sinkhole of human memory. According to Barry, the lowest estimated number of deaths from the plague is twenty million, worldwide, but "epidemiologists today estimate that influenza likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million." Moreover, "if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus."

Those are astonishing numbers. How is it, then, the 1918 influenza is so faintly remembered? It hasn't even been 90 years. It's remembered far less than, just to name a famous death-dealing event, the loss of the Titanic, or to use an example that hasn't been romanticized by Hollywood recently, the Johnstown Flood.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Dental blog.

Remarkable what you can get used to. Because of a temporary filling I'll have until the day after tomorrow, I'm not using the left side of my mouth for chewing. Strange at first, but after a week I hardly think about it.

Last week, my brother Jay sent this message about root canals and other feats of endurance: "The advantage of root canals is that after you've had one, ordinary dental work is a snap. I've had two or three in the last 20-some years," he writes.

"The first root canal I remember clearly. It was to the rearmost non-wisdom molar on the lower right side. The adjacent wisdom tooth had erupted from the gum at a 45-degree angle, forming, with the molar, a nearly perfect trap for particles of decay-inducing food. Since I had managed to put off having my wisdom teeth extracted until I was 30 years old, the damage to the molar was profound. To save the tooth, a root canal and a crown were both necessary.

"The real problem with root canals, as you may yet find out, is that it's a length procedure. If it involves a back tooth, you have to keep your mouth open very wide for a very long time, well over an hour. Assuming the dentist is good with the needle, the drilling and excavation don't hurt all that much, but your jaw will be sore for days.

"Mother has all of her teeth, I think, though some are crowned and many have fillings. Her mother, of course, lost all of her teeth before she was 50. Her father, on the other hand, died at 72 with a complete set of teeth. According to one story, a new tooth even grew in to replace a permanent tooth lost in an accident."

One of my wisdom teeth grew nearly perpendicular to the next tooth, too. Even a layman like me looking at the x-ray of it could tell it wasn't right. I had that one and the other three out at one go, back when I was 25, also a fairly advanced age for it. A friend of mine picked me up afterwards and gave me a ride home, and she was surprised that the gas hadn't made me completely silly.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Plantin' time blog.

Violent weather around the Midwest yesterday, or so I heard. In my little corner of the region, we got sun and clouds in a varying mix, some brisk winds, and exceptionally fine warmth, all day, from beginning to end. Only toward the end of the day did we get any rain, and that only a cloudburst. Not so different from Saturday, really, with the addition of that cloudburst.

On Saturday I tilled a rectangle of earth in our back yard that's clearly been used by previous owners as a garden. So it was; so it is again. Besides its garden-like shape, and a dearth of grass, the other clue that it was a garden plot is a wire fence, in some disrepair, that surrounds it. I'm not sure that the fence will be any good at keeping animals out, but I am sure that it will keep 15-month-old Ann out. So I repaired the fence to the best of my meager mechanical abilities, and tilled the ground inside with a Hound Dog brand pronged implement, a solid metal device. Four prongs in an almost swastika-like array, with me grasping the top end; insert in ground, twist. Worked pretty well.

But, as I was tilling my own land, communing with my agrarian ancestors, feeling the good earth, etc., it occurred to me that a good reason for someone like me (an office worker) to keep a garden is to remind me I'm not a subsistence farmer, and glad of it. Very glad. You don’t have to be out in the sun grinding the earth long to understand why farmers all over the world hightail it to the cities, even to third-world pestholes.

I'm not quite a garden novice, though my brother Jim’s experience in these matters dwarfs mine. He's been keeping a garden in San Antonio for decades now. Yuriko and I had some tomatoes at our previous back yard, though there really wasn't enough sun for them. In the late '80s, I helped a friend in the suburbs maintain his garden, visiting just often enough to participate in the whole cycle. But this is our first garden of any size, and the first one I will see day-to-day.

I planted on Sunday. Corn, carrots, okra, squash, plus an assortment of herbs like basil, and some Japanese vegetables whose names I forget. I know most of this should grow, but I look at the plot and think, nothing's going to grow. The seeds were phonies. It'll quit raining until August, and the village will ban irrigation. Romans sowed salt in my yard. I won't really believe it until something comes up.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Lama blog.

The great and well-known sights of the Chinese capital are indeed great, and well worth seeing, but one of the more entrancing places in Beijing was the Lama Temple, which isn't so well known. So, in addition to my recollections of it, which are just as a sightseer, I've appended more about it to the end of this entry.

On Friday [May 13, 1994] we were back on the sightseeing trail. After we bought hard-sleeper tickets to Canton, that is. I was amazed by how easy it was to buy tickets at the main Beijing station; we only waited in one wrong line, due to ambiguous or misleading multilingual signage. From the station we rode the Beijing subway to a station near the zoo, to which we walked by way of the Exhibition Hall, a structure so Stalinist it was almost funny (tho' I suspect the conscript laborers involved weren’t amused).

The zoo was commie architecture, too, mostly concrete pits and iron cages. The baboons, at least, seemed happy with this arrangement, maybe because they had chains hanging from their iron bars to climb around. The single polar bear, on the other hand, was a miserable-looking creature, and I doubt that the mild heat of the day was the only factor. Anyway, he looked like a dirty, beaten-up bearskin rug lying there.

On Saturday, we left late and came back early. In between, we saw the Lama Temple, a exceptional place. Magnificence on a more human scale, unlike the Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven. Loved that incense burner; and the founder's statue with the yellow hat (it is Yellow Hat Buddhism, after all); and the giant statue of Buddha (a bodhisattva?) said to have been carved from one enormous log.

Back to the present. Looking around the Web for something on the Lama Temple -- a cursory look, since I don’t want to be up all night -- turns up a fair number of tourist-site guides, some which seem to be compiled by government-sanctioned tourist outfits, and I refuse to cite any material even remotely connected to the Chinese government (though I have to acknowledge that the temple is functioning only because the government allows it). I did, however, turn up the following (which I've condensed), from a Purdue University web page on the temple, which is actually a lamasery, that is, a monastery of lamas, who are monks from Tibet or Mongolia.

"Yonghegong Lamasery, a renowned lama temple of the Yellow Hat Sect of Lamaism, is situated at the northeast part of Beijing city. It was originally built in 1694 as the residence of Emperor Yongzheng of Qing before he ascended the throne and was renamed Yonghegong... In 1744, it was converted into a lamasery and became a residence for large numbers of monks from Mongolia and Tibet.

The Devaraja Hall -- formerly the entrance to Yongzheng's imperial palace -- is also called the Maitreya's shrine or the Hall of Heavenly Kings. In the hall, Maitreya always greets visitors with a smiling face with a sandalwood pagoda on each side. On the pagoda stand many small Buddhist images, which symbolize longevity. Hence, the Longevity Pagoda. On both sides of Maiteya's shrine are four fearsome-looking Heavenly Kings or Celestial Guardians. Behind the shrine of Maitreya stands the statue of Weituo facing backwards to a large courtyard.

"A marble-based bronze incense-burner stands on the way to the Hall of Harmony and Peace. It stands 4.2 meters high with decorations of two dragons playing with a pearl on its six opens. Afterwards is the Mount Sumeru, a bronze sculpture of Ming symbolizes the center of the world. On the top of it lies a legendary paradise where Sakyamuni and men of moral integrity live after death; the dwellings of humans in the middle and devils abide in Hell below.

"Right behind the Hall of the Harmony and Peace is the Hall of Everlasting Protection (Yongyoudian) and the Hall of the Wheel of the Law (Falundian) in which enshrines a bronze image of Tsongkhapa -- founder of the Yellow Hat Sect. The golden-roofed Falundian with five gold-plated pagodas was the place where lamas assemble to have religious activities. In the center of the hall is a six-meter-high gilded bronze statue of Tsong Kapa on a lotus.

"Now there are about 70 lamas in this temple. For a small fee, you can also get the lamas to bless things for you, usually jade pendants and the like."

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Beijing blog.

May 8-10, 1994. Can't believe it's been 10 years.

Our week in Beijing really began when we moved from the hotel in which we'd spent the first night into Bob & Kristin’s fine flat at the embassy compound known as Sanlitun, one of residential apartment complexes for people posted to foreign embassies. They have three nice-sized rooms plus a kitchen, pantry and a balcony. Lots of books (I spent a lot of time with a well-written bio of Mao). A good stereo plus tapes and CDs. An interesting selection of TV channels, including Asian satellite channels. A well-stocked refrigerator, including a Norwegian product I'd never had, caviar in a tube. An amah that comes MWF. I could go on. Only a small minority of a billion Chinese live anything like this.

The first afternoon Bob took us to see the silk market, and the place where Russians buy cheap clothes en masse for shipment back home. Cyrillic signs are common on the cargo shipping companies and the small restaurants in the warren of little clothing shops that make up the market, known as the "Russian" market. Later, we had a fine dinner al fresco -- northern Chinese food, what else -- at a restaurant with most of the staff of the Norwegian Embassy, where Kristin works. One of them told a story about getting kicked out of Tibet by suspicious apparatchiks.

Tuesday morning Yuriko and I got into a taxi -- one of those yellow van-like vehicles that Bob said were called breadboxes -- and said "Tiananmen." Said it a few times, actually, before the driver figured out where we wanted to go. Soon we were walking the cement squares that make up that vast plaza. It was a bright, windy moment. Spent the balance of the morning and then some of the afternoon at the Forbidden City. It was overwhelming, as I suppose it was designed to be, beyond the scale of any particular human being. After poking around its vast plazas and enormous structures and behemoth fixtures and countless art treasures, we headed across Tiananmen Square again and had a late lunch at KFC. The one with the view of Mao's Tomb. I’ve wanted to do that ever since I heard about that KFC. If the Great Helmsman could only see it...

Friday, May 07, 2004

REMA blog.

I don't usually dwell on the minutiae of my job here, but this is important enough to note. Today, Real Estate Mid-America, the magazine I've been editing for less than a year, and the direct successor of Real Estate Chicago, which I edited for about three years, ceased publication. The last issue is at press, and there won't be any more. The numbers just didn't work, as my employers explained to me at headquarters two weeks ago, though I was already fairly certain of that. That's publishing for you, and that's the bad news.

But it isn't that bad. I still have a job. The same job, really, in terms of where I work and how much I make. The company will be publishing something new in the Midwest, a quarterly business-news supplement to the national magazine that it publishes, Real Estate Forum. I will be the editor of the new publication come August, and I will also write features for Forum, and very likely write for other company publications (there are a number of paper and on-line titles).

About half of the magazines I've ever worked for have slipped beneath the waves, never to rise again. Real Estate Mid-America was a serviceable vessel, a workaday merchantman. All together (to continue the metaphor; not sure where it came from), it was crewed by ten, though not all at the same time. As the last man standing, I got to scuttle it, and watch it go down from a seat on a dinghy. Time to go build a new ship.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Styrofoam blog.

Yesterday, mysteriously, the inflow of spam into my office computer dwindled to a trickle. I was sure something was wrong. I'm still not convinced something isn't wrong, but I've been able to send and receive messages that I want to read, so if there's a problem with my e-mail service, we should all have problems like that.

Before last fall, I never got that much anyway. Then one week, a big virus passed through the cyberfirmament like a bright comet, though I've forgotten its name. Using a Mac seems to offer some protection from these pests, but after that my incoming spam increased dramatically. This week I hear there’s another virus afoot well enough known to make the mainstream news. Has it had the effect of reducing spamage? Probably not, but the idea's got an appealing symmetry.

At about midday, a UPS man brought a small box to me. It looked suspiciously anonymous, but then I noticed a return address in small print -- the Dow Chemical Co., Building Materials, somewhere in Michigan. Excitement! A transnational chemical manufacturer has sent me something!

"Dear Valued Editor: [The letter inside begins. Nice, but not quite as classy as the salutation I once got from a Saudi business concern that wanted a subscription to a magazine I used to edit -- "Dear Esteemed Editor."]

"Enclosed is your complimentary coffee mug and AP style book, courtesy The Dow Chemical Company, manufacturers of STYROFOAM insulation. Like many other products, including Kleenex, Jet Ski and Frisbee (see how many you can come up with), STYROFOAM is often used as a generic term, when actually it is a registered trademark of The Dow Chemical Company. We need your help in encouraging the proper use of STYROFOAM amongst your staff."

I don't know that those examples are good ones to show the error of using a trademark as a generic, since I'd think the battle is all but over for kleenex, jet ski, and frisbee, though we could all call that last one a Pluto Platter, the original name. Off the top of my head, I did think of three more trademarks that are fully generic now: aspirin, trampoline, and nylon.

It's a nice royal blue mug, with the following on it: "There's no such thing as a STYROFOAM cup." True. There are styrofoam cups. Those ALL CAPS are like screaming at the reader, and there's usually no call for it when discussing beverage containers. Dow insists that those are merely "foam" cups, but I think it's pretty much a lost cause for the company.

As for the AP style guide, 2003 edition, there was a bookmark in it from the helpful people at Dow, inserted at the entry on Styrofoam, which reiterates what the letter says. More interesting is the notice near the front of the guide. "WHAT'S NEW in this edition... New entries: al-Qaida, Amber Alert, assassination, Bahai Faith, bioterrorism, earthquakes, farmworker, Founding Fathers, Global Positioning System, ground zero, hand-held, hillbilly [?], blog and PDA, Line of Control, 9-11, Saddam, software titles, special forces, SWAT, Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, till, watt."

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Bennett blog.

Yesterday Mac Bennett's name came up in the blog as a member of Gonzo Theater in Nashville, and later as an actor in a couple of Ernest movies. Before I took up the subject, I hadn't thought of him in years. I didn't know him very well, but I did know him because we had some friends in common, people I knew at Vanderbilt. I think Mac was a student there at one point, too, but I'm not sure anymore, and he's not in the Vanderbilt alumni on-line directory. He would have been a few years ahead of me.

Professionally, the last thing mentioned in the IMDb is a short film he produced in 1992. So, from my point of view, he's someone whose later activities and whereabouts are unknown, even to the extent of whether he's still alive or not (I hope he is). Anyone with any kind of social life can probably come up with of a raft of old acquaintances like that.

Still, I have one fond and vivid memory of Mac Bennett. Mac had some gift for comedy, and an enthusiasm for exposition -- especially at parties. He looked the part too, with a stocky built, unkempt hair, lively pale eyes and usually a cigarette or a drink in one hand. I remember him best from one particular party; I don't remember which one it was, though it might have been New Year's Eve 1985 at my flat, which was a corker.

The party wasn't a poetry reading party by any stretch of the imagination, but at one point Mac was inspired to recite a poem -- one that I think I'd heard him recite, from memory, on other occasions. He knew it well, put himself into, and got us all to listen. Not only that, it fit into a festive atmosphere.

It's one of Baudelaire's. I've read that it was originally a prose poem of his, in French of course, but a number of translations of the poem are available. I wouldn't know which translation Mac used, but I've reproduced the cadence of his reading, as best as I can remember, using a translation that I like.

"Get Drunk!"

Always be drunk.
That's it!
The great imperative!
In order not to feel
Time's horrid burden
bruise your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
On what?
On wine, poetry, virtue, as you will.
But get drunk.
And if you sometimes happen to wake up
on the porches of a palace,
in the green grass of a ditch,
in the dismal loneliness of your own room,
your drunkenness gone or disappearing,
ask the wind,
ask everything that flees,
everything that groans
or rolls
or sings,
everything that speaks,
ask what time it is;
and the wind,
will answer you:
"Time to get drunk!
Don't be martyred slaves of Time,
Get drunk!
Stay drunk!
On wine, virtue, poetry, as you will!"

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Ernest blog.

Not long ago my old friend Michael O.J. in Nashville sent me an e-mail. I didn't know he was a reader, but apparently he is.

Last week, I mentioned that Dan Butler was in the Broadway play I saw recently, and Mike had this to say: "I don't watch Frasier, so don't know if it is the same one, but Dan Butler was one of the principles of Gonzo Theater in Nashville in 1982. He was in Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam Machine, the movie (?) I worked on when I quit NASA. He acquired some national fame and fortune for America's Dumbest Criminals. He has a face and character easy to hate.

"I've been busy, but still check up on you occasionally. Thanks for making it easy with your blog. Your namesake is now 21 and a half years old."

That "namesake" is a buzzy orange called he named Dees as a kitten, back in the summer of 1983. I'm astonished that he's still alive.

As for Dan Butler, the actor on Fraiser is, alas, a different person from the Dan Butler that Mike knew in Nashville, and whom I saw on stage during that long-ago golden summer of '82. Gonzo Theater was a local comedy troupe. I remember being entertained by them one evening, but I can't quite remember their skits, except for the Ethel Merman impression one of the men did on a bogus talk show called Pakistan Today, and a skit mocking a Nashville politician who happened to be in the audience that night, and who was also red-nosed drunk.

Gonzo Theater, I think, didn't last very long, but many of its members went on to be in some of the Ernest movies: Butler (Daniel Butler, according to IMDb), Jackie Welch, Mac Bennett. (Sorry, Mike, I don't remember the other guy, but I know that your brother Lee did crew work for Gonzo, and on first Ernest movie.) Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam Machine, 1986, was the first Ernest feature, and I'm one of the few people I know who actually paid money to see it, or who actually saw it at all. I went to see it because I knew some of the people who made it, and I knew of the Gonzo Theater alums. The movie stank, but the cast and crew were giving it the old college try.

Also, I knew some of Jim Varney's early work, namely commercials. Ernest was created for commercials, and the character was (is) owned by a Nashville ad man named John Cherry, whom I sometimes heard called "Buster" Cherry. I vaguely remember Varney shilling for Purity Dairies, a Nashville milk producer (and great lemonade maker) that was independent in the 1980s, but which is owned by Dean Foods now. Ernest was destined for greater things, it turned out, though Dr. Otto wasn't an auspicious start. Cherry went on to direct Varney in better (if not stellar) Ernest movies, till Varney died of lung cancer in 2000 at age 50. His career was tragically cut short before he could make My Dinner With Ernest.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Inlay blog.

This week didn't get off to a very good start, since I found myself in a dentist's chair this morning. Last month, she had informed me that I needed to replace two lower-teeth fillings that probably date back to the Nixon Administration, so today was the day. I've never been especially afraid of dentists, though maybe I would be if the first thing the dentist said to me was "Is it safe?" Still, the less time in the chair, the better.

Things got a little drawn out today. She decided that only one tooth would benefit from a new filling. The other, the very back molar, had more serious decay, and needed an inlay. Ah, life is a constant education. For all the dentists I've been to, my knowledge of tooth repair is fairly rudimentary: A filling goes into a hole in the enamel; a root canal is much, much worse, you hope you don’t need one, I've managed to avoid them myself, it has something to do with the mysterious pulp in those tooth diagrams you see in school -- pulp is the part you never, ever want anything bad to happen to.

"The decay under the old filling is pretty bad," the dentist told me. I was able to answer, "Uh?" My mouth was wide open, with various implements hanging out of it.

"A filling won't be enough," she went on. "If I use a filling, it's going to leak."

Leak? That sounds bad. Whatever you say, doc. Amazing the trust we have, sometimes, in people we barely know.

"So I'm going to have to do -- " I was dreading a root canal next -- "an inlay." Whew. A what?

She explained it some, but it was hard to focus, so naturally I looked it up later. If you already know the details of inlays, you can skip the following three paragraphs, from, the quickest definition I could find, and a fairly illuminating one, too:

"Inlays are indirect fillings pre-made in a dental lab and must be permanently cemented by a dentist. Fillings are different from indirect fillings in that they are soft to begin with and set in the mouth... inlays fit into the space left after a cavity or old filling has been removed.

"Inlays are generally made in tooth-colored porcelain but are also made in gold or composite materials. Inlays are far more durable than fillings, don't require much of the actual tooth structure to be removed in order to place them, and actually increase the strength of the tooth by up to 75%, preventing further decay. Since inlays are made outside the mouth, they are usually very strong and last up to 30 years. Inlays are aesthetically pleasing as they can be made to match the tooth color and as such, don't draw attention. [But can you get a gold star inlay?]

"Applying an inlay is a two-visit dental procedure. During the first visit, the tooth decay or old filling material will be removed. A mold of the tooth and adjacent teeth is taken and sent to a dental lab. In the meantime, a temporary filling will be applied to protect the tooth. During the second appointment, the dentist will cement the inlay in place, making any necessary adjustments to ensure a comfortable bite."

Making the mold was fun, all right. I had to bite down on a wad of goo for four minutes while it hardened. Twice, since the dentist didn't like the looks of the first impression. Next week, I’ll be back for the cementing. Till then, I can’t use my back left molar, which is plugged by a temporary filling.

But it's churlish to complain. If it really lasts 30 years, this inlay from the spring of 2004 could well be with me to the end. Besides, I only need to remind myself of the fate of my grandma's natural teeth, which I have a very good chance of avoiding (at 78, my mother has). I remember that special glass she had beside her bed for her store-bought teeth.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

More Derby of yore blog.

Notes on the 1987 Kentucky Derby, continued.

When the Derby was over, we heard on the radio that several arrests had been made that the event. Not for drunkenness & disorderly conduct, or fighting, or drug possession, but for "excessive nudity," a phrase that made me wonder when nudity becomes excessive.

After my walk around the infield, I returned to base camp I discovered that all of NS's picks in the fifth had won -- but he'd had no time to place the bets! Grumble, grumble. We learned later, from an experienced bettor who happened to be standing ahead of us in the betting line, that that was a terrible omen for the rest of the day's bets. And so it proved to be.

BF and NS got the idea that they wanted to go behind the grandstand. BF wanted some shade. NS said (to me) that he wanted a look at the finely dressed women there, the Derby being a dress-up occasion for the box-seat classes. In fact, he wanted to go into the high-ticket sections, but BF and I balked at the idea, pleading poverty. NS then said that if he won enough in the next race, he'd buy our way in. Fair enough, we said. He started plotting his strategy on the seventh. We’d missed the sixth while we navigated the human eddies and tides in the area of the grandstand, nearly getting separated but ultimately finding the essentials of a water fountain (and later a beer vendor), and a place to sit.

We all bet on the seventh. I bet not by racing form, but by the names of the horses. NS went with hard-core racing form data. I don't know how BF made her decisions. We all lost.

But this time I wanted to find MA [a woman I'd known at Vanderbilt, then living in Louisville, and whom I hadn't seen since the previous Derby]. I'd talked to her on the phone the week before, but we hadn't been definite about a meeting place. She said she'd be in about the same place as last year, near the Kentucky flag.

We placed our bets on the Derby (the eighth race) and headed back to the infield. I explained to my companions that I was looking for someone, and I think they had the impression I was looking for a pea in the Grand Canyon, but it wasn't that way. MA and her crew were in almost exactly the same spot as the year before, forming one of the many, many clusters of people on the infield. Two of MA’s sisters were there, and so was our old friend CS, but MA's husband was off somewhere else. Everybody seemed surprised that I'd actually made it.

NS and BF went to watch the Derby by the edge of the track, but MA and I spent the time just before and during the great race in a pleasant little bubble of conversation. It's a strange moment in time, the running of the Derby, not quite like any other. Trumpets blow and the announcer says this is the so-and-so running of the Kentucky Derby! The crowd yells out its approval, and everything just hangs until the bell rings. A century and more of custom has designated the eighth race on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs as the race. The crowd isn't exactly quiet during the running, but murmuring with attention -- this is probably the most united the spectators will be the whole day, from the cheap spots in the infield to the box seats that have passed down through a single family for three or four generations.

Then it was over. We'd lost our bets. There's a ninth and tenth race, so the crowd doesn't jam the exits quite the way it does at other sporting events or concerts, but the outflow is steady. My visit with MA was much too short, because we had to join the exodus; NB had to work the next morning in Chicago. Leaving the city was surprising easy, and the only event of note en route back was a big damn thunderstorm outside Indy, when I was at the wheel.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

Derby blog.

May already. As it happens, the first Saturday in May. And it isn't very warm. Argh.

Notes on the 1987 Kentucky Derby.

At this year's Derby I lost about as much money (about $30) as I did last year on the horses, a motley assortment of glue-factory nags and other worthless creatures when it came to putting me in the money. One of them came in fourth when I bet him to show.

The ride down [from Chicago] was smooth. NS & BF, mutual friends of mine who had never met, seemed to get along fairly well, though I think at first BF was a mite irritated by NS's manly interest in her womanly shape, very quietly manifest but there all the same. At one point, he offered to rub her neck while she was in the front passenger seat and he was in back. She wasn't buying, and NS gave up before long.

More important to me, when NS was back at the wheel and I was in the passenger seat, soft jazz was oozing from the car stereo. The sun had gone down, I'd reclined to a decadent angle, and as we barreled toward Indianapolis, the piano and the strings and all the other colorful notes flowed out and around me and made a cocoon. There I was, in a music cocoon flying down the Interstate at 75 mph or so, my eyes mostly closed and my mind in one of those semi-liquid moods, like in snooze-button time. We hit Indianapolis at midnight and stopped at NS's sister’s house to sleep...

The next morning we left for Louisville under a bright sun, and it got warmer and warmer as we headed south, which did my expatriate Texan heart some good. We got a little lost in Louisville but eventually parked the car in the back yard of a small house only blocks from Churchill Downs. The owner of the house wanted $5, but NS talked him down to $4.

We entered at the front of the track this year, went under the grandstands and box seats and down through a pedestrian tunnel leading to the infield. Lots of people there, lots of people everywhere, walking around, hugging their drinks and digging into their coolers, sprawling on their easy chairs or blankets, trying to decode their racing forms. We sat on the ground not too far from the track, but facing it, near the Kentucky flag pole. BF looked wilted from the heat. NS went off to find a racing form. The fifth race was coming up, and when NS returned he made some recommendations on the horses. Since I didn't want to be bothered with the lines, or racing forms, I gave him $5 to bet the same horses. Then I went for a walk.

The sun was strong, but the air didn't seem as dusty as last year. It was a festive crowd. Plenty of near-naked women around, and the usual knot of men ringing the top of the slope around the women's bathroom on the left side of the infield, sometimes encouraging the women to further nakedness as they emerged. Elsewhere, I was privileged to see a little performance by four men as I wandered by.

"Ready guys?!?" one of them yelled to everyone and no one in particular. "Let's show 'em what we’re made of!" They bent over in a quick, unanimous motion, and four butts burst out into the sunshine.