Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Champagne Emulsion blog.

I checked the menu of the Michigan Avenue restaurant Nomi today -- I have it in front of me as I write, and its seems that the establishment styles its name “NoMI.” That’s on the cover of the menu in raised white letters. In fact, that’s all that’s on the cover of the menu, which is itself completely white. You might say it’s the White Album of menus.

The selection is simple. Four appetizers, three entrees, and four desserts. A prix fixe of any combination of appetizer, entrée and dessert is $39. My appetizer was the Country Style Duck Terrine, which came with vanilla pepper fig jam and “home-made” pickle relish. I put that second one in quotes, reflecting my quixotic idea that home made should mean made in the home, period. I doubt that Chef Sandro Gamba whipped this up at home and brought it in, but then again I don’t really know the professional habits of name chefs. In any case, it was a tasty dressing for the duck. Even better was the fig jam.

Both the jam and relish were served in globs the size of very small half-footballs, and the duck came in a round glass cup. Tom, my lunch companion, had also ordered this, and at first we weren’t sure how to eat it. Our effervescent and ever-helpful waitress, wholly American in outlook and without a soupcon of stereotypical French-restaurant rudeness, suggested that it could go on the fork with the duck, or on the bread with or without the duck. I tried it all those ways. Delightful all.

My main course was bass. I asked Kristy -- the waitress, we were on swell terms with her by this time, and she didn’t have too many other occupied tables -- where it was from, and she reported back the name of a town on the coast of Virginia. Not merely bass, of course, but Wild Striped Bass: Nage (I can’t find this term) of Pumpkin, Watercress, Semolina Pasta and Gingered Champagne Emulsion. That last phrase is something. Not in his wildest dreams of decadent Epicureanism would even Nero himself conjure up Gingered Champagne Emulsion. It’s a thing of wonder for simple souls such as myself. (I know the Romans didn't have champagne at all, but I've got blogger's license here.)

When I got it, the fish was lurking on top of an off-white, bubbly liquid. Bubby, after all, since this was a champagne emulsion. But it looked all the world like soapy water. It tasted nothing like that. The fish was tender and good, but the sauce was stellar. I extracted every bit of pasta and watercress with careful pleasure, and enjoyed each bite.

“What would you gentlemen like for dessert?” asked Kristy, when, as all good things must, the bass had run its course. We didn’t have the fashionable option of abstaining from dessert, since it was part of the show. I had the Duo of Jivara and Fatima’s Milk Ice Cream: Hickory Nut Nougatine and Iced Coffee Crystals. The crystals were pressed flat, into a square, which rested on top of a sphere of ice cream, artfully plopped in the middle of a large plate. Extraordinary ice cream, I might add, though not quite on par with Tom’s Litchi Sorbet, which I got to sample. But I’ve no complaints. How could I?

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Nomi blog.

I had an elegant lunch today, an artfully prepared and presented meal -- a (relatively) expensive meal. Of course someone else paid for it, or rather it went on someone else’s expense account, for which I am always appreciative. It was also that best of business lunches, during which you can talk about things besides business, though you do not neglect it.

I’m a caveman when it comes to fine dining, but at least it’s summer, so I didn’t have to leave my animal skins at the coat check. Actually, I was quite presentable in my gray suit, though the really stylish thing to wear would have been something else. It always is. I never bother to learn what (I think I would have to relearn it too often).

Anyway, it was also a new place for me, which I’m almost always game for. The name of the establishment was Nomi, though I think they style it NoMi, which will not fly in this account, since editors like me are usually adverse to cutesy-pie capitalization in names unless they derive from a language that’s hard to transliterate.

The description of the place on, a Tribune site devoted to leisure-time activities, follows:

“Located in the new Park Hyatt Chicago, Nomi serves upscale French cuisine with a global twist. The seventh-floor restaurant boasts views of Michigan Avenue and the lake and even has a 50-seat outdoor terrace; the entire restaurant, including the 120-seat main dining room, is designed by Tony Chi. The adjoining lounge features a Wenge wood bar, Bolivian rosewood floors and backless eelskin stools.”

Wow, backless eelskin stools. I should have sat on one, just for the novelty value. Tony Chi isn’t a familiar name to me, but that not bother Og. The Park Hyatt has an interesting backstory, too interesting really. It used to be an ordinary Hyatt at the corner of Chicago St. and Michigan Ave., but in the late 1990s, the hotel mogul Pritzkers undertook a major redevelopment of the property, tearing down the sizable existing hotel and replacing it with a hotel/condo combination.

I toured the topmost condo in mid-2000, and it was jim-dandy even unfinished, in the multimillion-dollar league. The developer who undertook the job for the Pritzkers was named Bruce Kaplin, a rising young star in Chicago development, about my age; this was his biggest project until that time. In December 1999, for reasons only known to the successful Kaplin, he jumped to his death from another building he had developed.

“Chef Sandro Gamba, a finalist in the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Chef award in 2000, has put together an innovative menu that includes sushi/sashimi that is flown in daily, and risotto Milanese (one of Gamba's signature dishes) served with shrimp and clam. For breakfast, Gamba serves a whopper of a meal, inspired by those prepared by his grandmother in France: authentic hot chocolate, baguette, fruit tart brioche and apple compote. A lighter menu featuring brochettes is offered on the rooftop garden from June through mid-September.”

I declined the sushi, as fine as it might be. Guess I’m jaded when it come to sushi, for obvious reasons to those who know me. Also, I missed breakfast, and I didn’t have Gamba’s signature dish. What did I have? Duck in the appetizer, bass in the main course. I couldn’t possible describe them without referring to the menu I took with me, which I left in the office. So I’ll get to that tomorrow.

Monday, June 28, 2004

A self-funded blog.

My brother Jay writes, regarding my light brush with the defunct Ryan for Senate campaign last Friday:

“I just got around to reading yesterday's Ryanblog. That afternoon, I heard an Illinois GOP fonctionnaire on the radio discussing what they would be looking for in a replacement candidate. As well a number of unexceptionable characteristics -- ‘loyal, trustworthy, brave, etc.’ -- he added that it wouldn't hurt if the candidate was ‘self-funded’ too. I don't believe I had heard the term before. I assume he meant that it would be good to have a candidate capable of paying all or most of his own campaign expenses, thus allowing the party to use its money elsewhere.

“I have the impression that Mr. Ryan was, to a considerable degree, self-funded. Party officials are especially annoyed, of course, because they say that Mr. Ryan had, ah, understated to them the nature of the allegations made during his divorce proceedings. The affair fits nicely, if in an American context, into the accepted wisdom of British politics that holds that Labour scandals are always about money, and Tory scandals always about sex.

“Wasn't there a Sikh running for the Republican nomination for Senate in Illinois? Or was he running for governor? I have the idea that you reported seeing him campaigning once, perhaps outside of the train station downtown. I don't know if he would be self-funded, but it would make for a more interesting race if they brought him back in.”

I did meet the only Sikh candidate for Senate outside Union Station (see the March 15, 2004, entry). The GOP running Dr. Kathuria as a replacement had occurred to me, too. Then the race for U.S. Senate in Illinois would be Chirinjeev Kathuria vs. Barack Obama, surely the most novel paring of names in a Senate contest, ever.

Unfortunately, according to a few reports that I’ve read, the Republican Party elders who will make the decision about Jack Ryan’s replacement aren’t seriously considering Dr. Kathuria, though they might as well be. They want their candidate to be “self-funded” because the race has been written off. The party, which has had a bad few years lately in Illinois, wants to spend its money hanging on to some contested U.S. House seats, I think, rather than on a long-shot Senate race.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

NY 97 blog. Another item from the past.

June 16, 1997.

Yesterday was warm and we spent a fair park of it at a lakeside part in Evanston, but not at the beach. Evanston wants money to go there, and we object on principle. It had finally gotten above 80 F, almost 90 in fact, but it was a while in coming. On Friday, temps were almost as high, but in the late afternoon, they dropped 20 degrees or so in about an hour. By evening, it was quite chilly for June. That didn’t stop the city from honking car horns and setting off fireworks when the Bulls won their latest championship. Lots of noise. Including, in some places, shooting guns off into the air. But not too near our apartment, I hope.

My trip to White Lake, New York, was mostly interesting for the places I got to see, rather than for the fire chiefs' convention I attended. The show was held at a run-down hotel and resort called the Concord, a place long past its heyday, which must have been the 1940s and ’50s. Suffering from Catskill decline, it seems. Much of the Jewish population of New York City used to take vacations there, but no more -- too many other places are easily accessible by jet travel, and perhaps the Concord’s kosher kitchens, which the resort maintains to this day, aren’t the draw they used to be either. Even the association holding this event is going to move it to Syracuse next year, I understand.

I didn’t stay at the Concord, but at B&B down the road. It was a nice place, run by a couple of gay men, and featuring five small and well-appointed rooms. It had a spacious front porch facing the road, and a lake beyond that, and I got to spend a little relaxing time there, though not quite enough. It was also quiet. I heard that when occupied by hundreds of firemen, as it was during the convention, the Concord sounds something like my freshman dormitory used to on a Friday night.

Last Saturday evening, my publisher and I went to the 1906 Restaurant in a burg called Callicoon, NY, on the Delaware River just across from Pennsylvania. The restaurant had been set up in a building that was originally a bank -- with the founding date, 1906, in stone on the façade. I had a plate of ostrich in a brown sauce with vegetables and rice. Very tasty, a lot like lean beef. According to the owner, he gets the ostrich from a ranch in Pennsylvania. Ostrich meat is touted by such ranchers as a low-fat alternative to beef, but I suspect we won’t be seeing McOstrich burgers anytime soon.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

AZ 97 blog -- item from the past.

June 17, 1997. (Actually, I’m cheating here, since the trip in question happened in late May, but I’m extracting this from a letter I wrote about it in June of that year.)

I won’t bother with the logistic details of our recent trip to Arizona (and briefly, Utah). As befitting these non-narrative (anti-narrative?) times, I’ll boil it down to the neat stuff. Namely:

The desert landscapes of Phoenix, with big cacti, Joshua trees and palms. Also, the big cacti along the highway.

Ed and Lynn's -- our hosts in Scottsdale -- ever-active whippet, Bosco.

The hills of Scottsdale, which looked like baked potatoes.

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum, southeast of Phoenix. Plenty of arid-zone plants, and the animals that love them, mostly lizards and birds.

Montezuma Castle Nat’l Monument. A fanciful name, not remotely Aztec, but cool Indian ruins.

The well-appointed SW style rooms of the Cameron Trading Post Motel, Cameron, Ariz., and its lovely garden.

The view from the Desert View on the eastern side of the Grand Canyon, because that was our first one.

Coyotes on the road. They haven’t all been shot, poisoned or run over.

Learning that owls live in palm trees.

The mighty Glen Canyon Dam, and the book I bought about its creation, A Story That Stands Like a Dam.

The gentrified downtown of Flagstaff.

The ungentrified downtown of Cottonwood.

The delicious tap water of Page, Ariz. Must be straight from Lake Powell.

Rainbow Bridge Nat’l Monument, and the boat ride that got us there.

The Downtown Diner in Flagstaff. Excellent breakfasts.

The twisty, Swiss-like state road 89A, through Sedona, Cottonwood and Jerome.

The San Francisco Mountains, north of Flagstaff.

Bashful Bob’s Motel in Page, which is a real, honest-to-God tourist court.

The volcanic Sunset Crater Nat’l Monument. Lots of chilled lava.

The Indian ruins at Wupatki Nat’l Monument, in a red-soil, Martian sort of landscape.

Watching four German tourists near the Grand Canyon try Dr. Pepper, obviously for the first time, and watching them grimace.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix: many fine Indian artifacts.

The Grand Canyon Cemetery, with its Old West tombstone feel.

Driving alongside the Echo Cliffs.

Ice Cream at the Sweet Life, located at the corner of “Route 66” and San Francisco St. in Flagstaff; and at the Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale. Route 66, big wanking deal.

The clean air of northern Arizona.

The Arizona moon.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Ryan blog.

Better temps today. I think it broke 70 F this afternoon, due to constant sunshine. This inspired me in the early afternoon to walk to my favorite CBD post office, the Haymarket District PO on Clinton Street, to buy stamps. I favor it because there’s seldom a line, unlike every other post office within walking distance of my office. This is probably because the main bulk of Northwestern (Ogilvie) Station is between the post office and the main part of downtown. A lot of people probably don’t even know it’s there.

En route, about a block south of the post office, I noticed a knot of people standing around the entrance to 118 N. Clinton, a small office building. Not just any knot of people, but reporters. Parked up and down the curb were TV vans, complete with tall antennae, the sort with black cables twisting caduceus-like around them. About ten TV cameras were mounted at the edge of the sidewalk, all pointed at the entrance of 118 N. Clinton. Still photographers and people making notes were also around, waiting for something to happen. The crowd, about 30 people, wasn’t so thick that I couldn’t walk by and on to the post office.

I walked back the same way, and was curious enough to ask a fellow what was going on. He said that Jack Ryan was expected to give a statement here soon. In fact, he was late, the man thought. He didn’t need to tell me that everyone was expecting Ryan, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate this fall, to throw in the towel and drop out of the race today.

For the benefit of non-Illinois readers, I’ll quote from this morning’s Sun-Times: “Ryan, 44, [has] spent [this] week in a media and political fire storm after a California judge unsealed child custody battle records from 2000 and 2001. Actress Jeri Ryan accused Ryan of insisting during their marriage that she go to sex clubs, where he asked her to have sex with him while others watched. Jack Ryan denied the charges at the time.”

A third-rate sex scandal, but we’ll take what we can get here in Illinois. Ryan’s a chump anyway. The worst kind -- a rich chump with a pretty face. I suspect he won the primary merely because he was the most telegenic. Still, if I had the opportunity to see him bow out in person, that would be something worth seeing, a small footnote in the history of the Senate. So I waited a few minutes on the off chance that he would show up. But I soon gave up on it, since I had work to do back at my office.

The main beneficiary of this particular teapot-sized tempest is the popular Democratic candidate, state Sen. Barack Obama, whose name alone is almost enough to vote for. Even with a better replacement candidate running against him, it’s Obama’s race to lose.

Later in the afternoon, I heard on the radio that, indeed, Jack Ryan had acknowledged his political demise, though apparently he didn’t give the press on Clinton Street the benefit of his photogenic mug. An updated story on the Sun-Times web site said that “his campaign issued [a] written statement after dozens of reporters, photographers and cameramen spent the morning camped outside his West Loop campaign headquarters.” Ah, so 118 N. Clinton was campaign HQ.

Ryan’s statement was short on contrition, long on blaming the media for his problems. Contrition would be appropriate, I think, not for his lurid hobbies (which he no longer denies), but for embarrassing his party. “Jack, got any skeletons back there?” “No sir, all those bones were cleaned out a long time ago.” Chump.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

October in June blog.

This isn’t right. At noon today, the E*Trade (nee Northern Trust) time & temp sign near the Sears Tower said 59 F. I demand Congressional hearings! The Midwest isn’t getting its share of global warming. No June day should ever be this cold. We’re being cheated. Robbed, I tells ya. A lost summer day is gone for good. We aren’t going to get any warm summer days in October.

My old friend Tom Jones is on the road this week and next, visiting clients in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Southern Wisconsin got blasted by storms and tornadoes last night, and he must have been caught in it. And it’s cooler up there than here. Hope he brought an umbrella and jacket.

The painters came to the office early today, hours before I did, a kind of Mutt & Jeff team in terms of body sizes, or perhaps Matt & Jose to reflect their respective ethnicities. They went about their work with more efficiency than I muster when painting walls, listening to country music and chatting about this and that. Then again, I don’t have to do it as a living, only as a chore I can procrastinate.

I was sure I was going to be driven out of the office by paint fumes, but it wasn’t so bad. They didn’t paint my room, since I didn’t want to spend the next few days trying to reconstitute my setup, but they did the rest of the space, which can hold four other office workers comfortably. I remarked to one of the painters that the paint didn’t smell too much like, well, paint, and he told me that it was an expensive Sherwin-Williams brand.

He even checked the invoice for the retail price: something north of $30 a gallon, though his company got it for about $20. Just another perk of the upper classes, I guess. Smelly paint is for the masses. Why my office was treated to this upmarket paint, I couldn’t say, but perhaps our upmarket landlord, Equity Office Properties, wants it that way.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Migrating blog.

I try to see some odd detail or other every day, but it didn’t work out that way today. Today amounted to an ordinary summer day, except for one thing. There was a short but heavy rainstorm here in the northwest suburbs the afternoon. The family was here and told me about it, and the puddles were still around when I got home. I spent the whole day downtown, where it didn’t rain at all. It wasn't even very cloudy. Not that it would have affected me, up on 17th floor, working on an article, getting the office ready for the painters, and waiting for the DHL man to pick up some equipment that I needed to ship to New York.

One other thing to report, but it’s about the resident toddler, so may not be of interest to everyone. We’re reached period in the history of every household with children in which random objects mysteriously migrate across a room, or from room to room, or worse. The other day, I went to the downstairs bathroom, and discovered elements of a children’s plastic tea set, which usually resides in the toy collection in the next room, floating in the toilet. Usually we put the lids down – that’s a safety measure for people younger than about 1,000 days – but this time it must have been up, and Ann took the opportunity and ran with it.

Lilly, of course, did the same thing, once upon a time. To this day I suspect that the long-missing remote control, originally equipment on our TV, was deposited by a young Lilly in a trash can, never to be seen again.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Cart-washing blog.

Usually, I won’t bore my handful of readers with the contents of my dreams, but early this morning I woke up with a peculiar afterthought to a dream that I don’t remember: a pun. Desert guard duty: a waste is a terrible thing to mind.

Not a bad pun, considering my unconscious came up with it. That was a 4 a.m. or so dream. Just before waking for the day, I dreamed I was visiting Australia again, right on the Tasman Sea. Now that was disappointing to wake from.

This evening, I went to Dominick’s Finer Foods -- a formerly local grocery store, now owned by Safeway. I was on a man’s errand. Get a few things, get out. I looked down at the shopping cart, and saw a label pasted on it that said (roughly) “For your protection, this cart was sanitized by the Cart Washing Co.,” which had a local area code to its phone number. I inspected the cart, and it did seem clean enough, though it was clearly an elder cart, a patriarch among the cart clans. Rust around certain parts of the structure betrayed its age.

It’s the kind of detail that I like. Unless the label is a hoax -- an artist’s idea of mocking the grocery-store paradigm or something -- somewhere out in the 847 area code, there’s a company that specializes in washing grocery store carts. It may be one among several in this country. They might have a trade association and an industry magazine. Perhaps they use marketing material that claims that grocery shoppers prefer clean carts and buy more with them, on average. What kind of machinery do they use? A big Hobart, or a small car wash? Who thought of this? Is it a barely surviving industry, or are three generations of some anonymous families living in plenty because of it?

I suppose I could find out some of this. I do have some reporting skills. Namely, I know how to pick up the phone and ask questions. But I think I’d rather leave this one alone. The Bob Greenes of the world can look into it.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Schaumburg Uber Alles blog.

Climbing now to the solstice. What this country needs is a Midsummer’s holiday, like in the Scando-Nordic countries, who appreciate the virtues of really, really long summer days, to balance the deep long winter days, Arctic air, Bergman movies, etc. Of course, our winters aren’t quite as dark, but living on the wrong side of the Gulf Stream, I’d say they’re tougher.

But I suppose the Fourth of July will have to do. Still, you’d think we could have a string of holidays from Juneteenth to the Fourth.

It was still just ahead of twilight this evening when I went to take out the garbage for its weekly journey to a landfill. A trail of children followed me, abetted by their mother, who opened the door for the littlest one. This inspired an impromptu walk around the block, Lilly speeding ahead of me, Ann usually a little behind, to the park adjacent to Lilly’s elementary school. It had rained heavily earlier in the day, and the air smelled like wet grass and trees, and the way was marked by puddles. Ann had to investigate many of these. One larger one near the school, I thought, looked like the shape of the island of Hokkaido. Most of the clouds had gone by this time, but when we got to the park, it was wrapped in fog.

One other thing. I saw, on the way home from our walk this evening, a real harbinger of high summer: a firefly.

Yesterday we took a different sort of walk, under a partly cloudy day whose temps never got over 80 F. Around noon we went to the Spring Valley Nature Reserve, the jewel of the Schaumburg park system, as far as I’m concerned. I hadn’t been there since April, before everything greened up. In June, it’s really green, a stroll through acres of tall grass, wildflowers, birds and bugs on a single winding path that passes by small groves of trees and a lake. Nearby is a log cabin (dating from the 1920s, actually) and a farmhouse stocked with farm animals and interpretive volunteers. The structure dates from the 1840s, but has been restored to ca. 1880.

Schaumburg was a prosperous farm community in the late 19th century, nearly all first- or second-generation Germans. One of the ways in which the farmhouse restoration to 1880 reflected this demographic was in the choice of sheet music for the parlor’s piano (as I said, it was a prosperous place). There, open for visitors to see, the page of the songbook was turned to “Deutschland Uber Alles.” Such are the details that make a good museum.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

More Vietman, late June 1994.

We ate well in Vietnam. Many people there do not, but with a mark, a yen, a buck or a pound, you happen to be rich. If you happen to be rich, you should spend your money somehow, and that’s how we spent a fair amount of it. Yuriko says the coffee was good, and that she liked the rice (unlike Thai rice, though I’m pressed to taste the difference). But who needs rice in the country that has mastered French bread? The baguettes you can buy just about anywhere were good.

We arrived in Vietnam shortly after Coca-Cola made its return to the country, after being banished in 1975. But it cost almost no less than it did anywhere else, and wasn’t any different than anywhere else except, of course, that it was made with sugar, unlike the inferior corn syrup you get stateside. If I felt like a soft drink, I grew to prefer the Vietnamese imitation of Coke, called Tribeco, which retailed for 10 cents or so. Not bad at all. A couple of the local beers, Saigon and 333, weren’t bad either. And also cheaper than Cola-Cola.

Our favorite restaurant was, oddly, called Madras, though not Indian in inspiration, but more like the Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to outside the country. Opening on a street, it was long and narrow with only a half-dozen tables, and it must have been upmarket for most Vietnamese, though not insanely expensive ($4 or so for two). The girl who worked there, probably the daughter of the owner, was nice, and it was also a fairly quiet place, not an easy thing to achieve near the streets of Saigon.

Maxim’s, where we went on the last night of the country, would have been insanely expensive by local standards. We had dinner there in an effort not to have many dong left over when we left the country, since the currency is so soft that absolutely no one will exchange it for anything else, certain not free-floating Thai baht. Maxim’s had the air of a posh night club down on its luck, with certain details betraying it, such as tattered chairs and tablecloths. But it still drew a clientele of foreigners like us, and obviously rich Vietnamese. The food wasn’t bad, and, truthfully, not all that expensive: the two of us ate for $14.

Baguettes, perhaps, aren’t such a surprise in Vietnam. But the excellent ice cream shop on Le Loi Blvd. was unexpected. Had a concoction with assorted tropical fruit, though I forget what it was called. It was near a dollar shop, where you use dollars, and get change in dollars (though small change is in dong). We bought squid-flavored snacks there.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Items from the past. Vietnam, late June 1994. (Actually written in Bangkok, just after we left Vietnam.)

I didn’t write much while we were in Vietnam because of a minor fear that, upon leaving the country, customs would be looking for materials detrimental to the image of the Socialist Republic. A completely groundless fear, as it turned out. In fact, customs didn’t even want to know how much money we exchanged in the country, which I thought more likely.

Saigon seemed every bit as busy as Bangkok, just not as developed, and (thank God) not as many cars. But you do see, in just about every urban setting, vendors, motorcycles balancing whole families, bicycles, tricycle rickshaws, kids kicking balls, people carrying coolie loads, idlers, beggars, dogs, roosters, and motorized thingamabobs.

Staggering poverty on display every day, not quite at every turn, but enough to justify what Bob R. told us before we came: “Save your beggar change for Vietnam.” Yes. True. We saw mangled war vets (presumably), young woman missing legs, legless people with sandals on their hands pushing themselves on wheeled boards, girls with diseased babies, skinny but otherwise able-bodied beggars, and child beggars. The next step up the ladder were the hawkers -- who sold, among other things, t-shirts, “war-era” Zippos, maps, gum, pastries, toys, shoe shines, postcards, and English newspapers, magazines and books (I was offered The Quiet American several times).

Things may be even worse in the countryside. Down in the Mekong Delta, we reached a roadless place, an island whose main industry was a cocoanut candy factory, which we visited. At least there was a factory of some sort, and some of the houses on the island looked well built, but of course without any evidence of electricity or plumbing. At the candy factory, I had occasion to use the WC, a construction of wooden planks sporting a partially enclosed seat, all overhanging one of the canals crisscrossing the island. I have no doubt that the canal water is used for everything else, too.

Not all was abject poverty, and you did see flashes of wealth, or perhaps relative prosperity. The guesthouse we stayed was modest by First World standards, but it did represent a thriving business for the owner. I was certain of that because his Japanese entertainment center, complete with stereo sound and biggish TV, would have been at home almost anywhere in the developed world.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Blue pencil blog.

'Nother long day, for a variety of reasons, but at least the weekend is here, and it looks to be a pleasant sort of summer weekend, the kind in which you get to stay home and be as idle as possible. Which really isn’t completely idle, except compared to most days.

I may be raising a future editor. Just today, I noticed that Lilly had written something on the map of Schaumburg we keep in the car. It’s a map we got when we moved here last year, and has “2003 Village of Schaumburg” written on the front fold. Last year had been crossed out, and “2004” written clearly in its place with a green pencil. I hadn’t done that, and I was pretty sure Yuriko wouldn’t have bothered with it, so I asked Lilly if she had done it. Yes, she had. “It’s 2004 now,” she said with a slight didn’t-you-know-that? tone.

Come to think of it, that’s also the first time I’ve known for sure that she understands the sequential passing of years. Anyway, I did similar kinds of updating when I was very young, and sometimes I would correct things that I thought needed correcting in a printed text. When I was nine or so, I had a book about the Apollo program, which I think was called Apollo: Lunar Landing. It wasn’t really a children’s book, and so mostly above my reading level at that time, though I could understand some of it, and the photos and diagrams were fascinating.

At one point, it discussed a spacecraft being “en route” to the Moon. That brought out my blue pencil (figuratively speaking), since I’d never seen that phrase before. So I “corrected” it to read “in route.” Wrong, but the editor’s spirit was awake and active all the same. It would be some time later before I would develop the companion practice of looking something up whenever you see a red flag, if you’re not sure of the usage.


Thursday, June 17, 2004

Grand ballroom blog.

Today was a long day. Got up a little after 5 a.m., so that I could make it to Navy Pier before RealShare Chicago got under way. It was the second event of that name held by my company (see the June 5, 2003 entry), and I had roughly the same role as last year, moderator of a panel of real estate execs, with an audience of 500 or so. Not a bad little duty. I wonder why some people are so deathly afraid of public speaking.

Last year, it was at the Hyatt, in a generic sort of big hotel ballroom. This year, we met in the Grand Ballroom of Navy Pier. If I had more energy, I would describe it at length, since as I moderated, and as I went in and out of the space a number of times later in the day, I grew to like it even more than I did before. Enough to say, today, that I got a good look at its 100-or-so foot vaulting dome, and the brick exterior as well. A fine design all around.

Birds nest inside, too, along the perimeter of the second-story balcony. In the summer, the space is partly open to the lake, and I suppose there’s no good way to get rid of them that doesn’t litter the place with dead birds. Throughout my panel, and all the events there, was the constant backdrop of birdsong – little sparrows, I think. It added enormously to the ambience of the place.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Nerf blog.

We did a number of rides, mostly kiddie-sized, at Six Flags last week, but the hands-down favorite thing among all of us who can talk -- and Ann seemed to get quite a kick out of it too -- was the Loony Tunes Lodge, part of “Loony Tunes National Park.” At some point in its history, Six Flags must have decided that it, too, need cartoon characters, and it struck a deal with Warner Bros. Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, Sylvester, Marvin the Martian, Foghorn Leghorn, et al., are all represented in one form or another throughout the park.

LTNP is really a place to take toddlers, because most of the rides are for them: little trains, pretend boats, and other slow and low-flying rides. Then there was the two-story Lodge. We all liked this place so much that we went back later in the afternoon, after visiting it first in the morning.

Instead of a second floor inside, it has a balcony ringing about three-quarters of the way around, accessible by two staircases, leaving most of the interior open all the way to the ceiling. All over the floor are hundreds of very light, nerf-like balls, all about the size of tennis balls, and in a variety of bright colors. Ann took immediately to these balls. It wasn’t long before the older members of the family figured out what they really were: ammunition.

Mounted along the railing of the balcony, and also mounted on the floor, were air cannons. Put the balls in, aim (the cannons swiveled), press the button, and pfuff the cannon fired. Some of the cannons were top loading, others had suction tubes to pick up balls. All of us enjoyed shooting them off. Not long after I found out how to use these cannons, I found myself in a shooting match with a couple of boys, maybe 10 years old, across on another side of the balcony. They had an advantage in that, as a grown man, I was easier to hit. But I gave it my childish best for several minutes, aiming for their heads as they popped up. Sometimes I hit my mark.

Later, after that fight was over, I took to popping people at random down on the first floor. Usually the adults didn’t even notice I was firing at them, unless I made a direct hit, but the kids were paying better attention, and I got into a few more nerf battles.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Roller blog.

Before I looked at the Six Flags company web site, I hadn’t realized that Six Flags Over Texas was originally divided into six themed areas, one for each flag. Six Flags Great America has eight distinct areas, including Carousel Plaza, Orleans Place, Mardi Gras, Yankee Harbor, Yukon Territory, Hometown Square, Country Fair and Southwest Territory. A major part of Yukon Territory is given over to a spot called “Loony Toons National Park,” which, as I will describe tomorrow, had the best attraction for us.

Not that these divisions were all that serious. Crossing from one to the other wasn’t like passing through Checkpoint Charlie, and most of them contained similar things: one of the park’s monster roller coasters, some smaller rides, an entertainment venue of some kind, a place or two to eat, and a host of carnie games and souvenir shops. Each area is vaguely decorated in its theme, but usually that means low-budget storefronts and phony facades. Six Flags, unlike Disneyland(-world), doesn’t go to extravagant lengths to tart up its parks.

One thing Six Flags does spend money on is roller coasters. As well they should, since I’m sure that’s what most people come for. No matter where you are within the park, you’re within sight of one or more of these amazing contraptions. I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle, since the last time I spent much time in amusement parks was in the late 1970s, at the dawn of intense, twisty, metal-tracked roller coasters. Back then, a thing called Greazed Lightning was hot stuff (at AstroWorld, I think; maybe it was “Greezed Lightning”). It consisted of a metal track with one loop; you took an initial plunge to build up speed, and went around on the loop, and then went up a ways, to the end of the track; and then you went around the loop backwards. That was it. The art of the thrill ride is light years beyond that now.

These machines also brought home the difference, as if it needed emphasizing, between being 17 and being 43. In high school, I would ride anything. The point of an amusement park was roller coasters. Now I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go on any of the monster rides. Fortunately, Lilly is still too young for most of them, so my mettle wasn’t tested, except once. Just before we left, we talked her into going with me on the park’s massive wooden roller coaster, the American Eagle, which she’s just big enough for. It’s long and creaky, with the standard slow crawl up to a hell of an initial plunge, plus plenty of twists after that. One thing that impressed me was its height. You have a fine long view of the plain of Lake County and the traffic on I-94 from up there.

I survived, and so did Lilly, though it may be years before she wants to go on anything like it again. Maybe when she’s in high school.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Six Blogs Great America blog.

Last Friday, we went to Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, east and somewhat north of where we live. SFGA is part of the amusement park empire founded in north Texas the year I was born. Until I looked things up on the company’s web site, I didn’t realize just how large that empire is. The following material is from the web site -- mostly from its media page, which gives basic facts and also offers that rarified form of writing known as press releases.

“For more than 40 years, Six Flags has given children and adults the freedom to discover captivating settings and thrilling adventures. Its legacy began with a single property in Texas and grew to transform the way families vacation. Six Flags is the world's largest and most diverse regional theme park company, delivering fun-filled experiences to visitors at 31 parks.” [Not even Walt Disney could have dreamed of so many parks under one banner (six banners?), I think. But Disney, for all his faults, focused on quality. Six Flags focuses on quantity. Which isn’t to say that SFGA was a bad experience. But its roots are clearly in small-town carnies, the kind that Disney hated and wanted to transcend.]

“Six Flags' unique form of entertainment was born in the imagination of Texas oil barren [sic] Angus Wynne, the father of the modern-day theme park. Mr. Wynne set out to create a destination that would capture the excitement and wonder of the imagination. With Angus' vision and the support of the Texas community, Six Flags Over Texas opened in 1961.” [ ‘Hell, if Disney can build his park there in California, we sure can build one right here, in Dallas.’ You have to like an oil baron named Angus.]

“The first Six Flags park took its name from the six countries whose flags had flown over Texas throughout the state's extraordinary history. Six Flags Over Texas featured six sections reflecting the spirited cultures of those nations -- and offered guests a vibrant experience straight out of their dreams. [Namely, Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the CSA and the USA. There’s no hint of this in SFGA, except the name itself.]

A press release about Six Flag’s new, and annoying, commercials tells us this: “Six Flags is the solution to consumer's overwhelming need for relaxation and escape," said [a spokesman]. "Our new campaign shares the excitement of a day at Six Flags, giving everyone, parents included, the freedom to let loose and enjoy the benefits of playtime." [Six Flags was entertaining enough, but if you have small children, it is not -- cannot be -- will never be -- relaxing.]

“Six Flags' brand strategy is to provide consumers with the ‘ultimate release’ - a release from busy schedules, economic pressures and the ongoing responsibilities of work, school and home. The over-committed nature of today's world is the exact reason families need a day of pure fun.” [It’s too easy to mock press releases. But I have to. Ultimate release?!? Who dreamed up that nonsense? As for economic pressures, there’s no place like an amusement park to make you feel economic pressure. The ubiquitous food, souvenirs and carnie games are all overpriced.]

“The surprisingly spry, bald-headed character featured in the television spots travels in a colorful retro style bus bringing his signature music -- "We Like to Party" by the Vengaboys -- and an irresistible invitation to leave the boredom, stress and pressures of everyday life behind, to families across America. He quickly has Dad dropping the rake, Mom putting down the garden hose, and Junior abandoning the lawn mower in an easy decision to take the short trip to Six Flags and a day filled with sheer enjoyment.” [I was wondering what that song was. It’s a catchy techno number, actually. If you hear it a time or two. But at SFGA, I found that it oozes out of speakers near the ground. It isn’t the only song you hear walking along, but by the end of the day I’d heard it often enough to react this way: Not that damn thing again…]

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Just a scrap from the past tonight, since I’m beat.

June 18, 1995.

I’m on some odd mailing lists these days. The other day I got a catalogue from an outfit with a curiously generic name, The Information Exchange, which has a post office box in suburban Chicago. It offers such publications for sale as Pipe and Firebomb Design (“for academic study and informational purposes only”), Know Your Czech Pistols, and Blowguns: The Breath of Death. Videos are also available, including one called Rock N’ Roll No. 3, “fourteen… southern California beauties… in string bikinis, firing auto machine guns…” A steal at $19.95.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Items from previous summers.

June 17, 1983.

Ate the hostel’s 13-kroner breakfast: a hard round roll, 0.2 liters of milk, all the white bread I wanted, and tea. Soon after we walked to that place marked on the map “Carlsburg,” at Steve’s suggestion. We got to the brewery just in time for the 11 o’clock English-language tour, given by a wry old British gentleman sporting a full white beard, who seemed to have long since quit being afraid of public embarrassment, and had a refined brashness that you wouldn’t want to argue with. “Three billion bottles pass through this facility every year,” he said early on. “And if that doesn’t impress you, that number of bottles, side by side, vertical like you standing there, would encircle the Earth more than five times. Six, to be exact.” I was impressed.

We saw vast copper tubs & plumbing of all sizes running in all directions that must somehow be orderly & expanses of yeast. The bottles came from pasteurization, and rode on two lines to the capping, which was a wheel-within-a-wheel complex. There was the quick action of the capping, labeling and packaging. It was all a whir of metal, belts, rotaries, gadgets everywhere.

Just outside the realm of the machines was a room where the Carlsburg brewery gave us a little of their product, some fine delicious beer, enough after a light breakfast to get us all a little tight. We wandered happily out onto the street into the bright summer sun, arriving before long at a bakery, where we eagerly bought bread & cheese & Citron. We found a bench and ate our splendid haul. Copenhagen rolled by, and we absorbed its international flavor along with our lunch.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Truth, Justice and the AP Way blog.

No blogging tomorrow, which is my first summertime vacation day. If I have the energy, I’ll be back on Saturday.

The oddity of the Chicago Tribune using U.S. and UN in the same headline came up yesterday. Further investigation -- I looked in my AP Stylebook this morning -- reveals the following entries:

U.S. Used as an adjective, but not as a noun, for United States.

United Nations Spell out when used as a noun. Use U.N. (no space) only as an adjective. The periods in U.N., for consistency with U.S., are an exception to the first listing in Webster’s New World Dictionary.

Which only tells me that the Tribune isn’t following AP style precisely. I wouldn’t expect that, actually, since Great Metropolitan Newspapers typically have their own stylebooks that are similar, but not the same, as the AP. At one time or another I’ve seen published versions of some of these, such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times stylebooks. I’d like to see the Daily Planet’s stylebook, so I can look up the entry on Superman: Capitalize when referring to the strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men; lower case when referring to Nietzschean superior men who are beyond good and evil. Use “Man of Steel” only in quoted material.

About this business of not using U.S. (and U.N., for that matter) as nouns, I say to the AP: phooey. It’s one of the AP prohibitions that seem arbitrary. In terms of clarity, nothing is lost by using U.S. as a noun, and it seems like the most natural thing to write a sentence like this: “Ambassador Duke fled the U.S. in great haste, stopping only to collect a rouleau of Krugerrands from his wall safe.”

In other words, popular usage has long established U.S. as a noun. Maybe my opinion in this seemingly minor matter was colored by an editor I knew early in my career. Fortunately, she wasn’t my boss, since she was something of an ass (a person whose membership in Phi Beta Kappa, among other things, seemed to have gone to her head). But she did have a better title than I did at that point, and dressed me down one day on exactly that point, using U.S. as a noun. Since then, I’ve considered that little point of style as another example of that consistency that obsesses small minds.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Because the AP says so blog.

Page-one headline of the Tribune today, exactly as written: UN blesses U.S. plan to shift power to Iraq. I’ve seen this style usage before in this newspaper, and it makes me wonder -- why no periods for UN but periods for U.S.? Maybe the issue of periods for the United Nations was the subject of months of heated debate, culminating in a resolution in the General Assembly banning the use of periods in the abbreviation, which it called a “neocolonial practice.” Then the Tribune, in the spirit of international cooperation and harmony, decided to go along with the UN usage.

More likely, it reflects a mandate of the AP Stylebook. My copy is in my office, so I can’t look it up just now, but I suspect that’s the reason. AP says periods for U.S., none for UN. If so, it’s an example of a foolish consistency on the part of the Tribune. It looks silly in that head. Devotion to the AP way of doing things can reach silly levels among some editors.

I can also report that (and this will be the last time I mention it) according to today’s paper, that about 1000 people showed up at the Adler Planetarium yesterday morning to see the Transit of Venus. I figure that represents the hard-core astro-buffs. Lazy duffers like myself, who knew about the event, but didn’t go, probably represented 100 times as many people in the metro area. If that assumption is true -- and it’s only speculation -- that would mean 100,000 people out of 9.1 million or so in the metro area understood what was going on, celestially speaking. Nice to be part of a knowledgeable elite, especially if you don’t have to get out of bed early to be part of it.


Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Lost in Transit blog.

Of course I didn’t see the Transit of Venus this morning at the crack of dawn. Sleep took priority at that time of day. So I can add it to the list of celestial events I’ve missed so far, such as a total eclipse of the Sun, and the aurora borealis and australis. But at least I’ll have another chance in June 2012. No doubt actuaries would give me reasonably good odds of surviving till then. If I understand correctly, in 2012 it will occur more during the daytime here in the Western Hemisphere. And who knows, and I may even be able to interest my children in it.

Last week I read an article in The Economist about the Transit, and was interested to learn that the British dispatched not only Capt. Cook to observe the 1761 event, but also Mason and Dixon, the same fellows of surveying fame between Maryland and Pennsylvania. The French were interested in observing it as well, but for at least one of their number, things did not go well.

“The French had their share of troubles, too. The most pathetic of these were suffered by Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisiere. He was aiming for Pondicherry, a French colony in India, but he learned before arriving that it had been captured by the British. When the transit occurred, he was stuck on a pitching ship in an imprecisely known location, rendering his observations worthless. Undeterred, he decided to wait for the 1769 transit. He spent eight years on various Indian Ocean islands before making his way to Pondicherry, which had by then been returned to the French. On the day of the transit, however, it was cloudy. He then contracted dysentery, was shipwrecked, and finally returned home to find his estate looted.”

Now there’s someone who should have stayed home, like I did.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Summertime, and the blogging is easy.

Not really, since it’s late and the day was entirely too busy. My magazine has disappeared, but I still have plenty to do in the trade journalism mills. Still, it’s better, much better, than looking for a job.

I’d say that the odds are slim that I’ll see the Transit of Venus tomorrow. Since I’m not equipped for it here at home, I’d have to get up at about four a.m., drive downtown to the Adler Planetarium, and use their equipment. Other people will be doing this, though I’d be surprised if vast numbers, or even a small crowd, will be on the shore of Lake Michigan to witness the event. Chicago’s position on the Earth means that the Transit will be about four-fifths done by the time the Sun rises tomorrow.

I tell myself I should go. Capt. Cook and his men went all the way around the world in wooden ships to see the Transit. But they were made of sterner stuff, for sure. Not only that, they got shore leave in Tahiti. I’d just have to go to my office after it was over.


Sunday, June 06, 2004

Parallel decades blog.

June 6, 2004 – Schaumburg, Illinois.

Summer is here without a doubt, a cold morning, or relapse into a cool rainy spring. It was very warm all day, but not boiling hot. Though it was windy, I was able to start and maintain a fire in the ovoid barbecue, and cook hamburgers for lunch. We spent a lot of time on the deck, and then in the park near our home; Yuriko and Lilly rode their bicycles, and I walked; and all the while, one or another informal baseball game was going on in the field southwest of our back yard.

June 6, 1994 – Bangkok, Thailand.

Koh Samet [an island off the east coast of the Gulf of Siam] was a pleasant change after a week in congested, noisy Bangkok. The days on the island, from the 31st to the 4th, had an agreeable sameness to them. Eat. The food’s good here, especially the squid. Sleep. The cool wind blowing off the sea at night is particularly restful, but warding off nighttime mosquitoes means using the bed’s cumbesome mosquito net and keeping a coil burning. Read. Been reading short stories in a fat collection by Isaac Bashevis Singer that I picked up in Hong Kong. Write letters and postcards. Walk. I walked about half the length of the island, but that sounds more impressive than it is, since this is a small island. Ogle girls on the sly. Some of the other non-Thai visitors to this island worship the sun very seriously, and bare almost everything to it.

June 6, 1984 – Nashville, Tennessee.

I spent a long time at the proofreaders’ block today, maybe nine hours, at my brand-new job at Advantage Cos. Read a story, among many others, about recent legal decisions concerning health care, by a talented legal writer, I thought. Read another article co-authored by two professors. Clear prose must be part of the prevailing paradigm that they’re out to smash. No wonder academics have a reputation for obfuscation. They have a talent for it.

After work, I went down to Southwinds [the first-floor bar] with Patti, Terri, Connie & Amy and drank a bit of beer. More than anything else, I listened to endless Advantage scuttlebutt. For such a small company, there’s a lot of gossip. More entertaining, sometimes, than going to a movie would have been.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Former presidents blog.

On days like today, I turn to my invaluable Presidential Fact Book by Joseph Nathan Kane, which is an amazing trove of facts about Presidents of the United States. My edition was published in 1998, so it’s already out of date in some ways, but that’s the nature of a reference of this kind. But it has enabled me to put the following facts together faster than any other source would have.

Something that probably hasn’t been mentioned in many of the many obituaries of Ronald Reagan being written and published now: his passing marks the end of only the third time in the history of the United States in which there were five living former presidents. This time it was Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton. As it happens, it was also the longest such period -- January 20, 2001 until today, well over three years.

There were five -- Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush -- from January 20, 1993, until April 22, 1994, when Nixon died. Before that, you have to go back quite a ways to find five exes living at the same time. But the antebellum years, which were full of one-term presidents, made the first such period possible. When Lincoln took office, March 4, 1861, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan were still alive. It didn't last long, however, with Van Buren and Tyler -- the latter had been elected to the Confederate Congress -- both dying in '62. (The U.S. government took no notice of Tyler's death until 1911, when Congress appropriated some money to build a memorial to him at his cemetery.)

By the way, I’m talking about Presidents of the United States here – the acknowledged 42 men who’ve held that office, not including Sam Houston, Jeff Davis, Sanford Dole or any other sorts of former presidents who happened to be Americans. Non-president David Rice Atchison's right out of there too.

At the other end of the spectrum, it turns out there have been only five spans in which there were no former presidents alive. The first was after Washington died, in December 1799. It didn't happen again until Andrew Johnson died in 1875, when Grant was president. The third time was when Cleveland died, in 1908, during TR's term. In 1933, there was a brief time between the death of Calvin Coolidge (January 5) and the inauguration of FDR (March 4).

Friday, June 04, 2004

Transom redux blog.

It’s practically summer here. The rains have stopped, for now, and warmer days loom ahead. Even the garden seems dry, though things aren't looking good for part of the crop.

My nephew Sam, an architecture student recently returned to Washington U in St. Louis after a stint in Italy, writes: “My first studio project in Florence involved designing a new hostel, to be built in the historic center of the city, about a block south of Santa Croce on Via dei Benci. As there are very strict rules about what can and can't be built in the center of the city, we concocted the pretense that the currently existing building had somehow burned completely to the ground and left even the foundations unusable, but without even singeing the surrounding buildings.

“In any case, your blog on transoms reminded me of some of the specifics of my design, namely that every door to every room in the building had a transom. To me they were particularly appropriate in the context of the culture, even though I did design a central AC system. In addition there was some excellent lighting benefits to be reaped -- I'll have to experiment more with transoms in the future. Just to let you know they are still prevalent and useful even in modern design.”

Glad to hear that. As far as I could tell from the office buildings and other places I go, I thought transoms were things of the past. But maybe they have a future too.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Mariners’ blog.

I remembered today that I never got around to writing about the Mariners’ Church in Detroit, which I saw up close two weeks ago. Illness has a way of derailing your plans, but I’m better now, so here goes.

The 1970s aren’t generally known for ballads, but as it happens three of my favorite ballads were written in that decade, two of which achieved some measure of fame. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (1975) by Bob Dylan is great fun, almost a parody western tale. Much more somber, and little-known, is “Roads to Moscow,” the story of a Russian soldier in the war against Nazi Germany, by Al Stewart (1974). (See November 16-19, 2003, blogs for more on him.)

Then there’s “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald,” by Gordon Lightfoot, which tells the story of the loss of an ore carrier in bad weather in Lake Superior, based on a real shipwreck in November 1975. Released in 1976, the song got a lot of airplay in early 1977, as I recall. One verse near the end goes like this:

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
At the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang 29 times,
For each man on the Edmond Fitzgerald.

“The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral” is a poetic-license name for the Mariners’ Church, which is in downtown Detroit. All these years, the idea that somewhere in Detroit was a little church for Great Lakes sailors was lodged in my head, one notion among countless others. If I’d thought about it, and I can’t say I did very much, I would have probably assumed it was a run-down structure in the wilds of a blighted city, not somewhere I was likely to go.

Last fall, as I drove briefly through downtown Detroit, I noticed a little church building on Jefferson, a main road. I had just enough time to note its name: The Mariners’ Church. Flick-flick-flick went the synapses of dim memory, lighting up again. That’s the church in the song?

Sure enough. Last month, while I was on foot in downtown Detroit, I wasn’t about to miss seeing it. The church, as I mentioned, is on Jefferson, but it’s also hemmed in on two other sides by big streets, one of which is the entrance to a tunnel to Windsor, Ontario. So the setting is crummy. You’d want a sailors’ church to be quayside somewhere, or if not that on a hill overlooking the sea (lake), so prominent that the steeple could pass for a widow’s walk.

But it’s a handsome little building. It was closed, but I got a good view of the exterior. From the National Park Service web site (the church is on the National Register of Historic Places): “Mariners' Church has illustrated Detroit's connections to the Great Lakes since its consecration in 1849. Funds for its construction came from the wills of two sisters, Charlotte Ann Taylor and Julia Ann Anderson, who wanted to establish a church near the Detroit River similar to the seamen's bethels then popular on the East Coast. …this Gothic Revival building included two stories: the upper was reserved for religious activities, but the lower housed a series of rental units to help finance church operations. After the Civil War, for example, the Detroit Post Office spent ten years in the first floor space.

“… After World War II, the construction of Detroit Civic Center required moving the 3,000-ton church to a new site about 900 feet east, an event spectacular enough to make it into the pages of Life magazine. Throughout these shifts, however, the church has continued to attend to the needs of sailors. The most famous example occurred in 1975, when Rev. Richard Ingalls reacted to the sinking of a Great Lakes freighter by praying alone and ringing the church's bell 29 times -- one for each man lost. Newspapers across the world reported this story, including one read by singer Gordon Lightfoot; he responded by writing the song "The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald." Each year since, Mariners' Church has held a memorial service commemorating the men who were on board.”

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Blogs are forever.

If I were the subject of a glossy magazine — say Dees Monthly, patterned after what O magazine seems to be, in which you get to be on the cover every month, and pretty much anything you want goes in between the front and back — I’d have a regular column called Over the Transom. Quaint term, that. How do I know it’s quaint? It came up a year or so ago at the office, and the youngest member of the staff had never heard it.

But even a place as modern as Alamo Heights Junior School, built about 1959, had transoms over the doors. Ugly, utilitarian transoms, but they were there. Probably the designers weren’t entirely sure that the air conditioning would work all the time, and it being South Texas, they knew there had to be a backup of some kind.

Anyway, over the transom today, electronically, from an outfit called Bridal News Network:

“Dear Editor,

Young brides and newlyweds will delight in our latest royalty-free celebrity feature on pop superstar Jessica Simpson.

The Lure of Natural Diamonds: A Favorite of Jessica Simpson (#967)

The diamond is one of nature's greatest miracles. Their amazing journey through time reveals why diamonds possess such a romantic attraction and fascinating mystique, and why they adorn so many celebrated women like superstar Jessica Simpson. Photo of Jessica Simpson and her diamond engagement ring available.”

Leave aside the question of why a commercial real estate publication got this. Databases are peculiar. “Royalty-free” caught my eye, and it took me a moment to decide they meant I wouldn’t have to pay for the story, after toying with the (ridiculous) idea the Bridal News Network is a front for a nest of Jacobins. Weddings for the people! No royalty here, citizen comrade! Vive la Bridal Republique!

Really, though, I’m impressed. Hack marketing prose doesn’t get much more polished than this – glittery like a diamond, but completely vacuous. It takes some talent to write that way. I won’t bother fisking the thing; that would be too easy. But I have to marvel at the outstanding success of the De Beers cartel in romanticizing diamonds in the 20th century, so successful that a genuine cultural shift took place regarding engagement rings. The Bridal News Network – probably consisting of a writer, a salesman and an administrative assistant in a small Madison Ave. office – may or may not be in the pay of De Beers (the cartel ain’t what it used to be, though it’s still strong). But the BNN are certainly heirs to the effort to imbue hard stone with soft sentiment.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Recovery blog.

Feeling better now. Whatever virus was making me cough so much has been mostly overcome by my immune system, though I’m still coughing a little more than normal. Still, after more than a week, it’s a relief. For the moment, I’m appreciating my health, which is generally good. I hate being sick. You’d think that almost everyone would say that, but I’m not so sure.

Yuriko had a cold of her own at the beginning of the weekend, more of a nose problem, and neither of our conditions really improved until Sunday, so that cut into our enjoyment of the holiday. At least the kids were healthy. That’s a good thing, but it also means they have a lot more energy than you do, rather than somewhat more.

Then there’s the rain. It’s been almost tropical here, not in terms of the heat (70s today, cooler some days), but in the way huge storms have come and gone and come and gone in the last few weeks. Some towns have taken it hard, with flooding east of us, along the Des Plaines River especially. For us, it’s just tiresome. The garden is still half-underwater. Mosquitoes are taking advantage of the pooled water to make copies of themselves. I haven’t been able to mow the grass much lately.

Actually, I’m not bothered too much by that last one.

Reading about the upcoming Transit of Venus, along with the near-daily heavy rains we’ve been getting, makes me think of a SF story I read in junior high. I can’t remember the name of the story, or who the author was, or even how it ended. Things get lost in the warehouses of memory. But I do remember that it was set on Venus. Not the super-hot Venus we know from spacecraft observations, but a science-fiction planet before science caught up with it, a place whose constant cloud cover resulted in constant rain on the surface.

At least three men -- astronauts? colonists? escaped convicts? political castoffs? -- were somehow stranded out in unending rain, looking for shelters that had been built on the planet, because the constant drubbing of the rain was driving them mad. At one point they saw a shelter, but like a mirage oasis, it turned out to be useless: a roofless shell, victim of some disaster. Later, or maybe right after that disappointment, one of them ran off into the distance and shot himself. The others could barely hear the shot. That’s all I remember, but the idea of being driven crazy by the rain stuck with me.