Saturday, January 31, 2004

Cold, cold, cold blog.

The weather nerds say that yesterday was the coldest day in Chicago since January 1997. I wouldn't have remembered that, but I found some of my written material from about then that mentions it.

February 3, 1997.

Last Friday we decided to take a short trip the next day. To the kind of destination that lends itself to that kind of planning (that is, very little planning). So on Saturday morning, the first day of February, with clear skies and temperatures actually above freezing, we drove down to Springfield, Illinois.

I had been to Springfield before, almost ten years ago, the first year I lived in Chicago. That time I went with my boss Ernie M. to attend some sort of statewide savings and loan officers' meeting. The magazine I used to work for covered that end of the business, but I think for Ernie it was a chance to pal around with S&L types. That trip was in May -- I think May -- I remember it being warm, anyway. A 5-point something earthquake struck while we were there, but we didn't feel it. At the moment it hit, we were in a car, busy dodging potholes on the city's streets.

This time we went mostly to get out of town. The weekend before we hadn't even left the apartment, except when Yuriko went downstairs to get the mail. There was good reason to stay in: it never got above 10 F. the whole time, and it was windy too. But by last Friday it was in the low 40s during the day, good enough for a short trip.

Taking the major route, I-55, it's about three and a half hours to Springfield, but it isn't a particularly interesting drive in the winter. We arrived around noon Saturday and repaired to Lincoln's tomb, in a cemetery on the north side of town. It's an impressive marble edifice, sporting various statues of the President, who reposes inside with Mary Todd Lincoln and three of their four children.

We had lunch downtown, finding more or less by chance a New Mexico-style Mexican restaurant. I had a kind of tasty Mexican pork potpie, a novelty for me. Not far away was the National Historic Site that includes Lincoln's house, so we walked there after lunch. The whole site is actually a block of original or reconstructed houses from the 1840s and '50s. The tour of the Lincoln home is short, weighing in at about 20 minutes, since the house isn't very big. Interesting to note just how recent indoor plumbing really is; not even a prosperous attorney had it 150 years ago.

The next morning we got up fairly early and went back to town to see the old state capitol. It's a fine old building, Greek Revival style, and was used as a capitol in the mid-19th century. It became too small, or the government became too big, necessitating the present one. But in 1841, when the old one was new, it encompassed practically the entire state government. There were several cast iron stoves in each room, but it still must have been cold in winter, with its high ceilings.

We drove back using some smaller roads. That improves the scenery a bit, but winter in Illinois isn't ever going to be a picturesque wonder. We stopped at Starved Rock State Park and walked around a bit among its hills. It was nice, with some snow still on the ground, but a little too much slush on the trails.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Little Ann blog.

Taking the night off from posting here, in honor of my daughter Ann's first birthday, today. She got a cupcake for the occasion. Hard to believe it's been a year. See the very first blog here, February 21, 2003, for an account of her arrival.

And I'm glad it wasn't -8 F (about -20 C) then, as it is now.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

New Quatloo blog.

We've slipped to at least the Seventh Circle of Winter: overnight temps are expected to on the wrong side of zero, maybe by as much as 10 degrees F. It's a marvel that anything gets done under such conditions, besides cowering in our hovels.

My cousin Jay writes: "I would love to hear 'bad managment' stories that you mentioned on your last entry. Don't worry about fatigue. Stay up all night if neccesary!
"Since I work for WorldCom (late of the 11 billion-dollar accounting 'error' and soon to be renamed MCI) these would be fun. No -- nothing like that ever happens here.
"My daughter, who is 16 years old, thinks that the comic strip Dilbert is fiction. I know better!"

Don't worry, they're still in the works, those bad management stories. As for Dilbert, it isn't the strip it once was, but no comic strip ever is. An old friend of mine, who's managed to spend almost all of his working life in academic or therapeutic settings, once told me that he didn't understand Dilbert. Lucky him, but I have to imagine that there's enough grist for management satire in those places. It would have a different tone, though.

My brother Jay corrects me: the actor on Green Acres was Eddie Albert, not Eddy Arnold. I must have been thinking of Arnold the Pig. The show came to mind because over the Christmas holidays, I discovered that the same UHF station that shows Three Stooges shorts on Saturdays shows Green Acres weekday mornings, and I was able to watch some of them. Little gems, they are.

Also from Jay: "You're talking about the New Quatloo, of course. Prior to the currency reforms on Star Date 66578.3 (Julian), it was eight zecks to the ferenc, and twelve ferencs to the quatloo. For many years, too, until the government of Triskelion allowed the currency to float freely, a quatloo, two minims, three zeck would get you one strip of gold-plated latinum."

It's strange that those glowing brains needed a currency at all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Zecks blog.

I shouldn't promise things in these postings. Today I was going to retell the story of how Mr. H lost an entire company’s profits on year, but I'm not going to get to it. To make things worse, I have an early big meeting tomorrow, a breakfast meeting. In some ways that's the worst kind of all. But I did manage to noodle off the following grafs during lunch today (it was much too cold to leave the office).

A collector of neologisms might take an interest collecting the terms being invented daily, make that hourly, so that spam can elude e-mail filters. I thought of this today as my morning ration of spam came into my mailbox, including one that had the subject line: "Guys boost good zecks into WILD zecks."

Now there’s a neologism with some sport to it. It sounds like a walk-on creature in Dr. Suess (the WILD nine-footed Zecks!); or the way Eva Gabor would have said "sex" to Eddy Arnold, had that been permissible on TV at the time ("zecks, daling"); or the decimal unit of an obscure currency (100 zecks = 1 quatloo).

A cursory search at, which taps into a number of on-line dictionaries, revealed no "zecks," though it did ask if I meant zek, "an inmate of a Soviet labor camp," a word which was probably brought to English via Solzhenitsyn. A decidedly unzecksy word.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Pit o' winter blog.

Snowed most of the day here in Chicago. At least it isn't ice, though there was some of that on my car windows this morning, and upon application of one of my ice scrapers, it immediately broke. Bah. I demand value for my 99¢ made-in-China goods.

A couple of correspondents have informed me that Michael E. Bartell really is the FDIC's chief information officer, as the electronic con men put in the scam e-mail I posted yesterday. That information was only a Google search away, no doubt, but I didn't feel like looking him up.

I fear for the future of Google, actually. Not because I know much about the company, but because it's too good, from the user's point of view. (And, as it happens, blogspot has been a good deal more reliable since Google bought it.) One of the unwritten, widely followed precepts of management is never leave well enough alone. Or in this case, never leave very good alone. So far, Google's managers have been astute about not doing mucking up their operation, but the company is young, and they will have successors.

I've read a few articles about the success of Google in various places, but not anywhere a discussion of what I consider its recipe for being a good search engine. I remember in the early days of popularly available search engines, I was constantly irritated by results -- the first few, or first ten, or more -- that were clearly advertisements, but not acknowledged as such. Google has search-result ads, but they're not onerous and clearly marked. As soon as I figured that out, I never used much else, and I don't think I'm alone in that.

Were I not so tired, I would offer some bad management stories, especially from the first publishing company I ever worked for, which was rife with lousy management. Perhaps tomorrow.

Monday, January 26, 2004

The latest from Nigeria or Russia? (A consumer education blog.)

I'm tired at the moment, and feeling off center, and was going to do a very short blog, but some electronic con men sent me a message today that I think I'll share. Here it is, in toto:

From: "FDIC"
Date: Sun, 25 Jan 2004 22:46:12 -0400 (EST)
Subject: Important News About Your Bank Account

To whom it may concern; [semicolon, sic, though otherwise it's a professional writing job.]

In cooperation with the Department Of Homeland Security, Federal, State and Local Governments your account has been denied insurance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation due to suspected violations of the Patriot Act. While we have only a limited amount of evidence gathered on your account at this time it is enough to suspect that currency violations may have occurred in your account and due to this activity we have withdrawn Federal Deposit Insurance on your account until we verify that your account has not been used in a violation of the Patriot Act.

As a result Department Of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge has advised the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to suspend all deposit insurance on your account until such time as we can verify your identity and your account information.

Please verify through our IDVerify below. This information will be checked against a federal government database for identity verification. This only takes up to a minute and when we have verified your identity you will be notified of said verification and all suspensions of insurance on your account will be lifted.

[Web site that these crooks are using to capture bank account numbers has been deleted, on the remote chance anyone seeing this takes it seriously.]

Failure to use IDVerify below will cause all insurance for your account to be terminated and all records of your account history will be sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington D.C. for analysis and verification. Failure to provide proper identity may also result in a visit from Local, State or Federal Government or Homeland Security Officials. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

Donald E. Powell
Chairman Emeritus FDIC

John D. Hawke, Jr.
Comptroller of the Currency

Michael E. Bartell
Chief Information Officer

Nice touch, adding the chief information officer of the FDIC, if in fact that's the right person. As if it mattered.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Florida wrap blog.

Time to finish up writing about Florida, with some leftovers taken from the notes I made about the trip.

The flight down, which was during a clear day, took us from Chicago southeast toward Florida. Among other places, the pilot mentioned that we'd be flying over Nashville, an old home town of mine. I didn't give that much though until I happened to look out the window and see a city below. There was a river snaking through it, and the downtown buildings looked as big as those in a tabletop model you might see on exhibit. But the pattern of Interstates seemed familiar, and all at once the pattern made sense -- that was Nashville more than 30,000 feet below. All the years I lived there, I'd never seen it from on high.

Sign near one of the gates at the Ft. Lauderdale International Airport: "NO BACKYARD CITRUS BEYOND THIS POINT. Deposit fruit here." The sign was attached to a large box with a door in it, presumably to leave the orange you'd picked in your yard back in... New York or North Dakota, lest you transmit orange diseases to the Florida crop. At least that's what I think it was for. As agricultural control policies go, this was pretty weak.

On a number of major roads, but especially I-95, I saw other signs that said EVACUATION ROUTE. Along with those words was a schematic of a hurricane, though it looked more like a sketch of a whirlpool. They need to take hurricanes seriously on that coast, no doubt. I learned in Miami Beach that one of the factors that helped bust the Florida land boom was a large hurricane that struck in 1926.

After the main dinner of the National Multi Housing Council, there were some short speeches by officials of that organization, but everyone was waiting for the unspecified "entertainment" mentioned in the program. Rumor was that Jerry Seinfield was going to show up -- plausible, since the apartment landlords of the nation could come up with whatever his astronomical fee would be. He was mentioned because people had sighted Larry David, Seinfield’s long-time writer, at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. In fact, my associate Anthony saw David as we walked through the lobby earlier that day. I wouldn't have recognized him, but Anthony was sure it was him.

The entertainment turned out to be presidential impersonator Steve Bridges, and it was a spot-on impersonation of Bush the Younger, one of the best I've ever seen of any politician, and outrageously funny. He was a good deal funnier than Larry David, at least to judge by the episode of his TV show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which I managed to see the last night I was in Florida. It was a show I'd never seen before. A few funny moments, but not all that many.


Saturday, January 24, 2004

St. Augustine grass blog.

My brother Jay writes: "I can't be sure, but I think that the broad-bladed grass you mentioned [January 20] is probably St. Augustine grass. It wouldn't surprise me if were named for the town in Florida, but I don't know that. It grows well in Houston and San Antonio and it will grow in Dallas, too, but is subject to damage if it stays too cold for too long.

"I have some in my yard, mixed with other varieties of grass and assorted other plants (as far as I'm concerned if it's green and cut to a uniform length, it's a lawn). Ten or twelve years ago we had a protracted cold spell -- ten or twelve days when it didn't get above freezing, with a record-tying low one night, I recall, of 1 or 2 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. It killed most of the St. Augustine. That spring it was as thin as a eunuch's beard, but some strands survived, and over the course of two or three years, it came back.

"Thinking of the Intracoastal Waterway, our grandfather was involved in the construction of the first Mansfield Cut through Padre Island. The Cut connects the Laguna Madre (and the Intracoastal Waterway) to the Gulf of Mexico, and allows access to Port Mansfield. I can recall visiting when he and grandmother were staying in Port Mansfield so he could be closer to the job site.

"He had a share, at least, in a patent for some sort of concrete device that was used in the construction of protective breakwaters for the Cut. I can recall seeing two or three small-scale models for them in his house, at least one in use as a doorstop. You may remember seeing them too. [I don't.] The device was, in effect, four thick, blunt arms joined together in the center, and projecting at angles so that one arm would always be pointing up while the other three acted as a base. The models were about six or eight inches high. I gather that the ones for use were several feet high and proportionately heavy. The exact reason behind the design I never learned; my guess -- and that's all it is -- is that they were supposed to lock together and form a strong bond without the expense and weight of a solid wall.

"Of course, the first cut through Padre Island -- the one he worked on -- was destroyed by storms shortly after it was finished in 1957. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt it shortly thereafter. Whether this has anything to do with the construction of the breakwaters I don't know.”


Friday, January 23, 2004

South Beach blog.

Upon arrival in Miami Beach, I ditched my rented SUV in a parking garage and embraced more basic transport, my feet. I put several miles on them that afternoon. After I had lunch, that is. Come to Miami Beach and the cuisine of choice is -- Cuban? Seafood? Novelle Fusion Haitian Sushi? No, I stopped at Kim's Chinese, near the end of the Lincoln Street open-air pedestrian shopping mall, and had the "jerk chicken," a term I’d never encountered at a Chinese joint. Delicious, but not especially Jamaican that I could tell.

Walked south, toward the art deco district. By that time I knew that a festival was going on there, Art Deco Weekend. A long stretch of Ocean Drive had been blocked off to cars, and given over to pedestrians and booths offering food and crafts. I wandered down the street, eyed all the things worth seeing: dressed up buildings, dressed down women, oddly dressed buskers. In front of a Mediterranean-style mansion, it seemed that an unusual number of people were stopping to take pictures. I later learned that this had been Gianni Versace's mansion, and place of sudden death.

Spent some time on a bench in the park between Ocean Drive and the beach. The street on one side and the beach on the other were both fairly busy, but there weren't too many other people near where I was sitting. One person who was nearby, maybe 50 feet away, had the look of a homeless man -- a black man with long graying hair and beard, a tattered suitcase and some other articles stacked near him. He was standing right at the edge of the park, next to the beach, and without warning he produced a recorder and started to play. He was quite good. Perhaps he had a lot of time to practice.

I was floating along with that, but all at once another man approached my bench and started a conversation. I wasn't altogether receptive, especially since my enjoyment of the impromptu recorder concert had been interrupted, but I was civil. He was middle-aged and dressed for touring, and said he was in town from Connecticut, glad to be out of that weather, etc. He might have been trying to pick me up; this seems to happen to me every five years or so; but I can't be sure. After a few minutes, he wandered away, but by that time the black man had quit playing.

Not long after that, I joined a tour given by the Miami Design Preservation League, the art deco walking tour. The guide, a fellow named Jim, was knowledgeable as a good guide or docent needs to be, and took a cluster of about a dozen of us to see an assortment of art deco and Mediterranean Revival hotels, some in startlingly good repair, some a little seedy, some under repair. We even took a look the Miami Beach Main Post Office. Not art deco, but interesting -- a WPA building with a mural illustrating various Seminole wars, and a place where there had been a decorative water fountain. Inside the post office.


Thursday, January 22, 2004

Red machine blog.

When my business was done -- interviews conducted, sessions attended, and business-flavored small talk made -- it was time to make use of my free time. I had an afternoon and the next morning before returning to the frozen North.

In a situation like that the thing to do is focus. I'd never been to greater Miami, or any closer to it than Orlando, but I'd studied the area fairly closely back in 1995 as an employee of the Map Group, which makes fold-out tourist maps. It was during my short stint with that company, in fact, that I acquired an interest in some domestic destinations that had never resonated with me before. Among these was Miami.

(The Map Group is still in business, operating as Compass Maps in Bath, England. If you ever see a Map Group PopOut map of Chicago, that's essentially my work, with various updates since 1995 to reflect changes in the city. I drew the map by hand, and one of the artists in England copied it into publishable format using a PowerMac. I also made contributions to the New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas maps.)

So I had to pick one place among the many intriguing places in Miami and environs. I chose Miami Beach.

The more interesting way to get there probably would have been a road called Florida A1A, a two-lane that runs right down the coast. I decided that could wait for the next morning, and I headed down from Boca on the fast road -- the relatively fast road, considering heavy traffic -- I-95. I can't pretend it's an especially interesting road, but it got me to Miami Beach, with a turnoff on the Julia Tuttle Causeway, in time for lunch.

My vehicle for the trip was a novelty for me, too. At the Enterprise rental car outpost near the Ft. Lauderdale airport, the cheap car that I had reserved, a Neon I think, wasn't ready for me when I showed up. So the solicitous staff offered me an '03 Mitsubishi Endeavor, no extra charge. I couldn't pass that up: my chance to drive something I would never buy, an evil SUV. Better yet, it was metallic red, though I knew that meant I would have to be more careful than usual to obey speed limits.

The Endeavor isn't the largest of SUVs, however, and seemed to handle reasonably well. I didn't do any kind of driving that would test an SUV's propensity to roll over, and since I drive a Sienna at home, this red machine I'd rented didn’t seem all that expansive.

It had a fine sound system. I headed down I-95 and sampled South Florida radio. Not as distinctive as I'd like, radio never is, since it's been famously standardized by unimaginative media companies. Picked up the usual English-language genre radio, plus Spanish stations that I'll bet are every bit as standardized as the English. But not far out of Boca I picked up a station that I couldn't quite place.

It sounded like a talk show. A couple of men were talking, anyway, but it wasn't English and it wasn't Spanish. But what was it? It sounded like... French. But not entirely. French, in South Florida? Then it hit me. It had to be Haitian Creole. But I can't be completely sure, since the only Haitian Creole I know is tonton macoute.


Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Mizner blog.

For those of us with a certain cast of mind, wandering around the Boca Raton Resort & Club is a time machine. A little bit of historic imagination removes you from our casual age and lands you in the Florida land boom, ca. 1926. Carefully appointed men in white suits and Panama hats, and short-haired women in bright mid-length dresses, arrive from the Boca Raton train station in leased touring cars to stay to Addison Mizner's newest creation, the Cloister. Bellhops carry their loads, gardeners attend to the lush vegetation, chambermaids do their work unobtrusively. The air is warm and sweet, and new hotel is gloriously Mediterranean.

I don't know if men really wore Panama hats in Florida nearly 80 years ago, but they should have. That's how I see it, anyway.

From the BRRC web site, a basic description: "The original structure of the resort estate -- the 'Cloister' -- was built in 1926 by Addison Mizner and reflects Spanish-Mediterranean, Moorish and Gothic influences. It is characterized by hidden gardens, barrel tile roofs, archways, ornate columns, finials, intricate mosaics, fountains and beamed ceilings of ornate pecky cypress."

Addison Mizner was one of those characters that make the times of a few generations ago seem much more interesting than our own, though I believe that's an illusion. In any case, The Rough Guide to Florida has this to say about Mizner:

"A former miner and prizefighter, Addison Mizner (1872-1933) was an unemployed architect when he arrived in Palm Beach... in 1918. Inspired by the medieval buildings he'd seen around the Mediterranean, Mizner, financed by the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, built the Everglades Club [in Palm Beach]. Described by Mizner as 'a little bit of Seville and the Alhambra, a dash of Madeira and Algiers,' the Everglades Club was the first public building in Florida in Mediterranean Revival style...
The success of the club won Mizner commissions all over Palm Beach as the wintering wealthy decided the swap suites at one of Henry Flagler's hotels for a 'million-dollar cottage' of their own. Brilliant and unorthodox, Mizner's loggias and U-shaped interiors made the most of Florida's pleasant winters, while his twisting staircases to nowhere became legendary. Pursuing a lived-in-since-medieval-times look, [he had] workmen lay roof tiles crookedly, sprayed condensed milk onto walls to create an impression of centuries-old grime, and fired shotgun pellets into wood to imitate wormholes. By the mid-20s, Mizner had created the Palm Beach Style. [He] later fashioned much of Boca Raton."

Especially the Cloister. It evolved into the BRRC, and now features several connected hotel buildings, a marina, and the Mizner Center, a large collection of meeting facilities where most of the convention I attended was held. None of the newer parts of the complex has quite the charm of the original Cloister. One detail: Near a small bar off the main lobby in that structure, I noticed a plaque describing Mizner's pet spider monkeys.

When he was a young man, apparently, his father had been part of the U.S. mission to Costa Rica (I think), and younger Mizner acquired a fondness for spider monkeys while there. After his successes in Florida, he kept them as pets, and was always seen with one during the construction of the Cloister. The bar next to the lobby is called the Monkey Bar, and if you look carefully at the front desk of the BRRC, you'll see several small brass lamps with monkey figures for bases.


Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Camino Real blog.

I didn't stay at the convention hotel during this trip, the Boca Raton Resort & Club, but at the Radisson Bridge Hotel, about a quarter mile away. On the whole, the Radisson was an ordinary hotel -- except that it was painted pink -- but I did have an excellent view from my balcony, which overlooked Lake Boca. All around the lake, which is really just an enlargement of the Intracoastal Waterway at that point, are clutches of high-priced properties, including condos, marinas and other hotels, including the BRRC complex, which is also pink.

I got to know that the route to the convention pretty well, walking back and forth on a sidewalk next to a narrow street called Camino Real, past the same condos I saw from my balcony. These properties were on the waterfront side of the street. On the other side, connecting streets sported cheaper rental properties. But probably not that cheap.

Walking along in the warm air was almost the only pleasure I needed on this trip, but it was pleasing to see the greenery, too, because South Florida is green even in January. I suppose it never really turns brown, short of a drought, and for that matter I'm sure the owners of the properties I passed would never let that happen. They'd drain the Everglades dry first, and probably are anyway. Just along the quarter-mile path between my room and the convention, I saw palms, banyan, cypress, funky southern pines, and a wide-bladed grass I never see up north, but which I remember from South Texas. Elsewhere I saw orange trees and bamboo.

The route to the BRRC crossed a small drawbridge over the Intracostal Waterway. A sign announced the Waterway as the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as I knew it was, and I had to wonder if those long-dead engineers had any inkling of the real estate value they were creating at that spot, most of it now probably in the hands of people busy being born in the decades in which the canal was dug. As far as the eye can see southward from the little Camino Real drawbridge are houses lining either side of the Waterway; big structures, and every jack one of them had a boat dock, and many had boats.

Often the bridge was up, or going up, when I wanted to cross. Boats of various sizes crossed under the open wings of the bridge. I did note, however, a sign that said -- I'm paraphrasing -- that if you were too lazy to lower a mast or antenna or something else on your boat that could be lowered, and still made the bridge go up for you, you'd be fined at least $1100.

On the west side of the drawbridge, the road opened up into a traffic circle, the only one I encountered during this trip. No sign of any kind indicated that the street heading north from the circle would take you to the BRRC. If you didn't know where it was, I suppose, you didn't have any business being there. The sidewalk leading to the Resort was also lined with greenery, passed a guardhouse -- the guard paid no attention to pedestrians -- and took you on to the full spectacle of the Cloister, or the original part of the BRRC. More about which tomorrow.


Monday, January 19, 2004

South Florida blog.

Just flew in from South Florida, and boy are my arms... well, they're not all that tired, but I did do the long haul down various airport corridors recently, lugging an assortment of electronic equipment -- two cameras and two tape recorders, to be exact -- along with the other things I took on a 72-hour trip to that subtropical destination.

It was a bid'ness trip, and I did my business. I attended the annual convention of the National Multihousing Council, the trade group of apartment owners large and small, but mostly large. From interviewing a number of people in the apartment business, I'll now be able to produce a whole feature article for my magazine.

The setting. The Boca Raton Resort & Club, a generic name for one of the more remarkable hotels I've ever seen, a warren of pink Mediterranean revival edifices and courtyards and gardens, originating in the Florida land boom 80-odd years ago and still sustained by vast cash inflows from wealthy patrons. As is Boca Raton itself, if posh appearances are any indication.

The weather. Growing up in South Texas, I didn't give much thought to a place like Florida, or anywhere known for its warm climate. It's mild in the winter and hot in the summer, big deal. That's the way it was in San Antonio, more or less. But now that I've lived through a decade and more of Northern winters, I understand the appeal of South Florida better. Not that I would consider living there, but I wouldn't mind returning for a longer visit in some future winter.

Certainly I was glad to leave the climate-controlled Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, through the sliding automatic doors, to a gush of 70-degree, mildly humid air. Earlier that day, it was about 30 F in Chicago. Not bad for Chicago in January, actually, and balmy compared with the temps in the Northeast in the middle of last week. But not very warm either. Once in Florida, it took me a little while to get used to going outside without a coat.

The flight. Booked an amazingly inexpensive flight on ATA's web site about a month ago, about $160 roundtrip for a Wednesday departure and a Saturday return, Midway to Ft. Lauderdale. In high season, no less. ATA, in my experience, is either grossly late or precisely on time. Fortunately, going to Ft. Lauderdale proved to be one of the latter, on-time variety.

I had the pleasure of keeping company on the flight down with a garrulous elderly couple -- in their early 80s -- named Harvey and Mitzi. They were talkative all right, but not bores. Harvey had been an apartment and retail developer, so we talked about real estate; they had had a good many friends with private airplanes, so we talked about aviation; and they had been interesting places in interesting times, so we talked about that. I especially wanted to hear about that.

For instance, they'd driven from Chicago to Mexico City and back in 1947. I wanted a time machine, so I could do that too. They had also visited Cuba in early 1959, immediately after Castro came to power. Apparently, the fighting that had ousted Batista had scared off most tourists, and the new government broadcasted encouragement for them to come back -- the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, and the Embargo were all still in the future. Their tale of this trip also included bribing an official at an airstrip to get permission to fly back to the United States.

"I don't think he was looking for a bribe," said Mitzi. "He just didn't have the right paperwork, and didn't know what would happen if he let us go."

"I gave him $20, and that eased his mind," said Harvey. "That was a lot of money in those days."


Tuesday, January 13, 2004

"Real" chocolate blog.

No blogging for a while, got things to do. Will resume on Sunday or Monday, MLK Day according to federal three-day weekend style. I have proper admiration for Dr. King's work, but why couldn't he have been born late April, when we need another holiday to break up the calendar? Or even between July 4 and Labor Day?

Had lunch at Petterino's today, an downtown establishment next to the new -- a few years old now -- Goodman Theater, across from the Daley Center, right in the heart of the Loop. Petterino's came on line with the new theater, but I hadn't gotten around to trying it. It was a business lunch with Kevin D. and some others, fairly pleasant. The walleye I had was first-rate, served in a sauce that... was first-rate too, whatever was in it. I wasn't born to be a gourmet, but a gourmand.

The waitress persuaded us to examine the dessert menu. It's a hard sell at a business lunch these days; dessert is out of style, too decadent for hard-driving business types, a suspect in the swelling obesity crisis, blah, blah, blah. On the dessert menu I noticed "Real" Chocolate Pudding -- which was styled exactly that way.

We decided to order dessert.

I asked the waitress: "Why does 'real' have quotes around it?"

"Because it's real. We make it from scratch."

"But quote marks mean it isn't real."

Slightly confused look. Then she regained her composure. "It's real all right. And it's good chocolate."

Without further bothering the waitress, I ordered it. It came in a latte cup, or some small cup usually associated with Continental styles of coffee. Whipped cream on top adorned with bits o' chocolate, and a real good chocolate pudding in the cup.


Monday, January 12, 2004

Downhill blog.

The living room seems a bit larger now, with the Christmas tree out by the curb, waiting its landfill fate. Every year I'm amazed by the number of needles that a dead evergreen can deposit on the under its perch, along the route of its exit from the house, and especially in places where it didn't seem to go. Anyway, Epiphany has come and gone, so it was time to pack up all the ornaments and lose the tree. Somewhere on a tree plantation in Wisconsin or Michigan, there's a tree that will be harvested in about 11 months that will pass through our living room.

The highlight of the weekend was sledding. For Lilly, that is. She remembered on Saturday that she had a primitive sled out in the garage, the sort of narrow plastic basin that you can get at Wal-Mart for $2.99, made in China for 15¢ in labor costs, sporting the simplest possible steering system, a string tied up front. Red in color, easy to see against a snowy hill. In our case, the slope of a catchment on city property right next to the Community Recreation Center, where we sometimes visit the (indoor) water park.

I never experienced downhill sledding until I was 22, in Nashville, when a friend took me to Percy Warner Park, a nice hilly place, after the one of that town's not-too-frequent inch-plus snows (twice a year, maybe). Lilly, who's been sledding before but only occasionally, took right to it. Eventually she got so good that I didn’t think it negligent to go back to the car for a while to watch her from there, a little ways off, and to warm up my extremities, while she went up and down and up and down and tumbled around too.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

More blogs of winters past.

January 16, 2001.

Had yesterday off. That's the first time anyone's ever given me MLK Day off, and I spent most of it at home, entertaining Lilly, or being entertained. She is easily amused. For instance, spinning coins on a flat surface is a great entertainment for her. Lately, she's learned to do this herself. Also, often when I find myself horizontal in some way -- on the couch, say -- she finds me, and conducts a physics experiment to see what happens when her mass, about 16 kilos these days, acquires enough kinetic energy to wallop into my stomach, which has a considerable mass of its own.

December was an incredibly snowy month, especially the last three weeks of it. As incredibly, it has hardly snowed at all in January. Temps have been just above freezing much of the time, so the mass of snow is slowly melting. Just yesterday I noticed that our sturdy iron table in the back yard isn't covered with any snow now. At New Year's, it had a least a foot and a half. And I can see patches of muddy, soddy-looking ground here and there, the first earth that’s been visible since about December 12. All this can mean only one thing: another major snow storm is coming. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next day, but someday, and someday soon…

We are on the verge of having five living former presidents again, come Saturday. This has happened only twice in U.S. history (and I'm not counting Jefferson Davis, Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Sanford Dole or any other sorts of former presidents who happened to be Americans). Anyway, there were five from Clinton's first inauguration to Nixon's death. That's the easy one. The other such time was after Lincoln's inauguration -- Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan were all sit alive, but it didn't last, since Van Buren and Tyler both died in 1862. Tyler's passing, I've read, went officially unnoted by the United States, since he had been elected a member of the Confederate Congress, and only in 1911 was any money allocated by the U.S. Congress for a memorial to him.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Blogs of winters past.

January 14, 1998.

One thing about caring for Lilly is that it leaves little time for sitting around reading, which is too bad, though I expect this to pass. Over the New Year's holiday I did manage a bit a light reading, very lite indeed, a book about The Beverly Hillbillies that I borrowed from the mail clerk in my office.

I myself was a fan in its final years (it was cancelled when I was 9 or 10), and have seen it a few times as an adult. My adult opinion is that it was a well-written show, sometimes quite funny, and that a lot of criticism of it boiled down to little more than prejudice against Southerners.

There were a number of things in the book I didn't know, such as how astonishingly popular the program was (in the U.S., of course, but also in the rest of the English-speaking world, especially Australia of all places). Also, Raymond Bailey was bald. He wore a very artful hairpiece as Milton Drysdale. Apparently, he wasn't well liked by anyone else on the show, for having a short temper and a propensity to gripe about everything. But he did play Avarice well.

It was warm enough on the 3rd for all of us to go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Lilly, alternately strapped to my and Yuriko's stomach, slept through most of it, even on her first municipal bus rides, which is how we got there and back (much easier than finding parking in that part of town). Lilly is now eight weeks old, and can more-or-less hold up her head, and can roll over. I didn't see it, but this skill enabled her to roll off the futon the other day. She made a ruckus but other seemed unharmed by the experience.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Digi carping blog.

I'm learning to use the digital camera that we bought for the office not long ago, and as usual in such situations, the instruction booklet is worth complaining about. Not just as a digital camera novice, but also as an editor.

Take a not-so-small example. Mounted on the top of the camera is a dial used to select a number of modes for shooting -- one is marked A for automatic, another is M for manual, and then there are a number of other symbols, not all of which are immediately understandable. If I were putting together the instruction booklet, the first thing I would think to do was create a single- or double-page graphic with a picture of this dial, with notes explaining each setting.

I was astonished to find nothing of the kind in the booklet. To understand each function, you have to look up each symbol within various chapters, but by its full name. How do you know the symbol's full name? Well, hell, you don't, so you just have to look until you come across it. There are only six symbols, so it isn't a vast task, but it is a nuisance.

All the same, I've more or less learned to use the camera. Not a bad thing to know how to use, and I'll take it on my next business trip, to take some photos at a panel discussion for my magazine. But I'm also taking a film camera. It's like those houses built in the 1890s that had that newer electric lighting but gas lights too, in case electricity didn't pan out. I'm not sure how this new thing will work out, so I'm taking a familiar technology with me.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Ice-spitting blog.

The atmospheric temps were more civil today, coming in a shade or two below freezing, so I was willing and able to walk to my luncheon from my office, I'd say about three-quarters of a mile. Some of this walk was on Wacker Drive, which curves along the south bank of the Chicago River. Elsewhere I was in the shadow of some of the city's great buildings, and they were spitting drops of ice down onto the street.

Sometimes this combination of high-clinging ice and near-thaw conditions make buildings toss out something really big, and very occasionally a luckless pedestrian will end his walk crushed by ice, dead as Julius Caesar if not quite as dispersed yet. But of course, there are other hazards to sidewalkers downtown: office-strength window panes pop out, scaffolding falls, and cars leave the road. All rare but possible.

I made it intact to Maggiano's in River North, a large Italian restaurant with meeting rooms that does a brisk trade in exactly the kind of event I attended, a lunch meeting of CoreNet, whose members are corporate real estate managers. That is, people who keep track of real property owned by large corporations. Maggiano's serves enormous portions of everything to every table, more than even eight people can eat, various salads, antipasti, pastas, and chicken and fish courses. Quantities enormous, quality reasonably good -- I like their cheese ravioli especially. The dessert course was a Himalayan agglomeration of creme puffs.

An economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago gave a presentation, a PowerPoint presentation of course, about the state of the Midwestern economy. His affiliation with the Fed gave him some cachet with the audience, who were eager to ask questions. The long and short of it: Things ain't that bad.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Hatless in New York blog.

Temps have modulated a bit. The difference between –3 F and +7 F, both accompanied by a stiff little wind (yesterday morning vs. this morning), is remarkable. Neither are particularly pleasant, but if the higher number follows the lower one, it's almost a relief.

Geof Huth, living in New York state, sent me an e-mail with the following subject line: You Wear Hats in Winter? Followed by, "Geez, Dees." He signed the message, "Hatless in All Ways But Name." (Huth means "hat" in German.) Probably Geof doesn't agree with my take on bareheaded people in the pit of winter. But, to be exact, I don't wear a hat either, but a stocking cap. I don't wear hats much at all, in fact; I leave that to my brother Jay, who has a collection of hats.

Caps, however, are for temperature extremes. Stocking caps in winter, and variations of visor'd caps in extreme summer sun. The one I like best is a multicolor job, a pattern bordering on psychedelia but not quite there, which I bought from a vendor in Thailand. I've never seen the likes of it on the streets of North America, apart from my own head.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Subzero blog.

Monday was cold, today was colder. Temps actually fell two or three degrees below zero Fahrenheit by the early morning, and the wind kicked up in an evil way. I did not walk a mile to the train station this morning. Crossing the large parking lot at the station was bad enough.

To dress for such vicious cold, start with long underwear, both leggings and an undershirt. Recently I got a new undershirt just for this kind of day; for some reason, the fact that it has information printed on the back of the neck, instead of the usual tag, was a big selling point on the package. It's warm anyway, regards of the tag.

Layer on top of that a normal business casual shirt and pants. On top of that, a sweater. On top of that, a coat -- in my case the down coat I bought in China those years ago, for about $10 in yuan, that I believed would see me through Mongolia and Siberia and Finland (and it did). The Beijing market where I bought it was frequented by a lot of Russian buyers in those days, looking to take coats back to Russia for resale. You had to figure that these would be good coats, since Russians are probably particular in this matter. It's tatty now, but it's the warmest thing I have.

Add to that all the peripherals: socks, shoes with Goretex, ski gloves, and the all-important scarf and cap. There are those here in Chicagoland who refuse to wear anything on their heads, no matter how arctic the climate. I see them on cold days like today. Ice could form on their eyebrows and they'd still go bareheaded. The men who do it don't want to do a sissy thing like wear a cap: male vanity. The women who do it don’t want to muss up their hair: female vanity.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Frosty the Snowblog.

The snows of yesteryear? Luckily, they've melted. Otherwise we'd still be in the Ice Age. As for the snows of yesterday, they're still outside my window. A big snow was predicted for yesterday, and this time it came through. About half a foot. Though it didn't start until after sunrise -- I happened to be up then, and saw bare brown ground. A few hours after that, however, it was snowing hard, and did so until after nightfall.

Lilly and I did our share of playing in the snow, when I wasn't shoving the long driveway. We even took it upon ourselves to start a snowman, but in the end we had no aptitude for it. It was easy enough to build the first stage -- the lower mound -- whatever you call it. But then we started piling on snow for the second mound -- let's call it the thorax -- and all that happened was that the snow dribbled away, back to the lower mound. No amount of futzing and patting down the snow made the thorax assume the right shape, or any shape at all, so the dream of a three-tiered snowman remained elusive.

Maybe we don't have sticky enough snow, but I think maybe this really means that I'd be a failure as a Yankee. On the other hand, we did enjoy a nice little snowball fight. That's not hard.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Blog of Januaries past.

January 4, 1992.

Writing in transit -- somewhere in Western Australia. To be exact, in the middle of nowhere. But at least the bus is headed for the other side of nowhere, i.e. Adelaide. Been a while since I've taken an epic bus ride, but I remember the sensations. The whiz of the wind, the bumps and vibrations of the bus. Since the last time I took a transcontinental bus, VCRs have been installed in the vehicles. One's in this bus, anyway, but the movies are as crummy as airplane movies (Home Alone, for one.)

The sun is setting behind the bus as we go east, and I've traveled all day. It's 8:15 now and we're still in Western Australia. For sheer vastness, WA puts Texas to shame. But it's mostly like West Texas.

January 7, 1992.

The 24-hour bus ride across South Australia and the drier portions of New South Wales -- including Broken Hill, Wilcannia, Cobor, Dubbo and across the Blue Mountains in a blanket of fog -- wasn't bad, though I had a harder time sleeping on the bus because of the construction of its seats, and because of the talkative driver. Sometimes he talked with the other driver (they take shifts driving), but he also spent a fair amount of time chatting up a female passenger who was separated from her husband. The driver was divorced; I learned a great deal about him.

After Wilcannia, the number of animals in or near the road increased precipitously. Mostly goats, sheep and kangaroos, but I also spotted a pair of emu. At one point, the drivers discoursed about animal hazards on the road, including some talk of the protective steel bumper-complex on the front of the bus, which I'd noticed as I got on. Helps minimize the damage a large kangaroo, say, might do hitting a 100-kph bus.

Only a few minutes later, the bus passed a large truck going the other way, and suddenly the bus quivered. THUMP! The noise had come from the side of the bus, near the driver. "Damn," he said. "It's been a year since I've hit anything." According to the driver, we'd dispatched a goat.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Blog of Januaries past, no. 1.

January 12, 1994.

Today I sat down for a dinner of bear chili. This was my idea. I made it this morning, went off to teach in the afternoon, and came home to it a little while ago. Yuriko's not home yet, since this is the night of her night class. The bear meat came from a can -- no, it came from a bear -- anyway, the meat has lately been in a can, sitting on our kitchen shelf, ever since I bought it at Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Am I contributing to the demise of Hokkaido bears? I don't know. I do know that there are enough of them to frighten hikers in Hokkaido national parks.

I'm working my way through War and Peace, which I started over the New Year's holiday, most of which I spent at the Enomoto's home. I read about 200 pages of it some years ago, but stalled. Now I'm in about 750 pages, and pretty sure I'll finish. It amazes at every turn. What consistently impresses me is the way Tolstoy describes motive. Imbued as we are with crime fiction, we used to thinking of motive as a straightforward matter.

Tolstoy knows better, and is somehow able to capture the vague, uncertain paths people really take in making decisions. Especially the way people make bad, self-delusional decisions. I'm thinking of Pierre Bezuhov's marriage, but it also extends to smaller decisions, like N. Rostov trying to get in to see the Tsar.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Ikea blog.

Maybe, I thought earlier today, Ikea won't be so bad today. Today isn't the day after Thanksgiving, or any day during the weeks leading up to Christmas, or the day after Christmas, or even a Saturday or Sunday. By bad, I mean crowded. Chockablock with the teeming middle class; so overrun that idling in an aisle jams the flow of people a dozen shopping carts back; so much of a human mass that the three-story building doesn't need to be heated.

I was wrong. It was bad today. The whole population of suburbs was there, along with a lot of the city, and people from flat farm country as far as Peoria, no doubt. Ikea's big blue and gold building is a major landmark in Schaumburg, and our move into this part of metro Chicago has put it within about a 15-minute drive from home. Yuriko sometimes goes without meeting madding crowds, since she can go on weekdays. But I don’t go there much, since I get a crowd-related headache ever time I try on a weekend. Got one again today.

That aside, the store has its charms, especially a line of generally well-designed goods -- housewares, furniture, etc. -- that aren’t particularly expensive. I think that the Scandinavian egalitarianism of the Swedish parent company, which has stores all over the civilized world, comes into play here. It goes against the irritating retail attitude that assumes that if you aren't willing to pay a high markup, you deserve crappy-looking things. Ikea's phenomenal popularity here in the States ought to clue in some of the more clueless retailers here that the less-than-wealthy can have good taste, too.

I also like the fact that everything retains its Swedish name, with appropriate English subtitles on the signs. Among other things, the store sells hemlis, bumerang, flang, lambo and jakt, and those are just clothes hangers or shoe racks. The food court's pretty good, too, though that term really doesn't do it justice, since it isn't a selection of fast-food chains, but instead Ikea's own idea of keep-them-in-store food service, which includes more standard sorts of sandwiches and pasta, but also Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and roast potatoes.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Mochi blog.

At our house, Christmas is in the American style: decorations, presents, church, some sort of hearty meat. New Year's is done in a Japanese style. Unfortunately there's no shrine nearby to visit (see yesterday's entry), but Yuriko has access to the special foods associated with New Year's in Japan, and that seems to make the occasion.

Today for lunch, we had zoni, which is mochi in a miso-type of soup. Mochi is a hyperglutinous, very sticky rice cake. The soup gives it some mild flavor, but it's so sticky that you have be eat it in small pieces, separated carefully in your month and swirled around more than chewed, to flatten it out and make it possible to swallow. Too much might stick in one's throat, and I understand that the elderly especially can have trouble with it, occasionally to the point of fatal choking. There's a scene in an Juzo Itami movie -- Tampopo? -- in which an old man has a choking problem with mochi, and his family saves him by extracting it with a vacuum cleaner. I don't want to find out if that's really possible.

Japanese kids hear that the dark coloring on the Moon looks like a rabbit, pounding out these rice cakes. Next full moon, see if you don’t think the mare of the Moon look like a rabbit in profile.

Also on the lunch menu was datemaki, a rolled confection of egg and sugar; pieces of fish paste, rice and green tea. Dinner was tempura. Shrimp, squid, zucchini, and lotus root. "They all have some meaning," said Yuriko, "except the zucchini, which I had in the refrigerator." For example, the lotus root (renkon) is associated with looking forward with understanding into the coming year, since you can see through the holes in it. Sounds like something originally from China, filtered down through the centuries, taken only seriously enough any more to tell it to your children in passing.