Thursday, July 22, 2004

High summer 04 blog. Vacation time.

Time for a summer vacation from blogging, to more or less coincide with some days off from my job, and visits by my mother and brother Jay and his family, which will be soon. I’ll start posting again around August 3rd or 4th.

But before I sign off, a question. Why? Why? Why? Why is an advertisement for that @#$%^& cult Sci---ology in the advertising box of this blog? What did I write about to deserve this? Is there some connection between PL (see July 8, 2004) and @#$%^& Sci---ology that I don’t know about? I’d prefer advertising from just about anyone else. Snake handlers? No worries. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rosicuricans, Swedenborgians, Theosophists? Bring ’em on. I wouldn’t mind seeing ads for Caodaism, Eckankar, Falun Dasa, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Church of the Brigade of Light, God Saves the Earth Flying Saucer Foundation or even – yes, even the Moonies. Not that any of them are getting a dime from me, anyway.

If I had more stamina, and more time to browse the Pangaea known as the Web, I probably could compile a much longer list of cults, sects and other tidal-pool religions, but I’m lax. Still, I’m reminded of one of the many impressive entries of The Devil’s Dictionary, an essential volume in anyone’s education (and from which extracts are easily available without having to type them in, since its copyright has expired).

INFIDEL, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does. (See GIAOUR.) A kind of scoundrel imperfectly reverent of, and niggardly contributory to, divines, ecclesiastics, popes, parsons, canons, monks, mollahs, voodoos, presbyters, hierophants, prelates, obeah-men, abbes, nuns, missionaries, exhorters, deacons, friars, hadjis, high-priests, muezzins, brahmins, medicine-men, confessors, eminences, elders, primates, prebendaries, pilgrims, prophets, imaums, beneficiaries, clerks, vicars-choral, archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, preachers, padres, abbotesses, caloyers, palmers, curates, patriarchs, bonezs, santons, beadsmen, canonesses, residentiaries, diocesans, deans, subdeans, rural deans, abdals, charm-sellers, archdeacons, hierarchs, class-leaders, incumbents, capitulars, sheiks, talapoins, postulants, scribes, gooroos, precentors, beadles, fakeers, sextons, reverences, revivalists, cenobites, perpetual curates, chaplains, mudjoes, readers, novices, vicars, pastors, rabbis, ulemas, lamas, sacristans, vergers, dervises, lectors, church wardens, cardinals, prioresses, suffragans, acolytes, rectors, cures, sophis, mutifs and pumpums.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Hard Blog Hotel.

Got a release the other day that begins: “Hard Rock Cafe International and Sol Meliá Hotels and Resorts announced that its 50:50 joint venture (Lifestar Hotels LLC) has entered into a series of agreements with Becker Ventures LLC to develop and manage the Paramount Hotel, which Becker recently acquired from Century Paramount LLC. The purchase price of the hotel was $126.5 million. The hotel will undergo a multi-million dollar refurbishment to commence at the beginning of 2005, following which it will be re-branded the Hard Rock Hotel New York.”

What, New York doesn’t have one already? Too tired to look it up. Just another bit of the effusion of press releases that come my way daily, except that I do notice when an announcement like this involves someplace I’ve actually stayed, in this case the Paramount Hotel. It’s a theater-district hotel, spitting distance from Times Square, and my company put me up there in 2000.

Not an awful hotel experience, just an odd one. The Paramount tried hard to gloss over the fact that it was a tired old property offering shoebox rooms with a patina of hip, or someone’s idea of hip, which is all that hip really means anyway. Mostly this was done by decorating the lobby with metal and glass things, and turning down the lights. Except in the elevators. Each elevator had a different color of light illuminating it -- creating a green elevator, a blue one, and so on. Also, and this was probably just a circumstance not planned by the hotel, there always seemed to be guys dressed all in black idling in the lobby.

The Hard Rock, I think, will be more calculating in its approach. That company has a formula, after all. I can’t badmouth it, really: in Chicago, Hard Rock restored the handsome Carbon & Carbide Building on Michigan Avenue to be one of its hotels. You don’t have to go inside among the rock knickknacks to appreciate it. But I’d be surprised if the rooms at the future Hard Rock New York were any bigger that the Paramount’s are now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Hudson’s blog.

I know a good digression when I read (or hear) one. In the book Krakatoa by Simon Winchester, which I’m reading during my commute now, there’s a discussion of the evolution of the VOC, the monopoly trading company that established the East Indies as a Dutch colony, with the following aside:

“The idea of officially sanctioned trading cooperatives was far from new…. The Hudson’s Bay Company, set up… solely to trade, remains today: The Bay, its flagship department stores, can be found in all of Canada’s cities (an in not a few more isolated Arctic settlements), and its owner, a cheerfully eccentric peer called Ken Thompson, lives modestly and happily in a suburb of Toronto.”

The Hudson’s Bay Company is still around? The Company of Adventurers still exists? Admittedly -- I did a little checking up on this -- the Company got out of the fur business a long time ago, except presumably as a retailer, but still. Not something you’d expect to learn in a book about Krakatoa. I hadn’t given the Hudson’s Bay Company much thought lately, but if I had, I would have considered it a thing of the past. Finding out some little nugget like that isn’t a major thrill, but an everyday delight, the kind that adds up.

Krakatoa was not the book I picked up (see yesterday’s blog); I got it at the library on Saturday. The BookCrossing book was From Russia With Love, which was a quick read, and the first Ian Fleming book I’ve ever finished.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Loose books blog.

When it comes to reading, I’m fairly promiscuous. I’ll hop into bed with any book that promises a good read, sometimes literally. At the Schaumburg commuter rail station, the township library maintains a bookcase of giveaway books. Sometimes, the library stocks it with excess volumes; sometimes other people unload unwanted books there. Anyone can leave or pick up books there, no charge.

Mostly, they’re junk. Beaten-up romance titles. Teen novels. Old self-help books, which age almost as quickly and to similar smelliness as dairy products. But I inspect the shelves anyway, because randomness ought to be a factor in any literate person’s reading habits. Something might turn up.

Recently something did. I picked up a book because of its intrinsic reading value, and because it sported some intriguing labels -- BookCrossing labels. I’d never heard of that.

On the inside cover, a white label says: “Howdy! Hola! Bonjour! Guten Tag! I’m a very special book. You see, I’m traveling around the world making new friends. I hope I’ve met another friend in you. Please go to and enter my BCID number (shown below). You’ll discover where I’ve been and who has read me, and can let them know I’m safe here in your hands. Then… READ and RELEASE me!”

I had to look that up. “ [says that web site] is a labor of love that was conceived and is maintained by Humankind Systems Inc., a software and Internet development company with offices in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sandpoint, Idaho. … Humankind partner Ron Hornbaker sought to create a community site that would be the first of its kind, that would give back to the world at large, and that would provide warm fuzzy feelings whenever he worked on it. was the result.

“The idea came to Ron back in March of 2001, as he and his wife Kaori were admiring the site, which tracks disposable cameras loosed into the wild. He already knew about the popularity of (which tracks U.S. currency by serial number), and that got him thinking: what other physical object might people enjoy tracking? A few minutes later, after a glance at his full bookshelf, the idea of Books came to mind…

“… on April 17, 2001, was launched with a simple $500 press release, the last time money has been spent promoting the site. Members trickled in at the rate of 100 or so per month, by word of mouth, until March of 2002 when the Book magazine article was published. Since then, the BookCrossing phenomenon has been the focus of countless TV, radio, and newspaper features, between 200 and 500 new members from around the world join every day… The fact that it has captured the passion and imagination of around 273,961 people worldwide, so quickly, has both surprised and deeply gratified BookCrossing's founders.”

Either “countless” TV, radio and newspaper features is hyperbole, or I’m out of touch with most media, or both. I also wonder about “around 273,961 people,” but that’s just an editor’s bias I have for rounding numbers that cannot really be precise. Small quibbles. I input the book’s ID number and discovered that it had journeyed all the way from Hoffman Estates, Illinois --- a neighboring town --- to wind up in my hands, and that I’m the second possessor since its registration. I will have to give a better send off when I “release” it.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Mirabella blog.

I’m on a summer blogging schedule now, that is, skipping Saturdays. Wouldn’t have posted yesterday anyway, since Ann wasn’t feeling well (mild fever, some kind of pain) Friday and into Saturday. She’s better now. But when a toddler doesn’t feel well, there’s no concentrating on anything else. With that in mind, I’ve picked an incident of illness from my archives.

July 22, 1983. Mirabella, Italy.

Steve and I boarded the bus to Avalino in mid-morning yesterday and I remember having a fine ride – no hint of things to come. The Campanian scenery was pleasant, a lot of rolling countryside, though the air was more polluted than I would have expected. We got to Avalino, expecting to find a station, but instead a large parking lot full of buses functioned as the station. We asked a driver which bus connected with our destination, Mirabella, the small town where Steve has relatives, and he told us where to wait for it.

I felt nauseated in the hot sun waiting for the connecting bus. That bus wasn’t especially late -- a notable thing in Italy -- and my condition got worse during the bouncing, twist-and-turn ride deeper into the country (for Mirabella is a very small town). We arrived at a street corner in Mirabella, and immediately after unloading our packs from under the bus, I said to Steve, “I think I’m going to throw up.” Which I did right away. First on the sidewalk, then another wave in the gutter.

Suddenly I was the center of attention in the town. A cop came up and directed me to a drug store nearby, and then got me a chair from I don’t know where. A woman from inside the drug store offered me a cup of water and a pill, which I took to be a Pepto-Bismol equivalent. I swallowed it and a little of the water. In the meantime a number of people clustered around me, watching me sit -- some kids, some adults, but on the whole I wasn’t paying attention to the details.

Eventually it was established that I was feeling better, and I said grazie to all, and Steve and I started walking in the direction of his Uncle Luigi’s coffee shop (bar). Two young men in a small car stopped and offered us a lift, and we accepted. We stayed at the coffee shop a while. I was indeed better, but it didn’t last long. As soon as Luigi had driven us to his home, I threw up in the bathroom and then found the nearest bed. I was nauseated, spent time on the toilet every few hours, and had a fever.

Luigi lives in the house with his wife, his wife’s sister, his daughter, her husband, and their daughter, a year and a half old. All the adults in the family were very attentive, despite the fact that we had almost no language in common. I chewed some actual Pepto-Bismol that I had with me, and felt a little better. They offered me dinner, and much to my regret, I couldn’t take it. Not long after that, I threw up one more time. Slept some that night, and by morning the fever had broken. By mid-day today I had my appetite back, which was a good thing, since I have a number of extraordinary homemade Italian meals ahead of me.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Millennium blog.

It rained on and off today, but during one of the dry periods in the late afternoon, I crossed the Loop on foot to see the very newest thing in Chicago to see, Millennium Park, whose opening ceremonies were this evening. I was too early for any ceremonies, but I saw the main event anyway, the park itself.

It’s been lauded enough in the papers and other reports, so I won’t go on about it. But I will add that it’s a public-space masterpiece. Very impressive. Worthy of its highly visible spot in one of the Great Cities of the Earth, and certainly popular with the visitors today, which must have been a few thousand when I was there.

It’s got a number of handsome open spaces, interesting walkways, some more or less traditional gardens, a large water feature that’s fun for kids, and an enormous sculpture that’s already got an affectionate nickname (“the bean,” which gives you an idea of the shape, but not of its slick silvery surface). Even Frank Gehry’s contribution, the new bandshell, works. I was skeptical, but no more. I’ve never seen anything quite like it; not so much the signature Gehry flaps of metal over the stage, but the cascade of curving beams over the Great Lawn in front of the stage. (See June 23, 2003 for my philistine comments on Gehry, which I’m not retracting. I just happen to like this work).

The park’s been a long time in the making, with the usual delays and staggering cost overruns. But I’m sure that Mayor Daley has a Flavian attitude about it, and I sympathize: “Cost overruns at the Coliseum? So what? This is built to last!”

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Bedbug blog.

This came in over the electronic transom today, perhaps because I’ve been known to write articles about the apartment market. Just one more thing to worry about, it seems.

“Dear Mr. Stribling [at least they got the gender correct]:

“The traditional bedtime warning to not let the bedbugs bite may have more credence than you think.

“These nocturnal pests are making a comeback in American homes -- and recently in American news coverage. Bedbugs were recently featured on CNN, CNBC and ABC News and in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Good Housekeeping. … The small, flat bugs have proven themselves resilient pests because of their nocturnal habits and elusive size -- bedbugs can be transported through luggage and moving boxes from one property to another. But there are steps homeowners, property managers, and landlords can take to address bedbug infestations successfully.

“Please let me know if you are interested in covering the return of bedbugs through an interview with Cindy Mannes, Director of Public Affairs for the National Pest Management Association or through a bylined article from the association.”

Bedbugs! So far, this scourge has bypassed our house. But a brief Web search makes me think that there’s more going on that fear-mongering by the pest control industry, or swamp gas passing through the media. Various reputable authorities have noted an uptick in bedbug infestations in the civilized world lately.

Which not only causes itching, but litigation. It took me about a minute to run across a description, by two attorneys named Michael D. Freeborn and Todd J. Ohlms, of a recent court case involving bedbugs, a motel chain we all know, and our own 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, located here in Chicago. It’s a fine example of management denial.

“In Matthias v. Accor Economy Lodging, Inc., 347 F.3d 672 (7th Cir. 2003), the plaintiffs brought a suit against various entities that own and operate the "Motel 6" chain of hotels and motels (Motel). Mathias, 347 F.3d at 673.

“The plaintiffs were guests at Motel 6 and were bitten by bedbugs. The plaintiffs argued that the Motel's willful and wanton conduct in allowing them to be victims of the bloodthirsty insects entitled them to punitive damages. The jury awarded each plaintiff $5,000 in compensatory damages and $186,000 in punitive damages.

“On appeal, the Motel argued that at worst, it was guilty of simple negligence. The Seventh Circuit quickly rejected that argument noting that:

* in 1998, the Motel's extermination service discovered bedbugs in several rooms and recommended spraying all the rooms for $500, which the Motel refused;

* the next year, bedbugs were found in a room and the Motel had the exterminator spray only that particular room;

* meanwhile, the Motel tried to negotiate a full sweep of the premises by the exterminator for free, which was refused by the exterminator;

* by the year 2000, the Motel's manager noticed that clerks were issuing refunds to guests based on the presence of ticks and bugs in the rooms;

* a management level employee refused to close the Motel and spray the entire premises despite further incidents of guest being bitten by bedbugs;

* the Motel continued to rent rooms that had been designated as being unfit to rent due to their infestation with the bedbugs, including the room rented to the plaintiffs.”

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Energy blog.

I didn’t mention in the previous entry whether I’d actually opened up my free-sample can of Monster, which I was given recently at my commuter train station. The answer is, not yet. In this case, I’m more interested in the package than the contents. I’m even less inclined to open it after reading what my nephew Sam, currently in St. Louis, had to say about it.

“As you know [he writes], during the year I pull considerably more than my fair share of all-nighters due to my status as an architecture student, and poor time-management skills. I have thus had several opportunities to experiment with the various caffeine-soaked energy drinks out there -- Bawls (my favorite mostly due to the deep cerulean glass bottle), Blue Ox (clearly inspired by the former), Monster, Red Bull, etc. -- and have found that Monster is the worst of the lot.

“It tastes absolutely terrible, and while it keeps you awake, it strings you out.... to use an apt quote, it makes you feel sort of thin, like butter spread over too much bread. In any case, after a few Monster-driven nights I decided to give up energy drinks in order to save my sanity. I doubt they'll ever hire me as a spokesman.”

Me either. Ginseng may be what Sam objects to most in the taste of Monster. Over the years I’ve tried ginseng in various forms, mostly in drinks but also as candy, especially on my trip to Korea, where it’s ubiquitous. I don’t spit it out as vile, but I’ve never quite liked it either, and for someone with a selective palate, it might be too pungent.

Anyway, I don’t need “energy” drinks. I’ve got tea at the office, and a toddler at home, to keep me awake.

Monster blog. (Blogger was bunged up last night.)

One of the small benefits of passing through Union Station every day is occasional free samples, whether I can use them or not. (A friend of mine calls these items “smallgess,” since they don’t constitute largess.)

The other day I got me a big shiny black can of Monster, an “energy” drink. I’m happy to report that I was ahead of the curve when it comes to energy drinks, sampling a few back in the early ‘90s in Japan, where they are enormously popular. Many varieties exist there, most available from vending machines. I liked DekaVita best: essentially carbonated grape juice jazzed up with caffeine and vitamins, but a bargain on a hot day at Y100 (later, Y110). Ten different vitae, I think, hence the name.

Digression. Why does that perennial human-interest, golly-the-Japanese-are-funny story about vending machines in Japan always make the absurd claim that everything is sold in vending machines there? Look hard enough and you will find oddities (to us) in Japanese vending machines — clean panties and dirty manga seem to be the most often mentioned. But I’d guess that 99%+ of the machines contain pedestrian items like drinks and cigarettes. But not, oddly, candy. I only saw that in one or two machines in four years, all in movie theaters.

I’m a fan of product labels, and Monster gave me quite a lot to read. In a silver and blue typeface that’s supposed to be goth or somesuch: “Tear into a can of the meanest energy supplement on the planet, Lo-Carb MONSTER energy.™

“We went down to the lab and performed major surgery on the Monster. We hacked out the carbohydrates and calories, transplanted the wicked Buzz and dialed in the flavor.”

Ah, to be a copywriter. They must have had fun with this one. Close inspection reveals that in fact Monster has a slight load of calories, all of 10 per serving in a two-serving can. Calories of course are a measure of energy, so that means this is an energy drink with almost no energy. That’s scientifically speaking, however, which is about as relevant to marketing as Linear B.

So Monster is essentially water (first ingredient), with vitamins, ginseng, and other fashionable additives. But what Monster really has, in clear abundance, is caffeine. The fine print toward the bottom: “Consume responsibly. Limit (3) cans per day. Not recommended for children, pregnant women or people sensitive to caffeine.”

Monday, July 12, 2004

Points of light blog.

On Saturday night, after we finished watching the Stooges at 9 p.m., Lilly and I went out to see different kinds of stars, real ones, at Spring Valley Nature Preserve (which I’ve written about before; see June 21, 2004). It was astronomy club night, meaning that a couple of guys who’d built their own telescopes had positioned them in a dark part of the preserve, about a quarter-mile from the visitor’s center, and the public was invited to come see. Lilly and I represented about 20% of the total public there at the time, so there was plenty of opportunity to look into the eyepieces, and at the celestial objects the sky aficionados had picked.

I forgot to ask the specs of these scopes, but they seemed to be fairly powerful for amateur astronomers of seemingly ordinary means. First, we saw Vega. I’ve long liked that star, but the truth is, a bright star in a telescope is just a very bright blob of light. More subtle was the Ring Nebula, which was barely visible, but there. We were told that was a hard one to catch sight of in the light-washed suburbs. We also saw a binary system whose name I forget, but it was in Vega’s neighborhood. Lilly had to stand on a stepladder to see in the eyepieces, and it took her a while to learn to look into them so that she could actually see something. But she did see the twin stars.

That part of the preserve was darker than even our house at night with all the lights off, and Lilly was scared of the dark, holding my hand fast the whole walk to and from the lighted parking lot. The path, a small service road, passes through restored prairie acreage. A light wind rustled the grass. Occasionally small animals crept audibly nearby. Fireflies were everywhere. I’d never seen so many blinking at one time, several every second in the waves of tall grass. If the modest population density of fireflies in suburban yards is indeed suburban, then this tall grass was a city of fireflies.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Shikoku 93 blog.

Instead of transcribing material for publication here late last night, I communed with the nearby fireflies and the faraway stars. More on that tomorrow. Maybe. For now, an item of the past.

July 13, 1993.

The rains of the previous weeks, which continued into the week I took my trip to Shikoku, greened the whole island, especially the stubby mountains surrounding Oboke gorge, which is nestled in the middle of the island, and the drop to the sea at Cape Ashizuri, which forms Shikoku's extreme southeast. Even the cities -- Takamatsu and Kochi -- proved greener than almost any others I’ve seen in Japan, especially on their outer edges, which is still semi-agricultural, where rice grows in row upon row of clustered stalks. The park at the foot of Kochi Castle sported a vast number of tall dense trees, undergrown by thick shrubbery, which made me think of Black Forest trails.

Naruto is the strait between Shikoku and a smaller island, Awaji (known for olives, of all things), and I went one day see its famous whirlpool, supposedly on the major maelstroms of the world. I must have caught it at the wrong time, or maybe I was expecting drama that Naruto doesn’t have. It looked like a patch of choppy water. Immediately above it, however, was the admirable suspension bridge to Awaji, the longest of its kind in Asia.

Another day I visited a cave called Ryigado, near Kochi. It’s the first cave I’d ever visited in Japan [and, as it turned out, only cave]. Not a grand cave in the style of Carlsbad or Mammoth, but a well-appointed smaller one. Interestingly, the course of the tour was generally upward. You emerge near the top of a (very small) mountain, and walk back down on the outside, after ascending on its inside.

Just before I arrived at Ritsurin Park in the small city of Takamatsu, the sky had opened up for a while, soaking everything, but by the time I got there, it had stopped. That meant I had to place practically to myself, a rare, rare treat indeed in this country, even in the lesser prefectures of Shikoku. Ritsurin is an astonishingly large Japanese garden – my references say 780,000 square meters – created by the lords of this part of the island during the early Edo period (early 1600s). I wandered around for quite a while. The entire scene was newly wet, including the gnarled dwarf pines and the edges of the fish ponds and the foot bridges and islets. It was as immaculate a piece of landscaping as I’d ever seen, even compared with the gardens of Kyoto.

Shikoku is well known for its circuit of 88 temples established by Buddhist sage Kobo Daishi. People visit them all 88 as a pilgrimage, but I contented myself with seeing a handful, such Zentsuji. The sage himself was born in the town of the same name, and the temple’s fame meant, unlike Ritsurin, I visited in the company of numerous others, mostly bus pilgrims, I figure. But the grounds easily absorb the pilgrims, and there’s plenty of room to admire such things as the temple's vaulting five-story pagoda. Not unique, but certainly impressive.

The major Shinto site on the island I visited was Kompira, formed by a complex of buildings strung along an endless series of stone staircases. In style, Kompira is actually more like a Buddhist temple, since it had once been one, before Shintoists shanghaied the structures with the aid of the Meiji government. I was exhausted by the time I got to the top, but the view was worth it. I could see the plain below, strings of green mountains further away, and the twinkling lights of the Seto Ohashi (great bridge) far in the distance.

Friday, July 09, 2004

DIY pyrotechnics blog.

This short week’s blogs have been about fireworks by profession pyrotechnicians, but I shouldn’t neglect the do-it-yourself variety. The unmistakable smell of gunpowder takes me back to the world of Black Cat firecrackers and even cheaper generics, bottle rockets, sparklers, smoke bombs, cherry bombs, the euphemistically named whizzling chasers, Roman candles and assorted sizes of rockets.

When I was small, those fireworks stands beyond the city limits seemed so big, with hundreds of choices lined on the shelves, decked out in gaudy Oriental paper or rocket-like silver, from the basic and dirt-cheap firecrackers to the huge, mysterious constructions and tubes that cost a fortune. We never bought much of the expensive stuff, but I'm glad it was there, all the same.

My older brothers taught me how to use fireworks, how not to be an idiot with them. Don’t throw them at people, especially your brothers. Don’t hold on to them after lighting the fuse. Don’t go over and eye the duds to see what was wrong. Eyes and fingers were at stake. Even a little kid can understand that.

When we lived in Denton, Texas, in the mid-60s, we’d go out to a place outside of town we called “firecracker hill” to use our fireworks. Not all that often, but just enough for me to have an amalgamated memory of going there more than once. There were certain ways to set the 'works up and shoot them off, certain rituals. Bottle rockets, for instance, were put in bottles and aimed at the sky. No lighting and tossing of those -- that was for firecrackers. Sometimes two would go in the small bottle, with their fuses twisted together. Light. Step back. Pfuft! Sometimes it made an orange streak going up, sometimes not. Sometimes it ended with a pop!, sometimes not.

If I remember right, we’d also mix up the order of shooting. A few firecrackers, some bottle rockets, a small rocket, more firecrackers, bottle rockets, and then maybe a Roman candle. We never got many of them, since they were relatively expensive. Also, we never held Roman candles in our hands -- the idiot way to do it. No, they stood upright and shot straight up while we watched at a distance. Pfuft! One! Pfuft! Two! We’d count the different-colored fireballs as they emerged. Usually, I think, we got eight or nine, but sometimes there were extras.

After moving to South Texas in 1968, I continued using fireworks occasionally into high school, usually in my back yard, in violation of San Antonio city ordinance. That had its moments, but looking back, it can’t compare to firecracker hill, which I never saw again after I was seven.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

PL blog.

Every municipal fireworks show I go to now is measured against the most spectacular display I ever saw, the PL fireworks of August 1, 1993. I have a penchant for remembering exact dates, but that one in particular is easy to remember, since it occurs on that same date every year in Tondabayashi, Japan, a suburb of Osaka. It isn’t municipal, however, but a function of the Church of Perfect Liberty, widely known in that country as PL (using the Roman letters).

Religion in Japan is often characterized in terms of the mixture of Buddhism and Shinto, with a percentage point of Christianity thrown in, but of course in a nation of 120 million or so with complete religious freedom, there are plenty of other sects, most flourishing after 1945. PL is one. I never learned much about its tenets, but I did find out about its fireworks.

From the PL web site: “On this day [August 1] hundreds of thousands of PL believers, from the local churches in Japan and from distant parts of the world, gather at the PL Holy Land, the home of our spirit, to appreciate and pray to the First and Second Founders.

“The Founders' Day ceremony climaxes when Oshieoya [the religion’s current big cheese], standing before the altar of the Main Temple, purifies all the participants through the Rite of Blessing. At this moment, from behind the Main Temple, a thunderous burst of ‘dedication fireworks’ light up the sky. Soon afterwards there follows an hour-long display of the world's greatest fireworks, ‘The Art of PL Fireworks.’

“First Founder prayed and asked God to shorten his natural life by 30 years, so that by his sacrifice, his teachings and virtue would remain forever to save mankind. He repeatedly said, 'When I die this religion should spread all over the world. Therefore, my death is meaningful for world peace; it is not something to grieve or mourn over. Rather after my death celebrate together with fireworks.' The Second Founder sincerely wanting to fulfill his wish created 'The Art of PL Fireworks,' to honor and appreciate the life and virtue of the First Founder.

“Since the First Founder passed away during the time of religious persecution, the fireworks art couldn't be realized for some time. In 1953, at Matsuyama City, the first fireworks display was held, in commemoration of the 15th Anniversary of the First Founder. The following year in 1954, the site of the Founder's Day ceremony, as well as the ‘Art of PL Fireworks’ was moved to the new PL Headquarters in Tondabayashi.

“This annual event is the most popular entertainment in the area and is looked forward to not only by PL members, but by many residents of greater Osaka and the neighboring towns. Yet we should always remember that it is not a mere seasonal display of fireworks. Rather it is the grand bouquet dedicated by all PL believers throughout the world to the spirits of the First and Second Founders.”

According to Yuriko, PL doesn’t meddle in politics and doesn’t preach the killing or enslaving of non-believers, so on those scores it seems like an innocuous religion. Even better, fireworks represent a rite, which I have to say is a fine idea. Well executed, too, since money probably isn’t an object. I remember the finale in particular -- an amazing, minutes-long barrage of gold explosions, so thick that it looked like a glittering gold mushroom, filling a quarter of the sky.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Hanabi blog.

Chicago has a lot of suburbs, and many of them shoot off fireworks on or around the Fourth of July. Chicago itself does it up on the Third of July, an event I’ve seen a few times, but its charms wore off long ago. It was one thing to take the El downtown alone, wander around in the thick of the crowds, eat something at the overpriced festival known as the Taste of Chicago, and watch the 9:30 fireworks over Lake Michigan from spot near Lake Shore Drive, which is closed for the event. There’s some aspect of urban hiking to that. That was 1987.

Even as part of a couple, going downtown -- still using the El, though a different line -- was worth the effort. The high price of the eats seemed even worse, but it was tolerable. That was 1996.

The last time we went, I think in 2000, will be the last time for a long time. We have only added a child since then, and keeping track of one was more than enough. The trip in from the suburbs on Metra was also too much, or rather the trip back was, on a late train, packed with drunks and noisy teenagers and whining kids. The food was still expensive, and, truth be told, the fireworks were mediocre. Or maybe they didn’t last long enough. The last time we went to the Chicago show, I came away with the distinct impression that the city had shorted us. Maybe this was a trick of memory, but I don’t think so. It seemed like at least five and maybe 10 minutes had been shorn off, compared with previous years. Whatta gyp.

Since then, we’ve seen suburban displays, a couple in Westmont, one in Downers Grove/Woodridge. Yuriko had heard that Wheeling, Illinois, which is a little north and east of our home, had a good show. (Schaumburg itself doesn’t bother with fireworks.) So on July Fourth we went to Wheeling’s Heritage Park, a very large patch of open land plus a pond of a few acres, some community rec buildings, tennis courts and other facilities. A good bit of the open land was roped off with orange plastic mesh, and when we got there we could see from a distance the rocket launchers all set up on the grass inside that perimeter.

Though a fair number of people showed up, the park was able to absorb them without too much trouble, so it didn’t feel crowded. We ate at the marginally overpriced Taste of Wheeling -- everybody has a Taste of… around here -- and parked ourselves on the grass only a few yards from the orange mesh fence. Lilly was a little miffed that I wouldn’t buy her a glow stick, and asked every few minutes when the show was going to begin. Dusk actually takes quite a while, if you’re outside waiting for it.

All that was forgotten when the first rocket shot up. It was a good display, full of pop and bang and whiz and rocket trails and explosions in white, silver, gold, green, blue, pink, cherry red and violet, in quality and quantity. There were even a few shapes I’d never seen before, though I’m hard-put to describe them now. Ann wasn’t frightened. We thought she might be, but she sat securely in her mother’s lap and watched the whole thing. All in all, Wheeling’s hanabi were just as good as the city’s, but with far less aggravation.

Hanabi has long been a favorite Japanese word of mine. It means “fireworks,” but the construction is flower (hana) + fire (hi, bi ).

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Tired Tuesday blog.

Three-day weekends inevitably bring a shadowy fourth day, which was today, the day after and the Tuesday that stands in for Monday, with that day’s discontents amplified a little. That’s a long way of saying I’m too tired to post tonight, other than to say I will tomorrow at greater length. This week I might also take up the mystery word nage, which appeared on a menu last week.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Cassini blog.

Odds and ends for today, ahead of the holiday. No blogging till after the Fourth. Actually, after the Fifth.

Vive Cassini-Huygens! A marvel of the age, only partly appreciated. See that white disk in the sky, not quite as bright the other white disks or the red one? It comes and goes across the fixed stars, and is named for obscure reasons for an ancient god that would be otherwise forgotten. I am part of a civilization that can hoist a machine of a few thousand pounds all the way up to that disk. Across the harsh void, years in transit, so that the machine can take pictures of Saturn’s beauty and make millions of precise observations, even so that a part of the craft can land on mysterious Titan. Genuine achievements, and not just of the technical sort, but also of imagination.

Speaking of machines, not long ago I saw a Chicago cop riding a Segway Human Transporter in downtown Chicago -- the device that looks like a reel lawn mower, only large enough to ride standing up. They’re fairly rare on the sidewalks, and I’d never seen a cop on one. Was it his, or does the department own it? At $4,000 or more a pop, I wonder if the police department really needs them. Truth is, I’ve never given Segways a lot of thought. It might be a good way to get around broad, open spaces, but on the crowded sidewalks of a CBD, I can’t see the advantage over walking. Put too many of them on the sidewalks, and it would be hell for regular foot traffic. Maybe it’s just as well that they’re expensive.

Speaking of walking, the other day I was passing through a slice of unincorporated Cook County on the way home from my daily train ride, as I often do. The houses there are on large lots, and thus set back from the street further than in my neighborhood. But from an open second-story window I could hear singing, very clearly. It was a boy’s voice, maybe 8 or 10, singing the refrain from “I Shot the Sheriff.” He sang it four or five times as I passed within earshot. Perhaps he dreams of the day when he, too, can commit a capital offense.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Canada blog.

O, Canada, we do like you here in the Lower 48, we really do, but except for eccentrics like me, we pay little attention to your national institutions, holidays, and so forth, such as Canada Day, which is today. This annoys Canadian nationalists, perhaps, but my opinion is that most U.S. citizens have no compelling reason to learn the minutiae of Canada, and vice verse.

Also, I don’t believe that Americans -- I mean, citizens of the United States of America -- are especially provincial when it comes knowing about other countries. The key word is especially. Most Americans are, indeed, sorely provincial in this regard. But so are most people in most places, including Europeans, and they have even less excuse, since they don’t have to travel far to bump up against other cultures. The belief that Americans are especially ignorant of other cultures is, I believe, merely a club used to whack Americans by anti-American Europeans and (worse) anti-American Americans.

Anyway, I learned about Canada Day, formerly Dominion Day, through direct experience back in 1991, when I picked that day to drive across the border at Detroit/Windsor. That day I also learned that working on a holiday could well make Canadian border guards a mite surly. I didn’t have a bad experience that day -- no body-cavity searches -- but it was the most thorough search of my possessions by any customs officials anywhere, up to and including the East Germans at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.

I didn’t know until I checked today that “Canada Day” is a recent formulation. It’s been called that only since 1982, which if I remember correctly, was the year Canada at long last won the right, by Act of Parliament in London, to amend its constitution without consulting the UK. I’ll stay out of Canada’s business, but I will say that “Dominion Day” has more style. It wouldn’t hurt to still call it that.