Thursday, September 30, 2004

Costume blog.

Lots of places to be at particular times in the days ahead, so NO BLOGGING until next Wednesday at the earliest, unless I feel inspired to write over the weekend, when I will be home. But I wouldn’t bet the mortgage money on it.

Got an entertaining circular at my office today from Fantasy Costumes Hdq., “One city block long!” (on North Milwaukee Ave. in the city) “Over one million items in stock!” “The inside story on costumes, parties, and fun!”

Getting ready for the big season in the costume world, they are. The circular folds out into a big cartoon map, listing (among other sections of the store): Mascot & Parade Costumes, Wigs (over 30,000… in stock), Theatrical Props, Children’s Costumes, Mardi Gras & More, Hats, Novelties and Magic & Gags. Also, “Bachelor & Bachlorette Items,” which I take to be the sex toy department.

A note on the margin says: “What you need for more fun at… Medieval/Renaissance, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Columbus Day [huh?], Fourth of July, Roarin’ 20s, Octoberfest [sic], Mardi Gras, Halloween, Christmas, Carnivals, Easter, Luaus, Purim.”

It took me about a minute to figure out that luaus was the plural of the Hawaiian-style party, and not some holiday I’d never heard of. Also, I wondered what kind of costumes go with Columbus Day –- Nina, Pinta and Santa Marias you can wear?

I thought, riding home on the train, that they missed mentioning some other festive occasions in that list –- say –- bacchanalias, orgies, séances, black Sabbaths, Day of the Dead, Gay 90s (“The Sidewalks of New York”), Gay 70s (“YMCA”), MLK Day, Presidents Day (Nixon masks, etc.), show trials, Civil War re-enactments and hootenannies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Ann writes a blog.

Distinctly cooler, much more like fall. We’re at the part-green, part-yellow-brown-red stage of things, days shorter, but blight blue skies. Busy day, so I didn’t go out in it much.

This evening Ann sat in my lap for a while at my desk, banging a little on the keyboard that I usually won’t let her touch. On the table next to my desk, I have a spare keyboard unconnected to anything, for her to bang on, but she doesn’t do that much any more. She must sense somehow that it’s a dummy. The real action is at the iMac.

Playing with the real keyboard didn’t last long, however, because she became too interested in the iMac’s on/off button, which glows green. I didn’t want her to push it repeatedly the way a toddler would, so I took her away from, over loud protests. Then she forgot about it, as toddlers do.

This is what she wrote:
C dwqzzAa`zz z ` zzz???

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

UPS blog.

Today I learned, the hard way, what a UPS unit is. Nothing to do with picking up packages, but instead a piece of electronic equipment: uninterrupted power source. Its job, I think, is to keep the system alive when Commonwealth Edison takes a break. A funny thing to call it, UPS, considering that my office’s Smart UPS 700 unit, a small but heavy box made by a company called APC, gave up the ghost on Monday morning, thereby interrupting all the power to our server and the assorted routers that provide us telephone, Internet and e-mail connectivity.

You try to run an office without those things. At first we suspected a problem with MCI, which provides those essentials to the office. The telecom giant’s service has been spotty at times, but never a total blackout. Still, we considered MCI the likely culprit, and our IT guy (in New York) got after them on Monday afternoon. They denied it, so this morning we turned our attention to the hardware, which is located in a back storage room. A server, a lot of boxes, a cascade of wires to the floor, others running up to the ceiling. Usually there are signs of life in all that mess, such as lights and the whir of fans, but all the lights were off and nothing was making noise.

I described all this on the (cell) phone to Sydney, our IT guru, and he decided that the UPS was the problem. He told us to get another one, 700 or higher. Calls (using cell phones) followed, to nearby computer supply stores. Everyone had 650s. Later Sydney clarified that two 650s would solve the problem. “That’s 1300,” I said. Then we took a field trip to the Office Depot on Grand Ave. to pick up two 650s. Turns out the clerks didn’t know their stock very well, since that store carried an APC UPS 1000. We bought it, on sale no less, for $150.

I was certain that we would plug it in – all the five or six different cords leading into it – and it would do nothing. The problem would be something else, something completely invisible to non-IT types. I was wrong. A few minutes later, everything was back to normal. That’s all I really ask from my electronics, normalcy.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Apple blog.

Just this Saturday, sitting down in the family room –- the TV room –- the toy room –- the place jammed with books, toys, videotapes, etc., -- I had the notes I made at the Bohemian National Cemetery earlier this month, in my hands. Good notes too, reminding me of lots of colorful detail and poignant reflections.

And where are they now? The notes, that is. I wish I knew, but when I find them, I’ll use them to write up a blog. But for the moment, I’ve quit looking, because as I grow older, I realize more and more the zen truth, you can’t find a thing by looking for it.

Probably that has nothing to do with Zen, as practiced in Japan or anywhere else. No matter. I will, however, write about a place that needed less detailed notes: the Royal Oak Orchard, near Harvard, Illinois, where I took the whole family a week ago Saturday. It’s a U-Pick-Em orchard, the sort of place that one never thinks to go without small children. We went to a different one last year, which wasn’t bad, but Royal Oak had a more sophisticated tourist infrastructure. Besides the rows of apple trees open to all pickers, there was a fruit shop, restaurant, souvenir shop, shack shop, playground, petting zoo, rings for campfires, a hayride, and a teepee inscribed with Bible verses.

More about that last one later. It was a fine day for picking, sunny and warm, and we had a pleasant drive into the exurbs. The orchard is about five miles east of Harvard, a town hard against the Illinois-Wisconsin line. I’d estimated that it would take an hour to get there; Yuriko thought it would be two hours; it worked out to be an hour and a half, true to the spirit of compromise in a marriage.

We got down to the business of picking apples, yellow ones and red ones and colors in between, with variety names that I don’t recall (guess I could use some notes). Regardless of their names, they were all tasty apples. Many of them were low enough for Lilly to reach, and even Ann sampled a number of different ones, though actual picking was a little beyond her.

Afterwards we repaired to the picnic area to eat lunch. A sign prohibited outside food, that is, picnic lunches such as the one we brought, but we ignored this. Pop Christian music played unobtrusively, but distinctly, from a speaker near the snack shop. Curious, but purveying apples and spreading the Gospel doesn’t seem mutually exclusive.

Later, Lilly and Ann spent time on the playground, which included two miniature houses and the usual climbing apparatus. I took a close look at the teepee, which I’d noticed as we came in (hard to miss). It was a stucco teepee, painted pastel colors, and fairly large, maybe 30 feet in diameter at the base and two stories high. It had doorframes with doors, and inside there were illuminated EXIT signs, fire extinguishers and other paraphernalia of modern building codes. There was a video monitor fixed to the wall and some benches to sit and watch it, but nothing was playing.

I also noticed, written on the side of the teepee, Bible verses. I think there were six verses all the way around, and I only remember that one was from the Book of Jonah. A testimonial teepee? Whose idea was it? Inspired by a verse in Leviticus? (There must be something about teepees in there, or Israelite tents in the shape of teepees, and rules for their construction.) (St. Paul, if I remember right, was a teepee maker.)

Anyway, we left with our half-peck of apples and I my Bible lesson. It was a good day trip.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Pok Fu Blog.

Another warm weekend. It’s all I can do to sit in front of the iMac and transcribe from old papers. Actually, it’s easier after dark, since the nights are becoming chilly, as if to remind the days that in a post-equinox environment, they need to think about cooling down too.

September 20, 1990.

My very first impressions of Hong Kong –- not counting a blurry late-night ride from the airport -– was Pok Fu Fa Yuen in the morning. My hosts’ apartment was one of many hundreds in this residential complex on the west side of Hong Kong Island, comprised of at least a dozen straight-up concrete towers, 30 or so stories each, connected by brick plazas, long sidewalks, a couple of roads, and tall curving staircases what lead you to –- more staircases. The place is a modernist vision of about 1970, sporting serious coats of soot on its walls, with hundreds of families’ laundry dangling out of the windows of even the highest floors.

Kathy and Jos, my hosts, led me through the complex that first morning to a bus stop that formed the transit nexus of Pok Fu Fa Yuen. A number of gray-green double-decker buses idled there, occasionally farting black smoke. Even this early in the game, I was getting used to that peculiar smell of Hong Kong, pungent Chinese cooking-pot odors mixed with faint whiffs of rotting food and exhaust. Commuters dressed for office jobs, mostly Chinese with a sprinkling of white faces, waited in clusters or queued alongside the buses.

“That’s your bus,” Kathy told me. “Here’s some small change.” She handed me some coins, including a few HK$2, a flower-petal disc I soon grew fond of.

“Where do I get off?” I asked.

“Just ride it to the end of the line.” Just then my bus grunted and people started to get on. I joined them.

“Get ready for the ride of your life,” Jos called after me.

It was an exaggeration, but not by much. Still, my ride on China Motor Bus No. 37 to Central Hong Kong was my real introduction to the city. One of the satisfactions of a new city is figuring out all the ways to get around. Hong Kong has the pleasure of a multitude of systems, and I did them all: bouncy, see-it-all bus rides; urban trams, or sardine cans on wheels in rush hours; subways, which always meant long walks through windy corridors and near-endless escalator rides; the well-known Star Ferries with their terrific views of the skylines of Victoria and Kowloon both; and even the cog railway up the side of Victoria Peak. I also took taxis from time to time, which are startlingly cheap, and convenient too, provided you know your destination in Cantonese.

The No. 37 bus takes you along the western rim of Hong Kong Island, overlooking the sea out to Lamma Island and a clutch of lesser islands. You pass gas stations and construction sites and a cemetery sloping down away from the road. And more construction. A construction site is a construction site, but if you look closely enough, you notice bamboo scaffolding.

Before long, No. 37 turns onto a smaller street for the descent into Central. The shops and midrise flats and Chinese signs are practically in your face. People and their possessions are everywhere. Most of the buildings are aging concrete, ugly and dim and defaced with iron bars. But the essential ugliness of the place isn’t oppressive, somehow, because of the life flowing onto the streets. Businessmen and day labors and women and children are all out among each other, smoking cigarettes, buying mystery meats from the butchers’ racks, dodging traffic and smoking more cigarettes. I have this persistent image, even now, of a shopkeeper I saw on the same corner in the same chair in the same position every time I went by. He sagged in belly and in face, and always hung a cigarette carelessly from the outer edge of his mouth.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Quasi-summer blog.

Been warm all month, against all expectations when August ended. Reached about 80 F every day this week, which, when I could squeeze the time out of my workday, I enjoyed by walking around downtown.

Besides the warmth, there was the fringe benefit of running into a former co-worker, a fine chap I see only once a year or even less. This time around he told me he has a new son (four months old), his first child, and even showed me a picture of the baby on his cell phone.

Another day, I overheard as I passed two men walking near my office: “So, does your uncle have that taxidermist on speed-dial?”

One of them said that, and that was all I heard. The rest of the conversation couldn’t have been as interesting as that. Serendipitous eavesdropping.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Chilpancingo blog.

Our waiter today, Raoul, from a town north of Mexico City, had great poise. At the end of lunch, he told us in loving detail about some of the other specialties of the house, things we hadn’t tried. There were a great many such items, since Chilpancingo Restaurante changes its dinner menu every two weeks. That was enough to get my attention. Apparently, the chef, one Guerrero Generoso “Geno” Bahena, draws inspiration from regionally specialties all over Mexico, some from each of that country’s 31 states, according to Raoul.

Chilpancingo, also the name of the state capital of Guerrero on the Pacific coast, is in Chicago’s River North district, in part of a renovated warehouse. I was sitting with two business associates at this lunch, near one of the front windows, so I didn’t get a good look at the full sweep of the place -- a bright explosion of Mexican artwork hanging against dark paneling and bricks -- until I went to the men’s room. Even there, the walls featured paintings: an Hispanic Venus, nude; a still life of ingredients in Mexican cuisine; and what this Anglo can only describe as a leering yellow Aztec demon-head, looking down on the urinals.

“Do you serve grasshoppers?” I asked Raoul.

“We do, señor. We don’t have them on the menu right now, but sometimes we do.” He didn’t betray any surprise at a question like that. Maybe he’s heard it before; or maybe his professionalism didn’t allow it.

He went on to say that growing up he would have never eaten grasshoppers, but since he’d started working at Chilpancingo about three years ago, he’d tried many dishes native to parts of Mexico other than his own.

Today I had a chicken mole. Mediocre mole, I’ve discovered, isn’t very pleasant at all, but this was superb. It seems that chef Geno has a reputation as a mole master. As for grasshoppers in regional Mexican cooking, a few regions at least, I’d read about it years ago, and the idea has intrigued me since. One of these days, I’ll eat them too. Today wasn’t the day, but now I know such a thing is possible here in Chicago.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

NE-IA-SD wrap blog.

Time to finish posting about my short meanderings on the Great Plains with a few odds and ends, as I usually do. For instance: In writing about the capitol of Nebraska, interesting as a building mainly because it was built in the 1920s, I forgot to mention the unicameral system of government that Nebraska practices. Among the several states, 49 practice bicameralism. Nebraska stands alone, the consequence of a reform movement in the 1930s to streamline state government that did not sweep the nation. The members of its single legislative chamber are, incidentally, called Senators. The state isn’t noticeably deficient in governmental services, so it seems that unicameralism works well enough for Nebraska.

I saw an assortment of worthwhile presentations at the conference I attended, a meeting of the Mid-American Economic Development Council. As usual, the oddball facts lingered with me the most. I learned, for instance, that LeMars, Iowa, calls itself the Ice Cream Capital of the World. Wells Dairy operates there, making Blue Bunny brand ice cream at (I think) five facilities in that town. An ice-cream company town. That’s a kind of ice cream I didn’t know before, but apparently it’s a strong independent brand.

The best speaker at the conference was a man who specializes in finding places for companies to build call centers. This is an economic development issue of some weight in the Plains states. I asked him afterwards if he thought call centers had a future in the United States. He started to describe in some detail the segmentation of that industry, but then cut himself off and said, “The short answer to your question is yes.”

Which was good to hear. I’ve spoken to some very pleasant customer service reps, and while I don’t begrudge India or Ireland some of those jobs, some of them ought to be here.

Speaking of jobs, road radio in Nebraska-Iowa-South Dakota was its usual mix of genre and curious local brands, nothing especially noteworthy this time, except for the loud and clear tejano station (probably) out of Omaha. That can mean only one thing: a Mexican population. Sure enough, when I mentioned this to our correspondent Bill, he said that a lot of Mexicans worked in the region’s meat-packing industry, true to the tradition of immigrants doing dirty and dangerous jobs in that industry (see also, The Jungle).

I-29 from Sioux City to Omaha isn’t a bad drive at all. Not quite the visual interest of U.S. 75 on the way up, but alongside the road there were long stretches of sunflowers, fully arrayed to the sun and a pleasure to the eye, even at 75 mph (the speed limit in those parts, by the way).

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

What if Lewis & Clark kept a blog?

Siouxland’s claim to historic fame rests on the fact that Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery passed by on their way to Pacific, and on their way back again. Small wonder, since the Missouri River was their highway deep into the interior, as it would be for any rational explorer. Not only did the explorers pass this way, but they also suffered the only fatality of the entire expedition (a marvel, that) very near what would later become Sioux City, Iowa. A Kentuckian named Charles Floyd, known to history as Sgt. Floyd for his rank in the Corps, came down with what Clark called “Biliose Chorlick” in August 1804.

From Clark’s journal: “Sergeant Floyd much weaker and no better... Floyd as bad as he can be no pulse & nothing will stay a moment on his Stomach or bowels. Floyd Died with a great deal of Composure, before his death he Said to me, ‘I am going away I want you to write me a letter.’ We buried him on the top of the bluff. 1/2 Mile below [is] a Small river to which we Gave his name, He was buried with the Honors of War much lamented, a Seeder post with the Name Sergt. C. Floyd died here 20th of august 1804 was fixed at the head of his grave. This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and Determined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor to himself. after paying all the honor to our Decesed brother we camped in the Mouth of floyds River about 30 yards wide, a butiful evening”

Modern medical opinion holds that the unfortunate Sgt. Floyd had a ruptured appendix, a good many decades before that was anything other than a death sentence. These days his bones are memorialized by an obelisk on the outskirts of Sioux City. I didn’t have time to stop by and pay my respects to Sgt. Floyd, but I caught a glance of the obelisk from I-29 as I drove back to Omaha. It’s hard to miss. One source claims that it’s the nation’s second-tallest obelisk, shorter only than the Washington Monument.

I did, however, drop by the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, on the Iowa side of the Missouri River across from my hotel, very near the bridge between Sioux City and South Sioux City. What caught my attention there was the center’s flag, an enormous 15-star, 15-stripe U.S. flag, big as some of those flags you see over car or mobile home dealerships, flying briskly from a tall pole that day. Near the flagpole is a slightly larger-than-life bronze of Lewis, Clark and their faithful dog, Seaman. The center itself is a small but well-appointed museum. My favorite exhibit was an amimatronic L&C, the two figures discussing the melancholy fate of Sgt. Floyd. It's rampant Disneyfication, I tells ya!

If I remember right, the Corps of Discovery carried a 15-star, 15-stripe flag with them, which made me wonder: weren’t there more than 15 states by 1804? Indeed, Ohio had become the 17th state in 1803. However, it took a while for the idea of adding stars to the flag right away to catch on, reflecting a refreshing early 19th-century casualness in these matters, something like Clark’s approach to spelling. It turns out that Congress added the two stars and two stripes in 1795, but didn’t revise things again until 1818, when it raised the total to 20 stars, and pared away the extra stripes.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Siouxland blog.

Sioux City, Iowa, is across the Missouri River from South Sioux City, Nebraska, where I stayed two weeks ago. A few miles away on the Big Sioux River is North Sioux City, South Dakota. The area doesn’t include Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or, it seems, very many Sioux Indians, Lakota, Dakota or Nakota, who live elsewhere, though not all that far away. According to the radio, and the tourist materials I saw, the Sioux City-South Sioux City-North Sioux City area plus their counties are called “Siouxland.” Nomenclature is such fun.

The big wheel of the area –- relatively speaking –- is Sioux City, where has about 85,000 people. I got a look at its downtown after I arrived, as well as the next day after my excursion into SD. It’s a modest place, with a mix of a few fine old blocks, a couple of minor modernist monstrosities, and a run of structures in between, at least in aesthetic terms. It even has a “warehouse district” –- one block, Historic Fourth St. I think –- of renovated buildings, once places of work, now places of entertainment. Restaurants, mostly, some of which doubled as music venues. Even on a weekday, downtown Sioux City isn’t teeming with pedestrians, or car traffic either. Maybe it did 50 years ago, but not anymore.

If I’d known about Historic Fourth the first night I was there, I would have gone there to eat (as I did the second night, to some satisfaction). I’d neglected to do any research on eateries, so I struck out on my own a little after dark, trusting to chance. I drove up and down a couple of major arteries, and besides fast food –- I always try to do better on an expense account –- my choices eventually boiled down to Chili’s or a Mexican restaurant I’d never heard of.

Naturally I gravitated to the Mexican place, whose name was incongruously Irish –- I remember it as Bernardo O’Higgin’s, but that wasn’t it. Anyway, it had all the hallmarks of a chain restaurant: menu, seating, bar and décor all just so (pics of Mexico ca. 1910), but I still couldn’t place it. Ah, well. They served me a decent plate of enchiladas, which, if you think about it, is a small marvel in its own right, there in the deepest heart of North America.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Rokko and more blog.

This has been a fine summer weekend so far, which just happens to be three weeks into meteorological autumn. Yesterday we were out and about a lot, right up the border with Wisconsin, about which I might make note of here sometime soon. But for now, it’s notes from other Septembers.

September 16, 1991.

I make a point these days of taking day trips outside of Osaka every Friday or Saturday. Saturday before last the charter members of the Tennoji Research Society, which consists of me, two Australians and a Scotsman, left our urban haunts for Mt. Rokko, one of a selection of short green mountains Kobe City’s backside. Some of the mountains are developed – into resorts, a few patches that pass for golf courses, and assorted other odd spots.

We chanced upon one of the odd spots. It was -- and this isn't quite the right term, for there isn’t one -- a recreational obstacle course. Was it an ironman exercise facility? A vision of hell for the slothful? Can’t say, but I can note that it consisted of 40 obstacles, mostly built of rope and logs, over which you crawled, climbed, clawed or otherwise made your way across. A simple one involved walking across the butt end of logs, which were stuck into the ground at various heights, guided by a pair of parallel ropes for handholds. Something more complex involved walking over a mesh of rope -- not too tight a mesh, either, and swaying under your weight -- this time guided by parallel logs.

Dominic, who at 25 has the exuberance of 15, did one after the other without hesitation. Matt and Simon were less thorough. I skipped most of them, but wore myself out anyway. Still, we all had a fine time and were so tired by the course that we cut short the hike along the side of Rokko, our original purspose. We did get some hiking in, though, and caught a vista of Osaka Bay all the way from Kobe to Wakayama, including the spot where an artificial island is under construction to be the new Kansai International Airport. From that vantage, we noticed a layer of haze clinging to the area below, and that made us draw breath with an appreciation of how much cleaner the air was up there.

The day before yesterday I went to the Kishiwada Matsuri [Festival]. The main event is masses of people dragging very heavy carts by very thick ropes, cart and human alike decorated lavishly in a distinctively Japanese way, through the streets of the city, round corners at a fairly high clip, with men on top of the carts dancing -- or at least gyrating. A good show. But lunch was the day’s real treat, maybe because it was unexpected. A friend’s friend invited us to her house for lunch, which turned out to be a feast of things nine out ten Westerners wouldn’t eat. Me, I’m the tenth Westerner, so I ate it all, various cuts of sushi, bamboo shoots, an assortment of unidentifiables, blobs of this and stacks of that. I was displeased only by one item. Now, I wish I could remember the names of all these things.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Loess blog.

Last Thursday, after my professional obligations were done for the day, I had only a small sliver of the afternoon to myself, so I decided to do two things, both involving my rental pickup, with me behind the wheel. It was a good day for it, warm and clear, and the roads were good too. I’m used to the crowded roads of Chicagoland. Up in Siouxland –- as the greater Sioux City, Iowa, is called –- they felt practically empty.

The first goal: South Dakota. Very easy, this goal, since all I had to do was cross the Missouri, get on I-29 north and drive about two miles. My motivation was completely arbitrary: I’d never been to South Dakota before. So that afternoon it became the 45th state of the union that I have visited. (Remaining: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina.)

The extreme southeast part of South Dakota looks like a little appendix hanging off the rest of that boxy state. I followed the interstate up this appendix, turned west and made it as far as Vermillion, home of a branch of the University of South Dakota. After that, I headed back east, but not via the interstate this time.

Instead, I crossed back into Iowa at a hamlet called Richland, and went south on Iowa 12 –- a section of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, which took me back to Sioux City, all of about 20 miles. I saw only two or three other cars on that stretch, so I was free to enjoy the road as it followed the Big Sioux River on the right, and hills on the left. Scenic is a good term for it. Hard to describe, though, except that you couldn’t call the hills rolling or steep. Most were wooded, none very tall, and some were oddly –- irregularly –- peculiarly shaped.

From “…to really appreciate the Loess Hills Scenic Byway, you need to know a little history. Thousands of years ago, active glaciers covered much of the northern United States. When these glaciers melted, fine silt particles were exposed. Eventually, strong windstorms blew these silt particles, or loess (pronounced luss), into mounds several hundred feet thick on both sides of the river valley. This natural phenomenon only occurs in two places in the world - the Yellow River Valley of China and western Iowa. So a trip along the Loess Hills Scenic Byway may be your chance of a lifetime to see the rare and unusual land formations and plant and animal life found on the Byway.”

So there you have it. Geologically, Iowa has something rare in common with China. Full of surprises, that Iowa.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Byways blog.

Before I drive someplace new, I consult maps. I know people, highly educated people no less, who would no more do this than sacrifice a goat or two to ensure a safe journey. I can’t fathom that turn of mind, since maps are my friends.

So I consult my friends before I go, several if possible, though my default map of choice is the Rand McNally Road Atlas. I buy a new one almost every year. A few years ago, however, I also picked up a brand-new, first-edition Michelin North America Road Atlas. Rand McNally is organized by state, which is comforting in a way, but can lead to distortions -- Rhode Island, for instance, gets a whole page, but so do the much larger Idaho, Louisiana and Mississippi, for example, and Alaska for that matter, though that state isn’t long on macadam. Michelin divides the continent into rectangles, disregarding state borders.

I was examining the Michelin map covering the junction of Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota a few weeks ago, ahead of my recent trip to that part of the country, and noticed a road -- a actually a meandering set of minor roads in western Iowa, including Iowa 12, Iowa 987, L20 (a county road?), Iowa 183, Iowa 127 and others -- outlined in purple. I hadn’t noticed that marking before, so I checked the master key and found out that it designates a National Scenic Byway.

This was a new term for me. Naturally I called on Mr. Google to help me find out more, and it took me to Among other things, I learned that: “The National Scenic Byways Program is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. The program is a grass-roots collaborative effort established to help recognize, preserve and enhance selected roads throughout the United States. Since 1992, the National Scenic Byways Program has provided funding for almost 1500 state and nationally designated byway projects in 48 states. [Two states, alas, must not be scenic at all. Or maybe they’re standing up for states’ rights in this matter. ] The U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognizes certain roads as All-American Roads or National Scenic Byways based on one or more archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.”

In other words, there’s a little part of the federal government that acknowledges nifty drives. Speaking now as someone who shares his income with the federal government, I think that’s a fine idea. However many pennies I pay into this program annually is worth it, if it results in purple lines on maps that direct me to excellent drives.

Certainly I got my money’s worth this year. Further investigation revealed that this particular purple line was the Loess Hills Scenic Byway. It’s a fairly long route, and my schedule didn’t allow me to drive it all. But I did manage a section of it, more about which tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

U.S. 75 North blog.

Time to leave the resplendent confines of the capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska, and hit the road. Besides the short shot between Omaha and Lincoln, I had other driving to do on this trip, and was I determined to make the most of it.

The cheerful young woman at the Enterprise rental car desk at Eppley Airfield offered me an array of really big vehicles to drive, for only a dollar a day more. This is a way to win customer loyalty. It works. She listed the available vehicles, a fairly long list, but I had trouble picturing them in my mind as she went along, since I’m not fluent in car typology. So I took a stab in the dark.

I picked a Silverado, a vanity pickup. It was light silver, this Silverado, with a spacious truck bed that was completely useless for my purposes, since I put my bags in the space behind the driver’s seat, had no need to haul heavy equipment to Sioux City, and didn’t hit a deer en route that needed to go to a taxidermist. It had a fine sound system and a stylish instrument panel, but no gun rack. For such a large thing, the Silverado handled reasonably well, but perhaps shock-absorber technology hasn’t advanced enough to smooth the ride for such a massive agglomeration of glass, steel and plastic. Even little bumps in the road tended to shoot vibes upward into the cab, whump-a-whump-a-whump.

U.S. 75 roughly follows the Nebraska bank of the Missouri River, and I followed that road northward through Blair, Herman, Tekamah, Decatur, and into the Omaha Indian Reservation, which sits like a bottom brick under the brick-shaped Winnebago Indian Reservation, whose main town is Winnebago. The route was a mix of farms, with the crops sometimes following the contours of low-rise hills (I also saw this in western Iowa, from the plane). Much was corn, now harvested, browning stalks still standing; some was soy; and occasionally I would pass a field of yellow. Sunflowers? I couldn’t tell, and didn’t investigate. But it was a pretty haze of distant gold.

Now and then pastureland appeared, or woodlands. None of the hills were especially high, but they had just enough shape to distinguish this drive from many of the flatland routes of the Midwest. The road did not, however, climb hills and offer sudden curves, like Missouri 94, which I drove in the spring (see April 6, 2004). It was a more modestly curving path through more modest hills.

The rural parts of the Indian Reservations looked exactly the same as the non-Indian lands, with a mix of farms and woods. According to 2000 Census Bureau numbers, Winnebago has a population of 768, with about 92% listed as Indians, and probably the other 8% work for the BIA. I noticed a few details as I drove through, such as a new Indian Health Service hospital under construction, in fact nearly finished. Also, the high school looked precisely like any other Midwestern high school, down to the football field uprights. But my favorite sight was a public service billboard upon entering the town: “Keep the Rez Clean. Don’t Litter.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Meiere blog.

So there I was in the Nebraska state capitol, standing on a work of fine art. It isn’t often you can plant your feet on such exquisite hand-made images, and it’s perfectly acceptable to do so. The capitol owes its artistry to a number of people, including architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue; sculptor Lee Lawrie; Hartley B. Alexander, “thematic consultant for inscription and symbolism” (according to; and Hildreth Meiere, tile and mosaic designer for both works on the floor and the ceiling.

Many of the capitol’s visuals are impressive, but I was most taken with Meiere’s murals, which she designed at the time of construction in the 1920s. According to “The theme of the Foyer is the ‘Life of Man.’ On the floor are three mosaics which represent the Earth: ‘The Spirit of the Soil,’ ‘The Spirit of Vegetation’ and ‘The Spirit of Animal Life.’

The photos on that web site, unfortunately, do these works no justice. They’re flights of art deco fantasy, capturing landforms and plants and animals and human (spirit?) figures in muted hues of absolute clarity. But that wasn’t my first thought. As I looked down, I thought, Electrolux. Ivory Soap. The murals reminded me of ads in far-back numbers of Time and Life and Look and Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, for products long gone; ads rich in deco visuals and expository text, the sort of thing I discovered in the stacks at the Vanderbilt library 50 years after their heyday. I suspect, of course, that fine artists such as Meiere influenced commercial artists more than vice versa, but with Style Moderne, you can’t be sure.

Put Hildreth Meiere into Google, and you’ll get a fair number of hits, some by sites describing the Nebraska state capitol, others produced by art scholars. I quote from an abstract of a dissertation by one Jean Sharer, "Hildreth Meiere, American Muralist." University of New Mexico, August 2001.

“Hildreth Meiere (1892-1961) was a mural artist of some renown during her lifetime. A large body of her work remains in public view on and in buildings such as the Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln, the St. Louis Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, and St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan. Meiere's designs, ranging from traditional historical realism to Art Deco…

“Designing for mosaic, ceramics, metal, stained glass, and frescos, she was commissioned by mainstream architects for projects on buildings associated with the East Coast upper-middle class. … neither avant-garde nor consistently conservative, Meiere's murals, numbering well over a hundred, often represented the middle ground of American modern style in architectural projects, from churches to World's Fairs to public buildings to skyscrapers.”

Monday, September 13, 2004

NE capitol blog.

I heard two things about the state capitol in Nebraska last week, both from people who presumably know it well, and both more or less at odds with the other. Life is rife with petty contradictions like this, mostly irresolvable, but I’ll pass it along just the same.

I flew to Omaha last Wednesday, and the first order of business was to drive to Lincoln, only about 60 smooth-driving miles away, down I-80. Clouds were sparse, the sun high, the air warm, and the roads not especially crowded, at least compared to the traffic muck I regularly drive through in metro Chicago. I got into Lincoln in time to meet one of my magazine’s correspondents –- he covers greater Omaha for us –- for lunch.

Later in the day, I planned to drive to South Sioux City, Nebraska, for a conference the next day. That left a window in my schedule just big enough to see the Nebraska state capitol, which happened to be across the street from our correspondent’s office. After lunch, I entered the massive structure, and lucked into a tour that was just starting.

The tour guide was a petite black woman, about my age, who clearly loved the capitol. She knew it well, too –- some fact or observation or story about the enormous stones used to build it, the epic murals on the walls, the famous Nebraskans bronzed here and there, the ornate ceilings and fixtures, and –- what I marveled at the most –- the intricate mosaics on the floors. She had a smooth voice, almost fit for smooth jazz radio, and I could have listened to her for hours as she breezed from subject to subject with hardly a pause. As it was, I had about 30 minutes.

At one point, she discussed the fact that the two previous capitols had had short lives as buildings. That made the Nebraska legislature of the late 1910s authorize a much sturdier structure. “It was estimated when it was built that this building will last 500 years,” she said with such liquidity, such assured authority that I didn’t wonder about the statement until I was leaving.

About an hour earlier, Bill -- our correspondent –- noted that it was a good thing that the capitol was near the end of a multi-year restoration project, since it had been in bad shape only a few years ago. “For a while, they weren’t sure they’d be able to save it,” he noted. Indeed, work still continues on one side of the structure.

Hm. I don’t think the tour guide was lying, and I think Bill, a veteran newspaperman, had passed along accurate information. On the other hand, perhaps both were exaggerations that produced the effect of contradiction. Maybe it wasn't really about to fall down, and the work being done now is the sort of thing you need to do every century or so. And maybe 500 years was, and is, an optimistic number. How could you test it, short of waiting five centuries? Computer models? They didn’t have those in the 1920s.

Anyway, it’s a long time in human terms. Anything can happen. By ca. 2400, Nebraska could long have been absorbed into the Greater Wisconsin Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hot September blog.

Let’s see. In weather terms, September so far has been like July, August was too much like October, June and July were really April and May, and May itself rained as if a monsoon had come to Illinois. But the relative warmth and dryness of early September has had its advantages for the purpose of being out and about, which I have been recently, to an assortment of new destinations, some fairly close, others with the help of an airplane.

But it’s late on a Sunday, and I’ll soon need to cultivate REM sleep. I want to post something to get the thing started again, but I can’t do much. So as the week unfolds, I’ll take up such subjects as Bob the cremator, the ghosts of Pullman, the Electrolux ads on the floor of the Nebraska state capitol, the deafening sound of crickets and grasshoppers at a brand-new Catholic shrine, how Lewis and Clark became a cottage industry in Siouxland -- with a sidebar on the fate of poor Sgt. Floyd -- the Loess Scenic Byway, an appendix of South Dakota, and more. This may take more than a week.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Blogs of ’99.

NO BLOGGING on Labor Day, and for that matter all of next week. But there will be much to report after that, beginning around Saturday.

One more item dragged out of the past, in this case five years ago, back when the Y2K bug had already been talked to death. If I remember right, I typed up these words late one Friday afternoon, just before catching a train home. I wasn’t reporting on the day’s events, but musing about even earlier incidents.

September 10, 1999

Friday afternoon has come and the whole staff is away, except me. Makes the office more or less quiet. The phone has stopped ringing and the e-mails have quit coming. Yesterday, the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninety-ninth year Gregorian & anno Domini has come and gone, without perceived incident.

Next week, the calendar will catch up with bad science fiction, as it has a lot this decade. (Another example, the launching of Lost in Space’s Jupiter II in 1997.) According to the long-forgotten Space: 1999, the opening events of the series occurred on September 13, 1999. How do I remember this? It's the kind of memory I have; perhaps the peg that I hang that useless fact on is that the premiere of the show was on September 13, 1975, and I saw it.

I was interested in that show for about a month, by which time its ridiculous plots (e.g., passing through a black hole & thereby conversing with God, or Somebody), wooden acting and other annoyances (everybody in 1999 wears pajamas all the time) were all too clear. Besides, I was drawn away by the original Saturday Night Live, which premiered in October of the same year. Luckily, a few years after that I quit watching much TV on Saturday nights, when I started hanging out with assorted eccentrics in high school.

Postscript, 2004. It turned out that not everybody in the future wears pajamas. But the prognosticators weren’t that far off. Now that the 21st century has actually arrived, it seems that t-shirts, shorts and baseball caps are the dress of our time. I don’t think, however, that anyone was predicting the future popularity of tattoos, which 30 years ago were for servicemen and criminals.

I saw the first episode of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975. I tuned in 30 minutes late, and the very first bit I saw was a spoof of an AT&T commercial. (Reminder to younger readers: that was the phone company at the time.) The advertising slogan to encourage long distance useage was “long distance is the next best thing to being there.” In the spoof, two men were clearly living together as more than mere roommates, and one of them called his mother. The slogan: “Long distance, the next best thing to being her.”

I thought, that’s odd. Was that a real commercial? No…

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Nauvoo blog.

Some Labor Day weekends, I’ve traveled. Others, like this year, have been spent close to home. Seven years ago, while Yuriko was large with child, we drove westward to see a place I’d read about.

Labor Day Weekend, 1997.

We had a fine time out “west” over the Labor Day weekend. We made it as far west as Iowa, briefly, but the main focus was getting to Nauvoo, Illinois, perched way west on the banks of the Mississippi. But the first day we stopped at a place called Bishop Hill, which itself was the site of a religious commune in the 1840s and ’50s, home to a good many Swedish immigrants that followed a charismatic Swede. Alas, he died and there was no one to take his place, unlike certain other cults that flourished around that time and later went to Utah, so they parceled out the commonly held lands to cult members in the 1860s. About a hundred years later, their descendants became interested in restoring some of the town’s buildings, which have their charms. The church was nice in a sort of plain way, and the hotel was a fine example of 1850s Midwest architecture.

The next day, we made it to Nauvoo and ran right into the Grape Festival. It seems that one of modern Nauvoo’s industries is winemaking. The upshot was that a parade made it hard to drive through town, so we checked into our motel and swam in the indoor pool while everybody else sweated in the high-humidity heat. It was the last day of August, and almost the only 90°+ day in the whole month (the day before might have been as well). It was on the TV at the motel in the late afternoon we heard the news of former princess Diana’s unfortunate demise. It’s always a little unsettling when you hear about someone almost precisely your age who dies. (I was born about three weeks before her, which I didn’t realize before.)

By the time the parade was over and we’d had lunch, the historical sites of Nauvoo were closing up for the day, so we saw them the next morning before we left town. Such places as Joseph Smith’s house and the hotel he built just before the people of Illinois offed him and his brother. Smith’s grave is there too. It all overlooks a picturesque bend in the Mississippi.

All in all, Nauvoo was worth seeing, even worth crossing a couple of hours of corn and soybean fields to see. It’ll be the last trip of any length for a while, I figure.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Heeeerrrreee you blog!

It finally feels like summer hereabouts, reaching the upper 80s today along with a measure of humidity, just in time for the beginning of meteorological fall –- September, October and November, a definition I like better than one that hinges on the equinox. Gradually, though, the trees are touched with yellow and brown, and the daylight is dwindling, so this is a passing heat.

A more human sign of fall is in the park next to Lilly’s school, which we can see from our back yard. Amateur and pickup baseball (the park has a couple of diamonds) have given way to pee-wee football practice most nights. Some parents and siblings watch the proceedings, and it creates a minor festive atmosphere.

Both of my regular readers will recall that the subject of manually operated elevators came up a little while ago, when I chanced on one in Minneapolis. In response to that, my cousin Jay in Mississippi e-mailed me the following.

“I can remember elevators with operators in some of the magnificent retail emporiums in Meridian, Mississippi, when I was growing up. There were, of course, no buildings with elevators, except probably the three-story hospital (which, not being a sickly type, I never entered) in my hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

“Here in Jackson, I can remember automated elevators with operators in the Woolfolk state office building. I asked a friend who worked there about them, and he told me that they were charity cases -- persons who could manage that small job but nothing more -- who had somehow gotten on the payroll. I don’t know if they were state employees who had been injured in some manner, or if they were the governor's cousins.

“One of them was enthusiastically cheerful. If a passenger said ‘three, please,’ he would announce, ‘Floor three! Heeeerrrreee we go!’ On arrival he would announce ‘Heeeerrrreee you are!’

“The building was completely remodelled several years ago and I believe that the human operators are no longer there.”

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Warm day, cool drive blog.

One of the coolest drives in the Chicago area isn’t very long, but it makes up for it with visuals that are unpredictable, occasionally startling. I had the opportunity to drive this stretch of road today, twice, once eastbound in the late morning, and once westbound in a completely different lighting, with the sun almost straight ahead in the late afternoon. I wasn’t startled today, but the potential was there, and I enjoyed the drive.

Today I went to a part-day convention at a hotel in Rosemont, Illinois, which is a burg adjacent to O’Hare International Airport. From where I live, the best way to get there was to eschew the highways and follow a four-lane, sometimes two-lane road called Irving Park. If I followed it eastward all the way to its end, I would come to Lake Shore Drive in the city of Chicago; in other words, to Lake Michigan. Irving Park is an east-west street most of the way through the city, but bends northwest near O’Hare, passing near my home at one point. It’s one of the major roads I cross on foot most mornings, so it’s less than a mile from where I live.

One detail that never ceases to amaze me is that it’s called by the same name, Irving Park, not only within Chicago, but through a dozen or more suburbs. It’s not alone in that regard, either. Several major Chicago roads retain their names outside the city, especially as you go west or northwest –- such as North Avenue, Cermak, Ogden and Roosevelt.

A short section of Irving Park skits the southern edge of O’Hare closely. Next to the road, there’s a strip of weeds and grass sporting a fence crowned with barbed wire, and on the other side of the fence is the airport grounds. The road bends, so for a while it’s parallel to one of the airport’s shorter runways. Elsewhere, the road is perpendicular to that runway. O’Hare is a busy airport, so as you’re driving this part of Irving Park -- the cool part -- the odds of seeing an airplane close up and in motion are pretty good. There’s also the chance that you’ll see one really close, as it flies over the road on its final approach, or moments after take off. In that case, planes look huge and seem to appear out of nowhere, just ahead of their whooooosh! Can be startling.

I didn’t encounter a plane quite that closely today, though was able to follow the track of a Fedex plane as it took off. I also noticed that no one was parked beside the road. Once upon a time, back in the late 1990s in fact, I noticed a handful of cars parked next to the road, so that the people inside could watch the planes fly over. Plane-spotting, I guess. I suspect that if you did that now, some form of authority, local cops or TSA, would come tell you to get lost.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Medal count blog.

September 1st has long had some resonance with me, maybe because it’s the exit signpost for summer, and the gate to a new school year, even though school seldom started exactly on that day, and even though I haven’t been a student of any kind for more than 20 years.

I had time today for a look at Monday’s Chicago Tribune, which published its final section on the Olympics. (I am often a few days behind in looking at newspapers.) Throughout the entire Games, the paper keep a running tally of medals won by the six nations that led in that regard, front and center on the first page of the Olympic special section (the US, Russia, China, Australia, Germany, Japan).

TV yammerers would have us believe that the final big story is that Team USA scooped up 100+ bits of Olympic glory. Certainly that’s an achievement of a high order, though I believe more for the individuals involved rather than their nations. But even if you insist on comparing nations, I don’t think the American totals or the Chinese totals are the real news.

After all, in the first case, it’s the United States you’re talking about -- nearly 300 million of us, with a history of kicking butt in all kinds of activities. As for China, you’re talking about a despotic government aching for international athletic laurels and more than a billion people as raw material. Of course China’s going to pile up the medals, just as the Soviet Union used to. Even more in 2008, probably.

Japan, population about 126 million, exceeded all expectations, winning 37 all together. We followed that count pretty closely over the last two weeks, and Lilly was prone to cheer for the Japanese athletes. But the amazing Olympic effort this time was Australia. With a population just shy of 20 million, it took home 49 medals.

Compare the per capita medal counts (something I didn’t see in the papers). Roughly speaking, since I’m going to round things off. Australia bagged one medal per 444,000 people. The United States only got one per 2.8 million. And China brought home only one per 15.8 million. Thought of this way, Australia rules.

I also enjoy poking around the bottom of the medal table, seeing which nations only got one, period. One gold only: Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Ireland, the UAE. One silver only: Hong Kong, India, Paraguay. One bronze only: Columbia. Eritrea, Mongolia, Syria and Trinidad & Tobago.