Archive for 2010

Sweet Mysteries of Youth

12 August 2010
Categories: Narratives

August always makes me think of my childhood, of those fruitful late-summer days spent busy or bored, always struggling to maximize summertime fun against the constant reminders that “Back to School” time was just around the corner. Part of that memory stems from the perennial noise that emits from the trees this time of year. That insistent buzzing-whining drone.

When I was eight, playing in the backyard sandbox, my friend and I heard that sound and wondered what it was. Looking up to the trees and seeing as well the power lines strung along the nearby road, I hypothesized that it was some kind of electrical noise from the wires. My friend wondered why we only hear it in the summer, and I further conjectured that the summer heat caused the wires to leak electricity, or some such.

Hey, to an eight-year-old kid, it was plausible. There’s something special about the age of eight. It’s the age where you have a few years of elementary school under your belt, giving you the sense that you know a bunch of stuff. What you don’t know, you can find out from a friend. And if neither of you have an answer, you can always make one up.

I think my friend might have bought that explanation about buzzing noises caused by leaky wiring. It was a few years before I learned the true cause: cicadas.

Walking the streets of our subdivision (which lacked sidewalks), we would often find these thin, stiff pieces of steel, usually around 5 or 6 inches long, lying near the gutters. Where did they come from? I wondered. A friend’s brother informed me they were car parts, some part of the suspension or leaf springs or brakes or something, and they fell off of older cars.

Again, plausible. They were usually rusty, like the undersides of cars, and I could imagine some old Chevy (or not-so-old Gremlin) hitting a pothole and spewing these strips of metal from its fender wells. But fifteen years later I noticed they were still around. Couldn’t be a car part, I realized. The technology has changed too much for these things to still be as frequent as in my youth. It took very little research to find that they’re bristles from the brushes of street sweepers.

But here’s the greatest mystery—and apocryphal tale—of those long-gone summers.

One day, I and a few friends were patrolling the neighborhood on our bikes. We wandered over to the very edge of my allowed-without-informing-mom-in-advance range. Perhaps a bit further than that, even; I wasn’t 100% sure I knew my way home.

We had reached a point at the eastern edge of town where one of the main avenues crossed a road at the city limits and abruptly changed from a paved thoroughfare to a dusty gravel track that faded into chest-high weeds and grasses. Beyond a rudimentary traffic barricade was a desolate, eerie land of deadly garter snakes and rusty beer cans; of gargantuan tobacco-spitting grasshoppers and dense, impenetrable second- or third-growth woodlots.

As I stood there with my cohort, pondering this unknown realm and whether the reward from its exploration outweighed the risk of getting grounded upon my return, a kid ambled out from the tall grass. He was an older kid, but whether that meant he was 12, or 15, or more, is unclear to me now. Someone in our party knew who he was; a classmate of an older sibling or some such. He approached, stopped, and casually looked us over.

“You know,” he said, with a hint of a grin and a conspiratorial glance over his shoulder, “there’s a nudist colony back in those woods.”

This revelation was dumbfounding. It was so utterly implausible that we launched into the obligatory chorus of “no way” and “yeah right.” He insisted it was true: “I saw it myself.” Naked people frolicking in the woods, he averred, though not in those exact terms. “Go see for yourselves.” And with that idle challenge, he walked away.

Did we meet that challenge? I cannot vouch for my compadres, but I, for one, did not. I figured I was already in enough trouble for straying this far afield. To go beyond that point, in search of a fabled den of iniquity, was inconceivable. My eight-year-old moralism said that if those people were depraved enough to be naked in public, there was no telling of what they might be capable—selling an eight-year-old boy into slavery, perhaps, or (worse yet) stealing his prized purple three-speed banana-seat bicycle. I turned away, and rode home, intrigued but fearful.

Over the years, this mystery stayed in the back of my mind. I sometimes heard further, similar rumors, reinforcing the possibility that a nudist colony really was tucked away amid the trees. Yet by the time I was in high school that area had begun to be developed into a subdivision; the gravel road was replaced by a winding extension of the avenue, and I frequently drove through the area without spying any hint of a naked body or an enclave of debauchery. My gentle skepticism turned to firm doubt.

Finally, when I was in college, I learned the truth: there was indeed—even then—nudity happening out there, but not a “nudist colony” per se. Hidden in what remained of the woods was a deep, roughly rectangular, spring-fed quarry pond. To access it one would park in back of an unremarkable apartment complex, cross over a railroad embankment, and follow a series of unmarked trails that meandered through clearings and skirted low marshes. College students, mostly, used the pond to go skinny-dipping. Those in the know called it Bare-Ass Lake.

In the years since then, the area has continued to be developed, and “Hidden Lake Drive” now passes right by the no-longer-hidden Bare-Ass Lake, stringing together little cul-de-sacs of tidy condominiums. The developer had a sense of humor, however, and left us with a sanitized, punning in-joke: the nearest cul-de-sac is called “Bear Lake Drive.”

Not sure what to make of this

17 June 2010
Categories: Sports

In front of the hugely trendy and popular sports bar in my neighborhood, ESPN has parked a big customized flatbed truck. On the back is a giant LED monitor, airing their coverage of the U.S. Open, plus an up-to-date leaderboard.

Meanwhile, young, attractive ESPN flacks roam the block, carrying those mini-scoreboard-on-a-post things that follow pro groupings around—and those are updated too—while handing out free Pebble Beach 2010 / ESPN towels, the kind with the brass grommet and clip to hook onto a golf bag.

I usually want to boycott those companies that burn fuel to drive a billboard truck around town, or drag a banner behind an airplane trolling up and down the lakeshore… but I have to give these guys a little credit for the conceptual package.

Bridges that separate, bring together

6 May 2010
Categories: Chicago

A year ago today, I posted a rant about Chicago’s movable bridges, and how their infrequent movement seems to lead to unreliable operation. Upon further consideration, I have to change my tune. Not that I’m retracting what I said. I still contend that opening the bridges over the Chicago River more frequently than they do now would be less disruptive in general to street traffic.

But here’s the difference: I have come to think that this disruption is actually a good thing.

Sure, every time a bridge lifts there will be some people stranded, stuck on the wrong side of the river, impatient to cross and get on with their day. So it goes. In all the time I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve never once been seriously inconvenienced by a bridge lift. Sure, there have been times I’ve forgotten it was a lift day, or been surprised by an unscheduled lift, where I’ve turned a corner and discovered an enormous steel wall where I expected a clear passage. Each time, I adjusted my route and found one of umpteen other ways to cross the river and get to where I needed to go. So I can’t say I have a lot of sympathy for those who are too inflexible to find other options, or too uptight simply to relax and enjoy the show.

On Wednesday I watched yet another sailboat flotilla head out to the lake. On this breezy, sunny spring day, there were plenty of people around. As the signal bells clanged, the gates closed, and the bridge raised to the sky, dozens crowded the railing along Wacker Drive near the Michigan Avenue bridge. Tourists raised their cameras. Heck, so did some locals, seeing something different during an otherwise routine lunch break. Down along the new riverwalk, people sat on benches to watch the “big event.” At least half were locals; this was probably not their first time.

There’s a novelty to the movable bridges that doesn’t wear out. As old as the Michigan Avenue bridge is—its admirers will celebrate its 90th year next week—it remains a marvel of engineering. It can be awe-inspiring (and perhaps a little frightening) to stand, as I did, underneath it as it opens. The near-silence with which its motors actuate the spans just adds to the stateliness of its movement.

One moment, you’re underneath a solid expanse of iron, capable of supporting untold numbers of buses, cars, and pedestrians…

…the next moment, you’re looking into the gaping maw of Lower Michigan Avenue, suddenly truncated and hanging out into open space, as the sky opens up above your head and the Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, and other landmarks of the skyline are revealed.

Raise the bridges more often, and it becomes less of an event—a unique, uncommon occasion for people to experience together. As often as I’ve seen the bridges move, I still find the first-timer’s exclamation of “wow! look at that!” to be contagious, and a joy worth catching.

An open reply, not that you deserve it

27 April 2010
Categories: Chicago

Last week the following hand-written postcard was mailed to our home:

You have the ugliest front yard on [this street]—probably in all of Chicago. Garbage all over. Bottes all over. Get your lazy Ukranian asses moving and clean up your garbage dump. It is repulsive. All the other neighbors take pride in the neighborhood. You are absolute pigs.

[All misspellings and emphasis—in purple highlighter, no less—are in the original.]

In what way exactly did you expect us to respond to this angry, hateful, anonymous missive? Did you think we would leap up and run to the yard, tools in hand, and make drastic changes? Tear it all up and put down a nice, even layer of sod? Because truth be told, my initial reaction was to respond to your anger in kind, and decide that under no circumstances would I undertake any effort that might bring you any satisfaction.

Not that I would anyway. You see, the front garden is not my bailiwick—it is under the direction of my septuagenarian mother-in-law. You have attacked a senior citizen. She is, far from being lazy, one of the most hard-working and industrious people you could meet, at any age. Her gardening style may be a bit unconventional, perhaps, and her budget is limited, but her results have been both interesting and beautiful. We offer to help, but more often than not she prefers to do the work herself.

The garden you see is not the result of laziness, it is a work in progress. The “bott[l]es” you mention, unless they were the transitory garbage of passing drunks—a commonality of any urban environment, and something we clean up whenever we see it—were probably the Mason jars that she had upended over the shoots of tender perennials, as impromptu “cold frames” to protect them from late-season frosts. Meanwhile, the area near the street—which is city property—is still recovering from the city workers who cut down a dead tree last year, but left the roots behind. (And who got off their asses and called the city about that tree? Yes. We did.)

Sure, in early spring the lack of grass makes it appear as if nothing is growing there, but that could not be further from the truth. It’s late April now and things are changing rapidly. The ground cover is filling in neatly between plantings. The hostas are sprouting thick and healthy. A neat row of day lilies is getting ready to do its thing. The rhododendrons are blooming now, and the roses will later. All this did not occur without significant effort.

Is our front yard a boring, generic mass of lawn, like that of every other house on the block? No—and I’m glad it’s not. If you want dull, thoughtless uniformity, I know of more than a few suburbs that might suit you.

Your accusation of laziness, and your implication of unneighborliness, are without any merit. Who has stood in the street in drenching rains, working to clear blocked drains along the entire block before the curbs overflow and dump rainwater and sewage into nearby basements—drains that have clogged with debris that remains in the gutters thanks to other residents who have been either too lazy, too self-absorbed, or too oblivious to move their vehicles on street sweeping days? That would be me. To my knowledge only one other neighbor on the block has even attempted to pick up what the street sweeper could not reach.

By the way, we are not Ukrainian; but would be proud if we were, for on the whole they have shown themselves to be good people who have been both friendly and welcoming to us. This neighborhood is called Ukrainian Village for a reason. If you have a problem with Ukrainians, you are most assuredly in the wrong place, and you need to go somewhere else. The sooner the better.

I really only have one question for you. Who has brought more ugliness into the world: my family, with our front yard filled with flowering plants; or you, with your hateful, insulting, race-baiting, poison-pen postcard?

Two appliances, two different design universes

21 April 2010
Categories: Uncategorized

In our office lunch room, we’ve recently had a pair of appliances installed: a coffee maker and a hot/cold water filtration unit. In using both, it struck me how divergent their designs are from each other.

On the right, the fancy filtration unit dispenses both chilled drinking water and hot water for tea, instant soup, etc. As a safety measure, to get hot water from the unit one must push two buttons at once: the red button above the graphic of a steaming glass—and another button labeled “hot safety.”

Of course it’s meant to keep children from scalding themselves. I suppose that justifies its intent, if not its necessity.

As an aside, this safety feature defeated our lead programmer, who is brilliant and intelligent and tech-savvy, but who skipped the hilariously elementary (example: “Take one coffee filter…” [hold filter up for all to see]) orientation session for these appliances.

On the left, the coffee maker will also dispense hot water for tea—via a big, red-handled spigot.

If a child walked up to these two machines, what’s the first thing they’d do? Press the little red button—or pull the big red handle?

I’m not saying the coffee maker’s spigot is unsafe. Not many (if any) children spend time in our offices, so it’s a moot point. And if nothing else it enabled that aforementioned staffer to get hot water for her tea.

The filtration unit is not, however, exempt from my ridicule. See that blue light that shines down on whatever container you’re filling? At first I thought it might be one of those ultraviolet lamps that kill bacteria. Not so. This light is decorative—in fact, it’s not merely decorative, it’s purely decorative.

Why? Because if it had any function at all, it would make a lot of sense, while dispensing hot water, for that light to turn red. But no, it doesn’t. Instead, it’s counterintuitive: dispense piping-hot—nay, scalding—water that glows with a light that stays cool, cool blue.