Birm-Tex ’17

Before spending the last week in San Antonio visiting family, I spent about 36 hours in Birmingham, Alabama, during the first weekend in December. I went there to visit my old friend Dan, whom I hadn’t seen in about 18 years.
That’s too long, as the Wolf Brand Chili man said. See your old friends if you can, because we’re all mortal. I was also fortunate enough to become reacquainted with his wife Pam, whom I’d only met once, more than 20 years ago.

Dan and I had a fine visit, talking of old times and places — we’ve known each other 36 years — but not just that. He grew up in Birmingham and has lived there as an adult for a long time, so he was able to show me around and tell me about the city’s past and about recent growth as an up-and-coming metro. In this, he’s quite knowledgeable.

I’d heard something about that growth, but it was good to see some examples on foot and as we tooled around hilly Birmingham in Dan’s Mini Cooper, which was also a new experience for me. Not to sportiest version, he told me — he’d traded that one for this one he now drives — but it had some kick.

On the morning of Saturday, December 2, we first went to Oak Hill Memorial Cemetery, very near downtown Birmingham, and the city’s first parkland-style burial ground. Dan told me he’d never been there before. Not everyone’s a cemetery tourist. But he took to the place, especially for its historic interest, and he even spotted the names of a few families whose descendants he knows.

From there we drove to Sloss Furnaces, which, as the postcard I got there says, is “the nation’s only 20th-century blast furnace turned industrial museum.” Iron mining and smelting made Birmingham the city that it is. So it was only fitting that we went to Vulcan Park as well, to see the mighty cast-iron Vulcan on his pedestal on a high hill overlooking the city.

Toward the end of the afternoon, I suggested a walk, and so we went to the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, which has 14 miles of hiking trails. More than that, the earth there is honeycombed with former mines, all of which are now sealed. But we got to see the entrance of one of them, dating from 1910.

After all that, we repaired to Hop City Beer & Wine Birmingham, a store that has an enormous selection of beer and wine in bottles, as well as a bar with a large draft selection, where we relaxed a while. Had a cider and a smaller sample of beer that I liked.

Along the way during the day, we also visited Reed Books, a wonderful used bookstore of the kind that’s increasingly rare: owned and run by an individual, and stacked high with books and other things, with only marginal organization. I bought Dan a copy of True Grit, which he’d never read.

We drove through some of Birmingham’s well-to-do areas, sporting posh houses on high hills and ridges along roads that I could make no sense of, twisty and web-like as they were. Luckily, Dan knew them well.

In downtown Birmingham, we also drove by some of the historic sites associated with the civil rights movement, including the new national monument. According to Dan, it would take a day to do the area right, so we didn’t linger. I got a good look at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the A.G. Gaston Motel, where King and others strategized, and Kelly Ingram Park, where protesters were attacked with police dogs and water cannons.

During my visit, I ate soul food, breakfast at a Greek diner — Greek immigrants being particularly important to the evolution of restaurant food in Birmingham, Dan said — excellent Mexican food (mole chicken for me), and a tasty breakfast of French toast and bacon made by Dan and Pam. On the whole, we carpe diem’d that 36 hours.

In San Antonio, as usual, I was less active in seeing things, but one sight in particular came to me. On the evening of Thursday, December 7, I looked out of a window at my mother’s house and saw snow coming down. And sticking. “I’ll be damned,” I muttered to myself.

At about 7:30 the next morning, I went outside to take pictures. Nearly two inches had fallen, according to the NWS. The snow was already melting. A view of the front yard.

Of the back yard.

It occurred to me that hadn’t seen snow on the ground in San Antonio since 1973.

Adios, November

Three yawning months of meteorological winter ahead. That’s what counts for winter: December, January and February. Never mind what anyone says about the solstice. But at least no heavy snow or ice is forecast for now.

Back again to posting around December 10.

What did we do to deserve this sunset? A late November event, as seen from our deck.
On Thanksgiving, the girls and I watched Airplane! on demand. What is it about that movie and its rapid-fire, throw the jokes against the wall to see if they’re funny structure? I’ve watched it a number of times since I saw it when it was new, and it’s funny every time.

Unlike another movie I paid good money to see in 1980: The Hollywood Knights. That was a mistake. So much so that sometime afterward I invented my own personal scale of movie quality: The Hollywood Knights Scale, from zero to some unspecified large number, zero being the worst.

The Hollywood Knights comes in at exactly 0 on my idiosyncratic scale. I’ve seen some bad movies in my time, but that ranking is still valid as far as I’m concerned (though I’d have to put, say, Patch Adams at 0.1).

Not familiar with The Hollywood Knights? Wiki gives a pretty good summation: “The ensuing antics include, among other things, a sexual encounter involving premature ejaculation, a punch bowl being spiked with urine, an initiation ceremony involving four pledges who are left in Watts wearing nothing but the car tires they are left to carry, a cheerleader who forgets to put on her underwear before performing at a pep rally, several impromptu drag races, and the lead character of Newbaum Turk (Robert Wuhl) wearing a majordomo outfit and singing a version of ‘Volare’ accompanied by the sounds of flatulence. Mooning also plays a prominent role in the film…”

None of those things necessarily make the movie unfunny. After all, Airplane! includes jokes about drug abuse, pederasty, oral sex, a sick child, and African-American dialect. There are ridiculous visual gags, such as Ted Striker’s drinking problem or pouring lights on the runway. Punning is rampant (don’t call me Shirley). Yet it all works as a comedy. The writing, directing, acting, timing and entire conceit as a spoof of more serious movies are vastly better than anything The Hollywood Knights did.

Speaking of odd things in movies, this is a still from Animal Crackers.

That’s supposed to be part of an outdoor patio of a lavish home on Long Island. The characters, who are not really that important in the scheme of the comedy, are the wealthy homeowner’s daughter and her honest but poor boyfriend. What caught my eye was that structure behind them.

According to the imdb, the uncredited art director for the firm was the German-born Ernst Fegté, who was working in Hollywood by 1925, and who had a busy career. Now what, I can imagine him thinking, would a wealthy Long Island socialite want for her patio? Something — modern.

The movie was made in 1930. Here’s something else from exactly then, a cover of Radio Listener magazine that I saw at the early Soviet art exhibit at the Art Institute last weekend.

It’s a Peakaboo Stalin. Lenin figured in a fair number of the works, but Stalin was only an up-and-coming character during most of the period. A little like Fonzie, though — pretty soon he’s going to take over the show.

One more thing, and naught to do with movies or the Soviet Union. I took Lilly back to UIUC on Sunday, and en route arranged to take a picture of this roadside attraction in Kankakee. Almost literally roadside, since it’s best seen from I-57.
“28 feet tall, Abe stands in front of a heavy equipment rental lot, and holds signs that promote whatever its owner feels strongly about at the moment,” says Roadside America.

I’ve seen him with a sign, but for the moment he holds none. Just as well, I figure. A sign in Honest Abe’s hands is gilding the lily.

The New Oldest President

This came to my attention the other day. Last Friday, George H. W. Bush became the longest-lived president in U.S. history, at 93 years, 166 days. He bested Gerald Ford — who isn’t getting any older — that day, and topped Ronald Reagan about a month and a half ago. Reagan had the longest-lived distinction for a few years in the early 21st century, and more recently, for about the last 10 years, Ford was the oldest.

Presidential longevity is reaching new heights here in the 21st century. For a very long time, about 175 years, John Adams was the longest-lived president. He famously died on July 4, 1826, aged 90 years, 247 days. Reagan passed him only in 2001.

Now each of the four presidents who followed Richard Nixon have lived to be at least 93, with the elder Bush and Jimmy Carter currently gunning for 94. To reach 93, George W. Bush and Donald Trump would both need to live to 2039; Bill Clinton, to 2040; and Barack Obama, to 2054.

The Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor

Some years ago, the arms and armor gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago, a long hall packed with Medieval and Renaissance arms and armor, but also such artwork as reliquaries, disappeared during a renovation. A permanent exhibit of Indian art, as in the Indian subcontinent, took its place.

Indian art is a fine thing, but I missed arms and armor. Earlier this year, I read that the museum had restored the arms and armor display in a different place, but I was skeptical that it would be as good as the good old hall. I was wrong. The new galleries, collectively known as the Deering Family Galleries of Medieval and Renaissance Art, Arms, and Armor, are better.

An Art Institute press release from March says that the galleries are “the permanent home for nearly 700 objects from the museum’s rich holdings of art from 1200 to 1600, including monumental altarpieces, exquisite jewelry, and the beloved arms and armor collection.

“While much in the collection may be familiar to long time visitors, the installation expands the display of art of this period sixfold and enfolds them in an historically inspired atmosphere and context. The construction of these galleries marks the most ambitious architectural undertaking at the museum since the Modern Wing opened in 2009.”

In the very first gallery, you see the Ayala Altarpiece, dated 1396 and commissioned by Pedro López de Ayala, later chancellor of Castile. The museum spent three years recently restoring the painted wood altarpiece, 24 feet across by eight feet high, and it’s quite a sight.

Also in the first gallery are the likes of a crucifix by the Master of the Bigallo Crucifix, Italian, active about 1225-65.

And “Saint George and the Dragon” by Bernat Martorell, a Spaniard (1434/35).

“The galleries that follow are more intimate, focusing on late Gothic and Renaissance domestic life,” the museum continues. “Luxury goods and accessories for feasting fill one room while another displays works of art for the bedchambers of Tuscany’s merchant elite. Everyday objects from northern Europe, along with jewelry and items of personal display, complete the domestic picture of the period.

“From here, the space opens to the new home of the museum’s expanded arms and armor collection. Filled with weaponry and armor, the display is dominated by two armored figures on horseback — one dressed for battle, the other for sport — and two armed and costumed figures engaged in foot combat.

That’s a kind of armored contest I’d never seen depicted before. Clearly the object of the contest was to knock the other man over without crossing the cross beam, and probably striking below the waist was against the rules.

There were also some good old-fashioned displays of armor in a standing position.
Along with plenty of weapons representing many ways to hack into the other guy.

Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test

After lunch at Shake Shack on Michigan Ave. on Saturday — crowded, but not impossible — we wandered over to the Art Institute. Been a while since we’d been there. I was particularly keen to see Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.

Mounted, I’m sure, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the revolution. Just inside the entrance to the exhibit was the “Lenin Wall.” Lots of Lenin, including a small statue.

Besides that, the exhibit featured paintings, posters, prints, drawings, photos, magazines, film, agitprop ephemera, porcelain, figurines, life-size reconstructions of early Soviet display objects or spaces commissioned especially for the exhibition, and more.

I was glad to see the Suprematist porcelain collection (I. I. Rozhdestvenskaia).
That’s because I used to have a Suprematist-style cup and saucer. Actually, I still have the saucer, but the cup broke long ago.

Remarkably, there was such a thing as Soviet advertising. Or an equivalent. At least early on (1923).
That’s a preliminary design for a Mosselprom building advertisement for cooking oil by Aleksandr Rodchenko, the Constructivist.

The cover of Produce! magazine (Mechislav Dobrokovskii, Sept. 1929).
And the cover of a magazine called Atheist at the Workbench, Jan. 1923 (Dmitrii Moor).
The theme of that cover is “We got rid of the tsars on Earth, let’s deal with the ones in Heaven.”

This is a model of the never-finished Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, whose partly completed structure was cannibalized for raw materials to fight the Nazis. That’s Lenin on top.
Here’s one of a series of 36 small posters extolling gender equality and increased industrial production (1931). All of them pictured women doing one kind of socialist labor or another, and graphs whose trends were always upward.
If there had been a collection of postcards in the gift shop based on these posters, at a reasonable price, I would have bought it. Or a Suprematist tea cup. But no.

State Street ’17

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving this year, I noticed a short item on the web site of the Telegraph, the British newspaper: “Best Tesco Black Friday weekend deals 2017.”
What? Black Friday is a thing in the UK? That big shopping day that’s the Friday after — the fourth Thursday in November? Which, I think, the British call “Thursday.”

Know what the United States needs? Bank holidays. Some of them overlap with U.S. holidays, but we could use a few more, such as the first Monday in June and the first Monday in August.

On Saturday morning we went downtown, taking advantage of above-freezing temps and a clear day. State Street near the store formerly known as Marshall Field’s was well populated with shoppers and the boomba-boomba-boomba of plastic container drumming.

This time of the year you go to that stretch of State Street to see the holiday windows that Macy’s carried on from Marshall Field’s. Two years ago, the windows were creative and pleasant to look at. This year, they were not.

“Generic” is how Ann put it, as in generic holiday scenes, and I agree — not a drop of the creativity of a window that had creatures on the outer planets throwing snowballs at each other.

At least the holiday trumpets were still in place.
The Marshall Field’s restorationists were out with their signs.
Or would they be revanchists? Not sure that applies, since we’re not talking about taking back the Alsace-Lorraine or wherever. Still, the “take back” could be said to be metaphoric, so you could argue that it’s retail revanchism. As far as I know there’s no specific term for agitating for the restoration of a name.

Or a name change. Maybe there should be such a term, considering that former slaveholders not named Washington or Jefferson are out of favor.

Tuesday Before Thanksgiving Leftovers

Back on Sunday, November 26. A good Thanksgiving to all.

At about 9 p.m. on November 21, I went outside and there he was. Orion, just rising in the southeast. Winter’s here. Fitting, since it will be well below freezing until tomorrow morning.

Visited the library again recently. Did another impulse borrowing: a box set with five Marx Brothers movies on five disks. Their first five — The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. I’m going to work my way through them over Thanksgiving because it occurs to me that, except for Animal Crackers and Duck Soup, I haven’t seen any of them in more than 20 years. Maybe 30 in some cases.

A booklet comes with the box, including reproductions of the movie posters. The Cocoanuts is praised on its poster as an All Talking-Singing Musical Comedy Hit! Talkies came along just in time for the Marx Brothers.

I’m glad the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville is a long-standing success. I remember visits there as far back as 1984, for meals or music, such as a show by Kathy Mattea sometime in the mid-80s, and always chocolate chunk cheesecake. But I wasn’t glad to read the following in the Washington Post this week:

Nashville, first on ABC and now CMT, has made the 90-seat venue so incredibly popular over the last five years that it’s impossible to get in unless you have a reservation (snapped up seconds after they’re available online) or wait in line outside for hours.”

Hell’s bells. Not that I visit Nashville often enough for this to affect me, but still. The thought that the Bluebird has lines like a Disneyland ride bothers me.

Still, I have many fond memories of the 1980s Blue Bird, along with a number of other small Nashville venues I used to visit, such as the Station Inn, Exit/In, Springwater, 12th & Porter, the Sutler, and Cantrell’s.

The Station Inn offered bluegrass. One fine evening ca. 1985 I saw Bill Monroe himself play there. Some years earlier, I went now and then with friends Neal and Stuart. After ingesting some beer, Stuart in particular was adamant that the band, whoever it was, play “Rocky Top” and “Salty Dog.” Usually the band obliged.

Something to know: the Osborn Brothers released the first recording of “Rocky Top” nearly 50 years ago, on Christmas 1967.

While putting the “detach & return” part of my water bill in the envelope the other day, I noticed in all caps block letters (some kind of sans-serif): PLEASE DO NOT BEND, FOLD, STAPLE OR MUTILATE.

Two of the classic three. Poor old “spindle.” As neglected as the @ sign before the advent of email. As for “bend,” that’s an odd choice. I bend paper a lot, but unless you fold it, paper pops right back.

Correction: Not long ago, I recalled a kid that came to collect candy at our house one Halloween in the late ’90s, dressed as a Teletubbie. I had the time right: it was 1998. But oddly enough, I actually saw two little kids as Teletubbies, at least according to what I wrote in 2004:

“That year, all the kids came during the day, and I have a vivid memory of two kids aged about three to five, dressed as Teletubbies in bright costumes that looked like they could have done duty on the show itself.”

Odd. Memory’s a dodgy thing. How much remembering is misremembering? Or are the details that important anyway?

Twenty Times Around the Sun

Lilly is home for Thanksgiving and, though a quirk of the calendar, her birthday.
You could think of it as a special birthday, but only because we use base 10. The evening’s feast was sushi. Here’s Lilly taking a picture of it.
Maybe you can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain, but there are a lot more interesting places to go in later decades, metaphorically and literally.

’50s Euro Bottles

Out in our garage, there’s an accumulation of bottles. Collection’s too dignified a word. Some of them have already been photographed for posting, generally for the oddity of their labels.

My parents brought home some bottles from their time in Europe in the mid-1950s. Some time ago, I decided to take pictures of them at my mother’s house.

A Chianti. I assume Rigatti is the brand. For a Chianti to be a Chianti, it must be produced in the Chianti region and be made from at least 80% Sangiovese grapes, Vinepair says. Also: “Almost none of the Chianti sold today comes in the classic straw basket.”

Clearly not true 60-odd years ago.A grappa. The brand label is partly missing, looks like. According to Rome File, the main ingredient of grappa is pomace, which consists of the grape skins, seeds and stalks that are left over from winemaking.

And something German.

I didn’t know this until I looked it upSteinhäger is a type of German gin, flavored with juniper berries. It’s local to Steinhagen, North Rhine-Westphalia.

It makes me glad to think that my parents, or at least my father, sought out a few local liquors while in Europe. Not only that, they kept these aesthetic bottles as no-extra-charge souvenirs.

Thursday Havering

A lot of the ads popping up lately on YouTube have been to promote Canadian tourism. Mostly the ads depict, in music video style, young people doing the kind of vigorous activities that (some) young people must imagine is the essence of traveling to exotic places like Saskatchewan. Actually, one today featured the Yukon.

I’m all for visiting Canada, and encouraging people to do so, but the ads don’t really speak to me. Besides, Canada’s not really top of my mind in November. Then again, it’s good to plan ahead, so you can visit Canada, and even the Yukon, during that short window of opportunity when the place is pleasantly warm.

I never knew until recently that The Proclaimers did a charming version of “King of the Road” back in 1990. No one does it like Roger Miller, but I smile when I hear lyrics like, “destination Bangor, Maine” in that burr of theirs.

“King of the Road,” in the way things go on the Internet, soon leads to a song stuck in mid-60s amber, “Queen of the House.” Even better, the song is done in a Scopitone.

I was in the city not long ago with a camera in the front seat, so I took a few pictures while stopped at traffic lights. Such as this place. So very Chicago.
Then there was Thunderbolt.
It’s an ax throwing venue, only the second one in Chicago, according to the Tribune, opening this spring.

“Ax throwing — indoor or outdoor — is a skill-based sport; [owner Scott] Hollander likens it to pool or darts, where participants can take the competition as seriously or lackadaisically as they please,” the paper says.

“Easygoing ax throwers can book an hour at a lane for $15 per person Wednesdays and Thursdays, and for $20 per person Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Food and nonalcoholic drink is allowed and can be consumed at the plywood stands behind each pair of lanes or at the picnic tables in the building. Thunderbolt also is available for bachelor or bachelorette parties, birthday parties and corporate events.”

What do I think of when I hear about ax throwing? Ed Ames, naturally. Tomahawk, but close enough.