Archive for September, 2007

Big art in Berwyn, Illinois

September 26, 2007

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.


Freezer burn of mammoth proportions

September 19, 2007

mammoth.jpgWhen I first saw this Columbian mammoth skeleton [Mammuthus columbi] at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, my first thought was not, “Hmmmm, I wonder how mammoth meat would taste.” My first thought was more along the lines of whether or not I could outrun one if the situation ever presented itself.

Granted, unlike the sabertoothed cats found in this museum [perhaps more famously known as the La Brea Tar Pits], mammoths were herbivores. Still, they’re distant ancestors of modern-day elephants, also herbivores, who are famously known for being territorial, irritable creatures who will quite suddenly and unpredictably stomp measly little humans to death. And they’re big. Really, really big.

reader_cover.jpgSo, no, my first thought was not how I might prepare a mammoth steak. Apparently, though, that thought has crossed the minds of more adventurous souls, even before the advent of The Flintstones. In the September 14 issue of the Chicago Reader, Cecil Adams tackled this very topic in his always illuminating, always amusing column, The Straight Dope.

As its motto says, The Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 [It’s taking longer than we thought].” Every week in the Reader and other publications—and now online—Adams and his crack research team cover a new arcane question from a reader. And they cover it remarkably thoroughly in the far less than 1,000 words of space the column is allotted.

The question in question had to do with a story about members of The Explorers Club thawing out, cooking and eating a prehistoric woolly mammoth [a hairier, slightly smaller cousin of the 13-foot tall Columbian mammoth]. The reader wanted to know if this group or anyone else in modern times had actually done so. The full—and fully entertaining—answer is here.

The short answer is yes, though not as often as many people have bragged. Typical, right? Regarding how it actually tasted, contrary to some highly suspect reports by the aforementioned braggarts, the answer is pretty bad. A Russian zoologist Adams cited tried a bite and said, “it was awful. It tasted like meat left too long in a freezer.” Yeah, about 10,000 years too long.

Adams summarizes beautifully thus: “Let’s keep it simple: frozen meat from tundra = specimen; frozen meat from freezer = dinner. Study the mammoths and eat the burgers, and anyone who craves that great prehistoric taste can wash ’em down with Tab.”

Too cool? No such thing.

September 12, 2007


Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

100-years-cover.jpgThus begins One Hundred Years of Solitude, the lush magical realism masterwork of Nobel Prize-winning Colombian-born author Gabriel García Márquez. In his New York Times book review, William Kennedy called it “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.”

My point in mentioning it here, though, is that ice wasn’t always something dispensed by refrigerator doors. It was something extraordinary, carried down mountainsides by runners. Much later, it was delivered by icemen in horsedrawn wagons and kept in heavily insulated, but non-electrified iceboxes. Yeah, that old-fashioned-sounding term for refrigerator, icebox, used to refer to what was more or less a glorified cooler in the kitchen, used by our grandparents or perhaps great-grandparents.

I like ice. A lot. We use trays and trays of it, especially in warm weather, but even in the dead of winter. I like iced water, not refrigerated water. You can keep your Brita pitchers stored in the fridge—give me plenty of ice cubes and some tap water.

I like bartenders who make cocktails by first filling the glass with ice and then fitting the liquor and mixers around it.

English bartenders don’t get ice. I spent a summer there once, visiting my brother when he lived there. We spent lots of time in small village pubs, and I got pretty thoroughly tired of warm beer you couldn’t see through [in the interest of full disclosure, I must say here that I’m not a beer drinker]. And wine, when you could even find it, was dreadful. Yes, I understand asking for wine in a small Brit village pub is like ordering fish in a steak house—see the previous statement. Finally one night in an Oxford pub [college town—they should be up on their drinking, right?], I asked for a rum and coke. A simple drink, pedestrian, even. But the bartender just said, “Wot’s in it?” I said, “Well, rum and coke. And ice.” The two lonely little ice cubes he supplied floated around the glass, never meeting up and never affecting the room temperature drink.

I also take my caffeine cold. Diet Pepsi and iced tea are my beverages of choice. I usually have the former on the way to work—even on days when it’s so cold that the ice cold can feels warm compared to the air—and brew a glass of the latter as my first official act of the work day. Here’s how to make a great glass of fresh-brewed iced tea in just a few minutes.

Put a tea bag in a coffee mug and fill it with with boiling water—from a kettle at home or the hot water spigot on the office coffee maker. I like basic, black tea—Lipton, to be exact. If you prefer chai tea or some foofoo raspberry herbal tea, use that. Just don’t tell me, okay?

Let it steep for 3 minutes. Don’t go by darkness—time it. I read somewhere that some Brit tea organization says 3 minutes is the optimal time. If the Brits don’t know tea, who does?

Put 5 ice cubes in a tall glass. Think of these cubes as the advance team, cannon fodder. They will start the cooling process. Add hot tea. If you want sweetener—sugar, Splenda, whatever—add it now and stir. If you’re from the south, keep adding sugar until it stops dissolving and call it “sweet tea.”

Now add some more ice—say 5 to 7 cubes—and stir. Done. Real, fresh brewed iced tea, real easy. Oh. And add lemon if you use it. I don’t. That’s why it’s on the side in the photo above.

I know all this sounds Felix Unger obsessive, but it works. And it’s so easy, you never have to settle for bottled tea on that powdered abomination. In practice, the 3-minute rule varies from maybe 2 minutes when I’m in a hurry to a half hour or longer when I get busy and forget it. That results in tea that will practically walk in and announce itself.

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Art free for all in St. Louis

September 5, 2007


The National Endowment for the Arts has a wonderful tagline that you’ll occasionally hear on PBS or NPR broadcasts: A great nation deserves great art. What a beautifully succinct argument for supporting the arts.

I can’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of my life. To hear my mother tell it, I pretty much drew from birth on. When I was about ten or so, I got my first camera and—while I continued to draw from time to time [and did some painting, some printmaking, some ceramics, some sculpture]—found the medium that would supplant all others for me.

But art is more than something I occasionally dabble in. It is part of who I am, part of how I view life and the world. I taught college art for a while. I far too infrequently shoot and exhibit what I call my serious photography, very different from what I shoot for this blog. I judge cities and decide whether or not to visit them based on the art there. Indeed, I could not imagine living someplace without regular access to great art. If I had to name one event that set this part of me in motion, it was my first visit to the St. Louis Art Museum.


In the fifth grade, I was transferred into the gifted program in school. Besides ratcheting up the level of work we did in the classroom, they took us places—to plays and the symphony, for example, and most important to ten-year-old me, to the art museum.

Suddenly, a whole world outside my working class neighborhood opened up to me. And best of all to perpetually broke young me, it was free. It’s engraved right there on the architrave above the main entrance: DEDICATED TO ART AND FREE TO ALL. I took full advantage of this open invitation, sometimes taking the bus there with my friend Ray, but more often going alone. I even dragged my mom and brother there one summer. My mom humored me, my brother not so much. But I had already claimed it as my own, so I didn’t care.

At first I was drawn to the painstaking realism of the artists of the Renaissance up through the mid-nineteenth century, in awe of their ability to produce such lifelike images with paint and canvas. But eventually, over manymanymany visits, I came to embrace—in turn—Impressionism, modern art and, finally, contemporary art. Now my interests flow in the opposite direction, with contemporary art being far and away the most exciting to me, and the old masters having to work pretty hard to catch my eye.


We were in St. Louis last weekend and went to the museum. It’s still free [except for major special exhibitions, and even those are free on Fridays]. And it still has the same magical effect on me.

The St. Louis Art Museum [long modestly known as the City Art Museum] was one of the few permanent structures built for the 1904 World’s Fair. Built atop Art Hill in Forest Park [a glorious city park larger than Central Park], it was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. He later went on to design the Woolworth Building in New York and the United States Supreme Court.

St. Louis has a not totally undeserved reputation for being a conservative city—not politically so much as in its rather practical world view and general unwillingness to spend even a nickel frivolously. When pressed for the need for electric street lights in Forest Park, an old German mayor famously responded, “We got the moon, ain’t it?” But in 1907, the city’s practical citizens passed a very forward-thinking tax to support the art museum and seven years later, expanded it to build a zoo. As a result, this mid-sized city has one of the best zoos in the world and a gem of an art museum with an excellent collection, both free.


The National Endowment for the Arts is right: A great nation deserves great art. So does a great city.

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