Archive for February, 2008

Tag, I’m it. Seven things about me.

February 27, 2008

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Warda over at 64 sq ft kitchen recently tagged me for a meme. Basically, I’m supposed to tell you seven random things you don’t know about me. Well, most of you won’t know these things about me. Some of you will know some of them. My wife Marion will know all of them. I briefly toyed with including at least one thing that she didn’t know, but then decided [wisely, I think] that anything she doesn’t know about me by now is best left that way. So, speaking of Marion, I’ll begin with this one:

1. I met my wife in an elevator. Marion was moving into my apartment building, and I was running neighborhood errands that had me in and out of the elevator all day. By the second time I saw her there, I had already decided I was going to get up the nerve to ask her out.

Within months, we had consolidated into a larger apartment in the building, which delighted our leasing agent Shari. She thought it was totally romantic and told the story of our meeting to every prospective renter she showed our smaller apartments to. Two years later when we were moving out of the building and dutifully showing our apartment to a potential renter, I mentioned in passing that Marion and I had met in the building. He said, “Yeah, I heard that story in some bar.”

2. I think peanut butter cookies are the best cookies on the planet. I just do.

3. By the time I was seven years old, I had lived in Minnesota, Mississippi, Southern California and St. Louis, Missouri [twice]. My dad wasn’t in the military or on the lam. He just had itchy feet.

4. I got thrown out of Stonehenge. No, I wasn’t defacing the stones or climbing on them or trying to chip off a “souvenir” or anything. The place just wasn’t exactly open when I tried to go there. It was about 6:30 in the morning, and my brother and I had been up almost 24 hours by then, coming back to England from a road trip in France. We’d driven all night, taking the last ferry from Calais to Dover, and planned a final stop at Stonehenge before making it back to my brother’s house near the English village of Byfield.

Except when we got there, with a beautiful sunrise making the impressive monoliths glow, we learned that it didn’t open until 9:30. By then, the light would be boringly flat, and my brother and I hoped to be sound asleep. There was nothing but a low fence protecting the prehistoric wonder—or so we thought—and from this distance, even my telephoto lens couldn’t make it look exciting. After firing off a few frustrating shots, I decided I was going in and hopped the fence. My brother was right behind me.

For a few exhilarating minutes, we were among the silent giants. I managed to get a couple of photos, but they were my practice shots, the ones you get out of the way as you come to terms with your subject. And then the guard showed up. Apparently we had tripped an electronic surveillance system or something. He was polite enough but all business as he escorted us to the exit. I saw one heartbreaking image after another as he hustled us along. “Could I just take a couple more pictures?” I asked.

“Keep moving,” he said, with clipped British authority.

“But the light is perfect right now. This is when Stonehenge is meant to be seen.”

“Keep moving.”

“You know, it seems to me that if they can pay someone to kick you out at 6:30 in the morning, they could pay someone to let you in.” This brilliant logic was met with silence. My brother shot me a look that said unless I wanted to tour a British jail, I should be silent too. For once, I wised up and shut up.

5. I don’t drink coffee. Just never acquired the taste, even though I’ve tried. Iced tea and Diet Pepsi are my caffeine delivery systems of choice. Our daughters don’t much care for dark chocolate. Once when I opined to older daughter Claire that dark chocolate may just be a more mature taste one grows into, she answered, “Big talk from someone who still doesn’t drink coffee.” For the record, both daughters drink coffee.

6. I’ve never eaten escargot. Sticking with the topic of being shown up culinarily by my daughters, I think of myself as at least a semi-adventurous eater. But having messed with my share of snails and slugs as a kid—in ponds, back yard gardens, fish tanks—I just can’t get past the fact that they’re, well, bugs. Still, younger daughter Laurel ordered them once when we were at the lovely Chicago bistro La Sardine and declared them delicious. I think I may have to cowboy up someday soon and try them. I mean, enough butter and garlic can make anything taste good, right?

7. I took my mama to Graceland. My mother was a huge Elvis fan. She even had a shrine to him in her kitchen. But as many times as she’d been through Memphis on various trips, she’d never gone to see his home. Several years ago, when she was between treatments for the cancer that would eventually claim her, I took her on a road trip—just the two of us—from St. Louis to Mississippi to see family down there. On the way, I surprised her with a visit to Graceland. Even though the walking tired her out, she saw absolutely everything there was to see and touched everything you were allowed to touch. I’ve taken more than my share of great road trips over the years. Seeing my mom so completely absorbed in taking in everything that day at Elvis’ home made this trip an amazing one. And it made the day one of the best of my life.

And now, according to tradition, I’m supposed to tag seven more people. From the admittedly limited blog reading I do, I think I’m quite possibly the last person to ever be tagged. But if you haven’t been and would like to play, then, “Tag, you’re it!”

1.67 cents for your thoughts

February 20, 2008

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Next year will be the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. It will also be the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln penny, first minted in 1909. If it lives that long.

Lately, there are renewed cries for its demise. First, I saw an article in the New York Times last week. Then there was a commentary on NPR this week. And their arguments are sound enough, I guess. First, what can you buy for a penny these days? Nothing. In fact, the government can’t even buy a penny for a penny these days—in the last fiscal year, it cost them 1.67¢ to produce one.

But while I’m the first to admit I hate it when too many pennies find their way into my pocket change, I’m not so ready to see them go away. First, its demise would be license for everyone in the retail supply chain to round up their prices. A little plastic doodad that a manufacturer charges a distributor 32¢ for, for instance—think he’ll round down to 30¢? Right. Then the distributor rounds up as he marks it up for the retailer, who rounds up as he sells it to you. Suddenly, the death of the penny has cost you a dime.

And if the penny goes away, what’s to protect the nickel? This 5-cent piece currently costs the government 9.5¢ to produce, an even worse bargain than the penny.

On a less practical level, but just as important—and maybe more so—I like carrying around a portrait of our greatest president. It’s nice to have this constant, tangible, reassuring reminder of great leadership, particularly these days.

By the way, that building on the back of the penny is the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. You probably knew that. But did you know that if you look at it closely with a magnifying glass, you can see the seated statue of Lincoln in the middle? When I first found that out as a kid, I thought it was really, really cool. I still do.

But even if the penny survives, that feature is doomed. As the Times article states, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln penny, “The United States Mint plans to issue four new designs for the penny’s reverse side, each representing a different phase of Lincoln’s life.”

Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to the penny after all.

Going green, now in a handy six-pack.

February 13, 2008

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Those awful plastic grocery bags are fading fast. Whole Foods is phasing them out. Already, stores in San Francisco, Toronto and Austin, Texas, have done away with them. On April 22 [Earth Day, get it?], the entire chain will be plastic bag-free.

And China, not exactly a shining example of environmentalism, has banned plastic bags from the entire country. As of June 1, all stores, from the largest to the smallest, must go bag-free. For the practical Chinese, it’s a matter of not wasting 37 million barrels of oil a year on bags. It’s also a chance to polish their image for the Olympics. Whatever the reason, it’s good news for the planet.

The problems with plastic bags are many. First, they don’t biodegrade, as paper does. They photodegrade—which is to say that light causes them break up into tinier and tinier particles, but they never stop being plastic. According to a New York Times article [first brought to my attention by Kirsten over at Gezellig Girl], “Altogether, each year the country is estimated to use 86 billion bags, which end up blowing down city streets, or tangled in the stomachs of whales and sea turtles, or buried in landfills where, environmental organizations say, they persist for as long as 1,000 years.” And even if you recycle them, as more communities are now mandating, plastic degrades in quality with each recycling, so it’s not truly sustainable.

So what can you use instead of plastic? Interestingly, when Whole Foods eliminated plastic bags in San Francisco, paper bag usage only went up 10%. Instead, people switched to canvas bags. More and more grocery chains have begun selling them, for a buck or so, as a way to help customers make the change. In New York, designer canvas grocery bags became instant status symbols, selling out quickly and creating eco-envy.

And now Trader Joe’s has come up with the coolest canvas tote yet. Innocently dubbed the Six-Bottle Beverage Tote, it is clearly designed and sized to snugly hold six bottles of wine. In fact, the cashier who sold us ours called it a wine bag and suggested it would come in handy this summer.

It sells for just 99¢ and is sturdily constructed, with canvas dividers that keep bottles from clinking together. And if you end up partying as our cashier suggested this summer, it’s perfect for toting your empties back home for recycling.

Art and food together. “Is this heaven?”

February 6, 2008

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Last Saturday night we went to Chicago’s first ever Slideluck Potshow, held at the spacious Madron Gallery. As the event’s name sort of implies, it’s a combination potluck dinner and slideshow. At first blush, this sounds like something the Moose Lodge in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, might put on to liven up a long winter night, with everyone oohing and aahing over the multiple green bean casseroles and Ed’s 827 slides of the Alaskan cruise he and his wife Doris took, “when was it now, two years ago… three years ago?” Or as my Brooklyn Buddy Ronnie Ann put it, “Now wait a minute… people willingly go to watch slide shows without having committed a crime?”

Except the slideshow was art—very current work by Chicago artists. The crowd was an entertaining mix of mostly artists and hipsters. The food was plentiful and, for the most part, really good and interesting—this was not the kind of event where you show up with a bag of Doritos or a green bean casserole. And there was even a potluck dessert table and a potluck bar.

For our contribution, we brought a nice bottle of California sparkling wine, and Marion made a heaping bowl of the delicious soba noodle salad she posted on Blue Kitchen last week. The latter was an especially big hit—had the bowl been scraped any cleaner when we picked it up at the end of the evening, we could have just put it back on the shelf.

After the crowd had sufficiently fed, imbibed and networked, we all settled in—mostly sitting on the floor [and feeling fairly collegiate, I think] for an amazing show.

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Slideluck Potshow is the brainchild of advertising and editorial photographer Casey Kelbaugh. It began in his backyard in Seattle back in 2000, when he invited friends and colleagues to bring slides and food. He told me Saturday night that the first shows really were slideshows, with artists loading their slides into carousel trays and projecting them onto the screen: “Click-click… click-click… click-click…” Now it’s all gone digital [of course], with images being set to music and the whole show being run from a laptop to a projector.

Kelbaugh did a number of slide show parties in Seattle before moving to New York in 2003. He wasn’t sure how the idea would fly there, but he gave it a shot and hosted his first New York Slideluck Potshow in his East Village apartment in 2004. According to a New York Times article, “He was surprised when 120 people arrived, obligingly toting home-cooked dishes as well as images of their work. The event mushroomed into a kind of open-mike night for photographers and other artists, who would show up with trays of slides or CDs to show.”

As Slideluck Potshow’s own website says, “Slideluck has become something of a global phenomenon, as they are now taking place everywhere from Berlin to Minneapolis, Mexico City to Washington, DC.”

And now, Chicago. Chicago’s show was heavy on the photography—no surprise, since Kelbaugh is a photographer. The work was a real mix of images, ranging from beautiful to compelling, disturbing, amusing, lyrical and sometimes just plain strange.

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Particularly moving was a series of paired images by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante. He began visiting an Illinois family farm 13 years ago, taking thousands of pictures of the husband and wife, their land and their animals. In 2002, the farm was sold and became a subdivision. Last year, he returned to the area and began shooting the new life there. He was surprised by what he discovered when he did. “I just started to watch and to shoot and I began to realize that there were so many similarities in what I was shooting to what I had shot,” Strazzante said. “When I think about it now, it’s really eerie.” Here’s a link to a Tribune piece that includes more of his wonderful photographs.

As with any group show, there were a few clunkers in the bunch. But they were greatly outnumbered by real gems. At the end of the evening, we left happily sated, our bellies and brains equally full.