Saturday, December 26, 2009

If I had a million dollars

When I was still in elementary school, one of the most popular shows on television was a show titled “The Millionaire”, and it aired from January 19, 1955 to June 8, 1960.

The basic idea behind the show was that a mysterious benefactor (John Beresford Tipton) gave away $1,000,000 each week to beneficiaries that would never meet him, and the checks were always delivered by his faithful employee, Michael Anthony.

At the time, $1,000,000 seemed to be unimaginable wealth, but (sad to say) $1,000,000 isn’t what it used to be.

When I worked at CIGNA in the mid 1990’s. I was on track to retire at the age of 65 with $1,000,000 in the bank, and a house that was fully paid for.

And then ..

Life happened.

I no longer own a house, and I have a LOT less than $1,000,000 in the bank, but I’ve also had some life experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

If you’ve ever added up the income shown on the social security statements that you receive every year, you may be shocked at the amount of money that you’ve made so far in your life.

When I totaled my most recent statement, I discovered that I had earned slightly more than $1,250,000 so far during my working career, which (technically) would make me a millionaire. Naturally, the first question that came to mind after I did my tally was “where in the world did all that money go to?”

The brief answer is that all that money was consumed by a comfortable (but not extravagant) lifestyle that supported me and my immediate family..

Was it money well spent?

To a large degree, absolutely.

As I gradually inch closer to retirement, I’ve come to realize that true wealth isn’t measured by how much money that you have in the bank, but by the people that you’ve encountered on your journey through life.

By that measure, I’d have to say that I’m a pretty fortunate guy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


On November 20, my friend Dave put the attached note on his Facebook page:

“Brer Rabbit Molasses on an English Muffin, and a banana, was a good breakfast. How about that for a high fructose corn product elimination?”

At first, it seemed to be an unusual breakfast, but the more that I thought about it, the more sense it made.

A day or so later, I tried some molasses on my pancakes, and I have subsequently had it in my oatmeal a few times. Both combinations were so good that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.

Sharon has always uses molasses in her ginger cookies, but I never realized that it had uses other than that.

It also got me wondering, “what exactly IS molasses?”.

When I plugged the term into Google, I discovered that there are LOTS more uses than I previously had imagined:

who do you know that’s slower than molasses in January?

Just for fun, I also plugged “molasses” into YouTube to see what songs popped up and, fiddle dee dee, I found a BUNCH.

Woody Herman’s swing band had a version, Andy Williams did a version for the movie “Judge Roy Bean”, the movie “1776” had a song titled “molasses to rum”, and the groups Radiohead, The Hush Sound, and Mista also did versions.

My favorite version, though, was the fiddle tune performed by the group Bearfoot in Sedona, Arizona, which is one of my favorite cities:

Molasses is a byproduct of the refining of either cane sugar or beet sugar, but some of the countries in the Middle East make it from other foods.

There are three grades of molasses that are made from cane sugar:
(1) Mild, or first molasses
(2) Dark, or second molasses
(3) blackstrap molasses

Blackstrap molasses contains a significant number of vitamins and minerals. It is often sold as a health supplement, and is also used in cattle feed and in other industrial uses.

The process of refining beet sugar results in only one grade of molasses, but also produces intermediate syrups called high green and low green.

Just like the lowly peanut, molasses is used in a variety of ways that few of us realize. It can be made into rum, can be used in the mortar for brickwork, can be used to remove rust, can be used as an alternative fuel in motor vehicles, can be used to treat burns, can be smoked in a water pipe, can be used for fish bait, can be used in gardening, can be used as an iron supplement, and is frequently used in the making of Shoofly pie and brown sugar.

There’s an old saying that nothing is as slow as molasses in January, but there was one point in our nation’s history that just the opposite was true.

On the morning of January 15, 1919, a huge molasses storage tank on the north side of Boston burst, sending a wave of molasses nearly 15 feet high at a speed of 35 miles per hour through the streets of Boston.

The force of the flood was strong enough to knock a train off its tracks, demolish several buildings, kill 21 people and several horses, and injure 150 additional people:

we’re in for a heap of trouble here, Martha.

On October 15, 2009, a flock of sheep in northern Jordan caught fire and exploded, which made for a very unhappy day for the poor guy who was out there simply tending to his flock.

In the same vein, if you saw a wave of molasses coming towards you at the speed of a locomotive, the rest of the day isn’t going to be very pretty.

The next time you bite into a warm and chewy ginger cookie, your new knowledge will help you to have a better appreciation of the humble brown syrup that was once strong enough to derail a train.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How the secret decoder ring helped me find the Illinois Prairie Path

When I was a kid, if you sent your name and address to Captain Midnight, along with a wax paper disc from the top of a jar of Ovaltine, you would receive ABSOLUTELY FREE your very own Secret Squadron decoder ring, a Secret Squadron membership card, and the official 12 page instruction manual:

Captain Midnight

If you’ve seen the 1983 movie, A Christmas story, you may remember how excited Ralphie was as he dialed in the special code on his brand new decoder ring:

As you might suspect, the Secret Squadron decoder ring was a pretty successful marketing tool in the days when ALL television shows were in black and white, and most of our communication was by “snail mail”.

Ovaltine started business in Switzerland way back in 1904, where it was known by its original name, Ovomaltine. When it was exported to England in 1909, the name got shortened to Ovaltine, and in 1915, production was started in Villa Park, Illinois for the American market.

When Ovaltine Company first opened their factory in America, they needed a way to make sure their employees could get to and from work safely, no matter the weather, terrain or other issues.

Villa Park was built originally for that reason.

The company used the existing lines of the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad to transport their employees. Unfortunately, the CA&E ceased to carry passengers in 1957, due to a dramatic drop in ridership stemming from the construction of the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290), and the general increase in use of personal automobiles. The right-of-way was eventually cleaned up and developed into a hiking and bicycling trail known as the Illinois Prairie Path.

The Illinois Prairie Path started operation in the 1960’s, and was the very first “rails to trails” project in the country.

The Ardmore Station is now home to the Chamber of Commerce, and the Villa Avenue Station houses the Villa Park Historical Society. The Ovaltine factory itself was closed in 1988. After several years as a vacant building, it was eventually converted into loft apartments.

When we lived in the western suburbs, I used to take long bike rides on the Illinois Prairie Path on a fairly regular basis, but I’d have to admit that I really can’t remember the last time that I had any Ovaltine.

Although there are several places that you can buy it online, I recently discovered that the Jewel store just up the street carries it.

Naturally, I bought a container of the chocolate variety the other day, and tried it out.


I no longer live anywhere near the Illinois Prairie Path, but if I ever come across an opportunity to bicycle on it again, I’ll be sure to bring some Ovaltine with me.

It just seems to be the proper thing to do.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

the electric cigarette

When I was a kid, power windows and power mirrors on a car seemed frivolous –

but I can’t imagine anyone buying a car without them now.

Electric pencil sharpeners seemed to be the height of stupidity –

until we bought one.

Electric toothbrushes seemed totally unnecessary –

until I got one for Christmas.

When I was in college, Tom Wolfe published a book called The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Truth be told, it didn’t have a lot to do with electricity, but it WAS a celebration of a “psychedelic life style”. Being a “child of the 60’s”, the title immediately brought to mind black lights, the fragrance of patchouli, and “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

A movie of the same title is scheduled to be released in 2010.

I recently discovered that people actually spend good money for a thing called “an electric cigarette”.

Although it’s not intended as a smoking cessation device, the electronic cigarette CAN help folks to quit smoking. For those who prefer to continue to smoke, it’s a safer alternative to the nicotine cravings that come with “regular” cigarettes.

To quote the drill sergeants that I grew up with in the National Guard:

“smoke ‘em if you got ‘em”

And to quote Forrest Gump”

“that’s all that I got to say”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Prairie Wedding

In the novel, Sarah Plain and Tall, Sarah moves to the Great Plains in answer to a newspaper advertisement for a bride. In the mid-1800's when the plains were being settled, this was not nearly as unusual as it would seem today. When a man on the prairie lost his wife, he had to find a new one. The work that women did on the prairie was so essential, that a family could hardly manage without her. So, when a woman died or was killed, her husband needed to search for a new wife quickly. If no one was available where he lived, he may have advertised for a bride from farther away. Sometimes these wives were called mail order brides.

In the days of the westward movement, women, just like men and children, played an essential role in the survival of the family. Women took care of the children and took care of the house. They took part in the heavy farm labor too. Women also provided many of the services that would later on be provided by professionals, such as education and medical care.

In addition to “Sarah Plain and Tall”, another book that describes what life must have been like for mail order brides on The Great Plains is Hearts West: True Stories of Mail-Order Brides on the Frontier.

If you’d like to learn more about mail order brides, but find it difficult to find time to read, the most succinct way to get a feel of the mail order bride experience is to listen to Mark Knopfler’s “Prairie Wedding”, which was one of the songs on his 2000 album, Sailing To Philadelphia:

Prairie Wedding

We only knew each other by letter
I went to meet her off the train
When the smoke had cleared and the dust was still
She was standing there and speaking my name

I guarantee she looked like an angel
I couldn't think of what I should say
But when Adam saw Eve in the garden
I believe he felt the selfsame way

I handed her up on the wagon
And I loaded up her trunk behind
She was sitting up there with the gold in her hair
And I tried to get hold of my mind

Do you think that you could love me Mary
Do you think we got a chance of a life
Do you think that you could love me Mary
Now you are to be my wife

We finally headed out of the station
And we drove up to the home trail
And when we came to the farm she laid a hand on my arm
I thought my resolution would fail

And I froze as she stepped in the doorway
Stood there as still as could be
I said I know it ain't much, it needs a woman's touch
Lord she turned around and looked at me

Do you think that you could love me Mary
You think we got a chance of a life
Do you think that you could love me Mary
Now you are to be my wife

We had a prairie wedding
There was a preacher and a neighbour or two
I gave my golden thing a gold wedding ring
And the both of us said I do

And when the sun's going down on the prairie
And the gold in her hair is aflame
I say do you really love me Mary
And I hold her and I whisper her name

Do you think that you could love me Mary
You think we got a chance of a life
Do you think that you could love me Mary
Now you are to be my wife

Although social networking is considered to be a recent phenomenon by some people, the truth is that it’s really as old as the first society in the world. In America, the first Chamber of Commerce was the State of New York, which was founded in 1768, eight years before the United States became a country. By 1870 there were 40 throughout the United States.

Today, there are 7800 Chambers of Commerce in America. When I lived in the western suburbs, I belonged to the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, and I now attend the meetings of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce on a fairly regular basis.

By definition, one of the purposes of social networking has always been the promotion of one’s business.

In the America of the mid-1800’s, the business of the country was farming. Even as late as 1900, nearly half of the labor force in America worked on family farms. In a very real sense, mail order brides are a good early example of social networking, since they allowed the growth of the family business, which was farming.

100 + years later, both agriculture and social networking have changed dramatically in this country.

Agriculture’s contribution to America’s GDP continues to decline, but it’s still a HUGE business. Agriculture remains a very important sector in California's economy, which is the 8th largest economy in the entire world.

Farming-related sales have more than quadrupled over the past three decades, from $7.3 billion in 1974 to nearly $31 billion in 2004. This increase has occurred despite a 15 percent decline in acreage devoted to farming during the period, and water supply suffering from chronic instability. Factors contributing to the growth in sales-per-acre include more intensive use of active farmlands and technological improvements in crop production

Believe it or not, “mail order brides” still exist today. If you Googled “mail order brides”, you’d discover that the vast majority are from the former Soviet Union.

When I watched the 1963 James Bond film, “From Russia with Love” in 1963, and “The Russians are Coming” in 1966, I had no idea how aptly those terms would apply to today’s mail order brides.

As I mentioned in my November 14 post, the internet is actually a very recent addition to our lives, but it’s made a huge change in how social networking works.

MySpace and LinkedIn were both founded in 2003. Facebook was started by Mark Zuckerberg while he was a student at Harvard in 2004, which enabled him to become a billionaire before he was 25 years old.Twitter was started in 2006. Although I haven’t “tweeted” yet, I know people who get all the news they need on Twitter.

My friend (and customer) Brad Will participates in the Underground Social Media Society Networking group in order to promote his business, and he also uses Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

My friends the Kowalskis use the internet to promote their businesses, as well as their entrepreneurial leads group.

My employer, The Autobarn, has shipped vehicles to dozens of countries around the world because of internet ads.. I personally have arranged for three vehicles to be shipped to Africa, and I also arranged for a Nismo “Z” to be shipped to Poland.

Prairie weddings?

They still exist, but one recent one (in particular) was a lot different than most of them. Lee Klawans and Gry Haukland got married on the ledge of the Willis Tower Skydeck in August of 2009. The couple met over Neil Steinberg's page on Facebook and Lee proposed only days after meeting Gry in person. (Neil is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.)

Apart from the fact that the wedding arrangements were made in record time (literally, in just a few days), the other amazing part of the tale is that Lee lives in Chicago, and Gry lives in Norway. The other little detail that you may find interesting is that they got married in a glass box that is suspended 1353 feet about the street below:

Lee and Gry’s wedding.

Prairie weddings definitely do still exist, but for Lee and Gry, the view from the “altar” was a lot different.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Vodka and the internet

Although it may seem like we’ve had the internet forever, the truth is that the advent of the World Wide Web is a fairly recent event.

Nineteen years ago this week, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published a formal proposal for the World Wide Web.

Although Mr. Berners-Lee deserves a lot of credit for creating the internet, the real driving force behind the internet is a beverage that first came into being in 1405:


The word vodka is derived from the Russian word voda (water) and the Polish word woda. Vodka is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage consumed in Russia. Close to 90% of the alcohol consumed in Russia is vodka, and it’s generally consumed in shots, not in mixed drinks.

In the mid 1950’s, a group of Russian scientists, lead by Sergei Korolev, created the world’s first satellite, which they called Sputnik. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Mr. Korolev and his associates probably came up with the idea for Sputnik some evening after work as they were enjoying a few shots of vodka.

When Russia launched Sputnik in 1957, the United States and Russia were smack dab in the middle of “the cold war”. Although we were only eight years into the reality of a “red China”, four years away from the erection of the Berlin wall, and five years away from the Cuban missile crisis, there was a genuine fear of communism in America, as evidenced be “the McCarthy years.”

When the Russians launched Sputnik, American scientists became panic stricken.

In response to Sputnik, the U.S formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1958. At approximately the same time, they also created NASA, which allowed us to put a man on the moon before our Russian adversaries were able to do so.

One of the main benefits of ARPA is that it provided a way for various government computers to talk to each other.

Preliminary work on linking computers together started as early as 1961, and by 1969, ARPANET came into being, which allowed computer interfacing at various locations:

what is ARPANET?.

Although Al Gore actually stated on CNN that he “created the internet” there’s a little more to the story than that:

The former Vice President was an early advocate of ARPANET, and would probably be considered to be the person most responsible for keeping the funding for the program intact.

And that’s the inconvenient truth.

After the Russians launched the first satellite, and got the first man into space (Yuri Gagarin) their technological edge started to slip, and it’s possible that vodka might have been the problem.

In 1950, per capita consumption of alcohol in Russia was .8 gallon per person per year. In recent years, it has soared to 4 gallons per person per year:

can you walk a straight line, Yuri?

In the good old U.S.A, the trend has been exactly the opposite, and per capita consumption is now down to about 2 gallons a year:

how dry I am

If you’d like to toast the Internet, or any of your special friends, the link below will make it easier:

Grey Goose

As for me, I’m about to dip into the first vodka martini that I’ve had for several decades.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Have a good day!

When Pastor Dan was attending seminary in Minneapolis, he and his young bride lived in an area that was also populated by a large number of homeless people. Like many people, he was ambivalent about how to deal with them, especially when they asked for money. On one occasion, he decided to give the person on the street a couple of dollars, and he and his wife continued on their way.

A block or so later, they decided that since it made THEM feel good to give the person some money, why not simply give the person their remaining $5?

So they did.

Throughout history, every society has always had a class of people that were considered “beggars”, and they were invariably looked down upon.

In America today, the group that comprises “the homeless” is a lot more complex than you might imagine. For starters, it is estimated that one out of four homeless people is a veteran of the Armed Services. By serving their country with honor, they did terrible damage to themselves:

is that any way to treat a vet?

Due to the skid in the economy, many people who previously had been living a “typical middle class lifestyle” were finding themselves unemployed, foreclosed, and scrounging for a place to live:

over 45 and out of luck

More often than you might think, the homeless person on the street may have talents that wouldn’t expect a “skid row bum” to have, as evidenced by the 2009 film, The Soloist.

Being out of work doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to be homeless. Canadian author Charles Long published a book titled “How to Survive Without a Salary” in 1988, and it’s had two subsequent releases.

Evanston, Illinois is one of the most educated cities in America, with 62% of the population holding bachelors or advanced degrees, considerably higher than the national average of 14%. 92% of the work force would be considered to be white collar workers.

Evanston is also home to at least two large group homes where a large number of mentally ill people reside. Seeing them shuffle down the street every morning as I walk to work, I invariably think of the classic 1968 film, “Night of the Living Dead”. Although none of them would be considered to be dangerous people, their mere presence on the streets of Evanston, and in the parks of Evanston, sometimes make people nervous:

who’s park is it, anyway?

By definition, a homeless person is someone who does not have a permanent mailing address of their own, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they sleep outdoors at night or in one of the homeless shelters that are scattered throughout the city.

I usually go to the local Jewel store 4 or 5 times a week to pick up a few items, and I often encounter one of the most cheerful people that I’ve ever met. Both entering and coming, he greets everyone with a big, genuine smile, and a wish “to have a good day”.

After hearing Pastor Dan’s sermon a few weeks ago, I decided that it would be interesting to interview “the man on the street”, and finally was able to do so on November 5.

His name is Terry, and he has lived in Evanston most of his life (after a brief stay in Detroit). If you’ve been to Jewel lately, this is what he looks like:

Although he was a licensed driver in his early years, he no longer likes to drive, and gets around town on a small bicycle that he borrows from a friend:

He was born on March 1, 1958, which means that he is 51 years old, but he looks to be far younger.

He attended Park Elementary school and Nichols middle school, and he graduated from Evanston Township High School.

After graduation, he attended both Barbizon Modeling School and Columbia college, but did not graduate from either.

He has had a variety of jobs in his lifetime:

restaurant worker, nursing home attendant, bank teller, case worker for the City of Evanston, mail room worker at Loyola University, telemarketing, and “Infrared Research”

The job at Infrared Research ended in 1993, and he has not held a permanent job since then.

He sold “Streetwise” for a couple of years, but the only publication that he sells now is “Chicago Jazz”

Some of his ancestors are full blooded Cherokees, but his ethnic makeup is only a small percentage “native American”

He lives with a friend, so doesn’t have to worry about sleeping in the elements. Believe it or not, he’s a hard working guy.

On the morning that I interviewed him, he had been at his station at Jewel since 7:30 that morning, and he often works until past 11 at night. He estimates that he spends about 25 hours a week greeting people as they come in to Jewel.

He was quick to point out that he is actually a “greeter”, not a panhandler, and there truly is a large difference between the two.

Years ago, he tried to get in to the military, but his poor vision kept him out.

I asked him why he was always so cheerful, and his response was there was enough sadness in the world, and he didn’t want to add to it.

I have no idea if he gets any money from the government, nor do I care, nor am I concerned with his familial relationships.

Just as Pastor Dan gained something by his encounter with the “homeless person” years ago in Minneapolis, I truly look forward to my frequent encounters with Terry at the Jewel Store.

“Have a good day”, he always says.

And to you too, Terry.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

You'll still be ugly in the morning

Winston Churchill was known to be fond of the “oil of conversation”, and he was also known as a man who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

One of the people who he tangled with on a fairly regular basis was the Lady Astor, a prominent American-born English socialite, and the first female member of the British House of Commons.

One of the more famous exchanges that Lady Astor is purported to have had with Churchill is as follows: "Winston, you are drunk." To which Churchill responded, "and you, madam, are ugly. In the morning, I shall be shober,

Although people drink for a lot of reasons, Churchill’s thirst was due, in part, to his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill.

Like the Lady Astor, Lady Randolph Churchill was born in America. Her father was a wealthy American financier named Leonard Jerome, and her mother, Clara, was the daughter of a New York congressman.

Lady Randolph’s first marriage was to Lord Randolph Churchill, whom she met at her father’s racetrack in Westchester County New York. They married at the British Embassy in Paris, and moved to England shortly thereafter.

Just before she gave birth to her son Winston in 1874, she commissioned a bartender at the Manhattan Club in New York to create a special drink to commemorate the election of Samuel J. Tiilden to the governorship.

That drink became known as the Manhattan, and it is sometimes called “the king of cocktails”

I still enjoy a Manhattan on an occasional basis, but I have to admit that it’s been less than 24 hours since I had my last one, a perfect Manhattan, and it was a mighty fine drink.

At this point in the story, you’re probably expecting me to come up with a snappy and pithy ending.

Since this story is about Winston Churchill, I’ve decided it would be more appropriate to leave you with one of his famous quotations:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Sir Winston Churchill, 1942

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When better cars are built .....

China will build them.

Starting in 1936, the Kudner Advertising Agency of New York handled the advertising account for the Buick Motor Division of General Motors. Through the use of clever slogans, as well the creation of the most famous auto slogan of all time (when better cars are built, Buick will build them) , the agency helped lift Buick sales from fewer than 100,000 units a year to 514,497 in 1954, second only to Ford and Chevrolet.

Although Buick sales peaked at 737,879 in 1955, a series of errors on the part of the ad agency, largely tied to television, caused it to lose the ad account at the end of 1957. Those errors caused Buick sales to slide, and by 1957, Buick sales were down to 332,102, well behind Plymouth.

For many years, the bulk of Buick sales were in the United States, but General Motors has long had a presence in other markets. The first Buick sold in China was to the Emperor of China in the 1920’s

The Chinese market has expanded rapidly in recent years, and it recently became the largest auto market on the face of the planet.

In 2006, Buick sales in China surpassed Buick sales in the United States for the first time, and the gap has widened considerably since then.

For the first nine months of 2009, Buick sold 312,798 cars in China, and only 72,389 in the United States. As a result, when Buick redesigned the Lacrosse for the 2010 model year, the design studio that did the work was in Shanghai, not in America.

“Old timers” may bemoan the fact that the most popular cars in America today carry Japanese nameplates (Toyota sold 2,958,000 cars in North America in 2008), and “they just don’t build them like they used to”, but here’s a couple of things they should consider:

Toyota now has 12 manufacturing plants in the United States, and the majority of the vehicles that the company sells here are made here.

The fact that companies “don’t build them like they used to” is definitely good news, and the “proof of the pudding” can be seen in the attached video that was produced by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

good old Detroit Iron?

Even though Tiger Woods can walk on water (which you can see below),

where have I heard this story before?

the world’s best golfer wasn’t able to revive Buick sales enough to make a difference, and his $7 million a year contract was terminated by Buick last year after a 9 year partnership.

As far as I know, the owner’s manual for the new Lacrosse will be printed in English, and not in Chinese characters, but if you haven’t figured out by now that “the world is flat”(thank you, Thomas Friedman), you’re definitely not paying attention.

Zai jian

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happy New Year !

One of the highlights of living in China for a year is that I got to celebrate the start of the New Year TWICE in 2004. Unlike the “traditional” New Year of January 1 (which only goes back about 430 years), the Chinese New Year is celebrated on a different date each year because it follows a lunar cycle.

For the same reason, Easter changes dates each year.

The English names of the Chinese New Year are on a 12 year cycle, and rotate through a series of animals. 2009 is the year of the Ox, and it was celebrated on February 7. Due to the fact that the Chinese people have used the same calendar for over 4000 years, the year that we are currently in is actually the year 4706.

Since fireworks were invented in China, the celebration that I witnessed on the banks of the Pearl River in downtown Guangzhou was SPECTACULAR, and their visual effects were heightened by the fact that the teachers from English First that I came with brought LOTS of beer.

I’ve since come to realize that there are NUMEROUS times throughout the year that one group or another is celebrating the New Year:

Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year, is now also commemorated on January 1, but for most of the country’s history, it was a lunar event, which meant it usually coincided with the Chinese New Year.

Although most of the world now uses the Gregorian calendar, some members of the Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar. On THAT calendar, January 1 corresponds to January 14 on the Gregorian calendar, which means that Eastern Orthodox churches actually celebrate the New Year on January 14.

Followers of the Baha’I religion celebrate Naw-Ruz on the vernal equinox, which is normally around March 21.

Until England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, March 25 (the feast of the Annunciation) marked the official start of the New Year.

The celebration REALLY gets confusing for the Buddhists throughout the world because the date of the celebration of the New Year varies by country of origin.

In Theravadin countries (Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos), the New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, the New Year starts on the first full moon day in January. However, the Buddhist New Year depends on the country of origin or ethnic background of the people. Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese celebrate late January or early February according to the lunar calendar, while the Tibetans usually celebrate about one month later.

The New Year date gets even MORE confusing for the Hindus since there is NO single date for the celebration. Various Hindu cultures use different dates, but most of them are in March or April.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the Hebrew calendar date of 10 Tishrei. Since the Hebrew calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar, the date shifts each year. In 2009, Jewish people will celebrate THEIR New Year on September 28.

The Islamic New Year is a cultural event which Muslims observe on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. Since it is also a lunar date, it changes every year. In 2009, the actual date will be on December 18.

I recently discovered that October 31, a date I normally associate with Halloween, is also the Celtic New Year. Since my ancestors are all from Ireland, that little tidbit caught my attention.

Belfast-born Van Morrison, wrote a song about the event. The lyrics, as well as the music, are shown below:

If I don't see you through the week
See you through the window
See you next time that we're talking on the telephone
And don't see you in that Indian summer
Then I want to see you further on up the road

I said, Oh won't you come back?
I have to see you, my dear
Won't you come back in the Celtic New Year?
In the Celtic New Year?

If I don't see you when I'm going down Louisiana
If I don't see you when I'm down on Bourbon Street
If you don't see me when I'm singing, Jack of diamonds
If you don't see me when I'm on my lucky streak

Whoa, I want you, want you to come on back
I've made it very clear
I want you to come back home in the Celtic New Year
Celtic New Year

If I don't see you when the bonfires are burning, burning
If I don't see you when we're singing, The Gloriana tune
If I've got to see you when it's raining deep inside the forest
I got to see you at the waning of the moon

Said, Oh, won't you come on back?
Want you to be of good cheer
Come back home on the Celtic New Year

Celtic New Year
Celtic New Year
Celtic New Year

Come on home, come on home
Come on home, come on home
In the Celtic New Year
In the Celtic New Year

Come on home, come on home
Come on home, come on home
In the Celtic New Year

Next December 31, as you watch that 12,000 pound ball drop towards Times Square, and you listen to yet another rendition of that old Scottish tune popularized by Guy Lombardo, and written by Robert Burns in 1788, take delight in the fact that January 1 is just the first of a long chain of celebrations throughout the year.

Dick Clark, the world’s oldest teenager, is going to have a hard time keeping up!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book ends

The woman pictured in the 2008 picture below will turn 70 years old on October 30:

Like Charlton Heston (who some of us knew as Moses roughly 40 years ago), she was born in Evanston, Illinois.

Her mother was a direct descendant of some of the original Mayflower passengers

Since I, and most of my friends, am now over 60 years old, the age of 70 no longer means being “ancient”. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel a little, it won't seem strange to be 70 for most of us, but it surely will be a little weird for this lady.

For most of her life, she made a living as a musician, and she lasted far longer than many of her contemporaries. Like many people who came of age in the 60’s, she led a lifestyle that was very much removed from the lives led by her Puritan ancestors. She was married twice, and has also admitted to having a few affairs along the way, even when she was still married.

She was arrested three times by California police for “talking while drunk”, and she usually managed to do something controversial whenever she wound up on T.V.

She eventually retired from music to pursue another interest that is not well known to the public, but which she is surprisingly good at: art.

Her name is Grace Slick, and attached below are some samples of some of her paintings:

Although the image at the top of the page looks to be of someone who’s REALLY old, the picture below is what she looked like when she performed at Woodstock in 1969:

If you want to hear “White Rabbit” just one more time, click on the link below:

Grace Slick at Woodstock.

So, Grace, wherever you are, Happy Birthday, but don’t forget to take your pills.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My mother, the bird

During the 1965/1966 TV season, NBC aired a show called “My mother the car”, starring Jerry Van Dyke (brother of Dick Van Dyke)

The show lasted just one season, and in 2002, TV Guide proclaimed it to be the second worst show of all time, just above The Jerry Springer Show:

talk about a dud

Although the critics hated the show, it was a very popular show for children.Lost in the criticism of the show is the fact that it “brought to life” a very ANCIENT topic: reincarnation.

Belief in reincarnation dates back roughly 4000 years, to the early Hindus, and people as prominent as Henry Ford and George Patton firmly believed that they had made life’s journey on this planet at least once before.

Their comments are listed below:

haven’t I seen you someplace before?.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford was convinced he had lived before, most recently as a soldier killed at the battle of Gettysburg. A quote from the San Francisco Examiner from August 26, 1928 described Ford's beliefs:

"I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty-six. Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan I realized that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives.

Some are older souls than others, and so they know more. The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us."

George S. Patton

General George S. Patton was a staunch believer in reincarnation and, along with many other members of his family, often claimed to have seen vivid, lifelike visions of his ancestors. In particular, Patton believed he was a reincarnation of Carthaginian General Hannibal.

Despite the title of this story, I am in no way suggesting that my mother has come back to life as a bird of the air. However, what I found interesting is that there are some remarkable similarities between the Irish farmer’s daughter who brought me to life, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, which was established by the Spanish Francisco fathers on November 1, 1776.

It is the oldest building in what is now California that is still in use:

don’t look up when the birds are flying by

Like many old buildings, the Mission has its resident ghosts, named Magdalena and Teofilo, and, like many old buildings, it has an interesting historical twist.

For centuries, the cliff swallows have traveled from southern Argentina to San Juan Capistrano. They ALWAYS arrive on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, which is the day that Mae Brennan returned to Heaven. In the fall, the swallows leave for Argentine on St. John’s Day, October 23, the day my mother was born in 1913.

when the swallows come back to Capistrano

According to Mapquest , the mission is located about an hour’s drive north of San Diego, and is very close to both San Clemente (remember Richard Nixon?) and the Marine base at Camp Pendleton.

During WWII, mom worked for Consolidated Industries in San Diego, at a plant that made airplanes for the U.S. Air Force. Although she didn’t rivet any planes together (to my knowledge) she probably worked with women who did:

Rosie the Riveter

When the war ended, mom boarded a train in San Diego, and traveled to its final destination point, the main terminal in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, her neighbor from Hastings, Minnesota (Larry Brennan) boarded a train in Dover, Delaware.

Its final destination point was St. Paul, Minnesota.

Through a twist of fate, Larry and Mae arrived at the train station in St. Paul at almost exactly the same time.

Roughly a year later, they were married at Guardian Angels church in Hastings, and moved to St. Paul to start their lives together.

At this point, October 23 really isn’t too far into the future.

On the morning of October 23 (less than a week from now), the swallows will once again start heading south to Argentina, and at least some of you will wake up thinking “I’ve just been waiting for this moment to arrive”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Don't shoot the messenger!!

There are currently 10 National Holidays, which you can view by clicking on the link below:

what are the national holidays?.

Four of them commemorate the extraordinary achievements of individuals:

Martin Luther King Day
President’s Day (Washington and Lincoln birthdays)
Columbus Day
Christmas (which, technically, would be considered a religious holiday).

Five of the remaining six commemorate the achievements of GROUPS of people. Only January 1 is related to a date.

Many of the holidays listed above have been, at times, controversial.

Not every state embraced Martin Luther King Day, and it wasn’t until 1999 that New Hampshire (the last state to recognize the holiday) gave its official blessing, 16 years after the date was first proclaimed a holiday:

live free or die.

Labor Day today is celebrated on May 1 around the world in commemoration of the event that took place in Chicago in May of 1886 (the Haymarket Riots). Although the very first Labor Day in America was celebrated in New York on September 5, 1882, it wasn’t until 1894 (the year of the Pullman strike) that the first Monday in September became a national holiday.

Congress designated May 1 (the International Labor Day) as Loyalty Day in 1958 due to the day's perceived appropriation by the Soviet Union.

Christmas, because it’s a Christian holiday, sometimes ruffles feathers amongst those who don’t consider themselves Christians. Calling it Xmas, or putting a Menorah alongside the manger scene in places like Daley Plaza, doesn’t really solve the issue.

The latest controversy involves Columbus Day.

Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792, in New York City. In 1906, Colorado became the first state to celebrate the holiday, and in 1934 (as a result of lobbying by the Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus) it was made a national holiday. The date for the celebration was fixed at the second Monday in October in 1971.

The truth about Christopher Columbus is that he was actually just a good salesman. After several attempts, he managed to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to lend him LOTS of money so that he could take a shorter route to India and the spice trade.

He wasn’t the first European to reach North America, since Leif Ericson, the Norse, had built a temporary settlement 500 years earlier, but he WAS the first person to initiate contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans.

I recently became aware of a website called,which calls Columbus to task for a couple of things, some of which are detailed below:

who are you calling Kemo Sabe, paleface?.

I’ll be the first to admit that Native Americans have long been mistreated in their native land (for example, they weren’t allowed to vote in national elections until 1923), but the criticism of Columbus seems (to me, at least) a little unfair.

He’s been accused of “opening the floodgates of America to slavery”, even though the first Africans weren’t brought in as slaves in large numbers until the 1700’s, roughly 200 years after Columbus first got here:

who’s been pickin’ your cotton?.

He’s also been criticized for mistreating the natives, even though historical records seem to indicate that he went out of his way to ensure that the natives were treated with respect. The natives HAVE been abused and mistreated, and the site below provides more detail:

who ARE those guys?.

Although public employees in Chicago don’t have to work on Casimir Pulaski Day, and cities around the country have celebrations of various ethnic groups (including my favorite group, the Irish) I’m not in favor of a national holiday for any particular ethnic group, including Native Americans, since it seems to violate the concept of E pluribus unum, a phrase that has been on all American coins since 1873.

As a country, I think that we need to do a better job of acknowledging the heritage, and contributions, of the folks who have lived here for the last 10,000 years or so. When my children were younger, they were enrolled in the YMCA Indian Guides program, which provided at least some insight into the spiritual and economic values of the group of people known today as Native Americans.

Even though the Native American group is a small percentage of the 300,000,000 people that live in the United States, it may surprise you to learn that there are still eight Native American languagest are still spoken here, the most prominent of which is Navajo. At one time, there were roughly 1000 languages that were spoken in North America, so don’t feel embarrassed if you are puzzled by Ebonics.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs formed in 1824 in order to serve the 562 Native American tribes that existed at that time, but similar agencies have existed in the U.S Government since 1775.

As the United States continued its western expansion after the Civil War, there was increasing resentment on the part of the Native Americans who longed for “the way that things used to be”, which led to a period of time called the Indian Wars, which reached their peak at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Not everyone was in favor of wiping out the folks who were here first, and there was probably more than one soldier at a place called Little Big Horn who wished that he was someplace else:

Please Mr. Custer

Toward the end of the tumultuous decade known as the 60’s, the American Indian Movement was established in Minneapolis in 1968 in order to further the interests of the Native American population.The group attracted widespread attention when they took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, and they got additional publicity when Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather decline his award for Best Actor (for the 1972 film, The Godfather) at the 1973 Oscar event.

When I taught English in China, I often reminded my students to take pride in their country’s history, since it goes back at least 6000 years. Sadly, our country still needs to do more to “illuminate the masses” about our own cultural history, which actually goes back about 10,000 years.

As always, education is the best answer.

Denigrating the actions of a guy who died over 400 years ago is the worst possible way to achieve greater respect for the Native American people.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A voice from the grave

I was named after my great uncle Tom, who was killed by a falling tree during the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush, and my maternal grandfather, Martin Stenson.

Although there will eventually be a tale about the Irish ancestor who went “north to Alaska”, this one is about an Irish farmer who I had the privilege of knowing for the first 17 years of my life.

I’ll call this one the Martin Stenson story, but rather than tell it in my words, I’ll let him tell you his story himself:


Good evening.

I once had a farm in Africa – but only in my dreams.

Out of Africa

My name is Martin Stenson. I was born in County Sligo, Ireland on the 24th of November, 1882. I was the 2nd youngest of six children born to Edward Stenson and Catherine Gavagan. My parents were married on St. Patrick’s Day in 1868. Sadly, four of my brothers and sisters died from tuberculosis in the 1880’s, and only I and an older sister survived.

When I was a lad, I used to help my dad on his farm, and enjoyed it so much that I vowed to one day have my own farm.

We were poor, and the cursed English kept all of us that way, so I knew that I would have to eventually leave Ireland in order to prosper. Since the winters were almost always cold and damp in Ireland, I yearned to live in a warmer climate, but the siren song of Africa would never materialize because I didn’t know a soul in that foreign land.

America, though, had sent out a clarion call to me, because it was the land of opportunity. My cousin James immigrated to there in the late 1890’s, so I knew that I would have a ready audience if I ever decided to uproot.

At the age of 16, I moved to England to work in the coal mines, and to save money for the trip across the Atlantic.Finally, in 1901, I set sail for Ellis Island, and my new home.

After completing my processing at Ellis, I boarded a train for the state of Minnesota, where my cousin James had settled.

Several years after settling into my new home in Minnesota, I met a gorgeous young woman named Amelia Karnick. Like many women at that time, Amelia’s mother (Anna Hansen) had died in childbirth, so Amelia was the only child of the marriage of Frank Karnick and Anna Hansen.

After a long courtship (an Irish tradition) we married in the fall of 1911, and shortly thereafter bought a small farm just outside the river city of Hastings, Minnesota.

Our first child, Grace Magdalene, was born in 1912.

The winter of 1913 was particularly harsh. On one especially cold January evening, the wind outside the old farmhouse howled furiously, and the windows rattled in their frames. We huddled closely to stay warm, and sometime during the course of the evening, nature took its course, and we conceived another child.

When she was born, on October 23, we named her Anna, in honor of Amelia’s mother. We also liked the name Mae, so that became here middle name. As our little girl grew older, she grew fond of her middle name, and adopted that as her given name.

During World War II, our daughter Mae moved to California to work for Consolidated Industries. When the war ended, she boarded a train, and headed back to the main train station in St.Paul, Minnesota, about 20 miles from Hastings.

On the same day, Larry Brennan, her neighbor and childhood friend, boarded a train in Dover, Delaware, and got off the train in St. Paul at almost exactly the same time that Mae got off HER train.

Again, nature took its course, and they were married on September 2, 1946. Their marriage produced two children: Thomas Martin (who some of you know) and Mary Catherine

I breathed my last breath on earth on July 10, 1964, in my daughter Mae’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Shortly after my beloved Amelia and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, I turned control of my farm over to my son Harold, who was running the local feed store in town at the time.

On the day before we made the final transition, I picked up my old shillelagh, and went for a walk through our apple orchid just north of the house. I never made it to Africa, and I never made it back to Ireland, but as I walked through that little apple orchard, I thought to myself:

“Here I am, where I ought to be

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rob Roy

Rob Roy, the beverage, made its appearance in New York in the 1890’s, about 10 years after the introduction of the Manhattan. Its introduction coincided with the time that Dewars Scotch Whiskey was introduced to New York, and a play titled Rob Roy opened on Broadway.

The drink was named after a real life Scottish hero named Robert Roy MacGregor, an early 18th century folk hero, who is sometimes called the Scottish Robin Hood. His story was brought to life in the 1995 film titled “Rob Roy”, which starred Liam Neeson.

Although there are several variations of the recipe, the one listed below is the most common:

Rob Roy, the recipe.

Although I’ve long been a scotch “aficionado”, I’ve never had a “perfect Rob Roy” – until last night. I’m here to tell you, it’s a very SMOOTH drink.

On very rare occasions, I'll have a Rusty Nail, a drink containing scotch and Drambuie, a scotch-based liqueur. I introduced my dad to the drink way back in 1970, and it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen a happier man after he took his first sip.

Although many scotch drinkers prefer their drinks “neat” (without ice), there IS an alternative that I still like on occasion:

Cheers !!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

the ironies of life

One of my favorite actors (and probably yours) was a guy named Paul Newman, who died of cancer on September 26, 2008, almost exactly one year ago.

On almost the exact same date, 53 years earlier, an event occurred that propelled the young failed actor to future stardom (his first movie, "The Silver Chalice", bombed at the box office, which caused him to take out a newspaper ad apologizing for its quality)

Included in the cast of characters that were involved in this change in status were a young college student named Donald Turnupseed and the esteemed actor, Alec Guiness ..

but I'm getting ahead of the story.

The first hint of what caused the transformation can be gathered by watching the video clip below (make sure that you have your speakers on for this one) :

the ending of the next video will give you a broader clue:

To quote Paul Harvey, though, here is the rest of the story:

On September 30, 1955, America's favorite young actor was involved in a head on collision with a 1950 Ford driven by Donald Turnupseed, a 23 year old Cal Poly college student.

James Dean died in a nearby hospital later on that same afternoon.

Donald Turnupseed passed away on July 13, 1995. Like Paul Newman, he was also a cancer victim. After the infamous accident involving James Dean, he never publicly discussed the incident.

James was scheduled to portray boxer Rocky Graziano in the film "Somebody Up There Likes Me", after which he planned to retire from acting. After his death, the role was awarded to Paul Newman.

Due to the fact that the studio bosses weren't fully aware of Dean's retirement plans, he was also slated to play the role of Billy the Kid, in "The Left Handed Outlaw".

That role eventually was awarded to ... Paul Newman.

If you'd like to read the full story of "Butch Cassidy's" predecessor on the silver screen, click on the link below:

who ARE those guys?

As I re-read the James Dean biography again tonight on Wikipedia, a few facts jumped out at me:

1) even though James Dean has been dead for 54 years, and he only made three movies (two of which were released after his death) his estate still managed to earn $5,000,000 last year

2) he was almost certainly gay, at a time in America when that was a very dangerous status

3) James Dean and Paul Newman both had an interest in auto racing. Although Dean's racing career was short, he managed to finish in the top three spots in the races that he entered. Paul Newman took racing lessons prior to performing in the 1969 movie "Winning", and went on to have a VERY successful racing career, which included a second place finish at Le Mans in 1979.

4) the Porsche that he was killed in (nicknamed "Little Bastard") has a history eerily similar to the car that Stephen King brought to life in "Christine"

When Dean introduced himself to Alec Guinness outside a restaurant, he asked him to take a look at the Spyder. Guinness thought the car appeared 'sinister' and told Dean: 'If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.' This encounter took place on September 23, 1955, seven days before Dean's death.

Since Dean's death, his Porsche 550 Spyder became infamous for being the vehicle that killed not only him, but for injuring and killing several others in the years following his death. In view of this, many have come to believe that the actor's vehicle and all of its parts were cursed.

Legendary Hot Rodder George Barris bought the wreck for $2,500, only to have it slip off its trailer and break a mechanic's leg. Soon afterwards, Barris sold the engine and drive-train, respectively, to physicians Troy McHenry and William Eschrid. While racing against each other, the former would be killed instantly when his vehicle spun out of control and crashed into a tree, while the latter would be seriously injured when his vehicle rolled over while going into a curve.

Barris later sold two tires, which malfunctioned as well. The tires, which were unharmed in Dean's accident, blew up simultaneously, causing the buyer's auto to crash.

Subsequently, two young would-be thieves were injured while attempting to steal parts from the car. When one tried to steal the steering wheel from the Porsche, his arm was ripped open on a piece of jagged metal. Later, another man was injured while trying to steal the bloodstained front seat. This would be the final straw for Barris, who decided to store "Little Bastard" away, but was quickly
persuaded by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) to lend the wrecked car to a highway safety exhibit.

The first exhibit from the CHP featuring the car ended unsuccessfully, as the garage storing the Spyder went up in flames, destroying everything except the car itself, which suffered almost no damage whatsoever from the fire.

The second display, at a Sacramento High School, ended when the car fell, breaking a student's hip.

"Little Bastard" caused problems while being transported several times. On the way to Salinas, the truck containing the vehicle lost control, causing the driver to fall out, only to be crushed by the Porsche after it fell off the back.

On two separate occasions, once on a freeway and again in Oregon, the car came off other trucks, although no injuries were reported, another vehicle's windshield was shattered in Oregon.

Its last use in a CHP exhibit was in 1959.

In 1960, when being returned to George Barris in Los Angeles, California, the car mysteriously vanished. It has not been seen since

This coming Tuesday, I plan to pick up a couple of jars of "Newman's Own" pasta sauce for a spaghetti dinner, and maybe I'll play a little more "Jimmy Dean" music.

Somehow it just seems like the right thing to do.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Road to Hell

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Everybody knows that. What everybody DOESN’T know is how that phrase applies to me.

Since a blog is an ideal spot for sharing your inner thoughts. It’s high time that I made a confession.

Two summers ago, I was definitely heading to Hell, but unforeseen circumstances caused me to make some major changes in my life.

Starting in January of 2006, I started out on a mission to visit every church in Evanston. By the summer of 2007, I had visited the vast majority of them, although my work schedule didn’t allow for Friday night services at the local synagogues, and some of the Baptist churches didn’t get visited because most of them seemed pretty much the same.

By now, you’re probably assuming that I had an epiphany, and got “born again” into a new religion. Unfortunately, that’s not what this story is about.

It’s about railroad tracks.

The Chicago Tribune published a story about a man named Clayton Klein in the summer of 2006. He’s a pretty old guy, and for a number of years, he has walked from Paradise, Michigan to Hell, Michigan, and then on to Ohio.

The total mileage is 428 miles, and the purpose of the walk is to raise money for charity.

Even though he is now 90 years old, he’s still at it.

In 2009, he started out on September 4, and will finish up on September 28. His bio can be read at the link below:

do you think he’d walk a mile for a Camel?.

After I read the story in The Tribune, the thought that popped into my head was, “gosh, wouldn’t it be fun to ride from Chicago to Hell and back again on my bicycle?”.

I floated the idea past a few friends and family members in the closing months of 2006, and picked up another person who is as crazy as me, my daughter Kelly.

I contacted the transportation departments of both Indiana and Michigan, and a few weeks later, got my complimentary maps in the mail.

For the majority of the trip, the best way to get across the state of Michigan is on Highway 12, which runs a slight diagonal from the lower southwest corner up to Ann Arbor and beyond.

Ultimately, Kelly and I settled on a week that fit both of our schedules, and we actually departed from Chicago on the first Sunday in August. We had lots of water and energy bars to get us through the week, and made motel reservations for the first night in Mishawaka, Indians, roughly 125 miles from our starting point.

We had pretty much everything that we needed, with the exception of spare tubes, a bicycle pump, a tire tool, bandages, and skin sanitizer.

Since my post of March 4 provides a lot more information about the conclusion of the trip, I’d like to refer back to the third paragraph of THIS story.

I was definitely heading to Hell (Michigan) , but unforeseen circumstances (the railroad track that crossed Highway 12 at a 45 degree angle) caused me to make some major changes in my life (the crash brought an immediate halt to the journey, and also caused me to have gravel embedded in my arm for a few days.

The reason that infamous bike ride came to mind again this week is that Kelly and Brett (her riding partner from this year’s RAGBRAI) are planning to ride 100 miles in the Apple Cider Century on September 27.

Like the North Shore Century (which all three of us completed just last Sunday) the Apple Cider ride has been going on for a while. This was the 25th year for the NSC, but the Apple Cider actually started 35 years ago, in 1974, two years after the first RAGBRAI.

The first five Apple Ciders were held entirely with the city limits of Three Oaks, Michigan, but moved 3 miles north in 1980.

This year, the starting point of the ride is back in Three Oaks.

If you plug in Three Oaks, Michigan on either Google Maps or Map Quest, you’ll discover that it sits right on Highway 12.

If you travel east from Three Oaks, you’ll find that eventually you wind up in Saline, which is due south from, and a short ride to, a town called Hell.

Since part of this year’s Apple Cider route will be going east on Highway 12, that means that Kelly, for the second time in her life, will be on the road to Hell.

This year, I’ve got a strong suspicion that her journey will be a lot more fun that the last one.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Michael Jackson and the white rabbit

On the same day that Farrah Fawcett became one of the angels again (June 25, 2009) Michael Jackson, the king of pop, died of mysterious causes at UCLA hospital.

Roughly two months later, his death was ruled a homicide by the Los Angeles County coroner's office, who said that the death was caused primarily by "propofol intoxication."

The coroner's office confirmed that it found lethal levels of the powerful anesthetic propofol in Jackson's body. The death was caused by a mix of drugs meant to treat insomnia.

The drugs PROPOFOL and LORAZEPAM were found to be the primary drugs responsible for Mr. Jackson's death. Other drugs detected were Midazolam, Diazepam, Lidocaine and Ephedrine.

The final Coroner's report, including the complete toxicology report will remain on Security Hold at the request of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County District Attorney.

The finding makes it more likely criminal charges will be filed against Jackson's personal doctor, Dr. Conrad Murray, the doctor who was with the pop star when he died. Murray is the target of a manslaughter probe headed by Los Angeles police.

Like many other famous people before him (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Lenny Bruce, Kurt Cobain etal) Jackson became victim of the mentality that pills, or drugs, can cure any ailment.

That idea was central to the theme of my favorite song from Woodstock, which took place 40 years ago this summer:

White Rabbit

In view of the fact that pharmaceutical sales in America are now close to $300 Billion a year, it’s not surprising that a lot of people believe they can cure their problems simply by popping a pill. Not too many years ago, my mother-in-law consumed THIRTEEN different pills at every meal!

Believe it or not, there IS a better way, and it’s considerably less expensive than the solution the drug companies would have us follow. Although there are several variations, the “better way” could best be summarized as “natural healing”, and is sometimes described as “holistic medicine”.

Tai Chi originated in China thousands of years ago. On July 22, 2009, the Chicago Tribune published an article about its benefits:

tai chi

Yoga started about 5000 years ago in India. Although I haven’t practiced a lot of yoga, I know someone who has, and it probably saved his life.

Roughly 5 years ago, our son Brian was experiencing a lot of anxiety, a very common occurrence for people in their mid-20’s. When he first discovered yoga (possibly at the urging of my sister, the nurse) he meditated 5 times a week, for an hour each time. Over time, he reduced his anxiety to a much more manageable level, and now meditates once or twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.

At the height of his anxiety, he developed agoraphobia, which meant that he became highly stressed even if he left the house. The agoraphobia lasted about a year, but eventually faded away.

The origin of the practice of acupuncture is shrouded in antiquity, but it likely goes back several thousand years.

Grace Slick and I have more in common than you might think.

She was born in Evanston (the town where I currently live) in 1939, but her family moved to California in the early 1950’s. She has had a very “interesting” lifestyle since that time, and has been arrested three times for “talking under the influence”, but she is still alive today, even though she literally does not remember some of the years that have passed in between.

In the closing moments of “white rabbit” Grace tells us to “feed your head”.

If you’re tuned into yoga, you’re doing EXACTLY that.


In case you’re wondering what my favorite Jefferson Airplane song is ..

Give me a minute ..

it will come back to me ..

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rockin Robin

Not long ago, one of my internet friends admitted that she has switched from NPR and CNN to Twitter as her main source of news.

For some reason, her comment reminded me of a song that Simon & Garfunkel released in 1968, titled “The Only Living Boy in New York”

One of the refrains on the song is this one:

“I can gather all the news I need on the weather report”.

If you updated that refrain to today, it would have to be “I can gather all the news I need - on Twitter”.

Although a DO have a profile page on Facebook, I have so far resisted the urge to join Twitter, a company that really only started doing business three years ago.

When I read that she tweets on a regular basis, the first thing that came to mind was the song that was released by the late Bobby Day
way back in 1958:

In 1972, the Jackson Five did another version, and the main performer in their version was a young man named Michael, who was born on August 29, 1958 (the year that the song was originally released.)

I already spend more time than I should on the computer, so it’s not likely that I’ll start tweeting anytime soon. However, if you are inclined to join the latest “social networking” phenomenon, all I can add is this:

“The early bird catches the worm.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It's Not About the Goat

The family of Joe Ricketts, an Omaha billionaire, recently finalized the purchase of the Chicago Cubs from the Tribune Company for $845 million, which gives them a 95% ownership in the team, Wrigley Field, and its broadcast assets. That amount is roughly 3 ½ times the Cub's 2008 revenue of $241 million.

When the Tribune Company purchased the team from the Wrigley family in 1981 for $21.1 million, the team’s financial performance, as well as its performance on the field, was a lot less rosy.

Although the Steve Bartman incident is a more recent example of the Cub’s star-crossed history, no story captures the history of the team better than a song that was written in 1983.

With apologies to Lance Armstrong, whose first book was titled, "It's Not About the Bike", there's a whole lot more to the Chicago Cubs than the story about Sam Siannis being unable to bring his goat to the game in 1945, forever condemning the Cubs to DECADES of continuing futility.

The late Steve Goodman is best known for the song that he wrote titled "City of New Orleans", which was popularized by Arlo Guthrie, and has also been performed by Willie Nelson, John Denver, Johnny Cash and The Highwaymen.

Willie’s video has the best pictorial presentation of the song:

However, Steve's most lasting legacy will always be the tribute song that he wrote for his favorite baseball team in late 1983, less than a year before his death at the age of 36.

I've attached a copy of the song below. Not only does it explain a lot about the reason that most people root for the underdog, it also helps to explain the emotional attachment that folks develop for a town named after an onion.

Steve died on September 20, 1984, almost exactly 25 years ago. Just four days after his death, his beloved Chicago Cubs clinched the Eastern Division title in the National League for the first time ever, earning them their first post-season appearance since 1945, three years before Goodman's birth. Eight days later, on October 2, the Cubs played their first post-season game since the 1945 World Series.

His ashes were scattered at Wrigley Field in April of 1988.

The song debuted on Roy Leonard's WGN radio show on March 16, 1983, when Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns walked into the WGN studios around 11:00 a.m. They had just finished a weekend at Park West and Steve said he had introduced a song the night before that he would like to sing on the radio for the first time. With Jethro on mandolin and Steve's guitar for accompaniment, A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request was heard on the radio the first time.

A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request

By the shores of old Lake Michigan
Where the "hawk wind" blows so cold
An old Cub fan lay dying
In his midnight hour that tolled
All around his bed, his friends had all gathered
They knew his time was short
Up on his head they put this bright blue cap
From his all-time favorite sport
He told them, "Its late and its getting dark in here"
And I know its time to go
But before I leave the line-up
Boys, there's just one thing I'd like to know

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

He told his friends "You know the law of averages says:
Anything will happen that can"
That's what it says
"But the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant
Was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan"
The Cubs made me a criminal
Sent me down a wayward path
They stole my youth from me
(that's the truth)
I'd forsake my teachers
To go sit in the bleachers
In flagrant truancy

And then one thing led to another
and soon I'd discovered alcohol, gambling, dope
football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis
But what do you expect,
When you raise up a young boy's hopes
And then just crush 'em like so many paper beer cups.

Year after year after year
after year, after year, after year, after year, after year
Until those hopes are just so much popcorn
for the pigeons beneath the 'L' tracks to eat
He said, "You know I'll never see Wrigley Field, anymore before my eternal rest
So if you have your pencils and your score cards ready,
and I'll read you my last request
He said, "Give me a double header funeral in Wrigley Field
On some sunny weekend day (no lights)
Have the organ play the "National Anthem"
and then a little 'na, na, na, na, hey hey, hey, Goodbye'
Make six bullpen pitchers, carry my coffin
and six ground keepers clear my path
Have the umpires bark me out at every base
In all their holy wrath
Its a beautiful day for a funeral, Hey Ernie lets play two!
Somebody go get Jack Brickhouse to come back,
and conduct just one more interview
Have the Cubbies run right out into the middle of the field,
Have Keith Moreland drop a routine fly
Give everybody two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt
And I'll be ready to die

Build a big fire on home plate out of your Louisville Sluggers baseball bats,
And toss my coffin in
Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow
From the prevailing 30 mile an hour southwest wind
When my last remains go flying over the left-field wall
Will bid the bleacher bums adieu
And I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue

The dying man's friends told him to cut it out
They said stop it that's an awful shame
He whispered, "Don't Cry, we'll meet by and by near the Heavenly Hall of Fame
He said, "I've got season's tickets to watch the Angels now,
So its just what I'm going to do
He said, "but you the living, you're stuck here with the Cubs,
So its me that feels sorry for you!"

And he said, "Ahh Play, play that lonesome losers tune,
That's the one I like the best"
And he closed his eyes, and slipped away
What we got is the Dying Cub Fan's Last Request
And here it is

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

As of this morning, the Cubs were in second place in the National League Central Division, with 38 games left in the regular season. To quote the late Mr. Goodman, “anything will happen that can”.

Although there may still be time to get your 2009 World Series tickets featuring the Cubs and an undetermined opponent, it’s best to save your money for a rainy day.

Just stop blaming the goat.