Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Colors of autumn

When I was a kid I thought only elderly folks went on trips to view the fall colors. Leaves get old and die. So what? It happens every year.

So what indeed. Now that I'm approaching the winter of my life, I've begun to appreciate the fall colors a lot more than I did all those years ago. Last Friday the Lady Friend and I drove back up from Evanston to the Writer's Lair in Upper Michigan, and we often slowed to marvel at the red-gold riot along the highway. It's as if the trees blushed in a last flush of moribund glory. What a way to go.

If trees were sentient -- and who's to say they aren't? -- they'd rejoice in the certainty that next spring they'll green up again and resume the cycle of life. Maybe in some atavistic way this is the source for human belief in an afterlife -- a belief increasing numbers of anthropologists think is hard-wired in our evolution. Were we once trees?

Be that as it may, fall colors are worth celebrating just for their own sake. There's nothing quite like rounding a curve full of varying hues of brown and yellow aspens and birches and encountering a maple so spectacularly scarlet that you just have to stop the car and get out to photograph it.

Up close, autumnal maple leaves look as if their tips have been dipped in a jar of red paint, or spattered with a flicked paintbrush. The green of some leaves slowly recedes from the red, like the hairline of a grandfather before advancing scalp.

Maybe someday I'll produce a book that burns with the brilliant glow of a dying maple leaf. Yep, what a way to go.

Monday, September 29, 2008

I can see your house from Russia!

Most political snark shared around the Internet is to be ignored, but this was just too good to pass up. (Tip of the hat to Roger Ebert.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Here comes (or there goes) the ekranoplan

A Soviet ekranoplan of the 1980s. The CIA called it the "Caspian Sea Monster." (Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.)

We need something to take our minds off Obama vs. Bush and the financial meltdown, and this morning I came across a BBC report on the ekranoplan, which should serve to divert your attention sufficiently.

Ekranoplan? Never heard of it, either.

Today's BBC Online reports via streaming video that a weird Russian flying/sailing machine operated across the Caspian Sea during the Cold War. It's neither a plane nor a boat, but a speedy streamlined vehicle that, somewhat like a hovercraft, flies in "ground effect" over water.

Another BBC streaming video describes an ekranoplan currently operating.

A third video takes viewers into the cockpit..

And no, none of the videos are captioned. Bummer.

Wikipedia, however, has an interesting article on the ekranoplan.

Now, back to reality.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Obama won? I want to see for myself

All the important pundits are declaring that Obama won last night's debate, that he seemed presidential while McCain was just pugnacious.

Okay, but I'd really like to see for myself. I'd like to see the actual combat and make up my own mind instead of having it made up for me.

We don't have television up here at the Writer's Lair in the wilderness of upper Michigan. Oh, other folks have TV, but we don't. We depend on NPR (which, of course, I can't hear) and the Internet for our news.

Besides, we arose so early yesterday morning for the 8-hour drive up from Evanston that we were wiped out and went to bed by the time the debate began.

So this morning I went looking for streaming video of the debate. There's lots of it.

But none of it is captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing.

This is bizarre. All television news is captioned -- it's the law. At least in that venue those who cannot hear are not treated as second-class citizens, minorities to be ignored.

But the sun of enlightenment has yet to shine on Web news organizations. Not one single Web news outlet captions its streaming video. Not PBS, not the New York Times, not Fox, not Salon, Slate or Huffington Post. Not even the Chicago Sun-Times, where I used to work.

Over the last several months I've written to them all, suggesting that they think about proactively captioning their news streaming video before Congress makes it the law. Captioning -- either closed or open -- is not expensive. Doing so now would score a news outlet brownie points for good citizenship.

I have received NOT ONE REPLY, except for a one-sentence response from the Chicago Tribune: "We're working on it."

Pardon me, but bullshit. That's just a contemptuous blowoff.

And so I just have to trust the pundits. Obama won, didn't he? Didn't he?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Will the Tribune endorse Obama?

One of the great amusements for journalists of recent years has been the Chicago Tribune's absolute and unwavering refusal to endorse a Democrat for President, no matter how weak a candidate the Republican might be.

But now that somebody else owns the paper and is not such a prisoner of history, maybe that unbroken record will be overturned.

But will it? Mike Miner, Chicago's smartest and most knowledgeable press critic, speculates on the subject in a lively column in the Chicago Reader today.

OCTOBER 8: Now it seems that the Tribune's editorial page is polling readers on their presidential choices. Is Vox Pop going to seal the deal, or will the Trib yank the rug out from under the majority? Miner continues the speculation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Where there's a Will . . .

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm a secular humanist and political liberal, so don't often commend right-wing views. But George F. Will's column on John McCain in today's Washington Post gave me pause, and it should do the same for you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

In praise of readers

Ah, readers. Writers cannot get along with them, especially ones like me -- non-literary authors who depend on those who buy our books to keep both our bank accounts and our egoes healthy. We have to be nice to our audiences, else they'll judge our books by our irascibility, not our talents. (Literary types are allowed to be eccentric, but not us popular scribblers.)

That's why I'll always answer a personal letter, or email, sent to me about one of my books. They're almost always pleasant letters, even when someone points out a glaring mistake I've made. Twice professors of pathology have wrapped a sharp correction about corpses in a blanket of praise about the rest of the novel. I appreciated these professionals taking my work -- and my feelings -- seriously enough to write and set me straight so that I wouldn't make the same error again.

Sometimes -- not often -- a stranger will ask if she (it's never a he) can meet for a cup of coffee and talk about a book she liked and to get a personal autograph. It's not always easy to know how to respond. Sometimes people believe that because they paid twenty-five bucks for one of your books they own a piece of you and you therefore owe them face time. These folks can be unbalanced, and that is why best-selling writers protect themselves by meeting their publics only at autographings and library functions and the like.

I am not a best-seller, however. My public is small, so each reader of mine is important to me. And so I'll set aside my innate shyness for a personal meeting if the initial communication suggests the reader isn't cuckoo. Twice last summer I met with such visitors at the Writer's Lair, and each of those meetings was pleasant. (One of the readers brought cookies, which always will disarm any lingering suspicions.)

All these people seem to believe enough in their opinions to set them down on paper, or in the form of email. They are willing to go on record, and so I am willing to respond on record as well.

It's the readers who won't do this -- and they are endemic at social functions -- that give me fits. They're the ones who zero in on you and once they have got you alone they lean into your face and say without a pretense at softening-up preamble, "I've got a couple of complaints about your book." It's at those moments that I'll make a quick excuse and depart the vicinity or, if I'm truly trapped, I'll say, "Sorry, I prefer not to talk about that."

These folks may mean well, but they are so insensitive that they fail to to understand that our books are like our children. We have done our best to raise them, they are out in the world, and if they have gone wrong there is nothing we can do about it now.

"I don't shit on your kids," I want to say, "and don't you shit on mine."

I was once a professional reviewer, a critic who praised what he saw as good and condemned what he saw as bad. But I did so in print, which gives critiqued writers the opportunity to react in print as well. There's something about setting thoughts to text that levels the playing field and results in the equal competition of ideas.

Busybody buttonholing of an author at a social function, however, does not. And that's why you hear so many stories about writers throwing drinks in somebody's face.

Let's have a toast to the Cubs instead.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Wing to wing

Jim Sweet and his 1946 Ercoupe off my port beam, September 18, 2008

Heads up, wingman -- bandits at twelve o'clock low! See 'em? Roger. "Maintain radio silence," I mouth across the fifty yards separating our Mustangs as Captain Sweet spots the approaching Messerschmitts. Give 'em a few seconds. Sweet looks my way and I point downward. He nods. Saluting, I thrust the 1,440-horsepower Merlin into war emergency power and snap-roll the fighter into a quick split-S, screaming for the enemy a thousand feet below . . .

Flying formation with a fellow pilot does tend to throw me into the vivid daydreams of the small boy I once was and, in many ways, still am.

Yesterday Jim Sweet, a high school classmate who is now a dentist in Marengo, Illinois, and I met at his grass airfield, the aptly named Grandpa's Farm near Union, Illinois, northwest of O'Hare, and flew wing to wing -- I in my little old 1959 Cessna 150 and Jim in his even littler and older 1946 Ercoupe -- roughly 25 miles north to Lake Lawn Airport near Delavan, Wisconsin.

The most highly trained pilots, those who fly military jets, can tuck their wings into their neighbors' armpits and keep them that way for impossibly long times. Jim and I flew a safe 75 to 100 yards apart, I a bit higher and slightly behind, ready to break away at the slightest hint of danger. Not that a couple of old air-beaters barely making 100 miles an hour and flying in the same general direction are in much peril of collision.

But it took all my concentration to maintain speed, altitude and course through the thermal bumps while keeping one eye on the Ercoupe. It was a good day to brush up on aviating skills as well as lighten the wallet.

At Lake Lawn Jim and I extricated our creaky carcasses from our airplanes and limped across the highway to Lake Lawn Resort for what pilots still call a "$100 hamburger" but in these parlous times costs a lot more than that, once you add up all the gas, oil, insurance, maintenance and hangarage it takes to fly a few miles for lunch. But that half-hour in the air was priceless.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

A bump in the road comes up in the world

If you can't find Green, click on the map for a larger version.

After a long absence from the official road maps of the state of Michigan, the unincorporated town of Green -- population roughly 350, not including deer, bear and wolves -- has been returned to its former glory and will be listed on the 2009 Michigan Highway Map, thanks to the squeaky wheels of the denizens of the place.

This may seem a classic piece of local trivia to you, but it is important to me, for the Writer's Lair -- our Upper Michigan summer cabin -- lies within the town of Green. The cabin is also the home of Steve Martinez, the sheriff of my mystery novels, and so there is a certain sentimental victory in the cartographic re-establishment of Green, however minuscule a triumph that might be.

Green, a bump in the road on State Highway M-64 along the Lake Superior shore halfway between Ontonagon (Porcupine City in the novels) and Silver City (a k a Silverton), owns a storied history as a turn-of-the-20th-century lumber camp. With the disappearance of the lordly forest to clear-cutting, the place went into a long, slow decline, though it never lost much population if at all. There has been no post office since 1934, and not even a gas station or similar remnant of commerce survives.

But the descendants of those who built the town are still proud of its wilderness beauty. In 2004 they prevailed upon the highway department to erect two "GREEN" signs on M-64 at the town's outskirts for its centennial celebration, and now the highway map people have accepted the existence of the signs as a reason for putting Green on the map. (The other of two criteria for inclusion -- only one of which has to be met -- is having a unique zip code. Green shares its with Ontonagon.)

There is no better place to photograph the glorious sunsets of summer on Lake Superior.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Back into the air

Scattered cloud at 3,000 feet above northern Illinois, September 16, 2008

Yesterday I took old N5859E into the air. She's the Cessna 150 that carried me from New York to Los Angeles for my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz. It was our first flight in five and a half months, a layoff necessitated by industrial-strength spinal surgery, and it was -- need I say it? -- a visit to heaven.

That airplane was built in 1959, which means she will be half a century old next year -- a certified antique, like me. But she is still stout and airworthy and so, it turned out, am I.

For an hour and a half we tiptoed across scattered early-morning cumulus and shot landings and takeoffs at Lake in the Hills and Westosha airports. What they say is true: once a pilot, always a pilot. My flying skills had not rusted during the long interval, as I had feared they might.

None of the landings were smooth "greasers," but they wouldn't have earned cackles from the veterans in the pilot lounge. There was a smart thunk as the wheels embraced the pavement, then a straight and true rollout through a mildly gusty crosswind.

It brought back sweet memories of flying over the Verrazano Narrows, then past the World Trade Center up the Hudson and over the George Washington Bridge before turning west into lower New York State for a six-week cross-continent adventure in 1995. We're a little old for that now, Gin Fizz and I, but we can still enjoy brief excursions into the blue.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Economist

A couple of decades (or maybe more) ago, I read Time magazine every week as part of my newspaper job -- also an occasional Newsweek and once in a long while a US News and World Report. Added to three newspapers a day (the Chicago Sun-Times, my employer; the Chicago Tribune, the competition; and the New York Times) I felt fairly well informed about general news. (This does not count specialized magazines such as Publishers Weekly or The New Yorker.)

In recent years, however, I've stopped reading the newsweeklies. Like all too many dailies, in their struggle for survival they've gone way, way downmarket, focusing on celebritneys, movies, television and other sound-bitey items of pop culture. There's less and less to the magazines each week as advertising disappears and their news holes shrink.

Then, last month, an airline offered me a choice of magazines in exchange for my dormant frequent-flyer miles. I opted for The Economist, which I'd loved to read whenever I found it on somebody else's coffee table, which was rarely. At $200 a year it's too pricey for this retiree.

But now I'm in heaven. Here is a magazine that does not insult its readership but assumes both intelligence and education. Though it is British-based, it covers the world in depth (this week's issue carries a long and fascinating article on Egypt, a potential minefield of radical Islamism). It treats the United States with offbeat but relevant pieces (Wisconsin as a swing state, Wyoming as heaven for libraries) and this week publishes a long and thoughtful article about cancer and stem cells. Its book reviews are both scholarly and readable.

The prose is neither thick nor abstruse but is surprisingly clear and lively.

Even the want ads entice; HM Government seeks a chair for its committee on climate change, and M.I.6 is looking for operational officers.

Best of all, a print subscription entitles one to premium content on the Economist's web site. Check out its excellent daily news analysis.

How nice to be treated like a reader with a mind.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ontonagon pre-fire photos available

By request of those interested in the August 31 fire in Ontonagon, Michigan, the five pre-fire photographs of the River Street block that burned have been posted in a Flickr account. They can be downloaded by anyone; the copyrights are waived.

[September 24: The state police fire marshal has ruled that the cause of the fire cannot be determined because of extensive damage.]

Quoted without comment

From an article in today's New York Times:

And she [Sarah Palin] began to eye the library. For years, social conservatives had pressed the library director to remove books they considered immoral.

“People would bring books back censored,” recalled former Mayor John Stein, Ms. Palin’s predecessor. “Pages would get marked up or torn out.”

Witnesses and contemporary news accounts say Ms. Palin asked the librarian about removing books from the shelves. The McCain-Palin presidential campaign says Ms. Palin never advocated censorship.

But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase [Laura Chase, Palin's campaign manager during her first run for mayor] and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008


This past summer, like a good green fellow, I tried hard to stretch every gallon of gas while driving our Odyssey. We have a Civic, too, but when we drive the 400 miles up to the Writer's Lair, we need the minivan to haul all our crap. (That's partly why the tiny house movement, described in the previous blogpost, appeals so much to me.)

As much as I could, I drove at exactly the limit -- 65 on the interstates and 55 on the two-lanes -- and got 26.5 to 27 miles per gallon. In previous years I'd do 70 and 60, reasoning that 5 mph over the limit was a gimme from the smokeys. Never got stopped, too. But I'd get only about 24 mpg at those speeds.

Trouble this summer was the Escalades and Navigators would bomb past me in the left lane at 80 (where were the cops?) and honk impatiently behind me on the two-lanes, as if doing the limit was a major inconvenience to them. The price of gasoline does not seem to deter aggressive, self-absorbed assholishness.

Dealing with that is bad enough at the speed limit, but "hypermiling" -- driving at a lower speed, usually 45 mph, designed to absolutely maximize miles per gallon -- is dangerous as hell, although more and more people are doing it. Hypermiling invites rear-ending on interstates and dangerous passing on curves on two-lanes.

But there is a sensible way to maximize mpg (it helps best if you drive a Prius), and that may come in especially handy now that Hurricane Ike has shut down the Gulf refineries and is driving the price of gas toward $5 a gallon.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Tiny House Movement

It's only 8 feet by 19 feet, with 117 square feet of living space on the first floor, complete with porch, bath, toilet and shower and a sleeping loft above, but Tumbleweed Tiny House Company's $46,997 Lusby can be moved over the highway or parked permanently.

Until last Wednesday, when the New York Times published a story headlined "The Next Little Thing?", I had never heard of the Tiny House Movement. (It hasn't even got a Wikipedia entry.) Now I am utterly entranced by the idea.

The people who advocate living in homes as small as 100 square feet (that's 10 feet by 10 feet!) are realistic about their passion. It's not for families, but two people max -- and they'd better like each other a lot. (Those who feel the need to display their wealth conspicuously can look elsewhere.)

Very, very tiny houses, their champions acknowledge, are often intended just to make a green statement, but even on wheels they can be remarkably useful for people looking for summer cottages, or homeowners seeking to build separate quarters for in-laws. More livable, permanently rooted tiny houses can run up to 800 square feet.

The advantages to tiny houses are considerable:

Construction costs are minimal: $20,000 to $90,000, depending on the size of the tiny house, and whether it's on wheels or a full foundation. It needn't be a boxy Unabomber cabin, but can be designed with high style by a gifted architect. (At the other extreme, some people build only with free materials they can scrounge; this is recycling with a vengeance.)

Property taxes are small.

Energy costs and carbon footprint are also minimal. (One would feel exceptionally virtuous parking one's Prius next to a tiny house.)

So is upkeep labor. A well-built little house uses top-grade materials and will last.

Finally, there is maximum freedom from the encumbrances of stuff. (These little houses have almost no storage space.)

And the disadvantages? No place to stash one's crap. No spare bedroom to stomp into and slam the door when one has a fight with one's spouse or partner. But that's about it.

The Lady Friend and I spend our summers in a cabin by Lake Superior that's designed for three seasons. The Writer's Lair is fairly roomy, with three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and a great room, but it has no heating plant, save for an open fireplace in the living room and portable electric heaters in the bedrooms). The water system can be used only from April to November.

But if in one corner of the property we built a full-fledged tiny house of, say, 350 or 400 square feet, complete with all-season plumbing and a modest LP gas furnace designed for mobile homes, we could spend winters there. During summers, when the children and their families noisily pack the cabin, the Lady Friend and I could escape to our tiny house.

Full disclosure: We've got a 12x20 garden shed on the property for the usual crap, and for my wood workshop (it's electrified).

Of course a tiny house is just a dream, for we've got a house in the city and the market is terrible. Still, let me tell you, it's an awfully enticing dream. A tiny house that I could maintain myself, with the Lady Friend's help, despite my advancing age and bad back . . . what's not to like?

A very good resource for those who are interested: Small House Style is a blog that specializes in current news about the topic. It has a growing listing of tiny house manufacturers, including one whose wares are now available at Lowe's home centers.

The Small House Society web site ably explains the philosophy behind this style of living.

Think small. Save the globe.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sorry is as sorry does

Today 23/6: Some of the News, Most of the Time, one of the best absurdist political comedy sites on the Web, is displaying "apology cards" Obama might send to McCain for the remark he made the other day. Yes, 23/6 is part of the Huffington Post and not a site I'd recommend for red-meat conservatives, but it is funny. It's as if the early Mad Magazine crew had grown up into madcap technoadepts. The humor is often juvenile, but more often it's dead on target.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The View from 68

In a couple of weeks I will achieve one of those milestones of advancing age, attendance at my 50th high school reunion.

How do I feel about that?

Let me quote the great critic Malcolm Cowley, who, on his 88th birthday, said: "I feel all of eighteen . . . with something wrong."

Amen. In the last decade surgeons have implanted so much metal in my body that I'm probably worth more at the scrap yard than at the bank. Luckily, I've avoided a heart attack so far, and I'm able to walk more than a few yards again, thanks to recent spinal surgery. Things could be worse, a lot worse.

I could be as dispirited as the artist Maurice Sendak, who not long ago underwent only a triple bypass when most heart patients have quadruples. "Makes me feel a failure," he told the New York Times yesterday.

You know you're old when you no longer drop subtle hints about your net worth but issue frank revelations of the expense and risk of your medical procedures. When our wives pull out photos of the grandchildren, we husbands pull up trouser legs to show off our knee replacement scars. (A total replacement trumps a partial one.)

Is it any wonder that our children come up with convenient excuses to go into another room when this happens?

They're not really finding us tiresome, as they think. Looking at us makes them dread, deep down, their own decline. This is why the naive little ignoramuses come up with cheery words about An Active Golden Age when they haven't the slightest idea of what really goes on. Talk about whistling past the graveyard!

For the most part, we geezers accept the consequences. Some of us don't. I have friends who horrify their wives with frantic "Bucket List" antics, trying to retain their youthful brio while their bodies are collapsing all around them. They think they're making the most of the time remaining to them, but, really, they're pitiable in their efforts to seem young while the rest of us know better.

I'm not looking forward to that reunion with any relish. All those wattles and wrinkles and sags and bags and limps and stoops will only remind me of my own. But my wife and some of my friends are making me go, if only to forestall reclusehood.

This is not to say that advancing age always brings increasing gloom. Another grandchild was born this week, and that is a real joy.

Now I have to decide whether to put down a few thousand dollars for a trip (cruise and guided tour, not independent backpacking) to Alaska next May. Will I still be ambulatory eight months hence? Or should I simply live day to day and hope for the best?

Ah . . . I'll go for it. What's the alternative?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

My Latest Favoritest Website

. . . is Photoshop Disasters, a merry site devoted to commercial illustrations, mostly ads and magazine covers but also some shameless newspaper alterations, that were botched by ham-handed, clueless or inattentive Photoshop artists. Did a shark bite off this lass's left leg, or did the artist forget to put it back into the illustration? The site is now No. 11 on my Ten Favorite Websites list, and is well worth your time if you need some comic relief after trying to put your car into the garage in the ad below.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ed Zotti and the Brotherhood of the Right Way

The City of Chicago sucks. It's in rocky financial shape. Its air fails to meet new EPA standards. Its expressways are gridlocked, its streets teem with drive-by shootings, its public schools are abysmal, its politicians practice shameless primogeniture and its once great newspapers are circling the drain.

But Ed Zotti has so much faith in Chicago that he spent years, untold thousands of dollars, and countless buckets of sweat to rehab a shabby old Victorian there -- in a perverse mirror image of the folks who flee the city to fix up houses in the suburbs and the country. The man is nuts. (So am I. For three years my wife and I have been fixing up an old log cabin in Upper Michigan.)

Zotti is, however, oh so very readably nuts. His new book, The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber (New American Library, $22.95) will warm the cockles of any ham-fisted homeowner who hands half his paycheck to Home Depot every Saturday morning or fills his contractor's bottomless pockets once a month -- or both.

Zotti, as every Chicago writer knows, does the "Straight Dope" column as "Cecil Adams" for the Chicago Reader and other formerly alternative weeklies. As a writer he is both a superb stylist and a superb explainer, a rare combination whose reigning demigods are Tracy Kidder and John McPhee.

He begins in his childhood, when his irascible perfectionist handyman father (I had one of those, too) introduced him to the principles of the Brotherhood of the Right Way. Its members believe not in "okay" or "good enough for government work," but using only proper and painstaking techniques to build something both beautiful and lasting.

Zotti followed this mantra when he and his wife bought an empty pile in a questionable (to put it mildly) neighborhood in the northern wastes of Chicago -- a frightening place full of Munstrous ghosts, burglars and derelicts -- and set out to Fix It Up, a weak phrase for more than a decade of obsession full of hard and expensive labor, his own and others'. The place was a dump, but Zotti saw through the mouseturds and cobwebs to the beauty in its classic lines.

Joist by joist, rafter by rafter, outlet by outlet, workman by workman, hanger-on by hanger-on he takes us through the procedures of restoration, sometimes with drawings and always engagingly, like a Bob Vila who can write. Once in a while the proceedings might start to flag, especially for those uninterested in the relative merits of hammer and saw, but a frequent and often funny anecdote quickly restores interest.

The best of these tales are about the many memorable tradesmen who worked on Zotti's house. One such was the Chief, both talkative and unflappable. If he "had been held in a sensory deprivation tank for a week, he would afterward be able to spend two hours describing the fluctuations in his pulse." Nor could he be rushed; "if the Chief were talking and a ticking bomb thirty seconds short of doomsday were left in his lap . . . his only response would be to acknowledge the urgency of the situation and proceed as before."

There are asides into Chicago immigrant sociology. Who outside the city knew the best drywall guys are Mexican? There are also unfailingly interesting detours into urban history and planning, especially the processes of gentrification. This book is about a lot more than sawing and nailing, plumbing and wiring; it is about understanding one's community, its past and its future.

And about understanding one's own place in that community. In one of many richly rendered passages, Zotti tells how an old electrician watched him "crank down a fitting with what he considered excessive force" and said, "I'd hate to be the guy that comes after you."

That gave Zotti pause. He wasn't, he realized, the first to work on that old house and he wouldn't be the last. He appreciated those before him who had done things properly, and he hoped those who followed would appreciate his work. Rehabbing the Right Way is a long continuum of skill and caring.

The tradesmen who belong to the brotherhood often are unappreciated by the bottom-line guys, Zotti writes. "You were an artist in a world that didn't reward artistry -- I knew that from my own experience. As a writer I occasionally got compliments for a well-turned paragraph -- people expected such things of writers. But rare was the electrical job at the end of which people came up to me and said, Hey, nice pipes."

That costs lots of money. Piles and piles of it. Though the long, long project kept them broke and often discouraged, Zotti and his impossibly patient and tolerant wife were fortunate in having plenty of income, as he is quick to acknowledge. The less well-heeled, he admits, would have had a much harder time of it than he did. (Not that it was easy.)

Nice pipes, Ed. Nice book, too.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

My Top Ten Web sites

There seems to be nothing gripping to write about today, so I will fall back on that lazy columnist's trick of Making a Top Ten List. Therefore, here are the top ten web sites in my daily surfing:

The New York Times. All the news that's fit to squint, in what is far and away the most attractive, best-designed Web newspaper site.

Huffington Post. The best liberal op-ed blog site. It screeches to the converted, but we lefties need red meat, too.

Consumerist.com. A daily compendium of consumer nightmares, some horrible, some hilarious. Example: During Hurricane Hanna, Priceline.com tried to sell rooms at Hilton Head for $64 each. The 73-mph winds were free.

Cute Overload. A new, insufferably cute animal video or photo every day, just the thing to snap one out of the morning blues. You've got to get used to the editor's mock baby talk, however.

Jim Romenesko. The day's news about the news biz; who's getting canned, who's getting a buyout, who's been a bad boy, whose bottom line is in trouble. The best place to watch the comic-opera collapse of the Chicago Tribune. I'm not thrilled, however, about the site's new page design.

YouTube. Simply because it's addictive.

The official Chicago Cubs site. Need you ask why?

B&H Photo. The photographer's version of the Victoria's Secret catalog.

Amazon.com. How are my book sales doing today? (Lousy.)

Railforum. Trash talk for trainspotters.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sympathy for Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, he of the steroid-fueled home-run stats, may be a complete shitheel, but does this justify the federal government's exceptionally nasty efforts to prosecute him?

In one of the best op-ed pieces I've read in weeks, Buzz Bissinger, a New York Times sports columnist, argues that Bonds' crime -- lying to Congress -- hardly merits the feds' attempts to blackmail a witness into testifying against him by threatening the witness's family members.

Being an arrogant jerk, Bissinger points out, isn't a crime. But that's really why the feds want to make an example of him.

When scores -- perhaps hundreds -- of fellow ballplayers who didn't tell the truth about their juicing to enhance their performances are getting off scot-free while one man is railroaded as Dr. Evil, justice is not being served. It is being sodomized.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Another River Street shot

Here's another pre-fire photo of two buildings that burned down in Ontonagon, Michigan, last weekend. I'm still tweaking the photos I took that day with Photomatix high-dynamic-range software, trying to make the colors pop out but not to overdo it. I'm trying to make the buildings look memorably picturesque, not like overly made up ladies of the night.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sarah Palin, book banner?

Forget Bristol Palin's pregnancy and daddy Levi Johnston's in-your-eye MySpace page. Senator Obama is right -- that kind of stuff should be off limits, although, let's face it, the story has a life of its own, thanks to the American public's obsession with familial soap opera.

Much, much more important is Sarah Palin's political record.

The New York Times today does its due journalistic diligence in a story about Palin inserting the wedge of ideology into her mayoralty of Wasilla, Alaska. This passage in particular made me shudder:

"Shortly after becoming mayor, former city officials and Wasilla residents said, Ms. Palin approached the town librarian about the possibility of banning some books, though she never followed through and it was unclear which books or passages were in question.

"Ann Kilkenny, a Democrat who said she attended every City Council meeting in Ms. Palin’s first year in office, said Ms. Palin brought up the idea of banning some books at one meeting. 'They were somehow morally or socially objectionable to her,' Ms. Kilkenny said.

"The librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, pledged to “resist all efforts at censorship,” Ms. Kilkenny recalled. Ms. Palin fired Ms. Emmons shortly after taking office but changed course after residents made a strong show of support. Ms. Emmons, who left her job and Wasilla a couple of years later, declined to comment for this article.

"In 1996, Ms. Palin suggested to the local paper, The Frontiersman, that the conversations about banning books were 'rhetorical.'”

Hmm. Firing the librarian sure sounds like a follow-through to me.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Too close for comfort

At 11:30 a.m. yesterday firefighters were still dousing hot spots after a massive blaze on River Street in Ontonagon, Michigan.

A gaping hole is all that is left of six picturesque old false-front frame buildings that were a photographer's dream subject just last Friday.

Rear view of the destruction. The building in the center across the street looks OK, but its interior was gutted when flames leaped across the street. (Click on any of the photos for a slightly larger version.)

Notice the photographs posted below on Aug. 29, two high-dynamic-range-imaging shots of a block of buildings on River Street, the main drag of Ontonagon, Michigan, prototype of Porcupine City in my mystery novels. I had stopped there Friday morning to take pictures of a strip of six buildings with quaint false fronts.

Yesterday, not quite two days after those photos were taken, a massive fire erupted at 5 a.m. in one of the buildings, and by dawn all six of those structures had been totally consumed. (The "Nonesuch" building in the first picture survived. It lies a block farther up the street.)

Miraculously, no one was killed. One firefighter suffered burns on his hands; no one else was injured.

But Connie's Place, the town's charming, old-fashioned ice cream shop -- which the Lady Friend and I had frequented at least once a week this summer (and just nine hours before the fire broke out) -- is gone, and so is Ontonagon's only video store. Fortunately two friends of mine, the proprietors of a tax and bookkeeping service in one of the stricken buildings, managed to get in and rescue their computers before the blaze destroyed everything else.

Embers leaped from west to east across the main street, gutting an outdoors clothing store, but the firefighters kept further disaster at bay.

It's a wonder that the blaze didn't take more buildings -- most on the main drag are ancient wooden frame structures, and it has been a long, dry summer.

At this writing no official cause of the fire has been released.

Happily, this stouthearted town's Labor Day parade stepped off on time later in the day, although without the ritual fire engine, and traversed only half of River Street, bypassing the still smoking ruins. Whether the equipment needed cleaning and refurbishing or the volunteer firefighters were just too pooped to participate I don't know, but I saw at least one driving his pickup in the parade with his church's float in tow.

Many of the floats were emblazoned with "Thank You, Firemen" signs. In all, eight volunteer fire companies from towns elsewhere in the county came in to help the Ontonagon firefighters.

Ontonagon has a long memory of fire. In 1896 the Great Ontonagon Fire -- a conflagration that began at the Diamond Match Company -- nearly destroyed the town, and it never recovered fully. The downtown townscape, full of empty blocks never rebuilt after 1896, now looks as if it's missing still more teeth.

But Ontonagon survives still -- thanks to its own gutsy citizens.

See today's entry in my photography blog for another photo of a picturesque building that was lost.

See also a comment below from an Ontonagonian who with her husband led his elderly parents to safety from their apartment in a building next to one that caught fire.

September 4: See here for an aerial photograph of the ruins.