Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pancake ice

By necessity I'm stuck down here for the winter in the Chicago area although I'd much rather be up at the Writer's Lair on the shore of Lake Superior in upper Michigan. 

But the next best thing to being on the spot is the photographs our friends who live on the Big Lake send us frequently. For instance, our neighbor Dave Braithwaite took these shots of pancake ice late in the afternoon near our cabin just a couple of days ago.

Pancake ice is formed when freezing slush forms into round, flat cakes with turned-up edges created as the cakes collide with each other in wind and waves. They look for all the world like deep-dish pizzas, don't they?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Adoration of the Magi

Fray Juan Bautista Maino, The Adoration of the Magi, 1613. Oil on canvas, 315 x 64 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid. Click for large version.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Deck Us All . . .

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

If you recognize those lyrics (and can recite the rest of them), you belong to my generation, the one that grew up in the 1950s when Walt Kelly's immortal "Pogo" comic strip appeared in every American newspaper worth its ink.

Every day when my father came home with the Chicago Daily News, my older brother and I would fall upon him for first dibs to the funnies, and we'd read the strip out loud to each other. "Pogo" was hands down the family favorite -- except for Mother, who never could see what the fuss was all about.

"Pogo" awakened my love of wordplay, of antics with language. Kelly was a joyous master at it, and every holiday season he'd roll out the barrel of "Boston Charlie" with Pogo, Albert the Alligator, Mam'selle Hepzibah, Porky Pine and even Grundoon all chiming in. Dad, Buck and I would join in, and at about the third Christmas we could recite all the lyrics without prompting.

I'd give them here, but there's some pointed copyright language on the official Pogo website, so I'll direct you to the proper page.

Now then, one two three . . .

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another Mention in Dispatches

My ego is flagging on a gray, cloudy morning that brought four inches of overnight snow and promises all-day sheets of sleet.

It's not so much that I'll be stuck in the house all day with a gimpy knee and a touchy back -- it's the uncertainty of being a midlist author in a terrible economy for the publishing business. When will I hear from my agent that Hang Fire, the fourth Steve Martinez mystery, has either been accepted or rejected? It's been almost three months since I sent off the manuscript.

But there is a glimmer of sunlight in the gloom. One of my old books, Flight of the Gin Fizz, got a very nice mention in a roundup of aviation reading posted on General Aviation News.

There's nothing that bucks up a despairing writer more than a kindly nod to an almost forgotten book. Especially when his name appears on the same page as those of Lindbergh, Saint-Exupery and Ernest K. Gann. And when there's a copy of his book in the photo that accompanies the piece.

Let it rain.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Whatever your creed, this is absolutely charming

The view will be larger if you click on the video while it's running.

With thanks to Bosco Keown for the heads-up.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Our holiday newsletter

ANNO TWENTY-TEN turned out to be another huge, huge year for the magnificently overachieving Kisors, enabling us to issue still another unbeatable holiday brag sheet.

As always, retirees Debby and Henry spent half the year in Evanston, half the year in Upper Michigan and half the year traveling, during which they photographed rocks in Utah and whales in the Gulf of Alaska.

Henry managed to slip through the entire year without acquiring new replacement hardware for his aging carcass. He published a second and updated edition of What's That Pig Outdoors? in August and was insufferable for weeks afterward. He also waited and whined while his publisher weighed the fourth Steve Martinez novel, Hang Fire (and at this writing is still waiting and whining).

Deborah (The Lady Friend) forged ahead in her newfound mission to save the world one library at a time, while learning a new art, the mysterious one of glass beading.

At the Department of Justice in Washington, elder son Colin continued to encourage felons on new career paths in their countries of origin while also herding stray swabbies into the brig as a reserve Navy prosecutor. Verily he is the instrument of the Lord’s wrath.

Spouse Melody added full-time student to her motherly duties while wearing out two laptops taking online graduate courses from Albany Medical College in search of a M.S. in Bioethics.

Their son William, 8, went to court to have his name legally changed to "Willy," all the while plowing through his father's old Tintins while keeping his flying-superhero emergency room visits to a minimum.

His sister Ellie, 4, taught herself to read and was soon soaking up Wuthering Heights while studying the trade of a ballerina en pointe.

In Edison Park, the Far Northwest Side Chicago neighborhood where cops and firefighters live as far away from City Hall as they can get, younger son Conan flight-tested B-17s for Boeing and persuaded Marketing to dub them “Flying Fortresses.” In his spare time he directed the Bears' resurgence from his nosebleed seat at Soldier Field but met a little resistance in his campaign to whip the Cubs to another pennant.

Mama Annie continued to mother-hen misplaced but still famous authors around town for the Chicago Public Library while coaching outgoing Mayor Daley in instructing the entire City of Chicago on the subject of what to read.

As soon as he turned 4, young Emmet told everybody he was “almost 5” and founded a contracting firm in the basement, warning his clients not to cut corners with hinky Chinese drywall.

Sister Alice, 2, moved from defensive end to weak-side linebacker to make better use of her closing speed. She also showered remarkable Zen wisdom on everyone within earshot.

And finally Hogan, 77, racked up a score of 123-0 against UPS, a world record for both his species and his age group.

So there it is. Eat your hearts out, underachievers, and enjoy your extended tax breaks for another year. If there are any.

Credits: The text is by HK for a change, aided and abetted by CAK and CHWK. The photo of our Lake Superior cabin in winter is by our Ontonagon chum David Braithwaite. The photo of the extended family below is by our Evanston pal Craig Peterson.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

City of New Orleans

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Dealin' card games with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.
And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

I never heard Arlo Guthrie sing Steve Goodman's immortal lyrics, but after the first of the year the Lady Friend and I will do the next best thing: we'll experience them by riding Amtrak's version of the City of New Orleans.

Our trip will be just a 19-hour, 934-mile overnight joyride for a couple of days in New Orleans. We'll enjoy coffee and beignets at the Morning Call, po'boys for lunch and Cajun cuisine for dinner, and we'll exercise our cameras in the Vieux Carre. Then we'll return to Chicago on the northbound CONO.

It'll be our first trip on Numbers 58 and 59, although both of us have ridden the Chicago-to-West-Coast trains, especially Nos. 5 and 6 (the California Zephyr) countless times.

As Amtrak hardware the CONO is nothing special -- several double-deck Superliners and one P42 engine, same as everywhere else except the East Coast, where single-level trains must run. There's one difference: the on-board cuisine is said to have a distinct Cajun flavor -- bread pudding and redbeans and rice, for instance. I'm a sucker for both.

The last three times I've ridden a long-distance Amtrak train, the on-board experience has been much better than it was in the early 2000s. The once spotty dining-car cuisine has improved to reliable American-Road-Food standards, and seemingly the service crews have been to both efficiency and charm schools.

Afterward I'll of course post a full report for the civilized travelers among you.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

15 people who irritate me

1. People who say "vade mecum" instead of "reference book."

2. People who claim the Bible is the world's most authoritative vade mecum.

3. People who declare I'm anti-Christian for pointing out that the Bible isn't the authority they think it is.

4. People who think aggressive ignorance is a legitimate point of view. (Especially in matters of global warming.)

5. People who attack a speaker's supposed motives instead of challenging his facts.

6. People who say "he went" instead of "he said" and "he goes" instead of "he says."

7. People who say "I was like . . ." instead of "I thought . . ." or the rest of it.

8. People who say "Me and him went to the park."

9. People who say "Comin' with?" (Unless they're from Chicago. They can't help it.)

10. People who wait until the sales clerk rings up the total before digging deep into their purses for their cash or credit cards. Especially when I'm seventh or eighth in line.

11. People who say "Thank you" to the sales clerk after handing over their money. What?

12. People who take five minutes to tell me what they didn't like about my book before taking five seconds to tell me what they liked. (If they ever get around to it.)

13. Well-to-do people who declare that they'll wait and check my book out of the library instead of buying it. (Students and pensioners excepted.)

14. People who think all books should be free.

15. People who grab you by the lapel and tell you what irritates them.

No wonder I have few friends left. I'm fast turning into Andy Rooney.

(Feel free to contribute your own pet irritations in a comment.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

John McPhee

Yesterday I picked up a dogeared paperback copy of A Sense of Where You Are, John McPhee's first book, his classic 1965 study of Bill Bradley as a basketball player. Within seconds I was rapt in the prose of this master of "explanatory journalism," a weak and clumsy phrase for the magic he creates.

It reminded me that over the years I've reviewed several of his books, but the only such notice that seems to survive on the Web is this one of
Assembling California, a book in which he brilliantly brought the difficult subject of plate tectonics to life for the common reader:

By Henry Kisor
Chicago Sun-Times, February 7, 1993

By the second page of his newest book, John McPhee drops on the reader's foot the word "lithosphere." Not for 10 more pages does he apologize by way of explanation: the lithosphere is "crustal rock and mantle rock down to a zone in the mantle that is lubricious enough to allow the (Earth's) plates to move."

This is McPhee's way of warning readers that they won't be spoon-fed the science in Assembling California (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21). To understand it, you have to pay attention, to concentrate. I did, and found the rewards great.

Assembling California is the fourth and last volume of McPhee's paean to geology, Annals of the Modern World. The others are Basin and Range (1980), In Suspect Terrain (1982) and Rising from the Plains (1986). Most of the challenging text of all four appeared in the New Yorker and confounded many readers, this one included. It's easier to concentrate on a book than on an article in the narrow columns of a magazine, in which there are just too many distractions, like ads and cartoons.

These books - actually marvels of literary economy and clarity - are all about plate tectonics, or the collisions of vast chunks of Earth, in which continents, mountain ranges and valleys have been created in a never-ending rearrangement ever since the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea many eons ago. A dry subject? Not in McPhee's hands. He gives it all the liveliness of rock 'n roll, because that's exactly what the ground does under our feet when pieces of the lithosphere collide and grind past one another.

Not that the Terran Two-Step kicks up dust every day, at least in our limited appreciation of time. McPhee distinguishes between human time (measured in hundreds of years) and geologic time (measured in hundreds of millions of years). What interests him - and ultimately us - are the points where the two time scales intersect.

To help us understand those points, McPhee enlists a geologist. Geologists are like dermatologists, McPhee writes in one of his many happy metaphors; they "crawl around like fleas on the world's tough hide," trying to "figure out what makes the animal move."

Eldridge Moores is the son of a miner, an accomplished cellist, and a geologist at the University of California at Davis. In his car (which bears the bumpersticker "Stop Continental Drift"), Moores takes McPhee and the reader westward over outcrops and through roadcuts on Interstate 80 over the Sierra Nevada. In this way we learn how pieces of Earth fused over the eons to form California.

On Donner Pass we encounter a quadrillion-ton batholith, a 40-square-mile, bottomless chunk of granite vomited up from the ocean floor as molten magma some 80 to 200 million years ago. A few miles farther west geologic time encounters human time in Gold Rush country, where we learn how 19th century miners used hydraulic artillery - 120-m.p.h. jets of water - to carve away entire mountains and get at gold deposited eons ago.

We learn how the sea floor, spreading slowly up and out of deep fissures, shoved the irresistible Pacific Plate up against the immovable slab of North America, carrying with the flow smaller irregular pieces that jumbled up and became the Sierras, the Central Valley and the Coast Range. They're still grinding against one another along several seams, one of which is called the San Andreas Fault.

The faults are not clean breaks but complex and imperfectly mapped frontiers. Nature is nothing if not messy, and that's one reason why the theory of plate tectonics, which is only about 25 years old, is constantly being revised.

Why should we be so interested in plate tectonics? If you live in California, or anywhere else earthquakes are common, it'll help you understand what's going on under your feet even though there may not be much you can do about it, except go someplace else. The best chapter of Assembling California is the last one, McPhee's step-by-step retelling of the state's brief but violent disassembly along the San Andreas Fault in October, 1989. As the Pacific Plate took a seven-foot leap north, "21,000 homes and commercial buildings were cracked, crumpled, or destroyed, and nature's invoice for a few moments of shaking was six billion dollars."

And the Big One is yet to come. When and where? Hard to say. Within 20 years, maybe. In human terms, that's a long time, but in geologic time, it's a micromillisecond. McPhee's genius is to show us the difference and what it means. And that meaning? Why, nothing more than what happens when humans try to outguess the gods that live deep in the Earth.

In McPhee's hands, geology isn't something that happened millyuns and millyuns of years ago, as the TV popularizer Carl Sagan gushed. It's happening right now, even if your attention span is too short for you to grasp that fact quickly.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mark Twain inflamed

Writers who do not despise their editors are either spineless or unbelievably lucky. A century ago one great American writer had his problems with a certain editor, and while that was unfortunate for the author it still benefits his readers today. For a pissed-off Mark Twain is magnificent to behold.

Some background: In 1899, according to the new University of California edition of Twain's Autobiography, a maladroit editor named T. Douglas Murray asked the world-renowned author to write an introduction to a translation of the trial record for Joan of Arc. Without even asking, Murray edited the introduction heavily, provoking Twain's ire because the edits were not only high-handed but also ham-handed.

The University of California Press edition for the first time reproduces the entire piece containing Murray's misemendations. Twain's objections in a fiery letter to Murray follow, and they are a hilarious lesson in why even a decent editor should leave a masterly writer's prose the hell alone.

One of Murray's transgressions was to Frenchify the piece, changing every "Joan of Arc" to "Jeanne d'Arc." This caused Twain to write:

"'Jeanne d'Arc.' This is rather cheaply pedantic, and is not in very good taste. Joan is not known by that name among plain people of our race and tongue. I notice that the name of the Deity occurs several times in the brief instalment of the Trials which you have favored me with; to be consistent, it will be necessary that you strike out 'God' and put in 'Dieu.' Do not neglect this."

Twain is only warming up. A few paragraphs later he writes, "Now you have begun on my punctuation. Don't you realize that you ought not to intrude your help in a delicate art like that, with your limitations?"

He hits his stride with "It is discouraging to penetrate a mind like yours. You ought to get it out and dance on it. That would take some of the rigidity out of it. And you ought to use it sometimes; that would help. If you had done this every now and then along through life, it would not have petrified."

Of one altered sentence Twain observes: "It cost me an hour's study before I found out what it meant. I see, now, that it is intended to mean what it meant before. It really does accomplish its intent, I think, though in a most intricate and slovenly fashion."

And: "You ought never to edit when awake." "O unteachable ass." "It was sound English before you decayed it. Sell it to the museum." "You got it out of 'How to Write Literary Without Any Apprenticeship.'" "It seems to me that for a person of your elegance of language you are curiously lacking in certain other delicacies."

Twain's invective goes on like this for pages and pages, until every competent writer I know will be falling over with glee.

Later in life Twain would observe, "I am glad I said no harsh things to him, but spared him, the same as I would a tape-worm. It is reward enough for me to know that my children will be proud of their father for this, when I am gone. I could have said hundreds of unpleasant things about this tadpole, but I did not even feel them."

A pity that Twain never mailed the letter. A glory that he preserved it for us.