Astrophobia

Some of us–poor, benighted souls that we are–believe that there is some kind of equity in sports. Even after years of painful experience tells us that no higher power could possibly be paying attention to the sports world, we cling to the notion that if we behave like a good person, help with household chores without being asked to do so, follow a particular routine, and wear a lucky shirt, or socks, or hat, or some other item of apparel, the fickle sports gods will notice and tilt the karma in our favor. A key belief, underlying all of the superstition, is that someone somewhere will notice that we are doing those good things and displaying our commitment to our team and reward us with wins and, we hope, championships.

If you ever needed proof that there is no equity whatsoever in sports, here it is: the Houston Astros have made the World Series for the third time in five years.

The Astros engaged in a one of the worst sports cheating scandals since the Chicago Black Sox threw the World Series in 1919. The team intentionally stole signs in 2017, when they won the World Series, and for part of 2018 until their scheme was uncovered. The Astros–who some people dubbed the “Asterisks,” as in the logo above, to reflect that the franchise won the championship by cheating–were fined $5 million, lost a few draft picks, and fired some of their front office personnel. But the team’s owner remained in place, the Astros hung their championship banner, and no punishment was meted out to the players who participated in the cheating. Remember that the next time you hear somebody in organized baseball talking about needing to do something to protect the “integrity of the game.”

If there were justice and equity in sports, the Astros wouldn’t be going to another World Series, and making people wonder whether those guys who figured out a way to cheat before might somehow be cheating again. But they are. The Astros owner says he thinks the scandal is in the rear view mirror, but there are many of us who remember, and who think the lack of accountability for flagrant cheating is a continuing black eye for baseball.

I can’t do anything about equity in sports, but I can do one thing: not watch any game the Astros play. I therefore won’t be watching the World Series this year.

Road Breakfast

Normally I don’t eat breakfast, but I make an exception when I’m on the road. This morning we are in the Cincinnati area for a family wedding, so a road breakfast was in order. And when you Google “breakfast near me” you inevitably find a lot of good options if you are looking for a place that opens early, closes up shop by mid-afternoon, and serves all of the traditional breakfast fare.

We decided to go with the Original Pancake House on Montgomery Road. With a cheerful, old-school facade like that, it had to be good—and it was. The menu offered more than a dozen options in the pancake category alone, as well as pages of other breakfast dishes. But pancakes are in the restaurant’s name, and pancakes sounded good, so pancakes it was. Buckwheat pancakes, to be precise, with hot coffee and orange juice on the side.

My position is that there is a right way and a wrong way to eat pancakes. I like to first apply butter to each pancake in the stack so it can melt, then liberally douse the stack with syrup and let the syrup seep in to the pancakes before slicing the pancakes into squares for ready consumption. To its credit, the OPH had excellent syrup, hitting the sweet spot between too-thick syrup that causes the pancakes to break apart during syrup-sopping maneuvers and syrup that is too runny. And the pancakes themselves had a great buckwheat flavor.

Road breakfasts like the one this morning help to make travel time special.

Headlamper Season

We’re nearing the end of Daylight Savings Time for 2021, which officially ends at 2 a.m. on November 7. That means that, right now, it is pitch dark at 6 a.m., when I take my morning walk around Schiller Park, and we’ve reached the period I call headlamper season.

You can see one of the headlampers approaching in the above photo, which I took yesterday morning. They are joggers who wear a bright light on their heads as they run, apparently so they can better see the sidewalk as they scurry along. This distinguishes them from the other joggers who carry their own light sources on their arms or torsos and look like characters in the movie Tron.

Unfortunately, the bright light worn by the headlampers, which is right at eye level, has the effect of blinding the luckless walkers, like me, who happen to be heading in the opposite direction. When the headlampers get within a few feet the light is so dazzling against the darkness that I’m left sightless and stumbling forward, hoping that I don’t trip over an uneven part of the pavement or step off the sidewalk into an unbagged pile of dog doo. It should be obvious that the bright light is disturbing others–I always try, unsuccessfully, to shield my eyes with my hands and squint against the light–but the headlampers don’t seem to care. They are lost in their own personal headlamper world, no doubt congratulating themselves as they trot along for being able to afford the wondrous technology that allows them to bring their own light rather than relying on plentiful street lighting like the rest of us.

Evidently it’s the headlampers’ world. The rest of us just live in it.

Beer And Cheese

I enjoy a meal of beer and cheese every now and then. And in that regard, I’m part of a long line of human beer-and-cheese fanciers–a line that, as a recent discovery shows, dates back thousands of years.

A study published in Modern Biology focused on well-preserved human droppings found in salt mines near Hallstatt, Austria–salt mines that have been existed for thousands of years. People who worked deep in the salt mines over the millennia took their food to work, and they weren’t shy about answering the call of nature in the mines rather than journeying back to the surface. The dehydrating salt in the soil had the effect of turning the solid human waste deposits from days of yore into desiccated samples (non-smelly, the article linked above daintily points out) that have their biomolecules still intact. That means scientists can analyze the dried-out dung to see what the humans were eating over the years.

Ah, the romance of science!

The study of the fecal remains from the Iron Age, 2,700 years ago, showed traces of brewers’ yeast–the kind that produces traditional beers like pale ales. The paleofeces also showed lots of whole grains and fibers, as well as traces of blue cheese. And the study’s authors note that the ancient working man’s diet produced healthier, and more biodiverse, gut microbes for the ancient salt miners than are seen in most modern humans because none of the food was processed.

So there you have it: beer, bread, and cheese have a long history and are healthy, to boot. And those of us who still enjoy those long-term human dietary staples, 2,700 years later, get to use modern amenities like bathrooms, too.

Vote No On Issue 7

In recent years I’ve tried to avoid discussing politics in this blog, but Issue 7, which will be on the ballot in the City of Columbus in November, will have to be an exception to that rule of thumb. It’s an egregious example of misuse of the referendum process, misleading ballot language, and a crass attempt to divert City of Columbus funds into unknown pockets, all rolled into one ballot proposition. If you’re registered to vote in the City of Columbus on November 2, I urge you to get to the polls and vote “no” on Issue 7.

Issue 7 would require Columbus to create four funds–an Energy Conservation and Energy Efficiency Fund, a Clean Energy Education and Training Fund, a Minority Business Enterprise Clean Energy Development Fund and a Columbus Clean Energy Partnership Fund–and would require the city to redirect $87 million in city general funds to fund them. According to the city, two of the funds, worth $67 million, would be transferred to an unidentified group with no legislative oversight, and the removal of $87 million from the general fund would likely require significant cuts in other important city services. Columbus city leaders have spoken out against this attempt to put public funds into private hands and bypass budget processes–all of which could imperil the city’s overall financial health and its bond rating, at a time when Columbus, like other cities, is trying to deal with the many different consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Columbus Dispatch has also been outspoken about Issue 7, both in reporting on the checkered history of the issue and the lack of transparency about how the millions of dollars in public funds would be used, and by whom, and in editorializing on how the issue attempts to use “green energy” concepts to cover what the Dispatch editorial board calls a “grift.” The editorial describes Issue 7 as “a shameful attempt to confuse well-meaning voters and bilk Columbus out of money that should be used for critical services such as police and fire protection, trash collection, health services, and recreation and parks programs.”

And finally, Issue 7 is an example of an increasing problem in the American system, where standard processes in a representative democracy are being bypassed by ballot issues and referenda that have voters set policy and direct the expenditure of public funds, without the public hearings, scrutiny, and other elements of actions taken by our elected representatives that bring transparency and expertise to decision-making and public spending. And when the ballot issues contain language that obscures rather than enlightens, and seems consciously designed to mislead voters, the problem becomes even greater.

The election on November 2 is an off-year election, when turnout is likely to be small. The group behind Issue 7 no doubt hopes that most voters won’t go to the polls, and those that do will be uninformed about Issue 7 and think that the “green energy” and “clean energy” funds that it would create sound like good ideas, without realizing the true impact of the initiative.

Let’s not be fooled, folks! Let’s get to the polls on November 2 and vote “no” on Issue 7.

Truth, Justice, And A Better Tomorrow

Some people on the conservative end of the political spectrum are pretty upset at DC Comics, which publishes the Superman comic books. They’re miffed that The Man of Steel is changing his motto.

For years, Superman has professed to stand for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Many of us know this because we watched reruns of the ’50s Adventures of Superman TV show on UHF channels when we were growing up. We remember the introduction to the series, shown above, where a serious sounding narrator, after noting that Supes was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive, informed us that he fought for truth, justice, and the American Way while the actor playing Superman sucked in his gut and the American flag waved in the background.

DC Comics says it is changing Superman’s motto to “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow” to reflect a broader, more global vision for Supes’ world. You can tell it’s a conscious effort to update the comic book hero to modern norms, because the article linked above quotes DC Comics’ “chief creative officer” as saying, without evident concern for exaggeration: “Superman has long been a symbol of hope who inspires people, and it is that optimism and hope that powers him forward with this new mission statement.”

That’s right: Superman now has a “mission statement.”

The kerfuffle about The Man of Steel’s motto is another great contrived point of contention for “commentators” to argue about, but even as manufactured media controversies go it’s pretty thin gruel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with punching out bad guys or reversing the rotation of the Earth to try to bring about “a better tomorrow,” and it’s not like standing for “the American Way” has any well-defined, specific meaning these days. Does it mean supporting the freedoms enumerated in Bill of Rights, or the ability to eat snack foods while sitting on your couch and binge-watching the latest hot Netflix series, or something else?

I’m perfectly content to let comic book characters change with the times. And if Superman wants to update the part about being faster than a speeding bullet, because that image is too triggering for the current generation, and more powerful than a locomotive, because nobody thinks of locomotives as especially powerful these days, I’m fine with that, too.

Gun Porn

Last weekend, on our flight down to Charleston, I sat behind a trim middle-aged guy on the airplane. At some point on the flight I noticed, through the gap between two of the seats in the row ahead, that he was reading a magazine about weapons.

The magazine was filled with glossy, high-quality pictures of rifles, pistols, shotguns, knives, various kinds of of bullets, and camouflage-wearing guys displaying or shooting their guns. The articles described the features and performance characteristics of the new weapons on the market, but what really made an impression on me was the many close-up, detailed photographs of the gleaming weapons themselves. If there is such a thing as “gun porn” for the guns ‘n ammo enthusiast, this guy’s magazine offered it.

The guy on the airplane is not alone in his interests in firearms and other weapons. 2020 was an all-time record year for gun sales in the U.S., with Americans buying 22.8 million guns–64.8 percent more than in 2019. Experts attribute the surge in gun sales to the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about social unrest, and fears by gun owners that the presidential election would bring new restrictions on gun and ammunition ownership. And while 2021 hasn’t maintained that same record pace, it’s still on track to be one of the biggest gun sale years in history. In August of this year, for example, Americans bought another 1.4 million guns. Surveys indicate that about 40 percent of Americans live in households that own a gun–that number is down, incidentally, from 1978, when 51 percent of households reported owning guns–and it is estimated that there are somewhere around 400 million firearms in private households in America.

That’s a heck of a lot of guns. But given the way the guy in the seat in front of me was checking out his magazine, it seems like the appetite for still more gun sales is still strong.

What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

On The Chicago River Walk

The Chicago River cuts through the heart of downtown Chicago as it heads out to Lake Michigan. The river has clearly been a focus of civic improvement over the past few decades–which is a big change from the days when the river was an industrial waterway and the big effort was to dye it green on St. Patrick’s Day. One improvement has been to work on the Chicago Riverwalk, which you can see along the river to the right of the photo above. We got a chance to explore the Riverwalk yesterday on a glorious autumn day, when the temperature was in the upper 40s under blue skies and bright sunshine.

The Chicago Riverwalk, like any urban path or trail that it left uninterrupted by crossing streets and traffic lights, attracts a significant number of joggers, dog walkers, and casual strollers, like us. If you like to get a close-up view of urban infrastructure, and I do, it’s a great walk that takes you under multiple bridges and past boat docks. I can happily report that the bridges looked to be well tended and in good shape, other than an inevitable coating of rust, and there were lots of boats out on the river, including both tour boats and smaller craft. You could also rent kayaks and take them out on the river, although it was a little cold for that. You know you are in Chicago when the tour boats tout that they are the one recommended by architects or offer the best architectural cruise.

Along the Riverwalk there are lots of places to eat and drink and get a hot cup of coffee and a doughnut on a brisk morning. Given the number of tiki bars and signs identifying the boundaries for alcohol consumption, I’m guessing that the Riverwalk is a favorite place for partying during the summer. We were mostly interested in checking out the older buildings and new skyscrapers as we walked along. You’ve got to give credit to the Chicago architectural authorities: the new, gleaming towers blend seamlessly with the older buildings, creating a very attractive cityscape as you move along the river. You can see the familiar clock tower of the Wrigley building in the photo below, nestled among the more recent additions to the skyline.

By the time we reached the end of the Riverwalk, the colossal office buildings had given way to condominiums and apartment buildings, and some boats were out patrolling the waters. I was impressed that, along with the tiki bars and beer joints, the Riverwalk planners had ensured there were lots of trees, some small green spaces–the dogs being walked certainly appreciated that–and playgrounds and plenty of benches where you could sit and enjoy the view. Because it was chilly, though, we kept walking to stay warm.

Our Riverwalk exploration ended after we passed through this cool tunnel, which features colorful panels depicting various scenes from Chicago’s history. With our coffee cups empty, we decided to turn around and head back to the hotel. Because the Riverwalk was such a pleasant stroll, we elected to retrace our steps along the lapping water rather than head up top to street-level and the hurly-burly of big city traffic. And the Chicago Riverwalk was just as pleasant and interesting on our return journey.

Under Wacker

Yesterday we drove to Chicago–at about an eight-hour drive, it’s at the outer limits of the fly/drive decision point–and our final destination was a hotel on Wacker Drive, which runs along the river through the heart of downtown. The GPS brought us in to the downtown area on the under Wacker path, which meant our first exposure to downtown was in the dystopian bowels of the city, shown in the photo above. Kish aptly described it as looking like a scene from one of the dark Batman movies.

And here’s the thing: the GPS doesn’t distinguish between above ground and below ground. As we drove in, it was pretty clear that the GPS thought we were above ground, and was instructing us, in increasingly insistent tones, to take left turns and right turns that simply didn’t exist in our little underground tunnel of concrete. And it didn’t help that there seemed to be construction on all of the ways out of “under Wacker” and back aboveground. I was incredibly happy when we finally figured out a way to get back into the daylight.

I’m a big fan of Chicago, and always have been. If I were in charge, I’d be sure that people visiting this great city don’t get their first exposure through a dark, creepy, underground tunnel with a bossy GPS voice advising about taking non-existent turns.

Rediscovering Chicago

We’re in Chicago for a wedding weekend, and it’s giving us a chance to rediscover the City With Big Shoulders, the Second City, the Windy City, and that Toddlin’ Town. I used to come to Chicago regularly for work, and we visited often when Richard was in college here, but more recent planned trips were cancelled when the pandemic intervened–so it’s been a while. But now people, myself included, are deciding that we’re just going to have to live with COVID and all of its variants and get on with our lives–in a prudent way, of course.

It feels good to get out and get back to a really big city. When you haven’t been to a really big city in more than a year, the experience seems fresh and new and exciting. And Chicago is such a great place, for so many reasons–like the cool view from our hotel room window, shown above–it’s a good destination for those of us who want to shed the outer protective coating of COVID Caution and start to get out more.

We drove in, and the first sign that the pandemic has created significant change in the world is that, when we reached the Dan Ryan Expressway, it actually functioned as an expressway rather than a snarled traffic disaster seemingly designed to cause the blood pressure of drivers to go through the roof. Astonishingly, there wasn’t much traffic on the road, and we were able to get to our destination without any stoppage. That’s literally never happened before in countless driving trips to Chicago. For the first time, perhaps, Dan Ryan (whoever he is, or was) is glad that the highway was named after him.

Downtown Chicago was not as bustling as the Chicago of yore, but there were still a lot of people out and about, on the River Walk, on boat rides, and just walking the sidewalks and enjoying some crisp fall weather. We appreciated being out among people, and revelling in the taste and feel and smell and sound of pre-pandemic activities. You still need to mask up when you go into buildings in Chicago, but the great outdoors, and the terrific views of cool buildings that Chicago architecture affords, can be enjoyed blessedly mask-free.

If you’re interested in breaking out of your personal COVID zone, and feel like it is high time to reintroduce yourself to our great American cities, Chicago is a good place to go.

Unexpected Consequences Of Remote Work

The prevalence of remote work has changed a lot of things in our world. From traffic patterns during rush hour to restaurant usage in downtown areas to what people are regularly wearing from the waist down that can’t be seen on Zoom or Teams calls, the reality of many people working from home has reordered our lives in more ways than we can list.

Here’s another change that you might not have considered yet: what are you going to do with that inevitable cache of leftover Halloween candy? You know, the excess that was created because you don’t want to be caught in the dreaded predicament of being the only house on the block to run out of candy while Beggars’ Night is still going strong, so you bought an extra bag or two of “snack size” candy bars and little boxes of Milk Duds?

In the pre-pandemic world, the solution to disposition of the excess Halloween candy was easy and obvious: because you didn’t want to keep the tempting little goodies in the house for fear that you would fall into a chocolate consumption frenzy, you took the leftovers to the office. Once your supply of candy was placed in a bowl next to the coffee machine, you could be confident that the candy would be fully and happily consumed by anonymous officemates within hours, if not minutes.

But with remote work, those rapacious hordes aren’t at the office every day anymore, and the office coffee station isn’t the hub of frantic consumption that it was in days of yore. You’re not going to be able to rely on “taking it to the office” to get rid of that leftover candy, unless the federal government declares an emergency and orders everyone to return to their offices for National Candy Consumption Day on the Monday after the Halloween weekend, to assist in the Snickers and Reese’s and SweeTarts disposition effort.

Give it some thought before you go out to buy your trick or treat candy this year and come up with your preferred approach. Do you buy less, to avoid any excess? Or do you follow your standard “avoid a shortfall” overbuying approach, and figure out an alternative method of getting rid of the leftover trove? Or do you head in an entirely different direction, disavow candy altogether, and offer trick-or-treaters those unappealing “healthy snacks” that nagging health authorities have been trying to get us to hand out for years, on the theory that while the kids clearly won’t like them, at least they won’t tempt you, either?

Welcome to the remote work world.

Rabbits Underfoot

A few months ago, on one of my morning walks, a rabbit hopped across the sidewalk as I was approaching and disappeared into the shrubbery surrounding a flower garden. “Good morning, Mr. Bun,” I said, drawing upon Calvin and Hobbes terminology. I saw another rabbit, or perhaps the same one, on a walk about a month later, and occasionally spotted Mr. Bun on later walks, too.

But on a recent walk when I saw what appeared to be Mr. Bun, I noticed another Mr. Bun, and another, and another, and another. There were a total of five rabbits in close proximity, and I realized that one of them probably had to be Ms. Bun. A single rabbit might be cute, but when you see five rabbits hopping along together you realize that the rabbits are probably starting to breed . . . well, like rabbits. And when rabbits put their minds to it, they can be pretty prolific.

It’s the kind of concern that caused Australia to build its famous “rabbit-proof fence” to try to keep rabbits that had spread across the eastern part of the country from devastating the farms of western Australia. We’ve got a rabbit-proof fence of sorts, in the form of a sturdy, solid wooden barrier, around our backyard, and I don’t grow any vegetables, anyway. But I’m going to keep my eye on the rabbit population, and tell-tale signs of rabbit munching on the gardens and plants in the neighborhood. With no natural predators in the vicinity, except passing cars, it’s not hard to see the rabbit population growing exponentially, until German Village is hip deep in cute furry creatures.

Defending America’s “Town Of Motels”

Is Breezewood, Pennsylvania getting a bum rap? The little town off an exit ramp of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where travelers pass a half mile of motels, truck stops, gas stations, and souvenir stands before connecting to the highway that takes them toward Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, has become a social media meme through the above photo. In the meme, Breezewood is presented as ugly, chaotic, and loud–a prime example of tackiness and American wretched excess.

That photo doesn’t exactly depict a garden spot. But now Breezewood’s defenders have risen to respond to the harsh criticism–as in this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The defenders argue that the sneering dismissals of Breezewood reflect a cultural snobbishness about seeing the exposed machinery of American life: the gas stations that must exist to power American car culture, the hotels that are needed to house travelers that are the mainstay of the American tourism business, and the assorted rest stops and restaurants that service the needs of those travelers. And, of course, all of those businesses shown in that photo provide people with gainful jobs, and have allowed Breezewood to continue to exist when other American small towns have withered and died.

My own memories of Breezewood are different from the contemptuous prevailing meme, too. When UJ and I were kids Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take us on driving trips from Akron, Ohio to spots on the east coast, like Washington, D.C. or the Jersey shore. We would climb into the back seat of Grandpa’s Oldsmobile 98, try not to fidget while he carefully navigated the car along the growing network of American highways, always obeying the speed limit, and wait until we reached Breezewood where we would stop for the night at a Holiday Inn close to the Turnpike exit ramp. In those days, a sign announced Breezewood as the “town of motels,” and we were always glad when we saw that sign because it meant we could get out of the car, go for a swim in the hotel pool, eat dinner, and visit Crawford’s Museum next door to the hotel–a “museum” of stuffed animals and curiosities that was basically designed to stir the imaginations of a young kid. The next day we would wake up, have breakfast, and continue our leisurely journey.

In short, I liked Breezewood and have fond memories of it. I’m glad there is pushback against the Breezewood meme. It shows that reality is always more complex and nuanced than a photo and a few words that convey a smirking putdown.

Official Numerology

My mother was a prim person. She didn’t like foul language, never cursed, and did not countenance her children using slang language for bodily functions that were not to be discussed in polite company. But if we had to discuss such things–say, to advise that we absolutely had to pull over at the next rest stop or risk disaster and humiliation–we knew to use Mom’s preferred euphemisms: “number 1” and “number 2.”

I had forgotten “number 1” and “number 2” until I used the county courthouse men’s room today and saw that Mom’s polite terminology has been adopted by an official sign in an official establishment. Mom would have applauded their discretion.