Monday, December 29, 2008

When Mr. Fish becomes Mrs. Grundy


"With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

So said the AT&T customer rep to Stanley Fish, the New York Times' house intellectual, when he called to get his phone service changed.

This turned Mr. Fish into Mrs. Grundy. He complained to the rep about her solecism, and so began a round robin of musical phones that only worsened his woes with AT&T. (He admits he should have quit while he was ahead.)

He got a whole column out of the encounter, but I can't help thinking that he was arrogant in assuming he was obliged to correct somebody else's grammar even though he was not her professor.

Bad grammar makes me frown, but bad manners make me wince. Yes, he refers to himself as "an old grouch," but that doesn't give him carte blanche to humiliate an interlocutor.

The world is full of speech that intellectuals consider bad grammar, because language is ever-changing, especially in demotic territory. The educated and the sophisticated cling to the rules they were taught while the development of language passes them by. Their history is full of lost battles, such as the ones over split infinitives and "hopefully."

We should keep that in mind every time a member of what Mr. Fish might call the Great Unwashed utters a sentence that is "nonstandard," as the grammarians say. A hundred years from now that sentence might be considered perfectly "correct" English.

Fish can be a provocative columnist, but now and then an unpleasant high-handedness bubbles to the surface of his opinions, like academic swamp gas. Not long ago he wrote that something over $200,000 a year for a university post was way too low for a serious applicant.

Good thing that reached print before the economy tanked and half a million Americans lost their jobs.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

More of the good stuff


Every now and then a piece of good writing tickles my fancy, as the Brits say. Here are some bright passages gleaned from the last few days surfing the Net.

Sometimes it's just a clever invented word, a neologism:

"Will it be a genuine hit or will the recipient, oohing and aaahing with suspiciously loud enthusiasm, really be feigning the ecstasy of giftgasm?"

-- Joyce Wadler, New York Times, Dec. 25, 2008, in a story about re-gifting

A familiar image often makes a good comment:

"Blagojevich exuded confidence Friday, but it was the scary, look-I-can-fly confidence of a man leaping off a roof with a towel safety-pinned around his neck as a cape. Sometimes a man needs a little self-doubt."

-- Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 22, 2008, after Rod Blagojevich's press conference proclaiming his innocence

I particularly liked this clever verbification of a common noun:

"Ted Stevens of Alaska was caught trousering gifts from contractors. David Vitter and Larry Craig were caught with their trousers down . . ."

-- Lexington, The Economist, Dec. 20, 2008-Jan. 2, 2009

Same thing:

"A baby is born old -- not just old but downright senescent -- and youthens as he grows."

-- Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 25, 2008, in his review of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

Here is a master at work building a thought, winding up with a final stroke of the hammer:

"But slipping into St. Patrick's for Mass in Spanish is pretty wonderful. It's like a big family reunion at which I know nobody and so nobody is mad at me. Nothing said in Spanish offends me doctrinally or any other way. I squeeze into the crowd, under the placid stone faces of saints, the sweet smell of burning wax and a hundred varieties of cologne, and feel the religious fervor, and tears come to my eyes, and I light a candle, say a wordless prayer, and out into the cold I go.

"It brought back memories of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen 20 years ago and how beautiful the sermons were before I started learning Danish."

-- Garrison Keillor, Salon.com, Dec. 24, 2008, on Christmas in languages he doesn't know

Old-fashioned invective can grip:

"But if we must have an officiating priest, let it be some dignified old hypocrite with no factional allegiance and not a tree-shaking huckster and publicity seeker who believes that millions of his fellow citizens are hellbound because they do not meet his own low and vulgar standards."

-- Christopher Hitchens, Slate, Dec. 22, 2008, on Rick Warren giving the invocation at Obama's inaugural.

Subverting a cliche works, too:

"To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material."

-- Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 23, 2008, on "The Spirit"

Hey, if you come across a nice piece of writing in your Internet travels, send 'em on to me. We all need a regular infusion of the Good Stuff.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day


A couple of decades ago the Lady Friend and I flew to Ireland for the Christmas holidays, visiting our younger son during his junior year abroad at University College Dublin.

Everything was splendid until December 26, when we arose to discover the entire city -- restaurants, shops, museums -- shut down for St. Stephen's Day, as the Irish call it, or Boxing Day, as the Brits do. Everybody was staying home by the fire with family.

We had no idea. Finding a place to eat was impossible, and we had to trudge through the snow back to our hotel, where a meager buffet awaited guests. We spent the day walking around Dublin gazing at buildings from the outside or huddling in our hotel room talking and reading. We barely saw another soul on the streets. Despite our loneliness and growling tummies we envied the Irish their snug tradition.

Back home in the States the day long has been orgy of post-Christmas bargain-grubbing in the shops, and in the United Kingdom and many former British possessions as well. For the Brits, Boxing Day also has become a time to visit the relatives.

It is instructive to learn that Boxing Day was once a day of giving, not getting. On the day after Christmas the upper classes handed boxes (hence the name) of gifts to their household staff, thanking them for a year of good and loyal service. That tradition of alms to the less privileged survives in a small way in special church collections and in end-of-year bonuses to those in service occupations, such as postmen and dry cleaners.

In an interesting op-ed piece in today's New York Times, the British author Judith Flanders suggests a return to the original reason for the day -- giving -- in the form of donating one's time and talents to others less fortunate, or perhaps to society at large.

Not a bad idea at all.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Nativity



"The Nativity," tempera on walnut, 11.6 x 16.4 inches, attributed to the Master of Salzburg, c. 1400. Museum of Austrian Medieval Art, Vienna.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

At play in the fields of prosody


At this time of year my thoughts invariably turn to the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I am not a believer in the deity, but growing up in the Christian tradition taught me to appreciate the inspired language of the King James Bible and the 16th century Anglican Book of Common Prayer ("Speak now or forever hold your peace"). Religious exaltation often produces great literature.

Hopkins (1844-1889), who was a Catholic convert and a Jesuit, was an early experimenter with language and prosody, creating intricate and often metaphysical images in a loose poetic meter he called "sprung rhythm." Although he wrote his poems more than a century and a quarter ago (they were not published until 1918) they still flash with sparks of modernity.

One of my favorites is the sonnet "Pied Beauty":

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.


Except for its dedication, his greatest poem, "The Windhover" (probably a kestrel), can be read as not overtly religious, but a Christian might see in it a similar celebration of God's creation:

To Christ Our Lord

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Now that's a poem for all seasons. I often think of it when I'm sitting on the beach of Lake Superior with a camera and long lens, capturing wheeling, soaring gulls, "rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing." Oh, their mastery of the thing.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Who's afraid of Rick Warren?


I believe some of my fellow liberals are shortsighted and hypocritical for condemning Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.

Make no mistake, I also believe the conservative pastor is wrong to oppose reproductive choice and gay marriage -- his stances on these issues, in my view, are not only loathsome but also un-Christian -- but this doesn't mean I think he's wrong in fighting poverty, global warming, AIDs in Africa, and in educating the downtrodden. He's against some things I'm for, but he's also for many things I'm for.

We have to look at him that way, as Obama suggested -- our country is a big tent of ideas. We have to be inclusive, to reach out to others with whom we might disagree on specific issues. (I disagree with Obama, for instance, on rescuing Detroit.)

Otherwise we will ride down the same road we accuse the religious right of traveling -- hobbyhorse fixation on single issues, like abortion or gays, rather than seeing and dealing with the larger world. We have many more problems than one preacher who doesn't see eye to eye with us on everything.

Asking Warren to participate in the inauguration is a smart -- Lincolnesque, even -- way of reaching out to one's opposition and enlisting its efforts in a larger cause, the broad welfare of the United States and the world.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Done at last


The latest blog nameplate seems to work well, at least to me. The lettering stands out well, and the colors match those of the rest of the blog the way my socks used to match my sweaters, in the days before retirement when the Lady Friend was dressing me.

The previous one was okay, but in my opinion didn't jump out quite enough.

All three nameplates I tried today came from my archive of photographs of Lake Superior in all her glory. I knew they'd be good for something someday.

Still tinkering . . .


The nameplate above doesn't have frantic geese as the earlier one did, but the lettering seems to stand out more. Or does it? I don't know.

Like the first one, it's a view of Lake Superior from the beach in front of our Upper Michigan cabin. It was taken on a blustery day in September of 2007.

Tinkering again


A winter storm bearing wind-driven snow and slashing sleet swept through the Chicago area last night and thoroughly gummed up the public works, meaning I can't go anywhere today without risk to life and limb. So I'm wasting hours at the computer fooling around with experimental nameplates for this blog.

The one above looks good to me, except perhaps the lettering doesn't quite stand out boldly enough, so more tinkering may be needed. It could take all day, but I've got all day.

The photo, by the way, was taken in 2007. I was woolgathering quietly, camera in my lap, in a deck chair on the beach in front of our cabin on Lake Superior when a kayaker rounded the point a hundred yards to the east and spooked the geese into full scramble. I lifted the camera to my eye at just the right moment. Blind luck.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Do Not Flush While Seated on Toilet


Most of us aboard an airliner would give such a sign a casual glance and hurry to do our business before the plane hits unexpected turbulence and the "Return to Cabin" sign flashes on.

But to Garrison Keillor, the sign suggests all kinds of comic possibilities, and that is what makes him different from you and me. (That and an extraordinary literary talent.)

The toilet-seat warning led him to write an entire column on the subject for Salon.com yesterday. Among his shrewd observations is the distinct possibility that the sign was devised by lawyers to soften the frightening truth:

"Flushing While Seated May Suck Your Colon Out Of You And Cut You A New Orifice While Changing Your Gender In Ways You Don't Even Want To Think About."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Over the top



Click photo for larger version if you can handle the bandwidth

There's a fellow in neighboring Wilmette who for many years has gone all out, balls to the wall, flank speed ahead with the front-yard Christmas decorations, and this year neither the economic crisis nor the green movement has dimmed his glory.

If you think this is spectacular, you should see his place on Halloween. When he flicks the switch to turn it on, the lights for blocks around flicker and gutter, and another reactor goes online at the Zion nuclear plant.

It's heartening that someone is brave and flush enough to forge on with his gaudy enthusiasms while the rest of the impoverished world extinguishes its unneeded lamps, although one might wish he would think about the carbon footprint he leaves.

[Dec. 18: The following YouTube video suggests that that guy in Wilmette has some serious competition. Watch it all the way to the end for the grand finale.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Owning up, memorably


"We said that, in the American TV drama 24, Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorism agent, resorted to electrocution to extract information. You cannot extract information from someone who has been electrocuted because they are dead (Questioning, the Jack Bauer way, page 1, April 19).

This "skinback," as Chicago newsies like to call editorial corrections of errors, appeared in the Guardian earlier this year. It is one of many scores of the best skinbacks of 2008 celebrated today on Regret the Error, a noted blog devoted to the subject of cleaning up after one's journalistic messes.

It is difficult to read the long, long blogpost without guffawing uncontrollably and losing track of time, so make sure the boss's not around when you go there.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press was the source for all too many embarrassing errors that crept into print. One of my favorites:

"In a story about Obama’s plans for a vice presidential pick, AP noted that McCain was considering Sen. Joe Lieberman, 'the Democratic vice presidential prick in 2000 who now is an independent.' (Emphasis added.)"

At least four news websites published the sentence as written, confirming the suspicions of many former copy editors that you can't believe everything (anything?) you read on your computer.

Some skinbacks were just baffling, such as this one from the New York Times:

"Because of a production error, some copies of Wednesday’s paper contain an outdated crossword puzzle and its solution. If you look here first, proceed with caution. If the answer in the solution to one across also appears in the puzzle above it, you have a paper with the wrong crossword. If the solution to one across matches Tuesday’s puzzle, you’re in the clear, and on your own."

The most woeful corrections are the ones that make new errors. I was guilty of that a few days ago when I admitted in a comment to one of my blogposts that I had misspelled the Illinois governor's name as "Blagojevic" instead of the proper Americanization, "Blagojevich."

"Blagojevic" would have been correct in his ancestral Croatia, I wrote, figuring that knowledge would take some of the sting off my error.

Trouble is that his forebears came from Serbia, not Croatia.

[A tip of the hat to Jim Romenesko for the heads-up.]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hark, the herald Angell sings


If no one minds, here's where we hail
Our friends Chris Beels and Christian Bale,
And folks whose names you knew we'd know,
Like Suri Cruise and Wayne Thiebaud,
Bristol Palin, Dakota Fanning,
Lizzie Peyton, and Peyton Manning.
Carla Bruni, comment ca va?
Et Georges Cluny -- connais pas?

If you instantly recognize the author of those lines, you are a devoted longtime reader of the New Yorker. And if you instantly rejoice over them, you know that their author, the venerable and sainted Roger Angell, has returned at age 88 after ten years in the desert to resume his annual light-verse tribute to names prominent in popular culture during the year.

Come Christmas, gang, we'll ask St. Nick
To not forget Nathaniel Fick;
Then drop requested toys and games
On Lolo Jones and LeBron James,
Plus lumps of coal from deepest pack
For Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,
And candy canes enough to rain
Around the homes of John McCain.

If it is too icy for you to get to the corner newsstand to pick up a copy of the New Yorker to enjoy the rest of St. Roger's inimitable poem, you can have the next best thing in Dwight Garner's droll piece on Angell and his return to the fold of festive frivolity in today's New York Times. (Calvin Trillin told Garner that he was glad Angell produced the poem before Rod Blagojevich burst into pop prominence last week. What the hell rhymes with that?)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

'Uncle Sam Wants Your Birds'


A few days ago I praised the New York Times for its engrossing obituary of an obscure but important figure in recent history, Henry Molaison, a man who lost his memory and never regained it. Today an equally fascinating obit appears, Margalit Fox's classy piece on Richard Topus, a successful food industry figure who had trained carrier pigeons for the U.S. military during World War II.

The piece goes deeply -- and fascinatingly -- into the history of pigeons used in long-distance communications. The most interesting factoid: During the war the Maidenform brassiere company manufactured paratrooper vests with pouches to carry pigeons.

"I dreamed I leaped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne in my Maidenform . . . "

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Of political dogs and fleas


There are those who think Barack Obama is forever tainted because he rose to prominence in the corruption-ridden Democratic machine in Illinois, the same one that gave us Rod Blagojevich. Lie down with dogs, Obama's detractors say, get up with fleas. The man has to be thoroughly stained by his proximity to malversation and peculation (I had to look those up, too).

It would be useful for these people to recall Harry Truman and the Pendergast machine of Kansas City.

Tom Pendergast (1873-1945) was one of the most powerful Democratic overlords of any major American city, and one of the most corrupt. Harry Truman, whom Pendergast made a candidate for county judge in 1922, was his political creation.

In 1934 Pendergast handpicked Truman as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. In 1940 Truman nearly lost his seat when his opponent called him "the senator from Pendergast." When Franklin D. Roosevelt chose the Missourian for his vice president in the 1944 campaign, Republicans snickered.

Yet Truman never forsook Pendergast, even when the latter went to prison in 1939 for tax evasion. When the boss died in 1945, Truman -- the only elected official to do so -- attended his funeral and told the press, "He has always been my friend and I have always been his."

Today Harry Truman, who is often ranked by historians as one of the ten best presidents this country has had, is remembered for his flinty honesty and uprightness, for always trying to do the right thing and often succeeding.

Having climbed a web of corruption evidently taught him the political difference between right and wrong. Truman denned with dogs but rose without fleas.

Absent real evidence to the contrary, there's every reason to believe Obama has, too.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Blagojevich's baby picture



Ordinarily it seems declasse to repost a funny photo that's been rattling around the Internet, but I just could not resist. It is so apropos to the subject headline.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Where are the bags of money?


Has anyone noticed that the feds aren't charging Rod Blagojevich with actually having pocketed bribes? The Justice Department complaint is all about conspiracy, about scheming, about conversations captured on wiretaps. In short, words, just words.

No bags of boodle have actually changed hands . . . so far as we know.

Of course this phenomenon is no defense against charges of conspiracy to commit crimes. Rather, it supports Pat Fitzgerald's assertion that he brought the federal complaint to prevent Blagojevich from selling Obama's former Senate seat.

But it brings up a certain question: Is there any hard evidence that Blagojevich has indeed managed to enrich himself by nefarious means during his governorship?

Otherwise, why would he have been allegedly so open in those wiretapped conversations about discussing his need for money?

As the case unfolds, we'll probably have answers from the feds. But it's an interesting question to ponder, since nothing seems actually to have gone down despite Blagojevich's alleged best efforts.

Maybe that just means he's an extraordinarily incompetent crook.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sea change for the Pulitzer Prizes


Gentlemen, start your Kindles.

The Pulitzer Prize board has announced that it will immediately begin accepting entries first published on the Internet for all its journalism awards. This is as it should be, and it is a frank acceptance of the unassailable truths that great reporting is not necessarily presented only in ink on paper, and that the business model of journalism has profoundly changed.

What of the literary Pulitzers? No announcement was made about them, but it is safe to say that in the short run the awards for poetry, fiction, drama, biography and general nonfiction will still go to printed books.

Why? Original e-books -- those that first appear in digital form, are read on electronic devices, and often distributed over the Internet -- are still too young and raw to be taken seriously as literary works. They are not yet chosen and polished by sophisticated editors and marketed by a professional sales force to an audience large enough to take notice and wide enough to include educated critics.

But their day is coming. The book world is suffering the same economic woes as the newspaper industry, and sooner or later it will have to change its business model and embrace digital publishing, much more economical than the printed book for conveying text to the marketplace.

E-books will not replace printed books overnight. For some time the two media will coexist side by side. But as the increasingly elderly audience for print of all kinds shrinks and eventually disappears, the e-book will rule. And it will win Pulitzer Prizes.

I'd stake my fortune on it if I had any fortune left.

(Full disclosure: I was once a finalist for the Pulitzer in criticism, and I was once the chair of the Pulitzer jury for general nonfiction.)

Monday, December 8, 2008

Eric Shinseki, American hero


Buncha things today:

1. I keep thinking about Gen. Eric Shinseki, President-elect Obama's choice to head the Veterans Administration, and what a vindication that appointment is for a man who had the courage to speak truth to power and as a result lost his career.

You remember that in 2003, before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Gen. Shinseki, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned publicly that the U.S. would need many hundreds of thousands of occupation troops while his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, blithely claimed just 100,000 and a lot of "shock and awe" would do. The general turned out to be right.

We need more soldiers like this admirable man.

2. If you have any knowledge about flowers, please check out the December 8 and December 7 entries on my other blog.

Stupidly I did not write the blossoms' names in a notebook when I took the photographs. Typical thoughtless amateur, I am.

Maybe you will recognize the blooms and can tell me what they are.

3. The Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers, seems to be marching toward bankruptcy.

I am astonished at how rapidly this huge, often prescient and excellent, often blind and arrogant company has fallen, even in terrible economic times. Sam Zell's vaunted golden thumb, forged in real estate, has turned to lead in journalism.

We should have seen it coming a few months ago when his management crew, recruited from the ranks of cable broadcasting, remade the paper with a pop entertainment format and very likely drove away many of its remaining older readers.

4. The Lady Friend and I decided to pull the trigger and booked that train trip on the California Zephyr to Take the Waters in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in January. (See the December 2 blogpost below.)

We shall, of course, report thoroughly -- in pictures as well as words -- on our trip.

It most likely will be the last one we take for a long while as gloomy economic times further envelop the world.

5. There is something else but I've forgotten what it was. I'll probably remember later in the day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Henry Gustav Molaison


You have never heard of Henry Gustav Molaison. Neither had I. He died at 82 the other day, "the most important patient in the history of brain science." This provides the reason for one of the most absorbing obituaries I have ever read in the New York Times -- and The Times is famous for them.

"He knew his name. That much he could remember," begins the first-rate piece by Benedict Carey.

When Molaison -- known as "H.M." to scientists to protect his privacy -- was a young man, he underwent an operation to correct seizures, and lost the ability to form new memories. "For the next 55 years, each time he met a friend, each time he ate a meal, each time he walked in the woods, it was as if for the first time."

Yet he could remember, in detail, everything that had happened in his life up to the day of his surgery. After that, he could remember new events for only about 20 seconds before forgetting them forever.

“He was a very gracious man, very patient, always willing to try these tasks I would give him,” said one of the neuroscientists who studied him. “And yet every time I walked in the room, it was like we’d never met.”

When we get on in years, the normal forgetfulness of aging sometimes makes us fret that we're losing it. Absent the other, more ominous symptoms of Alzheimer's, we're not, really -- our short-term memories are just slowing down a tad. Nothing to worry about if we can't remember where we left the car keys. We still remember how to drive, and that's more important.

What science has learned from Henry Molaison helps give us comfort.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Roger Ebert vs. Ben Stein


Roger Ebert is the nation's most prominent film critic, but he would have made a first-rate cultural columnist. Over the years he has done excellent occasional op-ed pieces about politics and hot-button social issues that engage his brain. They have always been worth reading.

Today on his blog he produces one of his best. In it he wields the rapier of his intellect on the television entertainer Ben Stein's "Expelled," a "documentary" film that takes the side of creationism against evolution. Ebert absolutely eviscerates Stein, deftly demonstrating that his arguments are disingenuous and even dishonest.

It's an admirable performance.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Taking the train to take the waters



The Glenwood Hot Springs pool -- actually two pools, a big one that's very hot and a smaller tank that's superheated.

Now that winter slammed us silly the other day, I'm already going stir crazy. Times like this drive me to planning trips somewhere just to get out of the house for a few days, even if it's only in my fevered mind. And since I am a hopeless rail buff, getting out on the train is part of the lure. Most of all, getting off the train and being there instantly is, as they say, priceless.

We've done that three times at Glacier National Park in Montana, where one simply steps off Amtrak's Empire Builder from Chicago, gathers one's bags, and walks fifty yards to Glacier Park Lodge. Unfortunately, the place isn't open in the winter.

Instead, one can ride on about an hour further to Essex, Montana, and alight at the Izaak Walton Inn at trackside for a bit of snowshoeing, skiing and trainspotting. It's one of my favorite spots to hole up and write a few chapters of a new mystery, then go out to tramp around the snowshoe/ski trails and photograph activity in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe helper locomotive yard.

Last week I traveled to La Plata, Mo., to visit the Depot Inn and Suites, a bit of railfan heaven in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and reported on it here and here.

Now, in January, if the global economic collapse has left us any money, we may take the California Zephyr from Chicago to one of our most favorite places: Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Although it is not exactly a railfan destination, Glenwood Springs has two attractions: It's another great place to get some work done on a new book, and afterward we can take the waters, as the Europeans say, in the huge and sulphurous Glenwood Hot Springs outdoor pool, even (especially!) in the middle of winter. What's more, the ride from Denver to Glenwood Springs goes through some of the hemisphere's most spectacular mountain scenery.

But isn't taking the train in a sleeper room, even a tiny roomette for two, more expensive than flying? It can be, but a little knowledge about Amtrak's fare structure can make the train a relative bargain.

This morning I costed out a mid-January round trip trip via plane to Denver and then a ride in coach on the Zephyr the rest of the way to Glenwood Springs. This included overnighting in Denver both ways, because there (at least for us) the westbound train departs too early in the morning (8:05 a.m.) and the eastbound arrives too late in the evening (7:43 p.m.) for comfortable airline connections. So two nights in Denver: $350 to $400 for downtown hotels. Round trip air fare Denver-Chicago for two: $360. Round trip train (coach) Denver-Glenwood Springs for two: $252. Taxis to and from airports: $120.

That adds up to at least $1,082 just for travel expenses. And I haven't included meals.

On the other hand, if we booked a roomette at the same time in January aboard the California Zephyr all the way from Chicago to Glenwood Springs, the travel costs would break down this way. Round-trip rail fare for two: $464. Add $388 ($194 each way) for a sleeper roomette, and the total travel cost is $852. No cabs; we can take a Metra commuter train from Evanston to Chicago Union Station for nothing, because we're geezers and geezers ride free.

What's more, all meals aboard the Zephyr are included in the sleeper charge.

The trick to scoring low sleeper charges is to make reservations several weeks (even months) in advance, and do so for slow times of the year. Amtrak's fares are structured like those of the airlines; they get more expensive as departure time grows closer. (That little sleeper room can cost almost $500 each way.)

Now, of course, one must add hotels and meals in Glenwood Springs. There are a number of hotels with varying tariffs and levels of luxury, but we have always stayed at the plain but comfortable Hot Springs Lodge, where pool tickets are included in the $139-and-up-per-night rate.

The town is a jolly Western place, with lots of colorful beaneries and bars and upscale restaurants. It's worth poking about for a couple of days, and if you're young and hearty, you could rent a car and go skiing an hour south at Aspen.

The Lady Friend and I would rather just write and sit and soak.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Let it snow . . . dammit



My neighborhood this morning, when winter brought in its first dose of sticky, icy, slick snow to bedevil me.

The first snow of the season blanketed northern Illinois last night, sending me into a funk of grouchiness and guilt, even though only about an inch and a half of the white stuff lies on the ground this morning.

Grouchiness because slowly, over the years, I have grown to dislike snow. In the beginning I reveled in it, skiing as a youngster and making snow angels and snowmen with the boys as a young father. Our snowball fights were joyous. Winter was a pleasant interlude between autumn and spring.

But as one grows older, things change.

Snow is the mortal enemy of the geezer. Slippery steps and sheets of ice underneath a thin blanket of white are unseen perils for older folks whose sense of balance and strength of bone have deteriorated. We no longer can dig our cars out of snowdrifts. We have to hire people to keep our sidewalks clear. Is it any wonder that so many of us migrate south?

But I'm feeling guilt over my funk because Upper Michigan, where I set my mystery novels, depends on snow the way Arizona depends on the sun. In fact, to the Yooper, snow is white gold. Skiers and snowmobilers bring in badly needed tourist dollars, and for the average Yooper this winter, the gloomiest for the global economy in two generations, a three-foot-thick eiderdown of snow may make the difference between utter deprivation and just hanging on.

This has made me realize that I haven't yet used winter as a setting in my Porcupine County mystery novels, but that'll be necessary in Hang Fire, the novel in progress. To do that I'll have to take a research trip north this winter and spend a few days watching Yoopers in the snow -- moving it, playing with it -- in short, dealing with it the way I no longer can. Or want to.

Somehow the old frying-pan-and-fire metaphor seems both inappropriate and inadequate.