Me & the Weather Guy

TomskillingAs avid readers of this space are aware, I’m an admirer of Chicago weatherperson Tom Skilling. His work on WGN has always seemed to be well ahead of the curve in terms of graphic presentation. His presentation is fact-rich and thorough (a new wrinkle in coverage of the winter storm hitting Illinois tonight: a discussion of pavement temperatures), yet understated. And his on-air material is supplemented by the best full page of weather I’ve seen in any newspaper, much of which is reproduced in the WGN Weather Center Blog. Typically, the blog includes an evening post written after WGN’s night news show; the posts usually carry Skilling’s name. The other night I was reading one, and was struck that the head of the station’s weather operation was actually taking the time to put out a last thoughtful and well-crafted message before shutting down for the night. I’ve been in other TV newsrooms, and I can tell you that that’s pretty unusual (and you half-suspect someone else on the team drew the short straw for this duty).

(For comparison’s sake, this is what the San Francisco Chronicle passed off as weather knowledge on Thursday: a 50-word blurb from one of the KPIX weatherpersons on why you can see your breath when it’s cold out: “…When your breath leaves your warm body and comes in contact with cold air, it cools rapidly. As it cools, the invisible water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets, similar to to droplets in a cloud or fog.” That’s actually one of the more provocative treatises the page has delivered recently.)

I wrote Skilling a note telling him how much I like the stuff he and his group put out–yeah, drooling fan mail to a meteorologist. Surprise of surprises–though not as amazing as the time Kate wrote to Mr. Rogers and got back a beautiful two-page letter that bore all the signs of having actually come from Fred Rogers himself–Skilling wrote back to thank me. Must not get a lot of email from Berkeley. Made my day; or at least part of it.

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Engaged in a Great Verbal War

The PBS NewsHour this evening featured another round of “Iraq: Is It a Civil War or Not? And If It Is, What Difference Does It Make?” (The game will never take off with a title like that.)

On hand was Donald Kagan, a history professor from Yale. He started out by saying that he felt the discussion–is it or isn’t it?–is “frivolous.” Check.

Then he went on to say he feels the debate over what to call the conflict is “a calculated effort on the part of those people who would like to see the United States flee from its responsibilities in Iraq to use a term that is more frightening, more dangerous-sounding than simply the kind of uprising that they’ve been dealing with and decide that it’s a civil war in order to make it a more frightening prospect to try to win this thing and persuade Americans that it’s hopeless and they should go away.”

A “civil war” is more frightening than what we’ve been dealing with? The discussion has been ginned up by people who want the United States to flee its responsibilities? Here’s an alternative theory, respectfully submitted to Dr. Kagan: Maybe people are just trying to understand what the heck it is we are involved in. The people who were putatively responsible for knowing what they were getting us all into have demonstrated they had less than no idea what to expect in Iraq and have been incapable of telling the truth about it for going on four years now. Maybe once we have some understanding of the situation–if it’s not too late for that–maybe we can decide whether the instinct to pack up and leave is sound or not.

Eventually, the “NewsHour” interviewer got around to lobbing Kagan a real softball. Something along the lines of, “Professor, does this kind of semantic argument happen in every war?” Kagan’s answer:

“The best historical example that jumps into my mind is the American Civil War, which I don’t remember anyone calling it that during the time. The South referred to it as the War Between the States to suggest they were within their rights in breaking away from the other states, and up here in Connecticut we referred to it as the rebellion of 1861. And it’s that sort of thing that’s characterized this kind of issue throughout history.”

What jumped into my mind when I heard Kagan say that was the phrase, “We are now engaged in a great civil war.” He’s right that “anyone” did not say that. Lincoln did, in the Gettysburg Address, which he sure enough made “during the time.” Somewhere or other, someone can tell us the very first time the term civil war was used to describe that conflict; it’s doubtful Lincoln was the first.

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Late-Night Chicago Weather

I found the place in Evanston that stays open late. It’s Kafein, a coffee place just south of the Northwestern campus, and it reminds me a little of the old Albatross, a bar in Berkeley that used to be owned by the Johnson brothers, North Dakota natives of Icelandic extraction who somehow wound up on San Pablo Avenue. What’s reminiscent is … well, it’s nearly midnight, and there are a lot of people here talking, a few playing board games. No beer, though. Too bad.

I knew this place had a wireless connection, because I’ve used it from the Peet’s across the street. I needed, or wanted, to do some email, and this is the only place I thought I had a chance of coming in and sitting down and doing that (I could have sat in the car in the alley behind by sister’s place). So while I’m at it, here’s a post.

Besides the absurd debate unfolding in the media about whether there’s a civil war in Iraq, the news of the day is the weather here. It’s been in the low 60s every day since I got here (Friday). Lows of about 50 at night. And, thanks to the wonders of the WGN Weather Center Blog, I (and you) can get all the details about how the warm spell is going to end: frigidly, in about 48 hours. And that’s it. That’s my post. I’m going to go home and go to bed, then catch a 9:45 a.m. flight back to Oakland.

Reading Matter

Fellow patrons’ reading at Evanston Peet’s:

–“Handbook of Combinatorics,” “Hypergraphs,” “Graphs and Hypergraphs” (checked out from Loyola University Library).

–World Market holiday flyer.

–Walgreen’s holiday flyer

–A New York Times story on “unschooling.” (Not sure what unschooling is, though I read over a guy’s shoulder that it’s legal in all 50 states, and the suggestion is that it’s self-directed study without the regular or home school framework. Wish I’d known about that when I was 12).

–Chicago Tribune story on a homeless food kitchen (I think).

–The New Yorker.

–An unidentified magazine; I’ll guess Reason or The New Republic or The American Prospect.

–A double-spaced sheaf of pages; maybe an undergrad’s musings on Kierkegaard.

–A course catalog of some kind.

–An black-underlined and green-and-red-hlghlghted textbook.

Haymarket Memorial


In Chicago post-Thanksgiving. Friday, as part of a ruse to keep my brother Chris out of the house while his surprise 50th birthday was in preparation, we wound up in Forest Home Cemetery just west of the city to visit the Haymarket memorial. More on that later–about Emma Goldman’s grave nearby and the ongoing interest in the site. For now, just the picture.

November 22

It’s easy to think, after all these years, that November 22 has lost its significance. It’s true that it’s hard to recall or communicate the sense of tragedy that suffused that day, that weekend, and the years that followed with their new assassinations and anniversaries. Incidentally, I was watching a few minutes of a show the other night that had nothing, nothing at all to do with the first Kennedy killing. It was “The Dog Whisperer,” of all things, an episode in Dallas. In establishing the setting, there were a few quick overview shots of the city. One clip in the montage looked familiar–“Was that the book depository?” I replayed the sequence on TiVo, and the scene appeared again. Just a couple of seconds. A sort of reverse angle view of the familiar ways you see the scene: from the sniper’s vantage in the depository building, from the slope where Zapruder stood taking his home movie. This shot was from across the way, looking toward the book depository from high above. But looking at the scene as a still image, all the pieces were there; it was definitely the place we all knew. We may think we’ve forgotten. But that piece of ground is familiar on an instinctive level.

Holiday Gift Guide

Undeterred by the lack of popular demand, and inspired by Marie, who put together the finest collection of Lincoln- and Springfield, Illinois-related gifts anywhere, it’s time to launch this year’s Holiday Gift Guide. All of the goods below come with the usual Infospigot guarantee: This is all real stuff, at real Web addresses, offered by public and private entities that will take your credit card number and perhaps deliver the goods before you’ve forgotten you’ve ordered them (four items below; more to come, maybe).

Angry Squid T-Shirt

Angrysquid LgRemember the plucky Japanese marine biologists who snagged and photographed a giant squid? The cephalopod in question lost part of a tentacle. You can commemorate the event, and perhaps express solidarity with the monstrous sea creature, with the Angry Squid T-Shirt from San Francisco’s Mule Design Studio. I ordered one of these for a college student in Oregon. I can attest it’s as good as it looks. 20 bucks. Also available: Angry Squid hoodies and beanies (what we used to call “sweatshirts” and “stocking caps”).

Rock Paper Scissors T-Shirt


As recently discussed in this space, Rock Paper Scissors has gone big time as a competitive activity. Surely it’ll soon appear as a demonstration “sport” in the Summer and/or Winter Olympics. The shirt, in always-in-vogue black with a fancy-ass graphic, looks sharp and will allow you to say in years to come that you were in on the ground floor (OK–maybe second or third floor) of this worldwide craze. $19.99.

U.S. Mint Medals

BushmedalThe mint is about a lot more than feeding the annoying profusion of coins in that big Tupperware container behind the blender on your kitchen counter. By occasional act of Congress, the mint also strikes commemorative medals. You can get medals celebrating recent secretaries of the Treasury and directors of the mint. For instance, Henrietta Holsman Fore, honored for her “steady leadership” of the nation’s coin factories. A 3-inch bronze medal (90 percent copper, 10 percent zinc) of Ms. Fore will run you $38; and you can almost hear your giftee gazing at this “study in artistic flow and medallic composition” and murmuring, “What the f___ is this?”

But if you think a less obscure personage makes a better gift, the mint offers an eclectic collection of American luminaries. You might choose the handsome Albert Gallatin medal–the medal, at least, is handsome ($38, 3-inch bronze). It’s a terrific first step toward closing your Albert Gallatin knowledge gap. Second step: go look him up on Wikipedia.

Looking for a more recent Great American? That hard-to-please gift recipient–your boss, your bill collector, your recently deceased Great Aunt Flossie–might spend hours (or eternity) fingering a fashionable Gerald and Betty Ford medal ($38, 3-inch bronze; $3.75, 1.5-inch bronze), which is extra-historic now that the former president is now the oldest man ever to have held the office.

The mint sells medals commemorating all the presidents, in fact, including the current incumbent ($38, 3-inch bronze; $3.50, 1.3-inch bronze; the medal would make a fine companion to last year’s Gift Guide hit, George Bush’s Dumbass Head on a String Air Freshener).


SorghumThose of us fortunate enough to have spent seemingly endless hours motoring across America’s plains and prairielands have occasionally unglued our eyes from the horizon long enough to glance at fields filled with an alien-looking plant. On the bottom, it looks like a stunted cornstalk; on the top, it’s festooned with bountiful heads of reddish-brown matter of some kind. It’s sorghum, and one thing’s certain: 2006 is as likely as any year to be the one that sees sorghum, an obscure but important cereal grain, replace chocolate, cookies, cakes, pies, egg nog, and fruitcake as the foodstuff of choice among holiday gift-givers and -receivers. You can join in the wild new popularity of this noble crop by giving sorghum and a whole range of sorghum-derived or -related gifts: from organic whole grain sorghum ($6.84 for 5 pounds–boil two handfuls for 1 hour for a gut-cleansing gruel) to Pure Sorghum (Molasses) ($15.95 for 16 ounces–just the thing for sweetening gruel) to sorghum flour ($6.68, 20 ounces–made for your gluten-free lifestyle) to cookbooks, aprons, hats, and T-shirts from the National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association.

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Stay-at-Home Blogger


Monday night. Kate drove up to Eugene today. She’s at Thom’s house tonight. Scout and I are staying home. Scout to be Scout–a 10-hour drive is not a dog’s best friend, and Thom’s lease says no pets. Me, to take care of some work and shop and cook and otherwise get ready for Thanksgiving. I envied Kate the trip up to Oregon; it’s a long drive, but I like the way the route unrolls. But she’s off all week and it made more sense for her to go. I did the next best thing to driving up there; Before she left, I sat down and drew a map of the route and the key attractions: exits she needed to take, the locations of key towns, rest stops, features like Starbucks, In ‘n’ Out Burger (America’s favorite evangelical grilled-meat joint), the general characteristics of the road like the winding section once you get into the mountains north of Redding and the five passes you cross once you’re in Oregon. Drawing the map made me realize just how many times I’ve been over that road; I can picture so much of it, including beautiful Hilt, the very last town on your way north out of California.

Tonight: A spinning class at the gym. Dinner (some pesto spaghetti left over from the other night). A long walk with The Dog. A little Monday Night Football. An episode of “The Wire,” which, if I were to write about such things, I’d praise. And now this, and then bed.

(The picture? From late last week. An odd, persistent overcast that broke just enough at sunset to cast a striking light on the bay while I was out with The Dog (on right) at Chavez Park. That’s Alcatraz in the left distance, Thus concludes this November 20, 2006, slice of life.)