Air Blog: New York

Just to note: A high approach to JFK about 5:15 p.m. on a beautiful early autumn Thursday. We flew over Scranton, Pennsylvania, then just north of the Delaware Water Gap and the New Jersey Meadowlands, then did a long, slowly descending pass over upper Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and Queens again, finally looping back over the barrier islands and the western Long Island suburbs to the airport.

Oh, and by the way: It’s my brother John’s birthday today — the reason I was on the plane. Happy birthday, JPB.

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First of 2015

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We made it to another completely artificial and arbitrary dividing point in time, which by widely accepted convention we’re calling 2015 (or 2015 CE, if you want to get ecumenical about it). But what the heck: Happy New Year all, even, as is increasingly likely the case, we haven’t met or spoken in a long time or, thanks to Googlers landing here looking for something they may or may not find, ever.

Resolutions? I have none to announce. I’m looking forward to seeing what the world brings our way in the coming arbitrary slice of months, weeks, days (12/52/365) and to seeing what meaning there is to glean from their passing.

And to say goodbye to 2014, here’s a look at one of the last shots of the year, taken last night from the Seaview Trail in Tilden Park.

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Road Blog: Chicago City Hall; Woman in the Waves

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Gamboling about downtown Chicago last Sunday night after the conclusion of the Third Coast audio festival, I walked up LaSalle Street past Chicago City Hall. I think I was inside once, back in the early 1970s, tracking down a copy of my birth certificate so I could get a passport. I don’t know the building well.

So I was struck, looking across LaSalle, at a series of four bas reliefs on the wall of the building. They are heroic renderings interpreting the life of the great city as it was understood a century ago, when City Hall was built. I found one of the panels arresting: It depicts what I saw as a woman in the waves, with a lighthouse nearby. Something about the sweep of the waves, the woman’s expression, the figure’s apparent passiveness in the midst of (what I see as) peril, the presence of the lighthouse, made me think this was about near-drowning and rescue — maybe depicting the city’s role as guardian of the shores. Or something.

Delving into the history of the City Hall figures a little, here’s what I can readily establish: The bas reliefs were designed (if not executed) by a well-known American sculptor and medalist named John Flanagan. Most Americans know one piece of Flanagan’s work: George Washington’s head on the quarter.

What are the bas reliefs meant to depict? Here’s some research by way of the April 25, 1956, editions of the Chicago Tribune. The piece was written to mark the beginning of sandblasting at City Hall to remove nearly a half-century’s accumulated grit and coal-smoke residue. The story makes it sound like that before sandblasting, it wasn’t even apparent that the “woman in the waves” relief was there. The writer takes up the figure shown in the waves:

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When the writer of this piece looked at the same bas relief I was viewing the other night, he saw it as an “Adonis like figure with long, wavy hair, and he is bathing in some extremely high surf.” He, not she.

Huh. If you look at the other three reliefs — here, here and here — the male figures are all, to my eye, unmistakably male. The few female figures are clearly female. So I’m wondering what the sculptor’s intent, as executed by construction workers, actually was.

But here’s something that I’m sure colors my viewing of the piece: When our mom was nine years old, she survived a near-drowning out at the Indiana Dunes. Four others in her family — a brother, an aunt, a cousin, and an uncle — all died. So that image, to me, is anything but abstract. When I look at it, I see tragedy and loss.

Road Blog: Chicagoland

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Chicagoland. Where did that name come from, anyway? I just submitted that question to WBEZ’s Curious City, which is a really interesting project if you haven’t heard it or seen it, so maybe they’ll investigate. I can tell from a brief scan of Google Books that my main assumption about the history — that it was the post-World War II brainchild of some advertising or marketing ace, is apparently incorrect. The name Chicagoland shows up at least as far back as the late 1920s. The favorite title I’ve found listed so far is 1938’s “Chicagoland Household Pests and How to Get Rid of Them.”

Fast forward to Tuesday, and here were my day’s activities in Chicagoland: I breakfasted with my sister Ann’s family on the North Side. I watched it rain. I drove down to the South Side (and a little beyond) to meet my brother Chris and visit the various Brekke, Hogan, O’Malley and Morans graves at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. We went to lunch (Smashburger on 95th Street in Oak Lawn). Then I made a slow northward trek to Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of my dad’s family was buried.

I rounded out the excursion with a drive down Irving Park Road to the Dairy Queen near Central Avenue. I had a chocolate malted and actually said aloud, “Here’s to you, Pop.” He was a longtime DQ customer, and he and I visited that location many times in the last few years before he died.

It was cold out, in the 30s and windy, and after dark, but I wanted to check out a taxidermy place across the street from the Dairy Queen to see if I could get a decent shot of specimens in the windows. I don’t think I did. Then I walked west a couple blocks, cross Irving Park, then walk back east, just looking at what was happening in he storefronts along the way.

Dr. Charlemagne Guerrero, M.D. A music store advertising lessons in guitar and music theory. A dance studio with a kids’ ballet class going on. Several bars — Pub OK and The Martini Club and a couple I didn’t get the names of. A Polish antique store. Dr. M.A. Starsiak, general dentistry. A barber shop. A door bearing a sign reading “Emperor’s Headquarters.” Then I was back across the street from the taxidermy shop.

The warm car afterward was nice.

Road Blog: Harvest

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Visiting Chicago for a few days, I drove down to the south suburbs this afternoon — late in the afternoon, as it turned out — to see my brother Chris and his wife, Patty. They live in Tinley Park, about 25 miles southwest of downtown, within sight of the junction of Interstate 57 and Interstate 80, but far enough away that the highways aren’t present as a constant roar.

I had left early to avoid the worst of the commute traffic and had some time to kill, so I drove on past Tinley Park and got off I-57 a little to the south. Then I wandered west and south, watching the last of the sunset and the dusk come on. Most of the suburban sprawl in the Chicago area over the last 40 years has been to the northwest, west and southwest. Comparatively little has been built due south of the city in the area where I grew up.

Which isn’t to say nothing’s happened out there. Chris and Patty have a big house in a subdivision that was probably mostly corn and soybean fields 15 years ago. As I drove this evening, I wandered through one subdivision in Matteson I’d never seen before, and as I moved on, through the western edge of Richton Park and the farms west of Monee, I kept passing big, newish homes planted in ones and twos on big patches of land — ranchettes, of a sort, I guess, for people who probably work in the city or away in the western suburbs and want to enjoy some relatively splendid isolation.

I needed to answer the call of nature on one of the roadsides, and before I got back in the car, I decided to check out corn planted right up to the bank of a creek. It looked ready to harvest and given the fact the soil looked dry and combines would probably have no problem in the field, I was a little surprised the corn was still standing.

I was surprised as I drove that my sense of the checkerboard geography, or road-ography, was mostly intact. Heading south from Vollmer Road, the first big intersection was U.S. 30. Then Sauk Trail, then Steger Road, where I turned west until I got to 80th Avenue (where the avenue is 80th from, I don’t know). Then south again, past Stuenkel Road and Dralle Road and Monee-Manhattan Road and, sure, a couple roads whose names I didn’t know. Driving this part of eastern Will County, you’re reminded that the country has some contours; 80th Avenue climbs one of the low ridges (glacial moraines, I’m guessing), west and south of Monee, with the terrain falling away in every direction. Some of the ranchettes out there are built in spots that afford long views across the prairie.

Then up ahead, I saw a combine and grain cart working in a cornfield just off the road to the west. I stopped, thinking I might get an iPhone picture in the dark (I didn’t get one worth saving). As I stood there, parked in the road in my Bay Area get-up (shorts and flannel shirt), a man approached me from a truck parked at the edge of the field.

I told him pretty much straight up what I was doing: Just driving aimlessly, taking in the landscape, that I had lived nearby, had been away from the area a while, and was taking a look. Then I asked about the harvest.

To make a long story short, the farmer, a guy named Ron Schubbe, was working with his brother and his brother’s son on a 35-acre cornfield. His own son had a day job nearby but would also be helping out. He said the grain had been too wet to harvest, but now, “We’re hitting it pretty hard.” I didn’t get other salient facts — how long it would take to harvest 35 acres, how big his entire acreage was (because I’m assuming nobody out there in corn and soybean country harvests just 35 acres of anything), how long it would take to harvest the field they were working, how late they’d be working, or what it felt like to be bringing in the crop.

But I did ask how long he’d lived out there. “I was born and raised right here,” he said. How long had his family been out there? He said his great-grandfather had begun farming in the area, north of the town of Peotone, since the 1880s.

So I did find that out, at least. Then I wandered around a little more, noticing a couple of other combines moving through the fields in the dark, and headed to Chris and Patty’s as the night finally fell.

(Conclusion of the foregoing.)

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Passers-By

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Just remembering: It was two years ago today that our dad passed on. I’m not sure a day goes by that I don’t have some thought of him (and yes, of our mom, too — she died in August 2003, and it’s hard to believe it’s been that long).

Here’s a reading for them, two lifelong Chicagoans: Carl Sandburg’s “Passers-By,” from “Chicago Poems” (1916):

PASSERS-BY,
Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.

Passers-by,
I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love.
Records of great wishes slept with,
Held long
And prayed and toiled for…

Yes,
Written on
Your mouths
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.

No Tools Required

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We have a bathroom sink with a broken stopper — or at least a stopper I’ve been ineffective at fixing. So I followed up on a months-old resolution and bought an old-fashioned rubber stopper. To cover all bets, I got one that fits a range of drain sizes. And it works great. I run water into the sink, and the imperturbable stopper makes sure it just stays there.

I admit I thought the device was self-explanatory. But Kate pointed out after I’d removed the stopper and left the package just lying around on the kitchen counter that it came with installation instructions. Or “installation instructions,” since nothing there really tells you what you need to do with the drain plug to achieve total stopper satisfaction.

Portrait of a Drought: Lake Oroville

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The further adventures of a California reservoir. A year and a week ago — late March 2013 — Kate and I camped in the very nice Loafer Creek campground at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. The lake, the main reservoir for the State Water Project and the second largest California reservoir after Lake Shasta, was about 85 percent full at the time. If you were following the vagaries of the state’s water season, you might have been a little troubled by the fact the 2012-13 rains had virtually disappeared after the turn of the new year. What wasn’t apparent during the first visit up there was that the rains wouldn’t return in the fall, either, and that the lake would fall to just one-third full by January — low in any season, but especially alarming in that the reservoir levels here and virtually everywhere else across the state continued to decline at a time when they’d usually be filling up with runoff from winter storms.

I drove up to Lake Oroville on January 18, which happened to mark the lake’s low point during the current water year (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014). The difference in the lake’s appearance was dramatic — see the slideshow below. But when seasonal rains finally returned in early February, the lake began to rise. One way of measuring lake level is the height of the lake surface above sea level. When full, Lake Oroville’s surface is 900 feet above sea level. When Kate and I visited in March 2013, the surface level was 860 feet; when I went back in January, it stood at 701 feet according to the numbers from the state Department of Water Resources. The same source shows the lake at 759 feet now and rising.

Yesterday, Thom and I drove up to Oroville to take a look and take a new set of pictures to show the change since January (they’re incorporated into the slideshow). My impressions:

I suppose this is a “glass half-full/half-empty” exercise on a grand scale, especially since the lake is at almost exactly 50 percent of its total capacity right now. On one hand the lake is up almost 60 feet from the last time I saw it and has added about 40 percent to its storage — it’s added about 500,000 acre-feet since January, enough water for about 1 million California households. More water is coming, too: Even though the forecast for the next couple of weeks and beyond looks pretty dry, and even though we’re nearing the tail end of the rainy season, the snowpack will start too melt and run down the branches of the Feather River that flow into the lake.

The conventional wisdom is that half of the state’s stored water is captured in the Sierra snows that wind up in streams, rivers and reservoirs. One slice of Lake Oroville history shows how dramatic an impact the snowpack can have:

A drier-than-normal water year in 2008-09 reduced the reservoir’s storage to a shade more than 1 million acre-feet, less than 30 percent of capacity, and lowered the surface to 665 feet above sea level by early January 2009; that’s about 20 percent less water and about 45 feet lower than the level we saw this past January. Then storms began arriving and began building the northern Sierra snowpack. The water content of the snow in the Feather River drainage reached about 130 percent of normal by early April 2010, and the lake had come up to virtually the same level as it is this weekend. The reservoir, which had reached its lowest point on January 11, kept rising through June 29, when it reached its high point of about 2.7 million acre-feet and elevation of 843 feet above sea level. That’s a rise of 178 feet in less than six months.

So that’s the glass half-full. It’s normal for our reservoirs to rise and fall, often dramatically (and no, I’m not addressing here the impact of how the reservoirs are operated — how much water is released, when, and why).

Here’s the empty half of the glass for Lake Oroville: This year, the Department of Water Resources estimates that the water content in the thin layer of snow in the Feather River watershed’s high country is just 13 percent of average for this time of year. Thirteen percent. So, we’re not going to see any late season rise in the lake. More likely, we’ll see a scenario more like the one that unfolded in 2007-08, when two drier-than-normal years left the lake at close to the same level we see today — 753 feet. The watershed’s snowpack was lower than normal, and although runoff gave the lake a boost, it topped out at just 760 feet and 50 percent capacity in late May. That dry rain year was followed by another, and in February 2009, the state declared a drought emergency.

None of this is meant to make a single reservoir, even a big one like Lake Oroville, seem more important than it really is. But reservoirs are important to making it possible for 38 million people to live, and for a rich agricultural industry to thrive,in a place where it typically doesn’t rain much for six months of the year. And Lake Oroville’s water storage happens to mirror what’s happening with the state’s water supply picture as a whole at the moment: The Department of Water Resources’ daily summary of 44 key reservoirs shows them collectively at 64.4 percent of average for today’s date. Lake Oroville is at 65 percent.

Here’s the revised slideshow:

By Way of Explanation

Anyone who has ever read this blog regularly — not a huge group, but one that I sort of know — have seen for awhile that the posts come less and less often (or do I mean more and more infrequently?). Part of the explanation won’t be surprising: Like just about everybody else in the world, I’ve been busy with other stuff.

Part of what I’ve been busy with, though, is another blog. About six months ago, I took over as the proprietor of a daily news blog for my public radio employer. On one hand, can you believe it? I’m getting paid to blog. On the other, I find myself at the keyboard and on the net for sometimes unhealthy amounts of time (when news has actually been happening, such as when we had transit strikes last summer and fall, the job has come dangerously close to being 24/7), a reality that sometimes leaves me feeling a little spent and brain-addled.

What that has meant for this personal blog, which I’ve kept at for more than 10 years, is that I’ve had less energy and attention for it. The time available to sit down and post something thoughtful (or even a nice picture) has grown shorter, and a lot of evenings I feel I need to have that time away from a keyboard and screen.

Among the handful of folks I know who have checked in here over the years are a few I know have been blogging on a daily or nearly daily basis for longer than I have. I know everyone who does that has a lot of stuff going on in their own lives — at work, at school, pursuing other interests or answering other obligations. I have seen the different strategies people have adopted to make the pursuit more manageable. If I wore a hat, it would be off to everyone who keeps on with their personal mission to communicate the news from their small corner of experience or their thoughts about the world beyond to people like me who, even if I can’t (or at any rate don’t) read every day still am fascinated and informed by what they say and suggest.

I’m not announcing the end of this blog or anything portentous like that. But I am just trying to figure out how to maintain some meaningful continuity for myself and for those who have stuck to this small adventure with me for so long.

More later.

Last of 2013

The Dog, watchful as cattle graze and dusk comes down on 2013.

The main outing for the last day of 2013: Kate and I took The Dog out to Carquinez Strait Regional Shoreline, up near Martinez. Having contrived to leave home less than two hours before sunset, we only got a short walk in, up to the top of a ridge with a view out to everywhere — the nearby towns of Martinez and Benicia, the above-mentioned strait and Suisun Bay, Mount Diablo, the mountains in Napa and Solano counties. The light was gorgeous, and as it faded, Scout started studying one of the nearby ridges. There was a cow up there, silhouetted against the twilight. Scout kept his vigil for a couple minutes until the cow ambled off over the hill. Then we all headed back down to the car and into the end of New Year’s Eve.