Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday is Bring Your Gigantic Flying Reptile to Work Day

Last week, when I brought a large, imposing dragon to work, one of my comrades-in-arms mistook Draco for an older, more famous flying menace: Rodan, star of his own Japanese monster movie and co-star in numerous others with Godzilla, Mothra and many more. this coworker remembered that when he was a child in Alabama, his uncle, after having seen the original movie, claimed to have seen the prehistoric terror swooping low over the smokestacks of the factories and mills of Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham.

The imagination of a ten year old is a furnace that doesn't require much to keep it stoked, so what would it do with such a potent shovelful of fossil fuel? It would burn long and red with terror. And so it did.

Now, at the end of a month of giant monsters, I might as well go out big while rousing a few flashbacks in my wake. And you can't go much bigger then the Shogun Warriors Rodan.

Back in the late '70s, Mattel produced a series of enormous robot toys called Shogun Warriors (based on Japanese toy manufacturer Popy's giant Mazinger figures). Part of this line was a version of Godzilla that shot a tongue of flame out of its mouth, as a proper Godzilla should. (The flame was triggered by a lever at the back of his neck; this lever snapped off pretty easily, and most second-hand Shogun Godzillas have only stumps to work with.) He was also able to shoot his left hand at his opponents (something the movie Godzilla could never do.)

Since Mattel had Godzilla in their Shogun Warriors and he was, by this point in his "career" a good guy, they must have thought, "Hey...doesn't he need someone to fight?" And thus, we have Rodan, rendered in plastic with grasping claws (strung with rubber bands), flapping wings (also strung with a rubber band and operated by three bowling ball-style holes in his back) and snapping jaws (operated by a much stronger lever than Godzilla had). His wingspan is fairly amazing--over 40 inches from tip to tip--and he can be seen from damn near any vantage point in the office.

This has, of course, prompted many more questions from coworkers, most along the lines of, "Do you display all these things in your apartment? How big is your place, anyway?"

My apartment is no bigger than average, I'd guess, and no, I don't display all of the toys I own in it; I'd need an apartment closer to the size of the Field Museum for that.

But Rodan? You're damn right I've got him on display at home--proudly on display at that.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Importance of Proofreading: Woves at the Door

On Sunday, March 22, the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves honored former player Sam Mitchell by handing out prints to the first 5,000 fans to show up for their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, as part of the Timberwolves' 20th anniversary celebration.

It's a lovely print, except...does that say "Woves" on his jersey? Who, exactly, are the "Woves"?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tuesday is Bring Your Flying Turtle to Work Day

As you might imagine, many of my coworkers not only take notice of Bring Your Action Figure to Work Day--they also have many questions.

Who is that? If you don't know, you don't need to. Move along.

How much did that cost you? None of your damn business.

Do you really own all those...things? Yes. Yes, I do. (Insert confused/alarmed/frightened look here.)

Occasionally, the questions relate neither to my income nor my relative state of sanity. Sometimes, coworkers want to know if there's "more where that came from." The answer, generally speaking, is, "Yes. yes, there is."

Example: The first time I brought a Godzilla toy in, I was asked whether or not I had a toy of Gamera the flying turtle at home as well.

"Well, now that you mention it..."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday is Bring Your Big Freakin' Dragon to Work Day

When the movie Dragonheart came out over a decade ago, toy company Kenner put out the usual accompanying action figure line, including all the major characters (you too can own a mini-Dennis Quaid!) and, of course, the dragon himself, Draco (as voiced in the film by Sean Connery).

The movie did well enough at the box office and on VHS to spawn a couple of direct-to-Blockbuster "sequels," but the toy line tanked, with the figures clogging the discount bins at major retailers for years to come.

For the most part, that wasn't exactly a shame--the toys were pretty boring. There was, however, one toy in the line that didn't deserve such a fate: The deluxe Draco figure, who came in a big box and had to be assembled for display and play. He is supposed to make sounds--he roars, his heart beats, and he speaks a couple of lines of dialog in a voice this is most decidedly not Sean Connery. Unfortunately, the voice box on this guy don't work that well anymore; you have to hold him really close to your ear to hear what he's saying.

Still, he looks great standing atop my kitchen cabinets--or, for today, at my workstation--and has an impressive wingspan (not visible in the photo above, although you can see a coworker's Yoda action figure attempting to tame the savage beast.)

Spring Has Sprung

Happy Vernal Equinox, everyone.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Paving the Way

On my walk to work from the train station every morning, I spend much of my time with my head down. It's not because of the harsh winds blowing off of Lake Michigan, nor because the daily trudge to the job is particularly depressing, though both of those can be contributing factors on any given day.

No. My head is down because I have to watch out for potholes as I cross the downtown streets, lest I land in one and sprain or even break an ankle.

I wish I were engaging in hyperbole, but I'm not. Even the crosswalks a block away from City Hall are so pitted and rough that removing the asphalt entirely would make it easier and safer to get around. And if that's how bad the streets in the Loop are, just imagine what it's like out in the neighborhoods, especially the poorer neighborhoods on the west and south sides--areas that, by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, happen to have the city's greatest concentrations of people of color, most especially African-Americans.

But you don't have to imagine it, do you? You've walked or driven the streets and alleys. You know how bad it is out there.

The City of Chicago knows how bad it is too, but they've said that there's not much they can do about it. This past winter was unusually harsh, opening up potholes faster than the city can fill them, and with the economy being as bad as it is, they couldn't afford to fill them anyway.

Why, then, after saying the city doesn't have the scratch to repair and repave roads, is the city repaving the streets surrounding Washington Park on the city's south side?

Because that's where Mayor Richard M. Daley wants to hold the Olympics in 2016, and a team from the International Olympic Committee just happens to be visiting the site in April.

It doesn't matter that, of all of the people I've talked to about the possibility of having the 2016 Olympics in Chicago, not one of them is enthusiastic about the prospect--most, if fact, can't stand the idea. Too much additional traffic (both public and automotive) in a city that can't seem to handle the traffic it has now, not to mention the elevated security threats the city would face.

It doesn't matter that Mayor Daley and his lieutenants have pledged over and over again that the taxpaying public won't get stuck with the bill for the Olympics, that most of the costs for building the facilities and upgrading city services like public transportation will be taken care of by combination of federal grants and private donations.

It doesn't matter that there are many, many more stretches of road in this city that are used by the people who live and die and work and spend here every day of the year that are in far worse shape.

It doesn't matter that there are far more pressing concerns in Chicago, like the expanding tax rates for just about everything, contracting salaries and job market, and skyrocketing number of children being gunned down on those same pothole-pocked avenues and boulevards.

All that matters is that company's a'comin', and Mayor Daley wants to spruce up the joint--at taxpayer expense.

Your needs? Your opinion? Don't matter a damn.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Vanishing Chicago: Audio Artifacts

The slow evolution--some would say disintegration--of Chicago's character isn't restricted to physical appearance, naming conventions or cost of living. The musical tone of the city--from the sounds wafting out of clubs and bars to the voices and songs riding the airwaves--is also markedly different. Nothing new: Music scenes changes just like everything else, and that's the way it's supposed to be.

However, it's still cool to run across a CD that captures the sound of a particular era or scene--or, in the case of the CDs below, three different scenes all happening within the same era within the same vast, diverse box o' music that was and is The Windy City:

The Sundowners: Chicago Country Legends. In the late 1980s, I was working second shift at a small company that specialized in 35mm slide presentations. (These were the days just before PowerPoint became the presentation tool of choice, quickly making slides obsolete; the company shut down around 1994.) One night, the whole shift went out for a going-away celebration to a place called the Bar R R, housed in the same building as the Woods Theater. The Bar R R was a dive--dark, smoky, loud, rough. Pretty much like every other dive in the Loop. The only thing that differentiated the Bar RR was the house band: A three-piece country/western combo known as the Sundowners.

They played that night. And when they did, everybody pretty much shut up and paid attention.

Country Music Legends is a collection of live recordings of the Sundowners playing at the Bar R R over the course of nearly three decades (1960-1988), and it perfectly captures the flavor of a typical Sundowners performance. The songs are a mix of country sand folk standards ("Cimmaron," "Clementine," "Tom Dooley"), reinterpreted pop songs (a swing version of the Beatles' "Something") and less familiar fare (like the heartbreaking "Sidewalks of Chicago," in which the narrator's family thinks he's hit the big time when, in reality, he's destitute: "If I buy the bread, I can't afford the wine"). All the while, you can hear the sounds of the Bar R R in the background--beer bottles clinking, tables shifting, semi-stoned patrons murmuring to one another (or, just as likely, to themselves).

You can't go to the Bar R R anymore--the building was demolished in 1990 and the Goodman Theatre now stands on the site. But if you load in this CD, light up a Marlboro and close your eyes, you can easily picture yourself there.

WLS AM Volume One: The Lost Sixties. On most evenings in the spacious but rundown apartment on Leavitt Street, you could hear the tinny whine of the transistor radio spitting out whatever passed for pop then while the tall, skinny boy scrubbed dishes in the chipped porcelain sink, taking care not to leave the plastic bowls and cups on the space heater for too long, lest they warp, melt and drip between the slats.

The station to which that radio was invariably tuned? WLS-AM--the call letters stand for "World's Largest Store," since the station was started by Sears in 1924--which boomed Top 40 hits out across much of North America from 1960 until it switched to an all-talk format in 1989.

The Lost Sixties CD, which was issued to benefit Orchard Village, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping people with developmental disabilities, attempts to simulate a representative '60s WLS broadcast by interspersing hits of the time (the Hollywood Argyles' "Alley Oop," Del Shannon's "Runaway," the Vogues' "Five O'Clock World," etc.) with promos for the various disc jockeys (Dick Biondi, Clark Weber, Art Roberts, etc.). While the CD doesn't quite recreate the sound--WLS played about as many commercials in a typical hour as they did songs--but the combination of the personality promos and music provides a nice flashback to the heyday of Chicago radio, when "The Big 89" wasn't just throwing out music into the nighttime air of America, but the distinct sonic personality of Chicago as well.

(And just in case you're wondering...no, I don't know whther or not there ever was a "Vol. 2.")

Brotherman. What do you do with the soundtrack album to a movie that was never finished (and may not have even been started)? If you're songwriter Carl Wolfolk and Darrow Kennedy, lead singer for the virtually unknown Chicago soul group The Final Solution, you cart the master tapes around with you for 30 years until record company Numero Group tracks you down, cleans the songs up and gives the album the proper release it always deserved.

And thank god they did--this is some of the most amazing soul/funk ever, made even more so because Wolfolk was working from an incomplete script and could only write general tunes (an opening theme, a couple love songs, background for action sequences, etc.) without any idea of what the final product would look like. In a way, that generic approach works to the album's advantage--without specific plot details cluttering the brainscape, the listener is free to make up his/her own movie on an imaginary drive-in screen. It would have been a tragedy if Brotherman had remained lost in the back of a dusty closet.

Sometimes, though, that which is lost becomes that which is found--or, at the very least, preserved in some way so that future ears can get a sonic taste of what once was in a sprawling city by a brooding lake.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vanishing Chicago: Sears Tower

No, the tallest building in North America isn't being torn down--that would be one hell of a demolition job.

The name of the building is, though.

Global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings is consolidating all of its local offices to one location--guess where?--and is formally changing the name of one of Chicago's most recognizable architectural icons to Willis Tower.

It's not like the change is unprecedented in this city. A few years back, U.S. Cellular bought the naming rights to the baseball stadium where the White Sox play, Comiskey Park, and renamed it U.S. Cellular Field; it's now popularly known as "The Cell." The Standard Oil Building, opened in 1974 and bearing a now-eerie resemblance to the World Trade Center, later became the Amoco Building and now is called the Aon Center. And Wrigley Field? Was only called that after the Wrigley family bought the Cubs in the 1920s; before then, it was known simply as Cubs Park or by its original moniker, Weeghman Park (when it housed the Chicago Whales of the short-lived Federal League).

There was also a brief discussion of selling naming rights to the home of the Bears, Soldier Field, after it was "rehabbed" (i.e., gutted and rebuilt to look like a spaceship crashed upside-down in the original stadium), but there was substantial backlash against the Bears for even thinking about it, especially from veterans' groups who argued that such a deal would be a slap in the face to the men and women of the armed services to whom the stadium had been dedicated.

Still, it's probably best that Willis reportedly didn't have to pay for naming rights as part of their deal for moving into Sears Tower, since it's unlikely anyone outside the company offices will ever call it by its freshly minted appellation. The building has been called Sears Tower since it opened in 1973, even though Sears moved its headquarters out to the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates years ago and hasn't had any offices in the tower since 1992. It'll likely be called Sears Tower as long as it and the city that surrounds it stand.

Just try, a few months from now, to tell a cabbie to take you to Willis Tower. He won't know what the hell you're talking about.

Thursday is Bring Your Giant Moth to Work Day

I'm not at work tomorrow--given how this week has gone, that's even more of a blessing than usual--so today is the day that Godzilla makes his second appearance for Bring Your Action Figure to Work Day on a Thursday rather than a Friday.

(Yes, I'm taking Friday the 13th off again. No, I'm not superstitious. Why do you ask?)

Of course, Godzilla can't show up alone; he needs someone to fight. Today, that someone is Mothra, perhaps the least threatening Kaiju ever. Unless, of course, you've got a giant sweater you're really fond of, in which case, watch out!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Baby on Board

Slightly belated congratulations to regular reader Belsum and her husband, Chris, on the birth of their daughter, Veronica Annette, on March 7!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday is Bring Your Murderous Cyborg to Work Day

It's Tuesday. It's warmish, but gray and threatening rain (again). It's too far past the previous weekend to still be rested, but too far from the following weekend to look forward to it. And work? Is busy as hell.

How does one reasonably respond to such conditions? Why, by bringing a Terminator to work, of course.

He is not, unfortunately, fully functional. (Ew, not "fully functional" in that way--minds out of the gutter, people.) He's not carrying his big-ass gun, and his red eyes don't light up anymore. (Probably just needs new batteries.) Nonetheless, he looks imposing atop my workstation--a fair warning against anyone who might interrupt my labors that doing so might make them subject to a profane tirade of Christian Bale proportions.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday is Bring Your Irradiated Dinosaur and His Metallic Doppelganger to Work Day

Recently, I realized that, given all of the toys I've lugged from home for Bring Your Action Figure to Work Day, I had made a startling omission: I had never brought in even a single Godzilla.

Anyone who has ever been to La Casa del Terror knows of my abundant love of Godzilla, from the large figures guarding the top of my refrigerator to the smaller ones lining the ledge of my kitchen cabinets to the two titans atop my TV.

It was those two--the version of "The Big G" from his last film (to date, anyway), Godzilla: Final Wars, and his robotic imitator/nemesis, Mechagodzilla, who adorn my workspace today, much to the awe of my coworkers.

(For those wondering why I didn't bring in any Watchmen action figures, considering that today is the opening day of this long-awaited cinematic adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel: I only have two figures from the movie--both the classic and modern versions of the lovely Silk Spectre--and I'm not arbitrarily certain that my coworkers would appreciate toys of women who are standing there in little more than one would see in the average Victoria's Secret catalog.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Candlelight

The following poem was written a long time ago in honor of a then-coworker who was moving on to another job, and I'd meant to post it here before. This past week, though, I lost a dear friend--a woman with a huge heart who cared about damn near everyone except, unfortunately, herself. The words below seem appropriate to her as well.

At the wood that used to be
Candlelight's desk, there is
a moment just before sunset
when the space west lets go
its reserve, lets clouds become
live things sore with volcanic
attention and nerve. Eyes take
the chance, glance up, know
what causes warmth to swoop
low over girder rust and clumps
of dark gnarl nowhere near
turquoise sleeves pressed
to enormous panes tinted
for keeping out. The moment
drifts through movement of
sneakers over worn office carpet,
fumes, dry weeds in drier sidewalks
without giving notice or regret
for eyes becoming cautious like
always, the air going dark like
always--boxed memories of
Candlelight gone, not forgotten.