Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ostentatious oddity

In my continuing effort to chronicle the roadside attractions I see on a daily basis in my trucking route from Romeoville, IL to Appleton, WI, one of the more obvious, and, to my surprise, publicly available ones is the Golden Pyramid House in Wadsworth, IL. If you look to east on mile marker five (what us truckers call lollipops), you'll see the Sphinx statue and, off beyond that, the pyramid house.

It's just a few miles away from Great America in Gurnee, IL, and would be worth a side trip to visit on a day's outing to that theme park. I found a web site for the house and discovered the house is open for public tours on Sundays, June through the end of October. It costs $15 per person. The house was built by the unfortunately-named Onan family in 1977 and served as a private residence for many years. The pyramid houses 17,000 square feet of floor space and is now used for banquets, meetings, and private parties.

I watched the following video that tours inside the house and was amused to see the official web site describe the interior as "ostentatious." At least they own up to their tackiness. But tacky kitsch is a desirable element of roadside attractions, and this place certainly fits the bill.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Happy Record Store Day

Back in January, my son Jonny celebrated his birthday with a party for friends at our house. It was a gleeful sort of chaos to have nine boys running around, playing games, and generally being loud and obnoxious. One room is totally devoted to music. I call it the conservatory, which is a little uppity, but that's what it is. We've got the upright piano, my guitars and ukelele, an amplifier, a tom tom and snare drum (albeit lacking stands), and, organized in alphabetical and chronological order, my record collection.

Without a doubt, the most mysterious item to these kids, other than the bar soap in the bathroom, were these records. They were even more mystified by the cassette tapes and a few didn't even know what a CD was for. This is truly the digital age of music storage, where entire collections are kept on portable hard drives and MP3 players. This is a sad state of affairs.

These kids will never know the concept of a concept album, a collection of songs that must be listened to together to be appreciated as a thematic whole. They will never sit on the floor and read liner notes or be mesmerized by trippy album art as they listen to their tunes. Songs and artists are throwaway commodities today. The ease and access of information is unprecedented, yet the quality and depth of the music has suffered. Quick, quick, quick. On to the next thing.

And because of data compression, the aural quality of music has suffered. MP3s sound tinny and flat to even an untrained ear like mine. I've compared a vinyl recording to the CD on the same sound system and there is a noticable difference in sound quality. To use beer as a metaphor, an MP3 is a macro brew American Adjunct Lager. A vinyl LP is a craft brew Belgian Ale. Both are beers. But, man, what a world of difference.

After I post this blog, I'm heading up to Rockford to go to Toad Hall to celebrate Record Store Day. There will be live music, sales on used vinyl and new releases by modern artists that are released just for this day. For those who still cling to the ease and portability of MP3 technology, almost all new vinyl releases have a card with a web site and access code so you can download the album you just bought in that format as well. This allows you to compare for yourself and discover the superiority of vinyl.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Study Natural Law

I have had a regular trucking route from Romeoville, IL, to Appleton, WI for more than two years now, and although I can do the route in my sleep, I try to keep on the lookout for interesting sights along the way.

To the southbound traveler on Interstate 94, just a few miles north of the Illinois/Wisconsin border is a barn with the words "Study Natural Law" posted on its roof. I Googled the phrase and was introduced to the quirky, All-American story of Alfred Lawson, an early proponent of commercial air travel who supposedly invented the word "Airline" and developed his own cult-like following around a self-styled life philosophy, Lawsonomy.

Lawson was born in the United Kingdom in 1869 and moved to the United States before he was four. He played minor league baseball and even tried to start the first racially integrated professional baseball league, the Union Professional League, in 1908, but it folded after a month.

Instead of regurgitating Lawson's history from Wikipedia, here's a link to an informative article about the man and the University of Lawsonomy, which never quite saw fruition on that bit of land near the interstate in Racine, WI.

There is also an official web site dedicated to Lawsonomy which contains many of Lawson's writings, including his utopian novel, "Born Again." The site looks like it  hasn't been updated in a while. The Lawsonomy Students Reunion links to an event that happened in 2002. Check out that link here:

Explore the site and learn all about Zig Zag and Swirl, Equaverpoise, and Penetrability. I find it amazing that he supposedly drew large crowds at speaking engagements in the 1930s expounding this drivel.

An excerpt:

"Thus Zig-Zag-and-Swirl continues without direction or end. The Earth, man and germ alike are pushed, and pulled, and swirled about in Space in countless directions simultaneously and at varying and unthinkable speeds, changing positions each instant by distances of trillions of miles. And this is caused by Penetrability with its conflicting currents of different density moving along the lines of least resistance as an effect of Suction and Pressure of different proportions."

When I first Googled "Study Natural Law," I thought I would get some information about a farmer who supports Darwin's Theory of Evolution or maybe a Thoreau scholar. Instead, I was drawn into the wacky, quintessentially American story of Alfred William Lawson.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Family vacation synopsis

Today is Star Wars day at the public library. It's kind of hard to concentrate on this blog post when a guy dressed in a Darth Maul costume lurks just over my left shoulder. Kids are making foam lightsabers, participating in trivia contests, a Chewbacca yell contest, and bouncing around in the trash compactor. Nerd Central is right here. Of course, nerdiness is so mainstream that its lost its cachet as a means to outsider status.

It's hard to believe its been almost two weeks since we returned from our first family vacation, a trip to Texas to visit my sister and three national parks: Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, and Carlsbad Caverns. This vacation was a good mix of relaxation and busy-ness. We did a lot of hiking and sightseeing, but still had time to relax in camp at the end of the day. Southwest Texas was blessedly free of snow, but a constant wind and perpetual dustiness started to grate on me after awhile. Every night in camp was a tent-flapping affair.

Quick highlights of the trip include:

A trip to the Houston Rodeo and ag show. We didn't see the rodeo, but the birthing station was a hit, where we got to see wobbly-legged newborn calves and shiny, pink little piglets stomping around their indifferent sow mother.

A hike to a hot springs at Big Bend National Park, where we enjoyed 104-degree natural mineral springs on the shore of the Rio Grande River, just feet away from Mexico. That night, in camp at the Rio Grande Village, I awoke to the sound of gently tinkling bells and the braying of donkeys. Illegal traffic? I didn't investigate to find out.

The hallmark feature of Big Bend National Park is Santa Elena Canyon. It is a majestic site, with walls rising 1,500+ feet above the banks of the Rio Grande. Just as we pulled into the lot, we saw a rattlesnake coiled in the middle of the road. A couple other tourists were snapping photos and I joined them. The rattler was not too pleased by the attention.

Jonny enjoyed hearing his voice echo off the canyon walls. Here, he pauses in his favorite prospector pose near the turnaround point of the hike.

We spent two days at Big Bend and then drove a few hours north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We planned to hike to Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, on Thursday, but paid a visit to nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park instead because all of us were less than energized by a stomach bug. Somehow, the caving experience revived us. Jonny motivated us to take the natural entrance back out because he hoped to see a few bats. He successfully saw a few flit on by. We didn't stay until sunset because the winds assured the bats wouldn't be making a mass flight out of the cave that night.

After stopping in Carlsbad to enjoy the public library and art museum, we headed back to our windswept camp site at Guadalupe Mountains. The next day, although still quite windy, was a good day to attain the summit. Jonny led on the 3,000 foot climb and kept a decent enough pace, not once complaining about the wind and steep cliffs. It took us six hours to reach the summit and back, a hike of almost 8.5 miles. It was the first state high point for Jonny and the 16th for Esther and I.

On the way home, we stopped by President Bill Clinton's boyhood home in Hope, AR, and made it home on a Sunday night around 10 p.m. The next day it was back to work.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The evocative power of an enduring logo

I was driving down highway 41 the other day, a beautiful early spring day in Wisconsin, when I saw a truck bearing the Muller Pinehurst Dairy logo,.

And instantly, upon spying the cursive lettering and smiling sun, I was transported back to my childhood, when I saw this very same label, unchanged from what I see today. Seeing this image really threw me back. I could envision the gymnasium / lunch room at Rock Cut Elementary School and, even weirder, my shorter perspective seeing the world as bigger and more mysterious, and, weirder yet, my smaller hands grasping my half pint of Muller Pinehurst chocolate milk. Nowadays, they differentiate between whole milk and 2 percent and skim, even with the half pints, but back then it was white or chocolate or orange. I never had the white. And I only drank the orange every once in a while. It wasn't orange juice. Not even close. But, like the milk, it had the smiling sun.

Muller Pinehurst has spent zero dollars in my lifetime on a new logo. It is comforting to see a brand like that endure. I think the reason why it hasn't changed is because it is a regional / local brand, based in the Rockford area. I've been to the actual dairy once, located in the south side of Rockford, to pick up dry ice for a Halloween party.

I have this theory that local brand logos are reluctant to change because there is a stability in the customer base, and with this stability, there is a reluctance to rock the boat and change things around. A couple brand logos, all local, haven't changed in my lifetime. Centrella has the same cursive writing as Muller Pinehurst. They are based out of Franklin Park, IL.

The other one Mrs. Fishers Chips, also based out of Rockford, has the creepiest logo of the bunch, but hasn't changed. The dancing potato looks so sinister and has worn this same menacing look my entire life. Even the dress of the children looks anachronistic, reminding me of the bygone Dick and Jane primers. And just what does "Vita Seald" mean? Why is "seald" spelled like that? Must be some patent thing. All I know is that the chips are awesome and one of the most famous  products produced by a Rockford company. I've heard of people moving away from the area who have friends buy the chips and ship them.

The reason, I think, that national brand names don't keep the same logos is because they probably have huge marketing departments that need to justify their salaries and don't benefit from as stable a customer base as local brands. The only national brand I can think of that hasn't changed their logo is Krispy Kreme donuts, which I didn't find out about until after the millenium when, for a while, they were all the rage and sold out within minutes of being stocked on store shelves. According to the company web site, they patented their "bow tie" logo in 1955, but have been using it longer.

The Gothic font on the White Castle logo has remained unchanged in the restaurant's history. I don't know how long the current logo has been used, but I know, from looking at old photos, that the font is the same.
Here is a photo from 1929, the first White Castle restaurant to open in Chicago.

Logos are designed to be evocative, to subconsciously imprint the brand into one's consciousness and spur retail purchases. It is too bad that more brands don't realize the value of endurance and that the older logos are often the most deeply cherished.