Saturday, December 31, 2011

Neighbourhood lights

As our snow lay on the ground indecisively while the heavens alternately rained and snowed (and sometimes sleeted, or freezing-rained), this snowman kept hanging around (suspended from a tree) in front of a North Toronto house.

Happy new year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Lights! Camera! No lights!

But pictures of lights!

Alas... The Trail of Lights at Downsview Park is not happening this year, due to construction at the site. So here are some pictures shot from the car last year (when, as you can see, it had been a bit rainy).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Looking out my back door

Actually, looking out my back window. (Taking a break from ranting about dumbing down the language.)

Living in even a quiet, North Toronto residential neighbourhood, their are interesting and sometimes surprising scenes outside my back window. (This is where my office is - hence, the lights from my little office Christmas tree on the left side of the picture).

This is not the first time I've seen men in trees

but it's the first time when it hasn't been summer.

What I didn't capture well enough to post was the tree-trimmer sweeping up afterward.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I feel stupidified

I spoke too soon in my ridicule of the Toronto Star use of the term "storified."

Actually, that should be Storified. "Storify" seems to be a new-ish neologism for a proprietary tool that allows a journalist to pull in elements of "social media" to build a story. Hence, "storify." I mean, "Storify."

It's not that new - I just found an article about Storify, from almost exactly a year ago, on the website of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida.

I suppose Storify as a verb is no more stupidifying than Google as a verb, or referring to the brief messages that are sent using this global system of interconnected computer networks as "tweets." Tim Berners-Lee, one of the architects of the Internet, famously said, "The World-Wide Web was developed to be a pool of human knowledge, and human culture, which would allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas and all aspects of a common project."

I wonder whether Berners-Lee and his colleagues dreamed it would ever become principally a tool of commerce; secondarily a way of perpetuating falsehoods, hate and insipidity; and third, a repository of most of the world's exclamation marks (OMG!). The "pool of human knowledge" thingie has fallen somewhere much farther down the list.

So, mea culpa, Toronto Star - this time. I guess you did legitimately Storify that... story.

However, I plan to continue to resist adopting and perpetuating these wacko neologisms and meaningless buzzwords and catch phrases.

Storify - I'll retire to Bedlam...

Monday, December 19, 2011

English language: 0 - Toronto Star: 1

The Toronto Star today ran a story - online, anyway - about how the children's singer/champion Raffi Cavoukian has started a Twitter campaign to "mute Don Cherry." Raffi encouraged his followers to mute their TVs during last Saturday's Leafs-Canucks game when the "Coach's Corner" segment aired during the first intermission of "Hockey Night in Canada." Cherry is a former NHL coach and flamboyant, loud-mouthed broadcaster, who likes the physicality of the game - including fighting and head shots.

Raffi, a children's advocate who was recognized by the Canadian Paediatric Society in 2010 when the organization made him an honourary member, told the Toronto Star: “For years I’ve been watching him [Cherry] get louder and louder. He sounds and acts like a bully. That’s not fun and it’s not a good example for the kids who are watching. In this day and age of all the hockey violence, we should be putting a stop to this.... I have nothing against the man personally. I’m just saying his act is uncivil and doesn’t belong on our public broadcaster.”

("Hockey Night in Canada" airs every Saturday on CBC TV.)

Good on Raffi! Boo, Don Cherry!

And boo on the Toronto Star. The first story I referenced at the top of this post was nothing more than a series of tweets between Raffi and his followers, and a Toronto Star poll. Okay, I guess. As a sidebar anyway.

But the "byline" read "storified by the Toronto Star."

WHAT? It reminds me of one of my favourite comic strips - "Get Fuzzy," which features Bucky Katt, a perpetually apoplectic Siamese who regularly murders logic as well the English language. One of my favourite Buckyisms is "You can wordify anything if you just verb it." And that's what the Toronto Star has done.

The other guy

Thanks for your expressions of concern, but I haven't lost my job.

You're thinking of that other Terry Murray, who was fired last week ... or "relieved of his duties" as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, as news reports described it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Civil War remembrance

Today is Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day for you American readers), which was begun after the First World War. So, in a departure from gargoyles and architecture, I'd like to write today about my great-great-grandfather Adolph Redick, who fought on the Union side in the U.S. Civil War.

He didn't die in a Civil War battle, but a battle of another sort, the story of which has been pieced together by the joint efforts of my sister the genealogist and me.

Adolph Redick was born in Posen (then in Prussia) in 1827. A stonemason (I guess this is related to the usual theme of this blog!), he emigrated with his wife Christina to Chicago sometime around 1860.

In 1864, Adolph’s friend John Stubenbeck encouraged him to enlist in the 51st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Company K. (That's a picture of some of the men of the 51st Illinois, Company K, at Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee, above. I checked with an archivist at the United States Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which holds the photo, but was told that none of the men is identified in the picture. So I just imagine that GGGrandfather Adolph is among them.)

During the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee), which has been described as "second only to Gettysburg in importance during the entire war," he was clocked in the head with the barrel of a Confederate rifle:

“While making a charge on the enemy we were attacked by some infantry hidden behind a rail fence. Redieck (sic) received a blow on his head with the barrel end of a gun which stunned him and he dropped. I, being a neighbor of his at home and had induced him to enlist, I assisted him as much as I could and looked for him to be placed in an ambulance. A week or so later he performed his duty again," Stubenbeck said in support of Adolph's disability application (“Proof of Incurrence of Disability") more than 20 years later.

According to the “Declaration for Original Invalid Pension” completed in 1885, Adolph also contracted malaria while on duty in New Orleans in 1865, resulting in “dropsy and general debility.” He was treated at regimental headquarters up to the time of his discharge, and “ever since then.”

(Adolph entered the 51st Illinois as a private, and mustered out as a corporal at the end of the war in 1865. Above is a photo of a replica of his dogtag.)

Once home, Christina reported that he grew increasingly "irascible," according to my conversation with a cousin, Adolph's great-granddaughter. Christina ultimately had him committed to the Cook County Insane Asylum at Dunning in 1886, where he died of a hemorrhage three years later.

In his statement, Stubenbeck also said, "I believe the blow (from the Confederate rifle) was what made him insane and caused his death.”

A “Claimant’s Affidavit,” completed (with assistance) by Christina on 15 November 1898, tells the story of his commitment to Dunning: “My husband was sick on bed until the last eight months of his life. He was complaining ever since he returned home from the war of sickness, mostly about his severe headache. His only brother who died two years ago living in close neighborhood took him often to doctors, dispensaries, etc. The only doctor I had to go along was the County Physician Dr. Bluthardt who send him to the Insane Asylum in 1886. He died in 1889 there. It was my brother in law who attended to my pension claim in 1890. I cannot speak English whatsoever so I left everything to him.”

According to Dunning records, he was buried in the asylum's cemetery.

Dunning, like many similar institutions of the time, was a scary and shameful place to be associated with. In his book Challenging Chicago. Coping with Everyday Life, 1837-1920, Perry Duis (a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago), wrote:

"For many generations of Chicago children, bad behavior came to a halt with a stern warning: 'Be careful, or you’re going to Dunning.' The prospect sent shivers down the spines of youngsters, who regarded it as the most dread place imaginable… Dunning … evoked images of gloomy institution walls, the cries of the insane, and the hopeless poor peering from its window."

Adolph's reward for winding up in Dunning? His son changed the family name from Redick to Richard.

But there was another indignity to come. Dunning officially closed on 30 June 1912, and reopened the next day as Chicago State Hospital. It later became the Chicago-Read Mental Health Center. The asylum's graveyard was forgotten until excavation for a commercial-residential project on the site was begun in the late 1980s. The crews working on the site found skeletal remains and a mummified corpse, and a “cemetery genealogist” (according to a Chicago Tribune story) estimated the cemetery that stood there contained 38,000 bodies. It was determined that it had been the public burial ground for the indigent and mentally ill from nearby poorhouse-insane asylum complex. Owing largely to the efforts of Rev. William Brauer, the remains were transferred to five acres of state-owned property nearby and made into “Read-Dunning Memorial Park.” It features eight markers indicating the groups who are buried there, including “insane asylum,” “orphaned/abandoned children,” and unclaimed corpses from the Great Chicago Fire.

Jurisdiction of the park - and hence, responsibility for maintaining it - has been in dispute, but the cause of preserving it has been taken up by a local group. On the day I visited in September, the lawn was freshly cut.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gargoyles, whiskey and long life

Gargoyle-hunting in Toronto is a challenge. There are faces and some actual gargoyles, but it takes real searching to find them. Gargoyle-hunting in Montreal, on the other hand, is more like shooting fish in a barrel. They’re everywhere. I’ve been shooting them practically every time I’ve been there since 2001, but I somehow missed this guy. He is about half a storey tall, and prominently displayed on the former Seagram House on Peel Street.

For you sticklers out there, he is not an actual gargoyle because he doesn’t have a spout. (There is a spout above him.) He has gargoylian features, however, but he also has the features of a telamon, a support sculpted in the form of a man. (The plural is telamones; when the supporting sculpted figure is a female, it’s called a caryatid.)

Construction of this building was completed in 1929, and remained as Seagram Company Ltd. headquarters until 2002 when it was given to McGill University. It is currently known as Martlet House (so called for the mythical birds on the university coat of arms), home of of the university's development and alumni relations department.

The Seagram Company was founded in 1928 by Samuel Bronfman, after he acquired Joseph Seagram & Sons, which he amalgamated with his own Distillers Corporation. In fact, you can still see a stylized Romanesque DCL on the façade of the building.

The architect was American-born David Jerome Spence, who later worked in partnership with Frederick David Mathias beginning in 1937, but Mathias is credited with designing the façade of the Seagram building.

The building contains several ornamental nods to the Scottish spirit the company produces. It is modeled after a 16th-century Scottish baronial castle (including a portcullis), and features not only the magnificent gargoylamon above, but also a relief portrait of Robbie Burns.

There is also a bewhiskered gentleman just above the gargoyle, with the incised legend “aged 152 years.” (He’s hiding behind tape while renovations are going on. At the moment, the roof is being replaced.) He’s not Father Time (who is almost certainly older than 152), nor is he Joseph Seagram. I suspect he is Thomas Parr, aka “Old Tom Parr” or simply “Old Parr,” born near Shrewsbury who was reported to have lived for 152 years (1483-1635).

However, doubt has been cast for some time on his supercentenarian status.

There is a brand of whiskey named for him although not made by Seagram’s.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The mysterious, magical Farcroft

This little guy is the keeper of the key to an unusual building on the north side of Chicago. The Farcroft Building in Rogers Park is reportedly the northernmost highrise building in the city. Construction of the 13-storey building began in 1928, the work of architect Charles Wheeler Nicol. The Farcroft was built with 84 three-, four- and five-roon suites. Maybe this fellow was one of the original tenants:

The Farcroft is adorned with about a dozen grotesques, including these characters:

Not much appears to be known about this building. Even the architect who is working on restoring the Farcroft has posted a request for information on an architectural history listserv, including the location of Nicol's archive, if one exists. The dearth of information seems remarkable since Nicol designed more than 1,200 buildings, largely in the U.S. Midwest. Then again, being prolific is no guarantee of being remembered.

There's more to doing research than Google searches and finding what's on the Internet, but from Toronto, that's the only way I'm able to research a Chicago building. Here's what I've turned up about the Farcroft:

A Chicago Tribune article from February 1928 — admittedly, before the building had even begun — described, only cursorily, the exterior, not mentioning the faces at all. The interiors were described in a bit more detail:

"Color will play a prominent part in interior equipment and decoration. For instance, the kitchens will have colored tiled walls, to match the cheerful hues manufacturers at last are putting into culinary utensils and kitchen furniture. Several bathrooms will have gay tinted tubs to splash in, with walls and fixtures to match."

David Blixt, a Shakespearean actor, writer and former tenant of the Farcroft, wrote an intriguing, provocative post on his blog of building lore he picked up from other tenants and the company that formerly owned it. Nicol, Blixt said, "fancied himself a magician, and wanted the building to be a nexus for mystical energy."

None of the rooms in his apartment had right angles, "the better to funnel the 'mystic' energy."

When he and his wife moved in, they met another resident in the elevator who gave him a business card and said, "This is the name of my exorcist. He did a wonderful job."

I suppose some sinister, mystical, magical energy could be expected at a 13-story building located at 1337 West Fargo Avenue.

And this wizard appears at each storey up the front of the building:

I'll post any additional information I get. In the meantime, Happy Halloween, everybody!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Who knows what evil...

... lurks on the walls of Chicago apartment houses?

So, last summer, my sister and I were driving around Chicago, attending various family reunions. (Actually, they were newly discovered family, so they weren't so much REunions as... I guess, just unions.) Anyway, while we were driving I noticed the flute player on this house, and asked my sister (the driver) to stop so I could shoot it. (She's getting used to this.)

I did a little research and learned from Robert Powers's excellent blog, A Chicago Sojourn, that the same developer responsible for the flute player had also incorporated the Three Wise Monkeys "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil") on other buildings.

But why? Thanks to the digging that Powers did, the answer seems to be simply: "Because." The headline of a Chicago Tribune article from 1956 says it best: "No reason, but monkeys adorn dwelling units."

The story says that Angelo Esposito, president of the general contracting firm that built the house and apartments, had always put sculpture on his buildings. The monkeys were chosen "for no special reason," he said, but added, "The fact that it has created talk and interest, tho*, indicates the idea accomplished what it was meant to do."

I have a special fondness for the "hear no evil" monkey, who clearly is open to hearing anything and everything:

*Back in the 50s and 60s, and probably before and probably since, the Chicago Tribune, no doubt like other newspapers, used to use these shortened versions of words (e.g., tho, thru) to save space. So I never understood why the Trib insisted on using "clew" in its headlines. That "w" takes up a huge amount of space.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top of the book pile

“You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it.”
— Lionel Twain, played by Truman Capote in the 1976 movie Murder By Death

It’s for those reasons that I have never read mystery novels. I’ve been afraid, not that I wouldn’t guess whodunit, but that it wouldn’t make sense to me when the central detective figured it out. I didn’t want the mystery to be ... you, know... mystifying.

Such is not the case with Paula LaRocque’s Chalk Line, the first in what I hope will be a long line of Ben Gallagher mysteries. You’ll never guess the murderer of an old family friend of Ben’s — a man his widowed mother was about to marry — but, for those of you who are as insecure about these things as I am, you will be able to follow the steps in solving the mystery.

It would have been easy to make Ben and the the rest of a large cast of characters one-dimensional caricatures, but LaRocque has provided them all with enough contradictions and personal quirks to make them seem like frustratingly real humans.

Ben Gallagher, who has a doctorate in fine arts, is chief of detectives in Arlington, Texas. The book opens with him driving to the state penitentiary to pick up his brother Andrew who has just completed a 10-year sentence in Huntsville prison for his part in a prank gone bad.

Once home, but before Ben and Andrew can have a reunion dinner with family and friends, Dayton Slaughter (a fitting name for the victim) is murdered in Ben’s house. Ben manages to cop two days’ head start from his boss to find the killer before the case is handed over to his Nigerian-born partner (who also holds a PhD, in chemical engineering) and their team, consisting of a Comanche and a lesbian. The cast consists of practically the full complement of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual-orientation possibilities, but mercifully no Texas stereotypes.

The case takes Ben and Co. on a multiple mystery tour from Texas to Michigan and back again, solving not only Slaughter’s… um, slaughter… but also a 40 year-old cold case, and uncovering family secrets.

LaRocque is a former assistant managing editor and writing coach at the Dallas Morning News and author of several books on writing that I have used in training new journalists. So I expected her writing to be as evocative as it was. In fact, LaRocque’s use of detail is such that once you’ve read the book and then seen the movie when — and there will be a movie — you will swear you’ve already seen it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The night the lights went out too early

For the last several Christmas seasons, a three-kilometre-long Trail of Lights has been installed at Downsview Park in northwestern Toronto.

The trail is set up mostly for driving, although one night a week it's closed to cars and only pedestrians are allowed in. The advantage of staying in a car (apart from the obvious protection from inclement weather) is that you can tune your car radio to an unused frequency and listen to the music that is provided by the former Canadian Forces Base.

Through 2 January this season, the spectacular trail — incorporating more than 400,000 LED bulbs into themeed light displays, more than half of which are animated — has been open five nights a week, until 11pm. That was supposed to be the case even on New Year's Eve, when I, somewhat belatedly, decided to take in the trail.

Throughout the drive, at a maximum allowed speed of 20 km/hour, the closed-circuit radio station urges you to take pictures, but not to stop or get out of your vehicle. Everyone ignores the no-stopping rule. However, there are several small displays at the end of the trail where you are encouraged to get out of your car and take pictures.

As I said, we were there on New Year's Eve. The trail was supposed to be open (and lighted) until 11pm, with the entrance gate closed at 10.45pm. So we were a bit surprised when we completed the trail at 10.30pm, and just as we were getting out of the car, cameras in hand, the lights went out. At the end of the trail! The gate was closed and I guess the attendants decided they'd had enough and it was time to find a New Year's party.

It was rather less shocking for us than it was for people who were already taking pictures of the end-of-the-trail displays. The lights just went out. In the dim light, I saw one man look down at his feet, apparently thinking he'd tripped over a power cord and de-lighted the whole park. But all that was under his feet was mud and muck left after the rain and unseasonably warm temperatures we'd been having.

I sympathize with people who work on holidays, but it was so close to quitting time anyway, couldn't they have stuck it out for another 30 minutes?

If we have time tonight, we're going to go back and try to shoot some of the end-of-trail lights, without having to pay the $25 entrance fee again.

Mia, the young friend we had brought along with us, began composing her letter of complaint on the drive home. The Downsview Park management should brace themselves for her letter. Last year, President's Choice cheated her and came in for a stern letter. A package of PC Christmas crackers we'd bought promised that none of the prizes would be duplicated, and Mia had her eye on a little wooden penguin ornament. We had to pull all of the crackers so she could get her penguin — but there was no penguin. Instead, there were two candy cane ornaments. She wrote to PC asking for a penguin ornament, but was sent only a $10 coupon for PC products instead.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Sitting on top of the world!

Okay, more like standing. And as for it being the top of the world, it's only the top of Toronto's Old City Hall. This picture was taken in 2003 when the Ventin Group, the restoration architects working on the building, allowed me to come up on the scaffolding of the 103.6-metre tower to take pictures of the gargoyles that were being replaced.

Happy 2011!

Happy new year, everybody! Wishing you all good things in 2011!