Throne of Medical Science

Masturbation is the first refuge of the hack. If your life isn’t sexually adventurous enough, throw your readers a knuckleball with a description of your character, or yourself, making the scene with a magazine. It’s not the last sexual taboo, but it remains a personal and private one that retains the ability to shock, or, more often, annoy. A jerk-off scene marks a moment of vulnerability, perversion, selfishness, loneliness, or boredom. Done poorly, it’s a cheap plot device; done well, it’s still just another guy marking time with his flesh. That said, you’re not going to get your onanism fix here. Just letting you know in case any of you accuse me of building things up to an unbearable degree, then stopping before reaching the climax.

Why, this blog just writes itself, doesn’t it?

My wife and I have tried to get (her) pregnant for a year now. Before we had our son Nate we spent two years trying before she saw her OB-GYN. A small chemical adjustment was made. This led to two instances of insemination. The first ended in a miscarriage within the first trimester, the second resulted in our son Nate. We decided to give it another whirl a while back, hoping to complete the set with a girl, though I’d appreciate another lad around the house to help me open jars.

No matter how much we tried, however, no zygote. The solution seemed obvious (to me) since we’d had this problem before, but Mike’s doc wanted us to try, try again before she issued any scrips. Finally, after a year, she agreed to prescribe what Mike took before (no, it’s not a fertility drug—we have no desire to be octo-parents), but she also wanted me to have a semen analysis performed. That meant a trip to to fertility clinic. Which meant I’d have to go to a room to be alone with my thoughts. And penis.

In regards to my virility, I’m not defensive. The evidence speaks, runs, and giggles for itself, in any event. Nearing my mid-40s, everything is still working, thank you, and without the aid of little blue pills. Even so, getting my juice checked seemed odd. But I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued. That’s intrigued, not aroused.

I set up the appointment after a round of calls to the clinic and my provider to ensure my session would be covered. The fertility clinic was only a mile or so from the office, and I happily would have walked the distance except the heat had reached skin-scraping degrees. I hailed a cab—as it turned out I hailed the only cab without air conditioning. I know heat puts some folks in the mood for love, but not me. I baked as I pondered what-all was about to happen.

I had a pretty good idea. I’ve seen all the sitcoms, and I knew all the hilarious possibilities inherent in a fertility clinic visit. Not being easily embarrassed I felt very matter-of-fact about it all. Raised Catholic I’m supposed to feel instantaneous shame about masturbation, but I don’t. Without getting into how often or how many gallons or what have you, I don’t recall ever feeling bad about beating the bishop. At my most religious I couldn’t see the sin. Even as a sin of intention, it was purely theoretical. Bible nerds will quote Matthew 5:27-30 as evidence of Christ’s edict against whacking off.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

I’ve always been a southpaw.

That chapter and verse always sounded a little nuts and vicious to me; something added by an aesthetic church father who lived naked in the desert, eating locusts and mortifying his wicked, wicked flesh. Despite the cliche of Catholic masturbation terror, I don’t remember it coming up in class or mass or even the big sex talk for the boys and girls (separate rooms, of course) delivered by a cherubic priest. The talk consisted of Fr. So-and-So asking us, “So, does everybody know how sex works?” to which Steve S., our resident 12-year-old man of the world, said haltingly,

“Uh… the man puts his penis… in the woman’s… vagina?” (I’d learned this on a Boy Scout camping trip a year before, incidentally.)

“Good talk!” said Fr. Tony, clapping his hands together. “Okay, let’s move on.”

I prefer to remember it this way, but I swear Fr. Tony asked that question, and it was Steve who delivered the forbidden fruit.


Everything Requires Paperwork These Days

Doing a little Internet research beforehand, I was not surprised that my “partner” would be a plastic cup rather than a Real Doll or Nurse Nancy, Extraction Specialist. What I found comical were the alternatives to pulling one off for men whose fragile egos or religious beliefs wouldn’t allow them to take advantage of themselves. My favorite was the “collector condom,” which works exactly the way you’d think. Since it prevents issue into your wife-vessel, however I can’t imagine how it clears the diktats of the Catholic Church. How does a good Catholic boy provide a sample then? Taping the cup to his willy and praying for a random encounter with Kate Beckinsale and a bombpop?

Fortunately, as I said, I had no such scruples. Also, I am a perpetual lech. As the cab drove down Michigan Avenue I couldn’t help feeling more attuned to the wimmens on Michigan Avenue. Body and mind became quite goal-oriented.

The clinic, to my delight, is housed in the old Montgomery Ward catalog building. I used to work at Wards, albeit in the merchandise building on the southwest corner of Chicago and Larrabee. I worked at Wards in 1990 for about a year before I was axed. I came back as a freelancer months later, and was let go after another year. It was a bad place to work. Excellent if you were publishing a zine, fronting a band, promoting your artwork, or doing similar projects that required access to photocopiers, computers, phones, and easily fooled bosses; bad if you wanted any sort of stability, or the feeling that you weren’t wasting your time. I crowed when they went under. Now I returned the conquering hero.

My appointment didn’t come up in the computer at first, which led me to fear they might mistake me for a fertility clinic fetishist or, perhaps, a guy too cheap to pay for his own porn. But soon everything was cleared up, and after I filled out a stack of paperwork, I was led to a room marked, unsurprisingly, “PRIVATE.”

“When you’re done, just seal the container and bring it over to the lab over there,” said the nurse, gesturing to a room filled with technology. I was told not to use lubricants, since they killed sperm dead. No problem, I didn’t have any on me, which made me wonder how many men out there are toting around vials of lanolin or KY jelly for such occasions. Before I closed the door, I noted a big, creepy photo mural of babies on the wall opposite the PRIVATE door, letting me know what I was striving for, I guess. Think motile thoughts, Mr. Dan Kelly.

The room was small, one corner occupied by a large and comfy recliner that, if it possessed consciousness, would curse the God that made it. A small table offered tissues and several pads of examination table paper, the use of which I comprehended immediately.

Against one wall stood the standard cabinet every doctor’s office has to store stethoscopes, swabs, gauze, syringes, thermometers, and more. Most of the drawers were empty or locked. A TV set hanging from the ceiling told me that pornographic films were present, and after opening a few cabinets I found a stack of unmarked VHS tapes—save one, American Booty. While porn and VHS go together like peanut butter and jelly—at least in my mind (my first porn film was Candy Stripers, starring “Montana” and presented through glorious VHS technology)—I was a little surprised the clinic hadn’t caught up with DVDs. I understood why they wouldn’t provide a laptop with a wifi connection, though I’d be very curious to see that Internet history. I wondered how many guys who passed through that room bothered to set up a flick. The thought of kicking back in the comfy chair to watch American Booty, pants around my ankles, while a lab geek toiled only yards away seemed exceedingly undignified.

The Kind Men Like

A magazine rack hung from the far wall, containing six titles. Before I went to the clinic I figured the mags would be fairly vanilla; young plastic lovelies from the pages of Playboy. I was close. Playboy publications included Playboy’s Blondes, Brunette, & Redheads and Playboy’s Vixens, but that was it for Hef’s Empire. Voluptuous and Finally Legal (in case you need more reassurance than Barely Legal can give you, I suppose) were two alternatives to Playboy’s PhotoShopped nymphs.

Before I went to the clinic I posed this question on Twitter: Who buys the magazines? Let me follow that with another question: what strictures do they operate under when they purchase the mags? The lack of Playboys makes perfect sense because Playboy really isn’t a porn mag. It’s a periodical with pictures of naked women sandwiched between interviews, feature articles, and product reviews touting a freewheeling douche lifestyle. As Nick the bartender said in the “Mirror, Mirror” universe of It’s a Wonderful Life, “…we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast…” Likewise, while doing one’s business, one doesn’t wish to be distracted by a John Mayer profile. Curiously, the Playboy mags looked as if they’d been put through the heaviest workout. Hm.

What made me suspect that a single individual was in charge of purchasing the magazines (none of them more than three years old) was the consistency of certain titles:

Leg Sex

Leg World

Leg Show

I sense a trend.

Perhaps it was an embarrassed nurse, or a rushed doctor passing by a newsstand on her way to the clinic, who pointed at the farthest part of the booth and said, “Uh, gimme those. Keep the change.” before grabbing the plain brown paper bag and scampering off. But the possibility of a janitor or similar workaday stiff being called up to the front desk appeared before my eyes and ears.

“Hey, Bill, come here for a minute. Nah, don’t worry about mopping up the PRIVATE room. I need you to do something for the clinic.”

“Sure thing. What can I do?”

“Well, take this $20 from petty cash, and muzzr mumphmumph murmuffitynuff.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Take the twenty and… Go somewhere to…” the doctor/nurse/whomever makes oblique gestures. “Pick up some… purnuffgrivee…”

“Sorry, it must be my ears. I operate the floor waxer all day. What? Pick up what?”

“Pornuffgrizee…. You know,” more meaningless gestures. “Prunoffgrappy.”


“Yes! Yes!” the doctor/nurse touches his/her nose and points at Bill. “You know, the kind men like… to read.”

“Okay,” Bill pauses. “Like Playboy? Hustler? Penthouse? Genesis? Oui?”

“Too literary. Maybe a little sexier than that. More… pornier, you know?”

Barely Legal? Juggs? Over50? Leg Show?”

“Well, if you suppose that would…”

Buttman? Blacktail? Big Black Butts?”

“Bill, I…”

Footsuckers? Snakestuffers? Anal Pear Quarterly? Grannybugger? Screamy Preemies?”

“Jesus Christ, Bill. You’re fired.”

For the Baloney Bopper with Exquisite Taste

What surprised me was the presence of two fine art prints tacked up on the walls: Henri Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle and Diego Rivera’s Nude with Calla Lilies. Undeniably erotic, yes, but it seemed unlikely that anyone who passed through the PRIVATE room used them for inspiration (Mike suggested they might be there for the occasional snooty liberal arts professor). They were the homiest touch to the whole experience—whose home I cannot say.

So, attending to the business at hand.

I’m not providing a detailed account. If you’re a guy you know the basic moves, and if you’re a woman you’ve likely seen the process with your own eyes—hopefully by choice. Still, I suppose I can share little bits and pieces. I leave it to history to judge me.

So… I layered the chair with the exam paper and sat down—and no it didn’t freak me out that many hairy-bottomed men before me worshiped Onan in that very spot. I’ve used public toilets and my fear of cooties and gay germs got left back in high school. I sat back. Way back. Way, way back. The comfy chair became too comfy, and figuring out the logistics of holding cup, mag, and candle seemed daunting. The threat of spillage seemed likely. Getting up and discarding the paper, I chose to petite mort standing up rather than live lying down.

I looked at every mag beforehand—because I owe it to you as a reporter. I’m curious as to how much thought my predecessors put into choosing a partner. The covers of the Playboy ones, as I said, were well-worn, which seemed odd because I couldn’t comprehend what kind of wear and tear they’d experience in there. The room wasn’t a truck stop john or a teenage boy’s closet, so how to explain the faded pallor of the covers? The fetish stuff (i.e., the leg, breasts, and bogus Lolita periodicals) looked newer, leading me to wonder if the average dude was too cowed to break away from the Playboy-ordered strictures of big hair, siliconed hooters, depilated crotches, and pore-free skin. Lacking multiculturalism, the models were mostly white, followed by Asians, and one black woman. Naked men were rare. The only penises present being serviced by the women, their possessor’s heads clipped off by the magazine’s edge. I wasn’t looking for a copy of Honcho or Inches, but what were my gay brothers in arms supposed to do with these?

I proceeded. Yes, dammit, I proceeded.

A mood-killer occurred to me as I pondered whether or not I was looking at a junkie Ukrainian slave, fresh off the loading dock and posed and made up so the bruises didn’t show. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Hubba Hubba

I supposed I could admire the Bette Page exhibitionist in Leg Show, who appeared happy as hell to remove her period snaps and stays for the crowds. I didn’t. Cute though she was the whole retro/burlesque/stag magazine is goofy to me. In fact, have you ever seen vintage porn? It’s not pretty. I don’t think most of the models ever heard of a sit-up back then. You also run the risk of seeing your mom. Not my mom. YOUR mom.

Concentrate, Dan, concentrate.

I figured I wasn’t making Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin happy then. I promise you I wasn’t imagining making them happy. Gradually I got caught up.

What, you want details? Fine.

I used the Bogomolov technique, a regimen of short, sharp, fretting and bottle-necking astriction to stimulate my oscillating hyoid. Giggling madly I nervously perambulated the philtrum, inciting a shuddering aftershock ecstasy that rippled through my dangling click clacks. So close to fulfillment, I enveloped the totemic contrivance, gave with a thrust, and performed the 32 fouettés en tournant in a celebratory panic of orgiastic palpitations and slathering miasmas of mucilage. Moistly prepared, I praised Baphomet and all his incubi and assiduously tortured the paradise bologna, smack-dabbing it into a flatworm of decadent obeisance. So close, so close… Manifestations of starry-eyed goon-swatting cherubim and flickering ocular migraine fleshbats filled my vision. At once, with a primal scream, the hideous music of the spheres soared through my skull.


I bellowed, blowing holes into the drop ceiling’s acoustical tile with Howitzer cannon blasts of vanilla-basted banana blancmange. In the throes of a soul-condemning thrumgasm, I shouted YOUR NAME HERE. That’s right, YOUR NAME HERE. You were a pony.

Then I woke up.

The results? It was determined that I have semen, and in the right amount. However, some of the boys were a little misshapen, and my white blood cell levels were too high (which tends to misshape the sperm). This turns up in about 10 to 15 percent of all men, and is sometimes the reason there’s no conception. Not to worry, I was told. Keep trying, but return in a month and a half to see if anything changes.

I’ll be ready.

I’ve had practice.

Friends, They Are Jewels Pt. 1 West Lafayette, IN

From LiveJournal April 3, 2010

Mike, Nate, and I took a five-day trip down to the upper south this past week, our main destination Louisville, KY. Fortunately, Mike is a history teacher, I’m a devotee of obscure Americana, and  we both hold a special affection for Eisenhower-era road-tripping. The Midwest (aka the flyover zone to many of you) offers more history and mundane esoterica than you might think. Yes, prepare yourself for long hours of tooling down lesser expressways, passing field after field of corn, wheat, and sorghum–but the destination is often its own reward; that is if you care about 19th century architects, Lincolniana, and the biggest whatchamacallits in the world.

Our first stop, after passing a breathtakingly futuristic field of giant windmills along route 65 (an antiseptic agricultural environment  suited to 70s-era dystopic film fantasies), was West Lafayette, IN. The town is home to both Purdue University and one of Louis Sullivan’s eight jewel box banks. After several years on top of the world with his partner Dankmar Adler, during which he created gorgeous edifices like Chicago’s <a href=””>Auditorium Theater</a> and the <a href=””>Wainwright Building</a>, Sullivan fell on hard times, not helped at all by the fact that he was an arrogant bastard. Toward the end of his career he received smaller commissions, namely the “jewel boxes,” little bank buildings strewn across the Midwest. But like Chinese micro-calligraphy across a grain of rice, Sullivan transmitted large ideas across a small canvas.

Sullivan designed the Purdue State Bank in 1914, reportedly as part of a contest. He won, after a fashion, but costs ran to about $14,000 to build the bank, and the <i>Lieber Meister</i> made just a fraction of that, barely covering his expenses. More understated than the banks in <a href=””>Grinnell, IA, and Sidney, OH</a>, the building has a unique and elegant beauty. The bank will have its centennial in just four years, but it remains timeless; undoubtedly old, but unable to be pinioned to any particular era.

It’s also been aesthetically desecrated. Walking around the bank you first see the grey, bunker-like addition tacked on the back, housing the modern Chase bank. To enter the Sullivan portion you need to enter the bunker doors and turn right, only to see that the guts have been scooped out and replaced with drywall, ramps, and cubicles. Outside, the elegant archway that once stood over the doorway now houses an ATM. Sharper architectural mavens than myself have also pointed out the completely erroneous pattern formed by new tuckpointing. It seems likely an oblivious everyday work crew was enlisted rather than anyone with any sense of Sullivan’s legacy. It’s like finding a Faberge egg with its insides smashed and picked out, then replaced with a plastic dog turd.

Boo, West Lafayette. Boo.

Sad Pumpkin

We decided to grow pumpkins again this year (see here for the previous, Frankensteinian results from 2006). When you grow pumpkins on a half acre of land, you’d best be ready to do without, well, area. If you let them, the damn vines stretch out over 20 feet (or more) in all directions. In 2006, we let the vines run havok. This year we were more circumspect—for naught. While the vines haven’t taken over the entire yard, they’d appropriated our picnic table and porch. We’ve let it go because the pumpkin plant has created not one but two pumpkins this year that promise to be colossal gourd-golems.

What we didn’t expect was this:

Can you see it? Let me get closer.

Camouflaged and hanging from a scrappy vine that climbed the fence between our yard and our neighbor’s, a pumpkin grew three feet above the ground. I guesstimated it at about 15–20 pounds. Mike saw it while weeding and pruning, and asked if I could try to either cut it down or recover it. I didn’t look forward to doing either. Cutting it down was the same as signing its death warrant and consigning it to damnatio memoriae as far as Halloween is concerned (“Fence pumpkin? There was no fence pumpkin, comrade. Do not let such thoughts trouble you further.”). Recovering it (i.e., helping it down to the ground was tricky. The pumpkin chose to grow right behind a thorny rose bush, so that would require long sleeves and gloves on a 95° day. I also had to make sure I didn’t crush any of the surrounding vines, otherwise I might cut off water and nourishment to the survivors. What’s more, I figured the thing was only being held up by wishes and hopes and dreams.

I crept near it and was dismayed to see that much of the vine had been shredded, no doubt because of the weight. Even if I somehow severed all the tendrils hooking the pumpkin vine to the fence, I still needed two extra hands to catch the damn thing. I’ve only got the two. Wait, one… two… Right, two.

“This might be a two-person job,” I said to Mike. “But I have no idea how you’d get over here.” I was already pressed against the fence, thorns digging into my jeans and field jacket, slowly baking my brains out as I negotiated the pumpkin’s reclamation.

I’ll save a step and say there’s no happy ending. By Priapus, it was a beautiful beast. If I could have saved it I would have. Hanging in mid-air, gravity gave it a pleasingly round shape (pumpkins that grow on the ground need to be maneuvered onto their bottom parts, otherwise they turn into melting, flat-sided monstrosities. I joked with Mike that we should take a cue from the vineyards and build pumpkin trellises. We’d just have to wear hard hats while cultivating them.

I tried, I promise you. I tried. I took my jackknife and clipped a tendril from a rose branch. So far, so good. As I assessed my next step, I reached forward and lightly grazed the surface of the pumpkin as I attempted to position myself to guide it down gently after cutting the next tendril.

It went something like this. I believe my exact words were, “AGGGGH!”

The vine snapped and the suspended squash walloped the ground. Amazingly, there was no damage, but it was still immature and, let’s face it, 76 days away from serving any useful purpose. Also, if you didn’t know it, Jack O’Lantern pumpkins aren’t eating pumpkins. They’re too fibrous and hollow. Sigh.

Farewell, fence pumpkin! Your brothers and sisters of the vine will honor you, come Hallow’s Eve!

Also, you were hilarious.

Friends, They Are Jewels Pt. 2 Owatonna, MN/Columbus, WI

If you’re bound to see every last brick Louis Sullivan laid atop another, the last century made your job easier. By the 70s, most of Sullivan’s buildings were smashed and scattered, and in a useless bit of serendipity, seeing Sullivans has turned into one-stop shopping. A single Sullivan, the Bayard-Condict Building, exists in New York, while one apiece stand in Buffalo (the Guaranty Building) and St. Louis (the Wainwright). Two of Sullivan’s tombs remain in sight of one another in Chicago’s gracious Graceland Cemetery, while the third beautifully endures at St. Louis’ lovely Bellefontaine Cemetery. Looking for more? The Chicago Loop offers a short walking tour sporting two masterpieces (the Auditorium and Carson Pirie Scott store) and two lesser, but interesting edifices, the Jewelers’ building on Wabash and the Gage Group on Michigan. What we’ve lost in beautiful, inspirational, aspirational architecture, we’ve gained in shoe leather.

The hard part comes with making your way to those buildings showing Sullivan’s clockwork essence—the so-called “jewel boxes.” Prepare to drive through much of the Midwest’s green emptiness to reach these little treasures. In the past few months my wife, son, and I have done just that. Three down, five to go.

Erected between 1908 and 1919. The jewel boxes—all banks, save one—count as the last manifestations of Louis Sullivan’s talent. While partnered with architect/engineer Dankmar Adler in the 1890s, the man turned out literal masterpieces and created a new and vibrant American architecture. Then the rich people decided they didn’t want a new and vibrant American architecture, and Louis was kicked to the curb (not helped by the fact that he was an argumentative cuss). His last few years were spent destitute, drunk, and living on handouts from ex-student/employee Frank Lloyd Wright and the infrequent commission. His books The Autobiography of an Idea and Kindergarten Chats and the jewel boxes account for much of Sullivan’s creative output in his last decade. While none of the banks count as his final work (that would be the facade of the Krause Music Store), they are his last fully realized buildings. Created with limited budgets and far from the grandeur of the Auditorium, Wainwright, or Guaranty, the banks remain little triumphs from dark days.

Making our way to International Falls last week, my wife, son, and I stopped in Owatonna, MN, and Columbus, WI, to see two of the banks.1 While charming towns indeed, there’s not much reason to travel to either place unless you either (a) plan to settle down or (b) have a fetish for doomed Victorian architects. If it’s the latter, you’ll be satisfied.

Listen. Let me communicate what I call The Moment.

When one of the banks comes into sight an hour after exiting the interstate; winding down county roads edged with corn stalks and ramshackle barns; motoring through shiny plastic corridors of fast food restaurants, gas stations, and retail outlets… The Moment takes place. For me, it’s a thrill equal to 20 Christmas mornings. Imagine walking through your neighborhood, turning the corner, and finding the Taj Mahal or Sagrada Família in pocket-sized form. Seeing human potential at its zenith is always affecting.

The National Farmer’s Bank provides The Moment in shimmering, scintillating waves. The bank is big—the biggest of all the jewel boxes—and visually dominates the quaint town center with its monolithic boxiness, stained glass windows, and alien ornamentation. Much is made of Sullivan’s ornamentation, but his sense of placement is overlooked. The National Farmer’s Bank belongs there. Massive and making its presence felt, but not so big as to dwarf the surrounding buildings. It sits on its corner like an elegant grande dame, the ornate green corner cartouches hanging from her like jewelry.

Founded by Mr. Leonard Loomis Bennett, the bank enjoyed enough fat years to warrant a new building. Bennett’s son, Carl Bennett, was an artistic sort who dutifully left behind Harvard’s music school and a potential career as a conductor/composer, to assume control of the family business. To Sullivan’s benefit, Bennett’s studies introduced him to the Chicago architect’s work and ideas. “I want that,” Mr. Bennett may have said, and he commissioned Sullivan in 1909 to work his magic.Bennett shelled out $125,000 for the project, which works out to about $2 million today.

As mentioned, Louis didn’t work alone.  George Elmslie—a Sullivan protege helped with the drafting and design. Greatly helped, in  fact, as some references I’ve encountered state that he may have designed most of the bank—arguably, however, Sullivan’s influence and eye rule. The stained glass was created by Chicago artisan Louis J. Millet while the murals of horses, farmers, and a cabal of staring cows were painted by muralist Oskar Gross. By most accounts, Sullivan didn’t play well with others. He must have had some rapport with Elmslie, Millet, and Gross, because it all fits together. Hell, it breathes.

The Rust Belt and Iron Range don’t lack for depressed towns, but while Owatonna and Columbus display the usual historical downtown stagnation (few new or even late 20th century buildings), they seem to be doing all right. At the least they appear to appreciate what they have in the banks and take their custodianship seriously. I’m reminded of that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when they find the knight who’s both guarded and been sustained by the Holy Grail for centuries. Funny that. I don’t want to suggest that Christ’s love has preserved the bank—that would be nuts—but Owatonna does give off a Christian vibe. This wasn’t helped by the guitarist who sang about the Nazarene in the park’s bandshell across the way. Nice town square, I must say, with a beautiful, old, Gothic fire station. If we had more time I would have liked to explore the town further (I had the same experience as this fellow, discovering that two  Elmslie homes were nearby. Shucks). 2

(Note: The below photos are reversed. The first 18 photos are of the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Columbus, WI. Just FYI.)

Ah, the bank, yes.

The bank was impressive on the outside, but walking through its low and flat lobby and entering the main chamber was breathtaking. I felt myself choke up for a moment as I beheld the bank’s Elmslie-ornamented clock; four massive and resplendent, 2.25 ton, cast-iron electroliers; gold-stenciled arches; and the unbelievable illuminated symphony of green and amber light cast by the Elmslie/Millet stained glass windows. Maybe it was momentary Stendahl syndrome. Enter a particularly pretty church from the good old days and you’ll get the same sensation.

The National Farmer’s Bank hasn’t arrived in the 21st Century wholly intact. Some misguided attempts to upgrade the bank’s interior over the years led to the removal of ornamentation, some of which has been replaced. The lovely teller window grates aren’t originals, for instance, but are instead well-crafted repros (an original screen can be seen at the Sullivan photography exhibit currently at the Art Institute, But you won’t… you just can’t be disappointed when you ascend the staircase to the balcony behind the Elmslie clock and check out the view.

I’m not one for exaggeration, but the building is damn near perfect. It has balance, warmth, and soul, and was created with human beings, not drones, in mind (a teller I spoke to said she looked forward to working there every day). I have seen many buildings and my share of Sullivans, but never a building so emblematic of the man’s ideas. It’s almost autobiographical. Gazing about, you can peer back a century and read his mind.


On our way back to Chicago we encountered sweltering heat, and I was worried that I might have to sweet talk Mike and her father (who was traveling with us) into making a stop-over in Columbus, WI. Fortunately, I was cheated, CHEATED!, by the Fates and Gods of Travel over a handful of other sites I wanted to see (the Frank Lloyd Wright gas station—the only one he ever designed—and several Paul Bunyan statues I knew about in Brainerd, MN. Yes, I have many strange levels.), and I (easily) convinced them I was due another bank. I kid. Both were as impressed with the Owatonna bank as I was and willingly supported my madness. But lordy, lordy, it was HOT.

If the Owatonna bank is Sullivan’s church, the Columbus bank is his chapel. Slim, petite, sedate, and meditative. I don’t want to try to read Sullivan’s mind too much, but it’s as if the man who said a skyscraper should be “Every inch a soaring thing.” and whose works are often described as symphonies in stone, began looking inward. To use another Sullivan quote—recalled and beautifully illustrated by the recent documentary Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture—”Remember the seed germ.” By which Sullivan meant, I think—to look to nature, and consider what can grow from a bare idea. A hundred or so Farmers and Merchants Banks could fit snugly into the Auditorium, yes, but if, of all of Sullivan’s works, this single bank survived, we could still look at it, grasp the gist of his philosophy, and mentally “rebuild” his lost works. Plus, it’s mighty cute.

The Farmers and Merchants Union Bank isn’t just the last of the jewel boxes, it was Sullivan’s final building, and the only edifice he put his full name to, on the terra cotta facade, chiseled beneath the bank’s name and painted in gold on the marble lintel (Sullivan got cute and placed his initials on the Carson Pirie Scott Building’s rotunda).

Built a decade after the National Farmer’s Bank, despite the falling of Sullivan’s fortunes his talent remained undiminished. The outside is more “jewel boxy” than the Owatonna bank—compact and seemingly delicate, while retaining a sense of restrained power and solidity—Bruce Lee versus Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sullivan was commissioned by bank owner J. Russell Wheeler, who, according to the bank’s Web site, was leaning toward the humdrum but popular Greek/Roman temple look for his itty-bitty bank. His wife Mrs. Anna-May Wheeler disagreed, bless her heart. Having seen photos of the Ohio and Minnesotan banks, she talked her spouse into hiring Sullivan. It seems likely that Mr. Wheeler never mentioned his desire for a wee temple. The three became good friends, despite Sullivan’s acidic and sarcastic rant in Kindergarten Chats (as Lynn Becker reminded me), insisting that if bankers demanded Roman temples, the banker should “…wear a toga, sandals, and conducts his business . . . in Latin.” Sullivan stayed with the Wheelers whenever he was in town to supervise construction.

If there was nothing else behind the facade, that would have been fine. The red to blue brick provides cool, shady gravitas to the building. The leafy, fractalling ornamentation by Elmslie, of course, is vintage Sullivan, albeit with a couple of lions and eagles that seem oddly out of place for the anti-classicist. Entering, the coolness continues with a long, hall-lake interior, making the most of the lot’s oblong shape. Up and to the right, the stained glass lets sea-green and amber-tinged sunlight shine in and wash over the brown brick and green marble teller stations. What a beauty. A very nice lady who worked at the bank took us up to the balcony, the only admonishment being that we couldn’t take shots over the teller line. Fine with me. I took a nice shot of the stained glass, and walked about admiring the cluttered displays of documents, recovered fragments, and shots of Johnny Depp posing with bank employees when he was there, filming Michael Mann’s plodding Public Enemies. The footage wasn’t used: more fool Michael Mann for doing so. Special treat, the bank has Sullivan’s blueprints on display.

As a final note, a pretty bronze lamp stands on corner table. Sullivan donated the lamp to the bank upon completion of the project, placing it, according to the sign, on that very spot. While I’m guessing the lamp was moved or stored during renovations and suchlike, it’s a thoughtful tradition, compared to the wholesale slaughter Sullivan’s buildings have experienced in his adopted  city. And what a perfect gesture, leaving an illuminating device at the heart of the last architectural jewel he ever “cut.”

1. We visited the bank in West Lafayette, IN, not too long ago. It was disappointing, for obvious reasons. I do advise stopping by, if only to see the (sadly truncated) exterior.

2. Hardcore architectural travelers may wish to consult this page of Prairie School architecture before heading out.

3. The Columbus Public Library, designed by Elmslie, is also worth a look-see if you happen to be town for the bank. Just take a gander across the street.3.

“The male mice’s testicles were no longer pink.”

My cat has been having trouble with his eyes, so he’s made several visits to the vet in recent weeks. Vet visits are an in and out proposition, but this time Nate was with us, so I minded him while Mike consulted with the vet. Having a little more time to spend in the waiting room, I picked up a copy of Tails (“celebrating the relationship between pets and their people.”). Thank goodness I did, because when I reached the back cover I saw this giant scoop of mindfuck. It’s a dog food ad. I say this because its ultimate purpose appears to be selling dog food. Unlike Purina, however, these folks aren’t just selling dog food, they’re selling… Well, I’ll let you find out.

Look at My Dumb! Gee, You’re Thumb!

I love a good hoax or practical joke, but the gist of the Dry Erase Board Jenny hoax seems to be, “Ha ha! You thought she was real! But she wasn’t!” There’s no game here, other than, I suspect, an attempt to garner some hits with a hot piece of… Uh, a very pretty girl.

The moral, I suppose, is that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the Internet. Hardly a new piece of advice, yes? At the end of the day, we come away from this hoax not chuckling, but with a feeling of disappointment that a young woman who’d been sexually harassed hadn’t wreaked revenge on her pig boss. Let me highlight that word: disappointment. I’ll come back to it later.

First, I’d like to address what I’ve just decided to call the “impractical joke.” I had a friend who pulled plenty of impractical jokes that left me more confused than amused or embarrassed. Once he left a note on my desk (I believe he had a female friend write it for him, to achieve a more girly look and feel) “from” another woman at work. The note stated that she knew I enjoyed Nintendo video games (which I did), and maybe we could hook up, play a few at her house, and brush up on our skills. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Something like that. Sexually speaking, I’d hit a dry spell, and I likely would have grabbed most any opening a woman offered me (snicker). However, something didn’t gibe.

A Nintendo date? What the hell is a Nintendo date? If it was sincere, why wouldn’t this woman simply approach me and ask me out? Is this a gag, and if so, what’s the punchline? And again: Nintendo? Maybe it sounds funny in this context. I think I’m making it sound funnier than it was. I was mostly perplexed. I was especially perplexed since I didn’t recognize the woman’s name, and there’s the rub.

I walked over to where my friend and a few other co-workers were standing and asked, “Anyone know what this is all about?” (Note: I’m a lousy subject for practical jokes. I already expect to be handed an exploding cigar or to sit on a whoopee cushion at any given moment).

“I don’t know, Dan. Did you talk to _____________? You should really follow that up!”

“No, because I have no idea who this woman is,” I replied.

“Well, maybe you should talk to her (giggle, titter). I bet you have a lot in common,” he answered.

“Um, I’d have to know who she is first.”

“You know…” and he gestured to another part of the office. “She’s in sales. Over there.”

“Huh?” I replied.

My lack of reaction showed that the jig was up, or that, at least, I wasn’t about to make an ass out of myself. Like I said, practical jokes are wasted on me.

“I wrote it,” said my alleged friend. “This is _________. You know, she has legs like stovepipes.”

I shrugged. I had no clue who he was talking about. Now it was just uncomfortable.

He walked me over to a place where we could see her sitting in her cubicle. She was middle-aged, frumpy, dumpy, and, God forgive me, ugly as sin.

Ah, there’s the gag. Ha. Ha.


“You know, if you play a practical joke, it should make sense,” I told my friend. “It shouldn’t be mean, either.”

He shrugged. He probably still thinks he pulled a long con on the level of the Spanish Prisoner.

The Dry Erase Board Jenny gag wasn’t mean, but it wasn’t all that amusing either; more accurately, it was no longer amusing once it was revealed to be hooey. Also, as I said, there was no context; no chance for a sharp individual to know he or she was being gaffed. We assumed this young woman had quit her job, and despite the 20/20 hindsight of the “I knew it all the time” crowd, it wasn’t immediately obvious that we were being gulled. It’s as if I said to you, “I’m going to give you $20.” Then, when you put out your hand I’d laugh and say, “Ha ha! Dumbshit! You believed me!” Impractical. People thought they were reading an amusing story, but they weren’t. Ba-dump-bump. My goodness, it doesn’t even perform the primary practical joke function of pricking at anyone’s pride. I’d add that it mostly worked because of the site’s lack of high profile. The Chive is apparently known for practical jokes, so I guess that’s an argument for taking anything they say with some skepticism… but only if you’d heard of them. Which I hadn’t. I wonder how many others have?

Some might suggest this is yet another lesson that the Internet, if not life itself, must always be approached with a belief that everyone is trying to fuck you blue, and if you ever, EVER fall for a gag, hoax, or scam, you had it coming. I am a fairly skeptical person who isn’t prone to abusing his emotions, but I haven’t reached the point where I could live with such a clenched mind and pickled heart. I appreciate skepticism and pragmatism, but reflexive cynicism is the province of dull minds.

Coming back to the concept of disappointment… While I hate describing anything as a trend (that should be left to the Times, which sees trends everywhere the way paranoiacs see Men in Black 1), Dry Erase Board Jenny typifies a notion that keeps popping up in the media: you cannot fight back. Jenny was fake. A young woman tormented by a chauvinist boss zings him beautifully in public… But she didn’t. She didn’t exist. That ‘s a little sad. 2

Let’s review: We were gleeful when this charming young lady stuck it to The Manâ„¢, or rather the little The Manâ„¢ most of us face day in and day out. Then the rug was pulled out. The redemptive final board that said she knew things would turn out okay (which, largely, is how life works. That’s “okay,” not “perfect,” by the way) was invalidated. In the same day, we learned that after the flight attendant’s final speech and beer-swilling slide to freedom, he was not just fired but arrested. Arrested. Fictionally, more and more TV shows build up adversaries who know all, have infinitely deep pockets, and are untouchable—leading to the grim spectacle of watching Our Heroes in a continual cycle of futility. Nietszche explained that we enjoy watching tragedies because we thank the gods it’s not happening to us. Dry Erase Board Jenny goes a step further brings the tragedy home, saying, “Idiots. You didn’t really think there was hope, did you?”

I dislike the Dilbertian attitude of giggling through hell. “Ha ha! The people in charge are incompetent monsters! Ho ho! We’re doomed to repeat the same monotonous, soul-killing tasks again and again! Hee hee! Nothing can be done! Get back to your cube, swallow your daily shit-lump, and let your supervisor grab your crotch, or The Manâ„¢ will have you wearing a paper hat by day’s end! Hahahahahahahahahaha!”

What? Don’t you get it? 3


1. When Megan Jasper of Sub Pop pranked the Times by creating a list of nonexistent grunge slang words the Old Grey Lady published without verification, THAT was funny as hell. Why? Because the Times could have solved it all with a few phone calls. Moreover, the terms were so insanely stupid (Big bag of bloatation? Swingin’ on the flippity-flop? Wack slacks?), it’s difficult to believe the article passed through the hands of the editorial profession’s supposed creme de la creme. Again, it’s all about context.

In the spirit of the grungespeak list, I’ll grant that the invention of the word “HPOA/HOPA” was ingenious. I do suspect the Chive folks ran over to and added it because people like me might seek verification. Ha ha! I thought that was a viable source! What a dope!

2. Arguably, another tip-off that this was a hoax was that Jenny was an aspiring broker, and as such, would have no conscience.

3. They were wise not to say that “Jenny” was groped, propositioned, or otherwise directly threatened. I’d like to know how many feminists, lawyers, and general activists were ready to rain holy hell on her former place of employment strictly on the basis of her being described as a “hot piece of ass.” I wonder how much the Chive people thought this through?

Sorry, Kane

I guess this qualifies as a bootleg toy. Alien-inspired Whac-a-Mole game in a pizza place (Giovanni’s) in International Falls, MN. Actually, this is awesome.

Added bonus: Bizarre art from a spider-stomping game. Same principle as Whac-a-Mole, kind of, except you use your feet.

I Collect Soda Pop Bottles

My latest acquisitions from a neat little antique store in International Falls, MN. If you weren’t aware that I collected bottles, my criteria are simple.

1. I prefer fired-on labels. But since most modern pops (I’m from the Midwest and Chicago, so I call it “pop”) have paper labels, I’m willing to give a local pop with a paper/printed label  a place in my collection if it’s (a) tasty and (b) particularly striking. Mostly, I like the fired-on labels. They just look better. Plastic bottles are anathema to me.

2. Beautiful/interesting/crazy art.

3. Optimistic names, or names that promise health, social status, and happiness.

Maybe I’ll start photographing my entire collection and run it here.

Fun fact: Most antique soda pop bottles are recovered from old privies.