Alice Thomas Ellis


“…  Alice Thomas Ellis, she has the driest British humor. Here’s Ellis’ famous, best-known quote: There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don’t love anyone. It’s quite hopeless. Those poor hamsters!”

Nancy Pearl on Morning Edition, National Public Radio




Torla and Northern Spain

We visited Torla on our trip to northern Spain.  

That was after the Picos de Europa where Alice hiked the gorge of  Rio Cares on a trail cut out of the rock about 300 feet above the fast, narrow river.  I went up with her and was doing OK until we came to a place where the trail became two feet wide and made a blind turn. I went back down and spent the day mostly with goats.  Alice had a great time.

While waiting for Alice, I wandered around below the trail head checking out the goats scattered here and there and saw a sign pointing up a road that said cafe.  I started up, went around a couple of bends and found about 40 goats lying in the road with the ram lying on top of a stone wall.  I left them to their road, walked down to look at the building  on the river processing water brought down in huge pipes from points upstream and watched a few fly fishermen in the current there.

For that stop we stayed in a nice old family-run hotel in the town of Arenas de Cabrales, means something like sands/place of something to do with goats (cabras).    A good restaurant across the street from the hotel looked out on the river.  To enter we passed through the bar, entertaining the local guys drinking there.  We played cards in a little cafe around the corner a few stairs below lane, that had just four stools and a few tables.

Good cheese of goat and sheep milk is made in that area. One sunny day we took some cheese, bread and wine out of town and ate lunch on the riverbank.  There was an interesting laxative effect.



We went on to visit the cave paintings at Altamira where the cave is closed to the public but a large area of cave ceiling is reproduced in three dimensions and wonderful color.

Then we drove east along the shore of the Bay of Biscay, through Bilbao where the harbor was dry, boats on their sides.  Low tide?  That’s   Basque country where many of the people do not associate themselves with Spain and the Spanish, bombed the Madrid railroad station and other places in an effort for  independence.  Road signs are in Spanish and the Basque language whose origin is unknown.

Eventually we could turn north toward the Pyrenees Mountains  on the border between Spain and France to reach Torla, town of some 300 people at 3300 feet, important as the gateway to Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. The Park’s visitor center can be seen in the distance high above.  In summer Torla’s  hotels serve large numbers of hikers and other tourists who must park in the lot there and take busses into the park.




The town with its narrow lanes and old buildings rises steeply from the river, Rio Ara, and has its own stream running through it from above, actually running under the old stone church and finally dropping into the Ara.  Snow-melt from from above heading for the Mediterranean Sea, though most of it will be sucked off for agriculture.

Before finding our hotel we parked in a narrow lane and turned in the driver side mirror to protect it.  The man who ran our hotel with his mother took us outside to show us  an odd niche with two parking places, all the parking the hotel could provide.

From our room we could look onto the slate or maybe wood shingle roofs of other buildings, moss and grass growing on them, sporting fanciful chimnney pots.

We walked up the stream a way and looked down over the town, winding lanes sparsely peopled, roofs with green growth, old gray stone walls with small windows, plaza I remember as lawn,  which seems unlikely, in front of the big old hotel, the stream running through.   A  picture I wish we had taken.

In the morning we drove up a winding road to the visitor center, scary for me because of the crotch-rockets coming at us very fast around blind curves, cutting across our lane.

(Crotch-rocket?  motorcycle distinguished by it’s aerodynamic ‘hunched-over’ seating position and high power to weight ratio, capable of 200 mph.  Harley doesn’t make them; they come from Japan and Italy.  Urban Dictionary)

After parking at the visitor center, we start up the well-tended trail along Rio Ara, running fast and shallow over a gravel bottom, a gradual incline through forest. We could look up to the snow-capped peaks where one cliff had a opening pouring water down what must have been 1000 feet.

A world of water! The forest floor was very wet, even with water running on the surface. Where the river banks were high, water dripped from the walls. The trail was not muddy.

Serious people passed us carrying ropes and ice axes with their backpacks.

Then the three falls.  The first two were high, maybe 50 and 75 feet and had structures built as look-outs over the water.  After the second we could see another, very high and rather distant, dropping the river through an opening  like a keyhole.

A good walk.


















Torla, Spanish Village

007.Torla - Chimenea II.JPGFrom Torla.jpg

In Spain

A rocky stream tumbles down to                                                                                               little hillside Torla, slides through                                                                                             a channel under an ancient                                                                                                 church to Rio Ara rippling down                                                                                           from the high world of Pyranees.                                                                                         Winding lanes rise  from the Ara                                                                                             to old stone homes, shops, small                                                                                         hotels with mossy gray tile roofs,                                                                                 extraordinary chimney pots, and                                                                                         views of snowtop mountains.                                                                                                 Start here to walk where water                                                                                           pours 1000 feet from holes in                                                                                             cliffs, seeps through forest, drips                                                                                         from river walls, and drops in                                                                                                 several tall Ara falls, runs south to                                                                                         Rio Cinca, to the Ebro downstream                                                                                     from Zaragosa, in good season                                                                                         reaching to Tortosa and the sea.


Iglesia Parroquial deTorla.


Word of the Year


Narcissistic Or Not, ‘Selfie’ Is Nunberg’s Word Of The Year

by   National Public Radio show Fresh Air

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a “selfie” with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images


(Note:  Nunberg is not doing “new word of the year” as Oxford Dictionaries did with “selfie”,  posted here November 20.  Geoffrey Nunberg is an American linguist and an adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information. Nunberg has taught at Stanford University and served as a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center from the mid-1980s to 2000. Wikipedia            rjn)


I feel a little defensive about choosing “selfie” as my Word of the Year for 2013. I’ve usually been partial to words that encapsulate one of the year’s major stories, such as “occupy” or “big data.” Or “privacy,” which is the word chose this year. But others go with what I think of as mayfly words — the ones that bubble briefly to the surface in the wake of some fad or fashion.

Over recent years, the people at Oxford Dictionaries have chosen items such as “locavore,” “hypermiling,” “refudiate” and “unfriend,” among others. You’d never know it was a period touched by economic collapse, bitter partisanship, or the growth of the surveillance state. So I wasn’t surprised when Oxford announced last month that their choice for the word of the year was “selfie,” which beat out “twerk” and “binge-watch.” It struck me as a word that wears its ephemerality on its outstretched sleeve — any phenomenon whose most prominent evangelists are Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kendall and Kylie, not to mention Justin Bieber, probably isn’t a good bet to be around for the long haul.

What changed my mind about the word was the uproar over the photo that the Danish prime minister took with President Obama and David Cameron at the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela — and not because it was a selfie, but because it really wasn’t. There are people who use “selfie” for any picture you take of yourself as a document or record, even a passport photo. But that isn’t why the word was invented. It’s natural to want a photo when you find yourself sitting between the president and the British prime minister, or if that doesn’t work for you, imagine standing next to the pope or Mariano Rivera. And now that the camera lens has migrated to the front of the smartphone, you don’t have to look for somebody else to take it for you. But “Selfie” came into existence for the pictures people take of themselves to display on social media sites like Instagram and Tumblr, often in stylized poses or artfully faded effects.

Actress Meryl Streep takes a photo of herself with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington last December.i

Actress Meryl Streep takes a photo of herself with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington last December.  

Ron Sachs/Pool/Getty Images

For a recent fad, selfies have unleashed a torrent of portentous yammer and invective. The word imputes an aura of narcissism to whatever it’s attached to, whether it’s apt or not. Use “selfie” to describe that banal Johannesburg snapshot, and all of a sudden Obama becomes the “selfie president.” A columnist at the New York Post writes that the event “symbolizes the global calamity of Western decline.” That gives “selfie” a cultural resonance you’re not going to find with any of the other word-of-the-year finalists, not even “twerk.”

The word lends itself to that coloring. The “self” of “selfie” may originally have come from “self-portrait,” but once it’s detached, it oscillates between positive and negative meanings depending on what follows it — from “self-esteem” to “self-regard,” from “self-awareness” to “self-absorption.” And the diminutive suffix on “selfie” can seesaw in the same way, from endearment to insult. “Selfie” began its life as cutesie slang, like “prezzies” for presents, but now it’s often derisive. The name sounds infantile, like “hankie” or “tummy.”

That’s how most people think of selfies. Men and older women may take plenty of them, but say “selfie” and you evoke the Kardashians or a 16-year-old girl, not Meryl Streep with Hillary Clinton, or Geraldo Rivera posting a Twitter picture of himself naked to the waist. And that’s where a lot of the debates are focused. Are the selfies girls post a desperate kind of approval-seeking or the male gaze gone viral? Or are they tiny bursts of pride, empowering women to challenge conventional standards of beauty? Are they pure exhibitionism, or a kind of visual diary?

The answers, boringly, are yes, yes, yes and yes. Adolescents do selfies in different ways and for different reasons, just as grown-ups do with the other images that they feel the need to bring to the attention of their friends and followers — of their dinner cocktails or the view from their hotel window in Oaxaca.

There are people who have written about this with subtlety — I think of The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham. But most readers aren’t interested in stories about selfies that begin with fine distinctions. In a competitive media environment, the phenomenon calls out for a Grand Unifying Theory, for taking a stand for or against. Or better still you can make the selfie a proxy for all the deleterious effects of social media — oversharing, incessant distraction, fragmented identity, low self-esteem, and anything else that ails the culture. Hence the spectacle of critics and columnists vying for eyeballs with scathing denunciations of a “selfie society” where people will stoop to anything to get attention.

The connection to young girls isn’t lost in all this — phrases like “the selfie society” are meant to evoke a flighty puerile narcissism. It may seem a stretch to pin down the state of the culture by pathologizing what adolescents are doing on Instagram. But we have a penchant for diagnosing narcissism where other ages would have seen nothing more than old-fashioned vanity.

Anyway, I give the critics a lot of the credit for making “selfie” a contender for word of the year. When we look back on 2013, we’ll recall this not just as the year when everybody was posting pictures of themselves on social media, but as the year when nobody could stop talking about it.

Movie cats



An orange tabby cat co-stars alongside Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. “The whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don’t care about anything,” Ethan Coen says.

Alison Rosa/Long Strange Trip/CBS Films

On casting and filming the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis

Ethan: We used the advice of the cat trainer … [to get] a kind of orange, marmalade tabby cat, just because they’re common, so easy to double, triple, quadruple — there were many cats playing the one cat. It comes across pretty well in the movie, but the whole exercise of shooting a cat is pretty nightmarish because they don’t care about anything. They don’t want to do what you want them to do. As the animal trainer said to us, “A dog wants to please you. A cat only wants to please itself.” It was just long, painstaking, frustrating days shooting the cat.

Joel: What you have to do is basically find the cat that’s predisposed to doing whatever particular piece of action it is that you have to film. So you find the cat that isn’t afraid to run down a fire escape or the cat that’s very docile and will let the actor just hold them for extended periods of time without being fidgety. Then you want the fidgety cat, the squirrely cat, for when you want the cat to run away. And you keep just swapping them out depending on what the task at hand is.

Ethan: In True Grit we had a vulture, a trained vulture … that was a pain and that was even — by vulture standards — probably a stupid vulture, and that was frustrating. But I would take a vulture over a cat. The cat was just horrible.

Jeff Bridges (from left), John Goodman and Steve Buscemi starred in the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski. It didn’t do particularly well in the theaters, but on the home movie market, “it became some sort of cult thing,” says Joel Coen. “How do you explain that? I have no idea.”

Why They Keep Cats


How Humans Created Cats

Following the invention of agriculture, one thing led to another, and ta da: the world’s most popular pet.
Universal Studios/The Atlantic

Why do people keep cats?

As a non-cat person, I have long been perplexed by this state of affairs, in which millions and millions of humans around the world have wound up sharing a home with these odd (and—fine—kind of cute) creatures. How did this come to be?

For a long time, archaeologists have hunted for early evidence of this relationship between humans and cats. They’ve found a wildcat buried near a human on Cyprus from about 9,500 years ago, a proximity suggesting some sort of relationship between the two species. And from ancient Egypt there are paintings, about 4,000 years old, that depict cats, often sitting beneath the chairs of women.

But these bits of history did little to reveal how man and cat first reached, paw to hand, across that species divide.

Now, new archaeological evidence from China, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, documents for the first time a chain of events that forged the relationship between human and feline.

The story begins with agriculture. About 5,560-5,280 years ago in the Shaanxi region of central China, humans were experiencing an agricultural boom. “It’s early, but it’s not the earliest farming in China,” the paper’s co-author, Fiona B. Marshall of Washington University, told me. “It’s from the time when farming really took off, when it was successful.”

They had small villages, with clusters of homes, cemeteries, and communal areas. They kept pigs and dogs and grew crops, primarily millet but a bit of rice, too, which they kept in ceramic vessels.

Now, these farmers had a bit of a problem: rodents. Archaeologists at the village of Quanhucun found an ancient rodent burrow that led right into an ancient grain storage pit. Storage vessels found at the village feature angles and slippery surfaces, design elements that seem to indicate an intention to protect the contents from thieving zokors. Rodent bones from the site contain evidence of millet consumption. “Clearly those rodents were eating the farmers’ grains,” Marshall said.

But the farmers had some help in their battle against the rodents: cats.

Archaeologists found eight cat bones in pits across the sites. When they looked at isotopes in the bones, they could detect traces of what those cats had eaten, and wouldn’t you know it, the cats had been eating animals that had been feasting on human grain.

Four of the bones from the Quanhucun site, including
in (A) a left mandible with teeth that indicates a more
aged feline (PNAS)

Marshall explained to me, “There are different photosynthesis pathways for plants in different places. If it’s hotter or closer to the tropics, they more often have what we call a C4 pathway, whereas if it’s cooler, they are more likely to have a C3 pathway. Where Quanhucun is, it’s an area where the vegetation would be C3. The deer were clearly eating C3 plants. But the people and the pigs and the dogs, they were all eating C4 plants, and C4 had to come from the millet, which was cultivated and brought into that region. So it had a special signature of its own.” The rodents and the cats all showed signs of that C4 pathway, indicating a path from human cultivation, to rodent, to cat.

And, soon enough, to pet: It could not have been long before farmers realized the utility of keeping the cats around, which would have led them to support the cat population, “by a) not killing them, and by b) even helping them in various ways—letting them stay in the warmth, providing foods,” Marshall said. Unfortunately, though, there is not much evidence of that phase of the process. One solitary clue: One of the bones includes teeth that appear to be from a much older cat, suggesting “at the very least that it was doing well in that environment.”

Marshall says the evidence is “terribly exciting” because scientists have never before seen documentation this old of the pathway through which wildcats stepped over the threshold and into the home.

“It’s very hard to find, archaeologically, exactly what relationship caused domestication,” she said. “Usually we can find the time or the place. It’s been speculated that for modern cat behavior that cats were attracted to early farmers, but it wasn’t known for sure. But what this shows us is, yes, there was food for ancient cats in ancient farming villages, and that they helped the farmers out, making it a mutualistic relationship, by eating rodents.”

Cats, Marshall explained, are very hard to find archaeologically, in part because humans do not tend to eat them. “What we mostly excavate from ancient homes and villages is the garbage. And we’re just not going to find many cats,” she said. Furthermore, it was a surprise to come across cat bones in China, as most of the existing evidence shows early cats in Egypt and around the eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, modern genetics has shown that today’s house cats are more closely to related to Middle Eastern wildcats than any other. Research is still being done on the DNA of the Shaanxi cat bones to determine whether there is any relationship, perhaps via an early trans-Asian trade route, between these ancient cats and the popular pet.

Whether they are related or not, Marshall agrees that the whole chain of events, from agriculture to rodents to cats to pets, is so unprompted, so self-starting, that it makes sense that it would have happened in many places at many points in time, anywhere there was both agriculture and wildcats. “It probably happened this way, everywhere,” she told me.

Because cat domestication was a response to agricultural development, house cats are a much more recent creation than domesticated dogs, which first started hanging around hunter-gatherer hunting sites, long before agriculture. Wild wolves were likely attracted to the meat that humans hunted and, then, “people found them useful either to give alarm or to help in hunting.” This may have happened as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 years ago, Marshall says.

But, as for cats, this process is what scientists call a “commensal” pathway to domestication. Unlike cows or sheep, which evolved from wild animals that humans hunted, dogs and cats came into a mutually beneficial relationship with humans through food. Nothing about the process was intentional; no human set out to try to domesticate a cat or a dog and make it into a pet, but a chain reaction was set off by a human practice, and one thing led to another, and our pets today are the result.

 Alexis C. Madrigal

Is domestication, then, in a sense, natural? Marshall says that the modern understanding of domestication complicates any sense of a stark line between domesticated and wild. “The idea of domestication comes out of 19th-century thinking,” she told me. “At that point, Darwin was thinking about Victorian animal breeding, which was very much: You take a male, you take a female, you breed intensively, and you change the animal very intentionally.”

But that’s not what happened with cats nor dogs. There are animal responses to humans, and human responses to animals. There is a relationship, centered around food, in which both species—human and feline—react and adapt over time.

The resulting system is one in which “the humans are changing everything,” Marshall says, “but some of it is intentional and some of it is not.”

To me, at least, it sounds pretty familiar.

Cat Fossils Found in China


Cat fossils found in China reveal early days of feline domestication

Discovery of the 5,300-year-old bones fills an enormous gap in experts’ understanding of cat domestication, but the location is a surprise.

Domestic catEvery domestic cat in the world today is descended from a single subspecies of Middle Eastern wildcat. Experts hope DNA analysis of the fossils will determine whether the ancient cats from Quanhucun, China, were too. (Gyula Czimbal / European Pressphoto Agency / December 14, 2013)
By Monte MorinDecember 16, 2013, 6:24 p.m.

Archaeologists in China have unearthed the first clear evidence of cats living among humans as semi-domesticated mousers about 5,300 years ago, a heretofore missing link in the history of the world’s most popular pet, experts say.

The evidence, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports the long-held view that cats began their symbiotic relationship with people following the advent of agriculture, many thousands of years after dogs were tamed by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The discovery fills in an enormous gap in experts’ understanding of cat domestication, but it has also thrown them for a curve. In some ways, an ancient Chinese village is the last place researchers expected to find such evidence.

“This was a very unexpected find,” said study coauthor Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Today, every domestic cat in the world — whether it’s howling in a back alley, starring in a YouTube video or climbing into an empty box in your living room — is descended from a single subspecies of Middle Eastern wildcat known as Felis silvestris lybica.

Marshall and her colleagues note that the ancient village of Quanhucun, in central China’s Shaanxi province, is far beyond F. s. lybica’s natural range, and raises the question of just how the cats got there.

Were they imported from the Middle East as novelties, or even food? Were the Quanhucun kitties descended from an Asian subspecies of wildcat, Felis silvestris ornata, and later displaced or wiped out?

Marshall and her colleagues hope upcoming DNA analysis will clarify matters. In the meantime, experts have been left to wonder.

“The question everyone has is, what cat is this and where did it come from?” said biologist and cat lineage expert Carlos Driscoll, who is based at the National Institutes of Healthand was not involved in the study. “The key ingredient that’s missing here is DNA evidence.”

The discovery reported in PNAS consisted of eight fossilized bones from at least two felines that were found in ancient trash pits along with other animal remains, pottery shards and tools. The bones in the pits accumulated over about 200 years, they wrote.

Researchers emphasized several factors that suggest the remains belonged to cats that had developed a unique relationship with long-ago farmers.

The bones are comparable in size to those of European house cats but smaller than those of European wildcats, they reported. A partial jawbone from one of the Quanhucun cats has very worn teeth, suggesting that it was quite old and would have needed help to survive to such a ripe age, they added.

Other indications come in the form of isotope analysis. By examining the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen, scientists can determine where an animal fell in the food chain and whether its diet consisted mostly of plants or of meat.

Tests showed that one of the Chinese cats appeared to eat more millet than would be expected of a carnivore living in the wild, raising “the possibility that this cat was unable to hunt and scavenged for discarded human food or that it was looked after and fed by people,” the study authors wrote.

Scientists have long speculated that the process of cat domestication was related to agriculture. Wildcats, they surmised, were probably drawn to farming settlements by the promise of food scraps and a ready supply of rats and mice. Prehistoric humans probably tolerated the cats for their vermin-hunting prowess and allowed them to stick around.

The hypothesis makes sense, but proving it has been difficult — and the aloof nature of cats hasn’t helped.

“The impact of domestication is difficult to tell from archaeological remains. Actually, it’s hard to tell when you have the living damn cat, because they retain so much of their native behaviors,” said Melinda Zeder, an archaeobiologist and expert on animal domestication at the Smithsonian Institution‘s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Yet Zeder, who was not involved in the study, said it appeared to be the first to demonstrate a synergistic relationship between cats and humans and was therefore significant.

The oldest evidence of a special bond between the two species dates back 9,500 years to the island of Cyprus. There, archaeologists discovered the full skeleton of a wildcat buried near a human. The proximity of the two skeletons suggests the cat might have been tamed, experts say.

Until now, the next-oldest record of cats living with people came from ancient Egypt, where 4,000-year-old tomb paintings and writings described cats being kept as pets in the homes of the wealthy.

Unlike the Egyptian cats, which were often depicted sitting under chairs, the cats of Quanhucun were hardly house cats. They were probably more akin to the cats that populate today’s parking garages: creatures wary of people but also reliant on them for an occasional handout or carelessly dropped garbage.

“There’s nothing to show us that there was anything more than an alley cat type of relationship in this village,” Marshall said.

In fact, although many experts say cats were attracted to early agricultural settlements by the rats and mice that raided grain stores, Driscoll said he believes trash was the bigger draw. Once people gave up their wandering, hunter-gatherer ways, their agricultural settlements became virtual buffets for cats.

“Cats are dumpster divers par excellence,” he said.,0,4070198.story#axzz2nmZ4hyoJ,0,4070198.story#ixzz2nmZ8sisp

Sky-Line Writing Electrician





A loving tribute writ large
                    Co-workers’ message memorializes Chicago electrician who started skyline writing tradition
By Mitch Smith Tribune reporter  12.12.13 
              < P H O T O S    BELOW >

 Fourteen years ago, a Chicago legend named Walter Payton died too young. Touched, an electrician decided to use the windows of a downtown building as an overnight memorial, lighting up Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower with the “34” the beloved Bears running back wore on his jersey. Last week that electrician , a Chicagoan named Chris Gillott, died too young. Touched, the workers he supervised decided to light up the side of that building — his building — with a tribute to the colleague and friend who started a tradition.  “They wanted to do this, they wanted to donate their time to do this, just because they cared so much about him and his family,” said Mike Rallo, a foreman electrician at the tower.

 After more than an hour of employees trudging through offices, pulling blinds and spot-checking their handiwork in the evening chill, anyone driving north into Chicago on Lake Shore Drive could see “THANKS CHRIS” spelled out on the Tuesday night skyline.   “He was one of the most modest people in the world,” said Brittney Gillott, the electrician’s daughter, who was on hand to look at the message Tuesday. “It’s extremely humbling, and it would’ve been very humbling to him.”

Since that first display honoring Payton in 1999, the south-facing windows of the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower have been used to celebrate the national soccer team, pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and raise breast cancer awareness. By year’s end, building officials expect to have displayed about 39 designs in 2013.

The building at 300 E. Randolph St. sits just north of Millennium Park, and the nearby open space gives motorists and downtown pedestrians a clear view of whatever is spelled out in its lights. It isn’t the only Chicago building where workers sometimes craft messages in the windows. The CNA Center and One Prudential Plaza are among others.

Jeanine Gillott, Chris’ widow, said she remembers her husband brainstorming the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower’s first message. A South Side native and devoted Bears fan, Chris Gillott wanted to pay tribute to Payton, who died of cancer at age 45. The Gillotts’ daughter and Payton’s daughter, who were about the same age, shared the name Brittney, and the elder Gillotts had relished cheering Payton and his teammates on to the Super Bowl title.   “I remember him calling me and thinking up the Walter Payton one,” Jeanine Gillott said. “We just loved that whole 1985 Bears team. It was such an exciting time for the city.”

Though Gillott, who was 57 when he died of a heart attack Thursday, took pride in his work, his family said he wasn’t one to brag. The “SOX PRIDE” message after the 2005 World Series championship brought some media attention, but Gillott, a technical whiz, never got too impressed with himself.

“He looked at it as not a big deal,” Jeanine Gillott said, “because he’s the type of guy who could literally take a car apart and put it back together.”A memorial Mass was held Saturday.

The method of creating the messages — with paper, Sharpies and manual labor— is decidedly low-tech.

The process starts with an idea for a punchy, topical phrase or design that can be clearly communicated in lights. Since it’s an insurance building, they’re often wellness messages about AIDS awareness or flu shots. Other favorite subjects include holiday greetings, messages of support for local sports teams and tributes to Chicago first responders.

To create the design, Rallo sits down with a black marker and a paper diagram of the tower’s exterior. Rallo, who took over the design duties from Gillott many years ago, then sketches out an image of how the message should look from the outside.   When that’s complete, he starts with a new picture of the building and flips his original drawing so he can tell his electricians which of the 50 south-facing window blinds to close and which to leave open on each floor. In a 57-story structure, it’s no simple task.

The building staff can override the lights so they shine through the night, but there’s no mechanized system to raise or lower the shades.

To form the “THANKS CHRIS” message, a team of electricians (and a couple of workers from other departments who wanted to help pay tribute to their friend) fanned out across the building shortly after 5 p.m. to begin the process of raising some shades and lowering others.

Electrician James Aiello was assigned floors 24 to 27, which would display the upper half of the word “CHRIS.” The windows highlighted in red on his diagram were to remain blinds-raised. The ones in black needed the shades closed. The process usually takes several hours, Aiello said.

Typically, when the main crew of electricians finishes, another worker becomes the building’s overnight touch-up artist, correcting any mistakes or re-lowering blinds that were raised by office workers who wanted a view of the lake while pulling a late shift.

Before 7 p.m. Tuesday, the work on “THANKS CHRIS” was mostly done. Gillott’s family and friends had come out to see the 57-story memorial and share laughs and tears with the workers who made it happen.

Gillott’s widow said it was a fitting tribute to the man who wrote messages on the skyline.

“Chris — I can just see him smiling about it,” Jeanine Gillott said. “He would be really happy.”

ANTONIO PEREZ/TRIBUNE PHOTO Blue Cross-Blue Shield Tower served as a messenger Tuesday for colleagues’ farewell to electrician Chris Gillott, who died unexpectedly last week.


ANTONIO PEREZ/TRIBUNE PHOTOS Jeanine Gillott, left, Chris Gillott’s widow, and daughter Brittney view the memorial. The electrician began crafting skyline tributes in 1999 with a nod to Walter Payton.

Jeanine Gillott blows a kiss. “Chris — I can just see him smiling about it,” she said.

James Aiello opens blinds while doing his part for the tribute. Messages require paper, Sharpies and manual labor.