Sunday, August 31, 2008

Art on Track

Saturday evening, after stuffing ourselves at Bonjour Bakery Café, J. and I hopped on the bus and went downtown for Art on Track, which I had learned about from Puppet Bike. Art on Track consisted of eight elevated cars circling the Chicago Loop, with each car representing a local gallery. This is the type of idea that draws people, especially young ones, to the city; you'd never find an energized bow to creativity like this in Arlington Heights. Kudos to the CTA for being open to the idea and to those who worked with them to make it happen.

Art on Track was surprisingly well organized, especially for a first-time event. A small chalked sign at the bottom of the Adams/Wabash elevated stairs let us know that we were in the right place, and extra CTA staff directed us to a table where we paid $5 apiece for admission bracelets. Another employee whisked us through the gates, and one on the platform made sure people knew which trains on the various routes had come in so hapless travelers wouldn't find themselves on Art on Track. One of them gave us an idea of when Art on Track was due at this starting point.

The Art on Track crowd was not difficult to spot, bracelets and buttons aside. With a few middle-aged and older exceptions, they were young, pierced, and tattooed, and most were Caucasian. Probably many if not most are involved in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Far from being driven geniuses toiling in lonely garrets, Chicago's young artists seem to be highly social. I wonder if the young Manet, Monet, Gauguin, and others were as much of an obvious type to their neighbors.

A "You are here" graphic in each car showed where we were in relation to the rest of the train, and which car was occupied by which studio. I think we began two or three cars from the back. The train stopped at each platform in the circuit so participants could change cars.

Our primary objective was the Peter Jones Studio and Gallery car, but we made it onto every car, some twice or more. The most memorable car featured pallets of grass strewn with flowers and guitarist/singers performing 1960s-style music on topical subjects (along the lines of a Dylan). Another car was decorated with garish posed photos of transvestite performers and particularly evil-looking clowns who made any Batman movie version of the Joker look tame. In a third car, musicians sporting face and body paintings of death images sang what I guessed to be Mexican songs. Painted paper plates were affixed to the ceiling of one car, and others had hanging (punching?) bags and other material pieces. Of course, there were some paintings, and Alan Emerson Hicks had brought at least two of his melted plastic sculptures.

In such narrow, crowded space, it was difficult to get a good look at anything, including artists' names, but perhaps that was not the point. Maybe the idea was simply to acknowledge the growing young artist community spawned by the Art Institute's expanding school and to energize them with their own event—not as big as Looptopia, but still important enough to be sanctioned by the city.

Early on, I observed a student/freelance photographer/makeup artist approach and older man, apparently a gallery owner or representative. Pleasantries were exchanged, followed by business cards. That was the point as well.

If I were to plan an Art on Track II, I would do at least one thing differently; I would dedicate one or two cars to the musicians and performers and have them take turns. Aside from the space constraints, I found that they distracted me from the non-lively arts. I would also add something for children, at least for the first hour or two, something that would appeal to families and add some diversity.

On another note, at one point I kneeled on my left knee on a seat without thinking and was reminded suddenly and painfully that I fell on it hard last Tuesday; it's still black, blue, and green. I've been so worried about my teeth that I haven't paid attention to my knee, which for some reason didn't bother me as much as usual on the elevated stairs. I felt it today; I don't know how to describe it, but the kneecap feels "squishy" compared to my solid right kneecap. It occurred to me today that I should make an appointment with my physician to see if an X-ray is in order. Aside from soreness to the touch (explained in part by the impressive bruise), the oft-insulted left knee seems to be functioning, but clearly it's not like the other, and I suppose now is the time to see if anything can be done to minimize the long-term effects. Somehow I see a knee replacement in my future . . .

Back to school

From what I've been hearing, nearly everyone is back to school already. I know I'm aging because school seems so different now (required supplies?), yet it doesn't seem that long ago that I was in the classroom.

For me, school started the day after Labor Day. Our first day of school was in September, the last in June. I can't imagine returning to school in August. Of course, that is what children are used to, so it's nothing to them, but to me it's all wrong.

I didn't have a choice as to which public school to attend or how to get to it. I was in a district, and that's the school I had to go to, by school-owned bus. Although I was at the first stop on the route, I was not allowed to cross Rte. 20 (state law? school rule?) to board, so I was always the last picked up, on the return trip. If there were 46 seats on the bus, I was the 47th passenger to get on. By the time I was in high school, I was lugging not only books (no book bag or backpack), boy style (arm straight down), but also a bulky, 15-pound bass clarinet. Unlike city buses, school buses aren't made for standing, so that was awkward, and it was painful to stand in front of the bus in clear view of so many potential tormentors. I liked school; I dreaded the ride.

In one of my high school years, my last class of the day was, I think, history. I managed to get the seat in the column and row farthest from the door, by the windows. I could see everyone, but the others could see me only out of the corner of the eye. I paid attention to the class, mostly, but sometimes the pull of the sun or the snow or the trees, was too strong, and my mind would wander. And sometimes I would daydream about . . . privacy.

While a typical teenager might have dreamed of clothes, parties, and boys, and a more poetic one of symbolism and beautiful or ghastly imagery, I fantasized about privacy. I didn't always like the regimen of school, especially having to attend classes that didn't suit me (geometry, gym. I didn't understand why people I didn't bother still taunted me. Sometimes, my own tendency to wisecrack was my enemy. Mostly, though, I didn't like that, for seven hours a day, I had no place to go, no place to hide, no place to call my own, Whether I was on the bus or in the hallway, the locker room, or class, someone could see me. And that meant I could not relax or be myself; I could not stop expending energy on negotiating the social morass.

Ah, I would think. I can manage this now because, when I'm an adult, I won't have to.

I was that naïve.

In college, I was torn. I wanted to have friends, so I spent time in public places instead of studying—and still I didn't make that many. And at times I retreated to my room to all the privacy I could desire—and became so lonely and depressed that I developed debilitating hives.

That didn't work out very well.

As an adult, I have 12 to 13 hours of privacy, 7.5 of which are spend sleeping. During the rest, I may be lonely and a little down at times, but I need at least some of that time to myself. As a sheltered adolescent I could not foresee my future (and certainly couldn't plan it). I didn't know what the work world was like. I never knew what I wanted to do. So now, during my commute and at work, I have no more privacy than I did at school—the best I can do is escape to the windowless, sterile "sick room" when I really need to, although it is not the place to heal or to imagine. It's just a temporary retreat. But most of the time work is like school—I'm on public display, failing to negotiate the social niceties, and subject to all the nastiness.

And unlike a student, I don't even get the summer off.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Magnetic personality

I attribute the inanity of this post to the blood loss (at least six drops) suffered when a chef's knife fell out of the drainer and poked a hole in the bottom of my left little toe. Accident prone or death wish? You decide.

After this incident, probably when I was putting the milk back (to ease the last of the naproxen down), I decided to take an inventory of my refrigerator magnet collection in use. I impress myself with how many I can squeeze on.

Functional

  • Kitchen timer
  • Dry-erase board
  • Dry-erase squares
  • Dry-erase circles
  • Powerful bar magnet, possibly from my dad

Promotional

  • Amazon.com: "A room without books is like a body without a soul" (Cicero)
  • Chicago Farmers Market 2006
  • Chicago Veterinary Emergency Services (one horizontal, one vertical)
  • Lincoln Park Zoo Icebreaker featuring a polar bear (for an ice-sculpting competition)
  • Northeast Illinois area code map
  • University of Chicago Alumni Weekend 2008
  • VTonly.com

Souvenirs

  • Art Institute Manet exhibit painting
  • Blue octopus with blue glass eye from the John G. Shedd Aquarium
  • Ravinia 2006 and "Find your inner lawn"
  • San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge
  • Shoreline Cruise photo of J. and me
  • USPS "Love" and "Neuter/Spay" stamps

Purely decorative

  • Cartoon birds (two) and insects (two) that were my aunt's
  • Click magnets of four planets and aquatic wildlife (two frogs, two turtles); I also have butterflies that I haven't put up yet and some from Moonstruck Café that I haven't been able to find after putting them in a safe place
  • Erotic magnetic poetry
  • Floral magnets that came with the dry-erase board
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation cast photo
  • Ziggy, the once-popular cartoon character, which is probably the oldest magnet on the door, perhaps dating back to college

I have other magnets on top of the refrigerator, including fragile ones from Bristol Renaissance Faire and two powerful circular magnets from my dad. A PuppetBike magnet is on my coffee table, safe (I hope) from Hodge.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Review: 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy

365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy by Charla Muller with Betsy Thorpe. New York: The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2008. 288 pages.

Charla Muller's epigraph for 365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy is from dramatist Jean Anouilh: "To say yes, you have to sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows." Out of its context, Anouilh's quotation summarizes Charla Muller's attitude toward marital sex: It's a chore and a bore. That is why, on the occasion of her husband's 40th birthday, she, in the spirit of self-sacrifice, offers him what she calls "The Gift"—sex every day for the next year. After pages of overwrought mutual analysis about the implications, Brad Muller accepts. In one short chapter, the reader is introduced to what seems to be the most passionless marriage on the planet.

The rest of 365 Nights (give or take a few—mustn't have sex during menstruation, for example) rarely delves into sex or even intimacy, physical or emotional. Our most penetrating look into the Mullers' sex life comes when Charla says, "Wow, that was really nice" (or "yummy") and Brad says, "Could you pretend you're enjoying it?" to which Charla replies, "How 'bout you just close your eyes." Between these flashes of profound love, Charla tirelessly fills the reader in on her rather narrow view of relationships, marriage, parenting, being a working mother (she works two days a week), and how giving her husband what he wants ("The Gift") has somehow made them stronger as a couple. It's not the intimacy itself that seems to bring them closer together, but the sense of sacrifice and the willingness to work to overcome the obstacles—not only Charla's dislike of sex (which she seems to believe she shares with every married mother), but logistics such as work, children, activities, and the need for private time.

Perhaps married women with children who see their husbands as "sperm donors" and "providers," as Charla writes of some of her friends, will relate to her and her view of love, marriage, and life. Undoubtedly, many will find that she validates the sexual ennui that can set in during any long-term relationship. From my single, childless perspective, she offers no insights, not even as to the underlying reasons she makes every effort to avoid sex with the man she loves and why getting ready for sex means, "I just continue lying there" (prompting her husband to say, "Could you pretend you're interested in this?").

When the year of "The Gift" is over, Brad seems happy because he will continue to get sex more frequently (although not every day), and Charla is happy because her husband is more content and her marriage is more solid—and, to me, as free of passion as ever. Charla writes about some of the benefits of sex—it provides exercise and offers improved communication for example (she likes to talk to Brad about the mundane during the act, we learn). She mentions greater emotional intimacy, but she doesn't convey it or what it means. She touches on the surface of the issues, but is unable or is afraid to say anything meaningful beyond the obvious. While she lies back and gives "The Gift," she cannot bring herself to mention that she finds any physical pleasure or emotional joy in the act itself (other than that it's "nice"). She and Brad seem to be well suited to each other, but they could be brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables for all the passion shown in their marriage—with or without sex.

Charla's perky style is annoying, and her values, which she assumes we all share, are painfully shallow. She disdains ugly mini-vans (and her beloved children's energy future) in favor of a "cool" SUV. A "polite feminist," she believes that it's a "rule" that women, and now men, must pluck their eyebrows (and any other hair that doesn't meet her concept of perfect grooming and appearance). She is surprised to learn she is pregnant after just a couple of months, calling herself "very fertile" (what does this make Brad?) and making one wonder if she never learned the reasons that contraception became such a hot topic for 19th century women. She abhors the idea of aging naturally and fantasizes about "slight tweaking" through plastic surgery until Brad says, "What will she [daughter] think if she sees her mother conforming to these bizarre societal standards?"—standards to which Charla would have us all make every effort to conform.

Charla presents herself as someone you should want to chat with over coffee about the vicissitudes of married suburban life; indeed, that's how this book came about. I couldn't. It's more than her overuse of words like "nice," "gal," and "girls" (this from a "polite feminist") or the wearisome banality of her endless reflections. She's one of those people—we all know at least one—who prattle nonstop without saying anything, leaving one feeling tired and empty—or energized, if that is your sort of thing.

365 Nights: A Memoir of Intimacy could have been a compelling story, but it would take a more interesting and thoughtful person than Charla Muller to grasp the topic and its nuances and to do it the justice it deserves.

Friday, 29 August 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

There goes the sun

For me summer ends not on Labor Day but with the autumn equinox. I've been in a fall mood for the past couple of weeks, though. It's more than the unusually cool weather and the early sunsets (now occurring shortly after 7:30 p.m.). It's the retreat of the sun into the southern sky, imperceptible at first, but now impossible to miss. The angled light is somehow softer—still bright, but not as harsh to the eyes.

Today I realized that my current seat in the garden, which just a couple of weeks ago would be flooded with light by 1:00 p.m. as the sun rose above the trees and their shadows withdrew, is still in the shade; the sun is low enough in the sky to be behind the Flamingo.

Autumn may be one of my favorite seasons (spring is the other), but behind it lies the bitter, dreary Chicago winter, the winter that just a short time ago I longed to be over.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Review: The Other Woman: Stories of Two Women and a Man

The Other Woman: Stories of Two Women and a Man. Edited by Susan Koppelman. The Feminist Press, 1984. 384 pages.

Susan Koppelman begins her introduction to The Other Woman with, "All the stories in this collection are about women—both wives and other women—who love adulterous men," setting the tone by squarely placing the blame on the male of the species. The women, whether wives or lovers, are only victims of male power, detachment, and appetite. Almost pointedly, Koppelman presents the reader with no adulterous women—that is, married women who are the "other woman" to married women. In earlier times, this may not have been as common because of the financial dependence of women, but of course it is a theme in literature; it plays a role in novels such as Wuthering Heights and Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for example. It is not to Koppelman's feminist point, however.

This leads to another limitation of this anthology; infidelity is restricted to men—and only American men. Forgoing the riches of world literature, which is replete with a diverse array of attitudes toward marriage and infidelity within various historical, social, cultural, and religious traditions, Koppelman limits her collection to the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. The most exotic stories are: "The Quadroons" (Lydia Maria Child), in which marriage is a form of emotional slavery for the biracial wife; "Challah" (Martha Wolfenstein), set among urban Jewish immigrants; "A Captain Out of Etruria" (A. R. Leach), which tells of American expatriates in post-war Europe; "Gal Young Un" (Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings), which take place in cracker Florida; "Papago Wedding" (Mary Austin), which seems to try to capture an oral tradition; and "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (James Tiptree, Jr.—real name: Alice Sheldon), a science fiction story more interesting for the veracity of its pop culture insights than for its sexual implications, although of course the two are linked. "The Last Rite" (Lee Yu-Hwa) is the only story set in a completely alien tradition—pre-communist China—and also the only one told, sympathetically, from the man's viewpoint. The protagonist is torn between the old China and the new, between his family and his duty and his wife and his duty.

Despite the feminist cant, which selectively minimizes the culpability of the other woman (for example, in "The Difference" (Ellen Glasgow), the other woman is no more an innocent than the thoughtless, uncaring husband) and the narrow focus, The Other Woman is a solid collection that, if nothing else, and perhaps intentionally, often seems to solidify the concept of woman's emotional and financial dependence on man. In "A Poet Though Married" (Helen Reimensnyder Martin), it is a man's money that allows Miss De Ford to carry out her mission. In "The Difference," as a friend observes when visiting Margaret in her lavish home, "For when George ceases to be desirable for sentimental reasons, he will still have his value as a good provider." The best story, "Turned" (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the brilliant "The Yellow Wall-Paper"), is the most truly feminist as well, as betrayed love is eschewed for independence and self-respect. Even the victim has "a new intelligence upon her face."

Covering only 139 years of American literature written primarily by women (with the noted exception of Lee Yu-Hwa), The Other Woman misses greatness with its narrow focus. The true full story of the "other woman," whether she is victim or vixen (which, despite Koppelman's protestations, is possible) must be far more fascinating and far less predictable than what appears here. The Other Woman falls short of telling the complete, nuanced story of the other woman—or of anyone else.

Note: This edition is poorly printed, with many pages falling out and requiring multiple applications of glue. There are also numerous typographical errors.

Thursday, 28 August 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

Reach out and touch someone

If you feel like you must reach out and touch someone, please do. Except for the period between, say, 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. Call it the graveyard shift, or the dead zone for personal phone calls. There are two reasons for this voluntary blackout period: (1) Many people are asleep and don't require an ill-timed wake-up call, and (2) it's likely you are tired or drunk or both and are going to dial (or punch) incorrectly—several times. You may even become belligerent (yes, I've heard this happen) when the poor, sleepy, working soul at the other end of the line makes the mistake of not being the person you think you called, but didn't.

To the person who punched my number at 12:04 a.m.: It was clearly a wrong number the first time. Was it quite necessary to call two more times to hear my answering message and to be satisfied?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Excuse me while I kiss the . . . ground?

By nature I'm not a planner, so I didn't have a definite schedule for the post-recovery part of my UFE medical leave: to hang around Bonjour, a rare pleasure on a weekday; to write reviews of two books I finished a month ago and which I hardly remember; and to catch up a bit on my current reading. That's it.

So far, I am 0 for 3.

I did go to Bonjour Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday (closed Monday) and to the university bookstore on Monday. I've made a little progress in Mansfield Park, and I watched Pride and Prejudice (Olivier/Garson) on demand. Yesterday, however, I had a little setback. A painful setback, one that I have to get over.

Research shows that the elderly can stave off depression and dementia, and their effects, in a social, engaging setting. I believe this, and that it's true not only for the elderly. In my current state of loneliness and withdrawal, I find that my mind tends to turn inward and that I feel fuzzy and unfocused, almost like my thoughts have to be retrieved from the depths and redeployed. If someone speaks to me, it takes me a while to process even that they are talking, let alone to form an answer.

This occurred to me yesterday for a couple of reasons. First, I had what appeared to be a duplicate charge on my debit card from a jewelry vendor, which seemed unlikely. The depths of my mind remembered that I had made a purchase since the jewelry, but I couldn't recall where although it should have been obvious. All I could do was remind myself to check it again today, when it should have moved from "pending" to "completed." It did. It was for the university bookstore, where coincidentally I had spent the same amount as I had on the jewelry. Oh. Now I remember.

Second, while I was sitting outdoors at Bonjour, an elderly woman, having difficulty holding onto a thought, finally remembered that she was looking for a place to make a copy, and a man had asked me about Alphasmart Neo. I had felt unequipped to engage either of them in conversation, so for the most part I had answered, "No," and looked (and felt) confused. This same sense of muddledness was still plaguing me when, on the way back, suddenly and quickly, I fell smash on my face and front teeth on the sidewalk by the back door here. Miraculously (praise be) my teeth are intact, confirmed by the dentist today, and I'm okay except for a bruised knee and lips and some general soreness. Given how hard and where I hit, I was very lucky. But I'm not sure why I hit.

Even the trip downtown to the dentist disoriented me further. I felt like I was in the world, but not of it. Even when it turned out the digital X-ray was on the fritz and even as the assistant scrambled to borrow film, get the old machine to work, and take the film to be developed. I felt detached if amused. I even took the news that the nerve may die in time from the trauma with better grace than usual.

But when I came home, I ate and crawled into bed directly, which normally I hate to do. I couldn't face going for an eight-block round-trip walk, which in this case is the equivalent of getting back on the horse. Involuntarily I cringe at the thought, seeming to relive the moment when I hit the sidewalk—which had been a waking fear-thought before the accident. I wonder if I will be able to return to work Tuesday and how coherent and functional I will be. I'll regret that I didn't enjoy my time off more. I'll wonder where the time went—I already do.

Already, much of it feels like a dream that is happening to someone else—the time in the hospital, the recovery, even the weekend and the past few days.

As much as I love the summer weather and the freedom to do what I want when I want, I wish I were awake.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

18 August 2008: The day of reckoning for Ignatius

What follows is more information about the uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) process from a patient perspective than you want or need to know, unless you're considering it for yourself. You have been warned.

I woke up, packed in a daze, and arrived at the hospital early, closer to 6:30 than 7:00 a.m. After a 15–20 minute wait, I was escorted to one of three curtained areas in a "holding/recovery" room. I can't say things happened quickly because it felt like time stood still, but according to the clock across the room in relatively short order I had been connected to heart-monitoring equipment and given compression stockings in sexy white followed later by boots.

The nurse asked me if I had any issues with an IV in my hand, and I replied that when I was 14 IVs tried in both hands had made them swell and that the night nurses had had to cut off my hospital ID bracelet. I couldn't say why—whether it was from small veins or from my bad habit of flexing my wrist. After palpable indecision for a minute or two as she passed from hand to elbow to hand, she finally went for the left hand—and promptly told me to stop flexing my wrist.

I was also treated to what I most dreaded—the urethral catheter. By this point, I was in pain from lying on my back (albeit with my head elevated)—and the catheter sealed my sense of entrapment. Now, between the rigid arm tethered to the IV and the catheter, I wasn't going to be going anywhere on my own. I began to wonder, not for the first time, if it were too late to back out gracefully, to say, "You know, I really don't think I want to do this. Can I please leave now?"

In preparation for the epidural, the nurse checked the pulse on top of each foot and on the inside of each ankle. I passed muster because she said, "Your pulse is strong." It's always reassuring to hear that your heart beats and your blood flows. I suppose you wouldn't hear the contrary. She marked each point with an X in what seems to be indelible marker—a week later, after several showers, I could still see traces.

The possibility of leaving was still a comfort to me even after Dr. Epidural had come in and worked his magic on my back. Dr. Atomic had recommended the epidural route, and it had been heartily endorsed earlier by the holding nurse, with much breathiness and many near-orgasmic sighs. She said she'd had one a few months earlier and added, several times, "Ohhh . . . it was nice. Ohhh . . . you'll like it." Later I saw her showing baby photos to her co-workers, so that confirmed my suspicion about why she'd had an epidural.

The curtained area to my left was hopping with visitors and chatter. I had seen the woman in the waiting room, so I knew she wasn't Oprah, but still I marveled at her evident popularity compared to my lonelinessindependence. At last I discovered that she works at the hospital. Advantage; Lots of friends and support. Disadvantage: No privacy.

To my right was someone who sounded older and resigned. I began to see this as an assembly-line operation and tried to think about anything but the pain and pressure in my lower back as the popular woman was wheeled away. I was tired from lack of sleep and felt aware but not alert, probably more aware than I should have been.

Finally Ms. Popular was wheeled back into her area, snoring stertorously. The nurse told me in a confidential and reassuring tone, "See, she slept through the entire procedure, and she's still asleep," implying that maybe I would be so lucky.

My mind was at that state of exhaustion, disorientation, and nervousness that made that kind of relaxation impossible. Even her steady, deep, monotonous snoring on the other side of the curtain didn't lull me to sleep, so I was wide awake when they came for me.

By now, my back was threatening to snap under the pressure and constraint—a situation that deteriorated when I helped to transfer myself to a flat table on which the procedure was to take place. One of the nurses, sensing my discomfort, asked if I wanted a pillow for under my knees, then, perhaps on cue from another nurse, added, "I almost forgot what procedure this is!" No pillow and no comfort for me.

I saw at least two nurses and a man I assumed was a doctor (he introduced himself, I'm sure) who I think later inserted the arterial catheter, but no sign of Dr. Atomic. One of the nurses shaved around the arteries on both sides, apologizing for some reason for the quality of her electric razor (I didn't notice any issues and felt the moment a little surreal).

After this I don't recall much except perhaps an occasional image or sense of people moving around. All I could see very well was an enormous device above, which I assumed was for imaging. Although I wasn't fully awake, I wasn't oblivious as under general anesthesia. This passing into and out of awareness is a deeply strange sensation; there is nothing to hold onto in either realm.

In what seemed like short order (perhaps under two hours), I was told to slide myself back onto the bed. "Don't move your right leg. Don't raise your head," which made me bend my leg and raise my head. "Take your time—don't bend your leg and don't raise your head," the voice said again. The voice resolved itself into the nurse who kept reminding me not to raise my head—in vain, because I could not stop raising my head. "Don't raise your head—it puts pressure on the artery." Forget the artery—I need to see something other than the ceiling!

The next stop was my room, which seemed to be ready pretty quickly, at least in my newly distorted time reference. I had mastered keeping my head down, more or less, but periodically my right leg insisted on trying to move. I was told that it wasn't allowed that liberty for four hours, which I calculated to be at about 4:30 p.m. My. This was proving to be a long day.

By now, I was tethered to not only the IV/epidural and the urine collection bag, but oxygen as well (although I could at least remove this, which I did once or twice, probably to assert my independence). I figured out that I wasn't going anywhere at any point soon and so I succumbed to sleep, left arm and right leg appropriately unmoving.

At last I was allowed to move my right leg, which meant only that I could bend it a little, flex my toes, and take the edge off its boredom. Now I was more interested in getting rid of the catheter, which I found out would be my intimate companion until the next morning. Every now and then I would feel a burning sensation centered on it and even told some of the parade of nurses that I felt like I really had to use the bathroom—a puzzling statement to me as well as to them. As hard to believe as it may be, it was only in the wee hours of the morning that I discovered that this burning sensation was really uterine cramping and pain and that using the epidural button (which I had not done much) would keep it at bay.

Trapped as I was, there was nothing to do but try to watch TV. Of course, nothing was of interest to me, and I'd given up finding anything other than the scenic slide show by the time the patient services person came by to explain the features, if I wanted (I didn't). I wasn't in the mood for sitcoms, news, or sports.

I called my cousin's wife, then later let J. know that visiting hours were until 8:30 p.m., not that that was a hint. He duly arrived with flowers and the reassurance that I looked and sounded good (which I think he will still be telling me at my funeral). I don't remember what we talked about, probably his work, only that I wanted him to catch his train, and so did he.

I'd been puzzled by a shrink-wrapped contraption sitting on my tray, but during the night one of the nurses unwrapped it and told me it was a breathing exercise device. I found that taking a deep breath and holding it kept a ball at the top of a column, while expelling the breath dropped the ball. I tried it several times, but was horrified that I simply couldn't hold my breath long enough to keep the ball up more than a second. I don't know if I passed. It was cute, and I wish I had thought to bring it home with me, perhaps to see if I can do better now.

When I was most fidgety, I was told that my body needed rest more than anything else. But "23-hour observation" doesn't mean rest; it means 23+ hours of interruptions. Every time that I felt like I had sunk into a deliciously deep, pain-free sleep, I was awakened by one of the parade of nurses who took my blood pressure and temperature (it seemed hourly), emptied the bladder bag, replaced the IV solution and medications as necessary, and otherwise observed me highly efficiently. One even noticed that my compression boots had not been plugged into the machine, so overnight my legs received a wonderful, constant massage.

At least three times during the evening and wee hours, my blood pressure was low enough to set off the machine. All the nurses but one took my low, sometimes too low, blood pressure in stride, and I assumed that the epidural was the culprit (later confirmed when my blood pressure returned to normal shortly after it was removed). One nurse, however, seemed bothered by it and asked me repeatedly if my blood pressure is typically that low; I'm not sure she understood my tired, "I think it's the epidural." As I say, it was only during those hours that I discovered what I'd felt as an urge to urinate was really uterine cramping (I must have been more out of it than I realize) and that the epidural button became my friend.

Of course, just as I had mastered epidural pain control it was cut off at around 7:30 a.m., and an anesthesiologist and nurse came to remove it. No . . . Until then, I had been surprised by how minimal the pain had been, all things considered. Now I would find out just what I had been missing. Before they left, the anesthesiologist had me bend both legs and wiggle both sets of toes and seemed impressed by the strength of my performance.

Dr. Atomic arrived with another doctor, presumably a resident, whom he introduced. He gave me the rundown on the medications, told me that the worst part may be the constipation, and asked me to be "patient with the pain." Easy for him to say. I remember staring at him, feeling like I was shrinking into the bed, and thinking completely irrationally, "YOU! YOU DID THIS TO ME!" If doctors only knew. He checked my feet pulse points and told me my pulse is strong. I get the impression the pulse in my feet may be strong.

Before or after this, I'm not sure which, a nurse had emptied the bag. Ten minutes later a different nurse came in for a urine sample, looked at the bag, and said, "She just emptied that, didn't she?" I could only look apologetic. I certainly wasn't in control of output.

Later, when I was free of the epidural, oxygen, and alarmingly pink catheter, two cheery assistants straight from a sitcom audition came and told me to take a walk or several around the floor. No problem. I'll just head out the door here and . . . wobble like a baby taking its first steps. Well, looky at this handy handrail that someone set in the wall the length of the hallway. The handrail-less doors might be tricky. I made one circuit, took a break, made another, took another break, and may have taken a third. The comedians watched me, disappeared, came back, and suggested I might want to freshen up. That bad, eh?

It was now close to the 10:00 a.m. witching hour, and I thought I might be free to leave, so I asked. No, now they wanted a urine sample and proof that my urinary tract was functional. Alas, my first effort, 100 ml, was apparently not up to snuff. Next, I tried to fool them with cumulative efforts. Finally, I asked just how much they wanted. 600 ml. "Really, it may not be until later this afternoon," the day nurse said. I drank as much water as I could stand—and later threw up for the second time. Where was the nausea coming from?

Meanwhile, the pain had kicked in. I rang for the poor nurse every time I used the "hat" in the bathroom, when I vomited, and when I couldn't take the pain any more—which was horrifyingly frequent. Each time she'd call the doctor—I don't know which one—and give me a shot through the connection in my hand. I'd lie down but couldn't get comfortable. I'd walk but it would feel no better. I'd try sitting upright, but it still seized me. This pain was intense for several hours, and it may have been it rather than medication making me nauseated. Someone from dining services called around noon and helpfully asked if I would like to order lunch. No, I don't think so. Meanwhile, I'd given up 300 ml over two tries.

This was when I asked the nurse how much urine they wanted, and she said, "It was really that it was cloudy, but it's clear now, so that's fine."

Aha! So now I could go home.

"Should I call my friend to pick me up? It will take him at least an hour to get here."

"No."

“No?”

"Your pain isn't under control."

No, it wasn't. By now I had learned to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10. On Monday, my answers had been mostly 4s. Tuesday morning and early afternoon, they were a shaky, white-faced 10. I wasn't fooling the nurse, who had used her powers of persuasion to get me additional IV doses.

What it came down to, she said, was that my pain had to be managed with oral medication only, and I wasn't at that point yet. It was hard to argue. To prove that I was improving, however, at around 2:00 p.m. I reported once that it was a 9.5. "That means a 10."

I can't put anything over on anybody.

By 3:30 p.m., I was too uncomfortable to sit, lie down, or walk. The hospital bed and chair were too confining, and I wanted to go home and sprawl in my own bed.

The nurse was not convinced. "You don't have to leave, and I don't think your pain is managed yet," she said, accurately.

Each of us was right in her own way. My pain level was still high, despite the combination of oral and IV medications. I had a feeling, though, that if I could relax in familiar surroundings, the pain would resolve itself sooner. Reluctantly, she agreed to let me go. I called J., and at about 4:30 p.m. I tucked myself, my bag, and my flowers into the wheelchair, minding what the nurse had said. "You'd better take the basin with you. Just in case."

I still felt miserable, but I could sense that I'd been through the worst of it. As I waited more than an hour, at least I was somewhat distracted by the happier patients in the departure lounge. One couple with a newborn struggled to rein in the exuberance of two older boys. Another couple, with a woman who was perhaps a sister or a cousin, emerged from the doorway with two carriers, two blankets, and two balloons proclaiming "It's A Baby Boy" and "It's A Baby Girl." While I was killing Ignatius the feisty fibroid, others were clearly being more productive.

J. arrived, and the bumpy, stop-and-start rush-hour ride contributed to the fuss Ignatius was making in his death throes. I know I was irritable and disoriented, yet too aware of my burning belly.

I walked in the door and, after very few preliminaries, undressed and headed straight for bed. At around 8:00 p.m. I emerged, helped J. with the air mattress and sheets, took and ticked off all the medications on the spreadsheet, and collapsed again. At 11:00 p.m., I kicked J. out of the bathroom (he was just done). For the next two days, until Friday morning (he left Wednesday night), all I remember is sleeping and taking and tracking medications. By Friday morning, I felt relatively good. The cramping and bleeding seemed to have ended, and I was ready to return to normalcy—so I walked the half mile to Bonjour.

I've been very fortunate, both before and after. My symptoms were minimal in nature and impact, and after the UFE I was able to sleep away the pain in a few days. I'm not fully myself, and my lower back protests, especially in the morning. Mostly (not entirely), I don't feel that constant "itch" to relieve myself. And I no longer feel a hard mass below my navel, which had become both repulsive and compelling. I'm not sure, but I think I might make the same choice.

It's been at least 33 years since I spent a night in a hospital and four years since I was under general anesthesia. As I lay in pain, or watching the nurses about their work, or listening to Dr. Atomic assure me all had gone as expected, I realized that my hospital experiences, positive as they had been—on the whole, I'd received good care on the three occasions, at three different hospitals—had made me feel violated. In some way, it's the loss of control; in another, for me, it's the nearly instantaneous disorientation I feel in such a strange, modernistic environment. More than a week later, I still feel like a Star Trek character might whose cells have been rearranged and are out of sync with the universe. Now I imagine how strange I will feel when I return to work next Tuesday.

Footnote: I must not be 100 percent. I just fell flat on my face on the sidewalk—interestingly, a dream-fear I’ve had for a few days.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

J.'s early morning visitor

This fine fellow (or madam) was parked on J.'s neighbor's car early this morning.

Dream: Mysterious underwater realm

I was in a locker room looking for a bathroom. I found a hole in the floor that seemed to be designed for the purpose and usable. Something, perhaps a thought or a fear, made me leave before I took advantage of it.

When I returned, the area of the locker room around the lavatory hole was under water. This didn't matter to me because I seemed to be able to pass through it as though it were air. Lush aquatic plants flowed past me, along with colorful fish. The beauty of it was haunting, yet disturbing, and I hesitated, uncertain.

"We are in danger," a voice said. It meant that I was in danger. I knew that it was correct, but I did not know from what.

As my senses adjusted to this otherworldly environment, I could "feel" the presence of malevolent beings or spirits in the form of bizarre, toothy sea creatures. They could not be seen, but would flash in and out of my perception, trying to lure me to my doom through the beauty of this mysterious underwater realm. The voice was trying to save me. I was more fascinated than frightened.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dream: A watery sideshow in the present tense

During this time of multiple medications, I've had many interesting dreams and no time or, later, energy to write about them. Now I've had a dream twice, with only a few varying details—or I think I've had a dream twice. The fact I am not sure is somewhat frightening.

In this dream, I am being shown a series of images and told that this is how the sideshow and the illusions work. I can no longer remember all the specific images, although many involve reptiles in a pool of water. In one of today's, a tiny rainbow horse leaps into the pool and emerges unscathed, and it is clear to me how and why. In every case, the situation and the vision are nightmarish, the odds unbeatable, and yet, as the smooth narrator speaks soothingly into my ear and my eyes track the horrible, unreal images, I can see how childish, how simple, how safe it all is, and I wonder at my instinctive fear. My perception is the nightmare, not reality.

We come to the final image, the final test. I am a young girl, pinned down, with no choice but to move forward. I do, into a changing kaleidoscope of abstract images that slowly congeal into the pieces of a puzzle and then the puzzle itself, changing from monochrome to color. I realize I am seeing through a virtual reality device. When I come to an edge, it's easy for me to decide to leap—but where to? Looking down, I see the emblems of at least two comic book superheroes in the tile at the edge of a giant pool in the upper right-hand quadrant. I veer toward it even as my natural gravitational descent begins.

Out of the water leaps an enormous mechanical supervillain—no, a megavillain, too powerful to be understood. "I AM BACK!" he proclaims. I am to understand that he defeated the heroes whose emblems are preserved mockingly in tile.

"SO AM I!" I pronounce, equally pompously.

At a loss for a moment, I fling my arms toward the monster, and his torso is spattered as various mysterious moral weapons strike and sink him back into the depths. Now the pool seems to be attached to a high-end hotel, a place for recreation.

In moments, I have been transformed from a young girl, trapped and terrified, into a savior, merely by my acquired power to distinguish the virtual from the real. Equilibrium is restored, and I no longer have to listen to the insidious explanatory voice or view the disturbing, hokey, yet exotic imagery. I am at peace.

Until I have this dream again.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bristol Renaissance Faire, with rain

Just in case I wasn't up to a post-UFE trip to Bristol Renaissance Faire, we went back on Sunday, August 17. This time J. succumbed to the claw game at the Tri-State O'Hare Oasis. Seeing that he was determined, I contributed $5 and five moves. After I had set it up, with a cue from me he got the drop on a furry, fuchsia, "Flirt" flower. There's nothing like spending $12 on a $2 toy to make the male of the species feel good.

We arrived late enough to avoid the parking fee, but too early to get a pass on admission. Although the weather was perfect, to my untrained eye the clouds seemed to be moving in from the west in a determined way, and I wished I'd brought an umbrella.

While we were shopping—I for a wizard-style walking stick, he for CDs and later for a similar stick—the skies darkened abruptly. Just as we had recombined and were looking at beads under a couple of inches of awning, the downpour came. It rained, and rained, and rained. Suddenly there was great interest in beads [shelter], and we kept being nudged gently aside.

When there seemed to be a slight letup we ran across the way, only to find that the "awning" was really a trellis for plants and as porous as could be. Time for Plan C—dashing to a sheltered footwear store, where the amply bosomed matron informed all that dry shoes could be had and offered plastic bags as a practical headdress. Outside the opening, a few young people, already drenched, gave in to their inner child and danced in the puddles while their friends called out to them from the surrounding shops. The rain didn't cease for more than a half hour.

Food was next on the agenda—shepherd's pie for J., spinach and cheese calzone for me. It's not easy, I assure you, to eat a very hot calzone with a plastic fork on wet table while standing in mud. Throwing all proprieties to the winds (or rains), after I dropped the fork in the mud I wiped it off with a dry paper napkin—and lived to tell of it. Let that be a lesson to the over fastidious.

After the rain stopped, I don't think we did much except stop in at more shop. I haven't felt brave enough to try to throw knives, battle axes, or brass stars this year, although I've done tolerably well in the past (the battle axe man once giving me a look of respect not to mention space).

To J.'s dismay, I wouldn't let him stop anywhere to eat when we left a little after 7:00 p.m. We'd eaten enough, and I'd taken into account that he had to work the next day and that I had to be at the hospital by 7:00 a.m. It was also easy for me to decide, because I wasn't supposed to eat anything heavy.

And so to bed around 11:30 p.m., wondering what tomorrow would bring . . .

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Random musings in B-flat, #1

I experienced an utterly irrational and emotional reaction to something on Friday, which instantly steered my mood toward depression. I have been weepy since. I do like to think why I reacted the way I did and look only for the feeling to pass, as all things do. Reptilian brain.

* * * * *

I need to vacuum, take care of laundry, and pack an overnight bag, but otherwise I am ready for the UFE. I think.

* * * * *

Those who most like to govern often seem to govern badly.

* * * * *

After dreaming about my elementary school gym teacher, I woke up realizing that I may be older now than he was when I knew him and that if he is still alive he may be quite old and frail. When you lose someone, or lose track of them, time stops. He'll always be the big, athletic, dominant man I remember. The same is true of all the teachers, professors, classmates, and co-workers I recall but haven't seen in years.

* * * * *

As a species, house sparrows are a troublesome intruder. As individuals, they can be quite charming as they cock their heads at you as you sit outside the bakery, hoping you will carelessly drop some crumbs their way.

* * * * *

I've seen some small children, proudly escorted by parents with more money than brains (attribution: Dad) driving battery-powered cars. Last week at the bakery, however, it was a tiny wooden bicycle without pedals parked at the door that had passing toddlers drooling. After trying to draw his insistent tyke away several times, one dad muttered, "It is very cool." Children might appreciate simpler things if given a chance.

* * * * *

Wouldn't it be a better world if politics weren't dominated by politicians?

* * * * *

It would be a better world if people could make the small extra effort to turn the pool shower here off instead of three quarters of the way toward off. What a thoughtless, lazy waste of water. In the meantime, someone somewhere is dying of want of water.

* * * * *

A gorgeous male northern cardinal perched on a chair 20 feet from me.

* * * * *

Do some people have children so they can have someone to yell at and bully? Sometimes I want to ask. And sometimes I want these parents to be put into a program in which they are treated in the same way they treat their children, 24/7. The problem is that they would know that they will be released in a reasonable amount of time. The children are stuck with them for 18 years, an eternity for a bullied child.

* * * * *

Whether or not you buy into the Myers-Brigg personality typing system (I'm on the fence), the ESTJ has been the bane of my professional existence. Perhaps they could be granted an island, a distant island, where they can mutually admire each other's purported leadership abilities, adhering mindlessly to pointless rules and sparing the rest of us. If only.

* * * * *

Lately I have been seeing young people in the faces of the old, and old people in the faces of the young. An old man will pass me, and my mind pictures him 20, 30, 40 years ago. A young woman on the bus is transformed into a crone. Today, a young man walked briskly by me, and I saw him in 50 or 60 years, thin, stooped, shuffling along with his walker.

But I do not see myself this way.

PuppetBike on Chicago Tonight

See PuppetBike on Chicago Tonight.

Dream: The underground apartment

I had sneaked into a man's unused underground apartment (he lived in a house), where I turned on an unusual TV screen. The images that paraded across it were unlike anything I had ever seen, and I became transfixed. I couldn't move for a long time.

Time passed, and perhaps the images paused or stopped. Absentmindedly I picked up what I thought of as a pipe and bit through the stem, which was more like a somewhat flattened plastic gun handle. An inch or so broke off from the back. I didn't know what happened to the piece I'd bitten off (had I swallowed it?), but the break was clean rather than chewed.

The man came in, perhaps with another person, although later I thought we were alone. I was frightened of him, but didn't know why as I didn't think he minded the trespassing although he appeared to. Then I stumbled into a floor-to-ceiling plastic case similar to those used as display packaging; this one had shelves full of crystal and other valuables. I caught the case, but to my horror two tiny pieces of iridescent crystal fell to the bottom. I looked at him in terror and wondered when he would notice the broken pipe stem and what he would do.

Somehow he pushed the plastic case away from me behind the sofa without knocking anything off. I marveled at this even as I babbled something about how I was at my best only in the morning, as though I were making an excuse for my intrusion and clumsiness.

He seemed to be disgusted and unhappy, and so was I. Both of us were disturbed by my presumptive behavior and my inadvertent destructiveness. I sensed that he was acting, too. Despite appearances, we knew one another and were attracted to each other. It seemed to be my behavior that was keeping us apart and that it was intentional. Why was I trying to alienate him, and why couldn't he accept me as I was?

Later, I was at a party looking for my husband, who had been my elementary school gym teacher. I could not remember his first name, and neither could he. I caught a three-quarter profile glimpse of myself in a mirror. My head was pale and hairless, and my skull the shape of that of a female gorilla.

I woke up frightened.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Jaunt to Bristol Renaissance Faire

It's when you're in a hurry or late or in some other strait that you take greatest note of life's conspiracy against you.

After we'd decided to go to Bristol Renaissance Faire, I asked J. to pick me up, then we could get on the Stevenson at McCormick Place and connect to the Tri-State from there. It sounded easy enough until we got to McCormick Place—only to see that the on ramp was closed. Now what? Don't ask me. I don't drive. Per J.'s direction, I programmed my eyes to look for 57, but it didn't turn up during several trips around Chinatown. I asked if he had any maps, and he dug out a street guide with a high-level overview of the expressways. While he drove and his blood pressure peaked, I took off my glasses and peered cross-eyed at the map. "Say, it looks like I55 connects with the Tri-State," I said.

We were about a block away from a cluster of signs near a ramp, including one indicating 55. Had he not had both hands on the wheel, J. would have slapped himself. "That's what I meant—55, not 57. 57 is by me. What was I thinking?" he said. One closed on ramp equals one half hour in lost time and probably an unhealthy amount of blood pressure points.

The drive was uneventful, except that J. resents reduced speed limits in the absence of workers. Eyeing the concrete barriers and semi-trailers hurtling by in the narrowed lanes, I am more inclined to agree with the rationale.

Ignatius the thriving fibroid doesn't care about lost time; my bladder makes its needs known as he makes his weight felt. At the O'Hare Oasis, we put a couple of dollars in the massage chairs and split a pretzel (while he was debating with himself whether he should get one, the counter person put out a sign, "Be back in 5 minutes" and disappeared, which perhaps was not the best customer service I've ever seen.

Earlier, I had teased J. that he times his arrival at the faire so that he can get free parking. This time, we benefited not only from free parking, but from free admission—we arrived at the ticket window at 5:59 p.m., and the man there told us to hold out for another minute. We did.

Despite the false start with the closed on ramp, we had a brilliant time. The weather could not have been one whit better for walking—sunny and comfortable. Perhaps because it was a little later in the day, the crowd had thinned. It was my idea of a perfect day to be in the woods.

We stopped for a few minutes to watch and listen to "Wheel of Sin," where the man who sometimes portrays Little John chooses where he wants the wheel to stop by pounding on it, none too discreetly, and the group performs bawdy songs. J. didn't realize it, but I knew it was time to move on when one of the men (the one who sometimes portrays Robin Hood) found himself with felt reindeer antlers perched on, then falling off, his manhood, which apparently was not up to providing support. His reddening face made his predicament seem genuine, and his smile is always infectious.

We ate, of course—the traditional Renaissance known as portobello bangers. J. was about six feet in front of me when I bit into mine, and the spurting juice and cheese just missed his back. You know food’s good when it spurts.

After we left the portobello stand, J. confessed that he couldn't help noticing a woman with a generously sized chest (amply set off by her costume) sporting a large bandage over one breast. I admitted I had observed it, too. I told him he should have asked her if she'd had a rough night with the master. Well, perhaps not.

This brings me to what I saw next—a T-shirt worn by an older teenage male bearing the apropos phrase, "Please tell your boobs to quit staring at my eyes." Men, how many times have you had that problem and wished you could so tastefully address it?

What would a Renaissance town be without a music and video store? Even Shakespeare must have popped a CD or DVD into his home theater and sound system every now and then. After numerous CD binges in the 1990s, I had stopped buying them, especially when I learned my hearing had become so poor, but on this occasion I couldn't resist songs with titles like "Come, you pretty false-eyed wanton," "Pined I am, and like to die," and “I cannot keepe my wyfe at howme,” and so ended up with three CDs for my Elizabethan collection. Of course, J. bought CDs. And magnets. And tote bags. And Shakespearean insult chewing gum. And T-shirts. And personalized note cards for me and another friend. And who knows what all. I believe he's determined to keep the economy afloat, or at least his bank and credit card company. Indeed, it was past 7:30 p.m. by the time he completed his purchases (and a half hour after closing).

On our way to the souvenir shop, however, we were waylaid. Not by robbers, who I might have found easier to cope with. No, we were stopped in our tracks by a singer demanding to be allowed to perform for such a "beautiful" and "fair lady." ("You talkin' to me?") He didn't believe me when I claimed that my name is "Gertrude." Robin, whose manhood was unable to support toy antlers, was no more embarrassed or red faced than I was by the impromptu serenade. My investment advice? Glasses.

At last this tribute to my beauty was completed, and I took off for the bridge. J., fascinated by the turtles, had to pause to capture them on chip. Had the souvenir store not stayed open well past normal closing, he may not have made it there in time to get his credit card chewed up.

There wasn't enough time for Apple Holler, so we headed home. As we stood outside the Flamingo and J. dug around among his purchases for my gifts ("Don't buy me anything" being beyond his comprehension), I realized that I was shivering. Cold, on a night in mid August. I'm not complaining. August here can be and often is brutally hot and humid. I'm also not disturbed by summer rain because I've seen drought. But the dearth of butterfly sightings (and landings), the growing rabbit (he's so big now!), sunsets before 8:00 p.m., cloudy days, and cool evenings all give me a sickening sense that another summer came and went, slipping from my grasp and separating me even more from the remembered idylls of my youth. Will I live long enough to look back at these days as fondly as I do the days of strawberry picking in Eden or visiting Old Fort Niagara? I wonder.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sand Ridge Nature Center

Saturday J. and I headed to the Sand Ridge Nature Center, another part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. This one is close to the train station in Homewood, which is why I suggested it. Of course, we took several detours and didn't go there directly, making the convenience moot. My mood improved when I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot that still makes me giggle: A cartoon pig says indignantly, "No, I don't have any spare ribs."

First, we walked through the building, which has a number of educational exhibits and herpetologic and fish inhabitants. The educational information was punctuated by "Fun Facts," for example, the saying, "There's more than one way to skin a cat" refers to catfish. I had never heard of one of the species on display, a musk turtle or "stinkpot." Nearby in the same aquarium, a painted turtle sprawled catlike on partially submerged rocks. It had extended its front legs straight out, as relaxed cats do, and pulled its head into its shell so that it looked like a comfortable headless turtle.

A woman who had been cleaning offered to help us. She gave us a map of the trails and samples of insect repellent to get us through our walk.

Cook County government has a poor reputation, and I developed a poor opinion of government employees based on an experience years ago at the State of Illinois Secretary of State's Office downtown. I went with a friend who needed something and who was the only person there on business. A woman came to the window and told us to form a single-file line. I said, "Oh, I’m not in line; I'm with her," to which the woman replied, more firmly, "Form a single-file line." It soon became apparent that she would not assist my friend until I was standing precisely behind her in line. Her behavior and attitude clearly didn't make her happy. I could picture her at home, telling her family about the difficult person who made her day hellish by not cooperating instantly and forming a single-file line of two, and her family commiserating with her about the horrors of coping with John and Jane Public every day. Today, she would be a natural for the TSA.

All of this is to highlight that the Cook County Forest Preserve District employees we've met have been eager to provide a good visitor experience. They have seemed to like, even to love, their jobs, with no inclination toward mindless bureaucracy. I noticed, too, that the District promotes a new Chicago Wilderness program of which I heartily approve: "Leave No Child Inside," which tries to get children away from their electronics into the great outdoors. (My proposal: A similar program for adults.)

The sky was overcast, so the butterfly garden wasn't buzzing with activity. J. did try to get photos or video of a red damselfly that posed for him for several minutes.

We didn't have much time and my natural bent is toward water, so we took the Redwing Trail that skirts a man-made pond. Around this pond were large, showy orange and pink flowers of a variety we had never seen before. We also spotted tiny powder blue flowers whose little protruding centers fascinated me.

From the direction of the pond I heard a bird calling and saw a flash of gray and white. Although I couldn't recall the sound, I remembered that belted kingfishers call in flight and was pretty sure that that is what I'd seen. J. also got a quick look at it on the return trip. As always, I wished I had brought binoculars.

As it was a cloudy, humid, relatively still day, the mosquitoes were out in force in the woods. J. offered me insect repellent, which would have helped with my arms and legs, but a large proportion of the bloodsuckers chose to bite my posterior. Next time I'll know to spray my pants ahead of time.

Apparently, the forest proper, or portions of it, is fenced, so when we went through the gate beyond the pond, I had to pay attention to the amount of time it would take to return before it would be locked at 4:30 p.m. The fence may be intended to keep humans out when the preserve is closed, but it serves another purpose—a sign asks you to close the gate behind you to prevent white-tailed deer from destroying the gardens.

The forest preserves may be overrun by deer, but the only wildlife we saw was a rabbit sitting in the middle of the trail. More skittish than its Flamingo relatives, it dove into the cover when it realized we'd spied it. I saw a few birds, but not many—generally, most birds prefer areas that are more open.

The sun made an appearance just as we came to an open space next to the trail, and J. took a photo at my request. On the return trip, I explained that one fantasy of mine is to live in a clearing in the deep woods, not unlike Hansel and Gretel's witch. Slapping himself, J. commented, "If you could keep the mosquitoes under control . . ."

Despite his discomfort, when we came to the Lost Beach Trail J. wanted to continue. I demurred because it was close to the time I'd decided we needed to turn around and backtrack to avoid being locked in with the unseen and unheard but voracious deer. This proved to be a good call, because when we were about halfway past the pond it began to drizzle. Shortly after we returned to the building, the skies poured in earnest. I wondered if the cheerful woman we had met as she headed out had been caught in it and if she were still happy.

We looked at the animal posters on the wall by the offices. In one, a green heron was doing what green herons do so well—taking a frog for dinner. "Poor frog!" J. exclaimed. Indeed. In this particular photo, the frog, its midsection trapped between the heron's upper and lower mandibles, faces the camera and sports a facial expression eerily like that of Kermit the Frog.

Outside again we watched a couple of male goldfinches in the prairie garden area. One alighted on a tall plant that slowly dipped under its weight while J. again tried to capture the Kodak (Nikon) moment.

In the parking lot, impressive amounts of steam wafted up from the pavement, drawn toward the sun that had reappeared after the hard rain. After a brief detour to Hammond, Indiana, as far in ambiance from Sand Ridge as it is possible to conceive, we ended up at a Fuddruckers for a meal that probably negated any good we had done ourselves by walking. J., along with some seven-year-old boys, had his fill (or at least of taste) of video games, then we returned to The Flamingo. I admit I teased Hodge with the salmon that J. had picked up on the way at Treasure Island.

The poor, tortured cat.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Jolted

When I noticed darkness descending at about 7:30 p.m. on Monday, I didn't know that I "ain't seen nothin' yet."

Darkness had fallen 12 hours earlier, at 7:30 a.m. As I was getting ready for work, the clouds moved in, the wind picked up, and the downpour began. Fortunately for me, the worst of the wind and water was over by the time I left at 8:00 a.m.

When I returned in the evening, I thought about relaxing outside for a bit or even going to the stores for the walk. There was some sun, but it wasn’t the gentle, soft summer evening of my dreams. I didn't feel very good, either, so I stayed in and felt guilty.

Then it was "déjà vu all over again." I marvel every time at the speed with which a storm can appear to darken the world.

By 8:00 p.m., the thunder and lightning had begun, the clouds had opened up, and the skies were as dark as though it were hours after sundown, not minutes before. I love storms, so I watched the nearly constant lightning and waited for it to pass in due course.

It didn't.

As the clouds lit almost like strobes with an occasional streak down to the horizon, I distracted myself by looking up the different types of lightning. I remembered being afraid and my parents talking about "sheet lightning" that wasn't anything to worry about. I realized how comforting it can be to remain ignorant and to be reassured.

By 9:45 p.m., I had had enough. I tried to read, but was too tired and even too worn out to stay awake. As I dozed, I sensed the storm abating.

The reprieve was brief because at some point near midnight, I perceived flashes. More than that, I heard rain. Rain like I have rarely heard or seen before. It hit the windows in solid sheets. I thought about the young rabbit, which I'd seen in the garden earlier in the evening after a week's disappearance, and worried that he was not only frightened and soaked, but that he might drown. In a half stupor, I imagined the wall of water coming through the bricks and running down the interior walls.

In east Hyde Park, a lot of tree limbs, some large, some small, were torn off. One tree's secondary trunk was split off; I'm not sure if that kind of injury leaves it salvageable. My initial reaction to seeing the limbs all over the street was an odd, involuntary one—irrationally I thought with a sickening feeling that vandals were somehow responsible.

The Chicago Tribune reported that conditions sparked more than 9,000 lightning strikes in a four-hour period—not a typical midsummer's eve storm. Knowing that now, I'm not surprised that this constant onslaught wore on me. But I was less frightened than by the October storm a few years ago in which the wind uprooted thousands of trees while I cowered.

As with many of my fears, nothing came to pass—rain didn't stream down the walls, and I've spotted the young rabbit enough times since Monday to be convinced he didn't die of fright or drown.

And neither did I.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

At the Harold "Hal" Tyrell Trailside Museum

Last Sunday J. spotted a goldfinch that appeared to be in distress. I looked up animal rehabbers in Cook County and discovered the Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum in Oak Park. Part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the museum is no longer in the animal rehab business, but the woman he spoke to told him the goldfinch most likely was a fledgling learning to fly and that he should leave it be.

Located in a house built in 1874, the museum intrigued me, so on Saturday we went to it. It's a straight shot down Harlem, but it took us more than an hour. Usually, I hate to have so little time to spend at a place (about an hour), but I suspected correctly that the museum is small enough to see in the time we had.

J. parked on a side street nearby, then we checked out the outdoor cages. The museum is home to a number of animals that can’t be released, including a turkey vulture (damaged wing), a red-tailed hawk, an American kestrel, a great horned owl (cataract in one eye), a coyote, and a red fox (imprinted). I could hear the fox before we got to her; she was running in and out of a crate, madly spinning and chasing her tail. When we went inside, I told the people in the office by the door, and a woman came out to look.

She told us about some of the animals and that the fox had been the only surviving kit from a mangy litter. As she approached the cage, the fox rolled over onto her back and cried and whined like a dog or perhaps any canid when a dominant member of the family arrives. At first she seemed okay, but she began to spin again. The woman had told us that yellow jackets sometimes bother her, but when she saw the behavior she seemed concerned and said they would keep an eye on her.

Inside, we found a fish tank on the first floor with carp, bass, walleye, and other Illinois species. In a turtle tank, eyes and a snout were the only parts above the water line. Throughout the museum, posters and exhibit show the visitor how to identify the more common butterflies, some of the vanishing species of wildflowers, and common bird nests. A cross section of a tree trunk and graphics cover local and building history.

On the second floor, cages house a Cuban tree frog (invasive species), a box turtle, an American robin missing part of a wing, and a 20-year-old crow who greeted us with, "Bon soir!" (which I took for "What's wrong?"—well, that shows my mind's tendency).

After a while, a visitor came in who attracted the crow's attention. The visitor talked to her, and the crow crouched and stuck her bill through the cage for petting (which made me wonder how the crow experiences that sensation). When she could reach them, the woman also stroked the feathers around her nares. She told us that she is a frequent visitor and loves the crow, although the bird wasn't nearly as keen on the little child with her. She also pointed out a cage with a sign, "Black rat snake coming soon" and told us that, a few months ago, someone had broken into the museum when it was closed and stolen the herps, including snakes and frogs.

A second woman from the museum told us the crow's age and that she had always been in a too-small cage, but that she's resisted attempts to move her to larger accommodations. She has bumblefoot and arthritis. I'm not sure about her entire vocal repertoire, but it includes "Hello!" in addition to "Bon soir!" Corvids are highly intelligent, and, deprived of the company of her peers, this one probably appreciates familiar humans. The robin, on the other hand, was agitated at first but settled down at last and even began pecking rather peevishly (or nervously) at what was left of its food.

Enchanted by the talking crow, J. decided to try to get video of her speaking. She had burst out several times while we watched her, but the moment he pulled out his camera and set it to video, she clammed up—just like a child. Part of her stubborn silence may have been because the crow whisperer had left.

After noting that the third floor is closed off and mysteriously labeled a "private residence" (I imagined ghosts), I left J. with his new friend so I could use the ladies' room. Next to the stairs are photos and explanations about baby and juvenile animals, which suggest that they be left alone. Pinkie squirrels can be returned to the base of the nearest tree, where the mother can retrieve them, and helpless robins returned to the nest if possible. Otherwise, what appear to be baby animals should be left untouched; they have not been abandoned and may even be in the transition phase from parental care to independence. I had asked the first woman if they'd gotten out of animal rehab for space reason or for philosophical ones. She said it was mostly the latter; people would bring in young animals of common species that should have been left alone (like the goldfinch fledgling). The second woman told us that 80 percent or more of animals brought to such places had been ripped from their homes by well-meaning, concerned people who didn't know that they weren't orphans.

I asked about places to walk, so she gave me a Cook County Forest Preserve District map and sketched roughly where the trails are, describing where they lead.

I waited outside for J. and checked out the wildflower and butterfly garden. Two tiger swallowtails were engaged in an epic battle or courtship—it's hard to tell in animals or people—while a brilliant male goldfinch flitted among the lower branches of the trees.

We followed the left-hand path and walked through the woods along the Des Plaines River for perhaps three quarters of a mile, then came out and walked back along the street. J. is not used to the woods, and the mosquitoes bothered his inner city slicker. I was bitten several times on the legs, arms, and face, but I was more bothered by sudden bursts of sunlight in my eyes (we were westbound three hours before sundown) and by the little insects that managed to fly up my nose.

I'm not native to Chicago and don't drive, so the map revealed to me that the forest preserves follow the Des Plaines River and Salt Creek. This explains what I had observed—a number of parks along Harlem Avenue and the lack of cross streets. Now I have seen the Des Plaines River, which is believed to be the travel route of the coyotes that find themselves in places like a Chicago Quiznos. The Des Plaines River connects with the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River, so it is part of an extensive pre-Columbian trade route. In nearly 30 years (gulp!), I've found it difficult to warm up to either Chicago or Illinois, but this waterway's history sounds worth exploration.

After more conversation than I care to go into, we found ourselves at Los Cazadores in Oak Park. I know we've been there before because I recognized the colorful paintings of Indian warriors with what appear to be dead, yet nipply maidens. I'll be there's a wonderful story behind them.

On the way to the Flamingo, we stopped at Treasure Island so I could pick up cat litter. First, however, I took J. through the produce section so I could find a cantaloupe that would prove to me that Ignatius (official dimensions: 11.7 cm by 16.2 cm by 13.9 cm) is more substantial than I realize and therefore must be dealt with. I needed the 3D visual, which impressed me and J. August 18: Farewell to Ignatius.

Friday, August 1, 2008

How many of me?


HowManyOfMe.com
LogoThere are
1
or fewer people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Thanks to re: wolf.