Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dream: It’s complicated, or dream in three acts

While walking down a theater aisle, I spotted TB for the first time in months. As I passed by, I quoted a line from a play in the voice or intonation of Orson Welles—or I hoped I did. That should have gotten his attention. Immediately I wondered if I also looked like Welles and what I had been thinking—that he would fall for the same kind of talent and abilities I do? In these dreams, I try to impress him and others with what I like.

I was wearing a light cotton housecoat when I realized I was standing in the middle of a road at night, and a car was coming. I ducked into my closet, which was right up against the narrow, shoulderless road, and tried to pull the housecoat around me and shut the door, but the coat wouldn’t fit around my breasts. The car passed within inches of me, and I felt shaken by nearly being hit and seen.

I heard a former boss from PwC come along with someone. They talked about moving some files in the closet on the other side. There was nowhere for me to go.

I went back to the hospital for a third procedure/second surgery and ran into T. F. F. while waiting. I felt ambivalent about this, but when he tried to be apologetically affectionate, perhaps even sexy, I didn’t like it. I left to find a bathroom, but everything was strange, with no doors or distinct toilets.

After passing through the corridors, I came upon a plaza of quaint stores like those in Wheaton, Long Grove, and Geneva. Now I was confused. I went back the way I thought I had come, but I was lost. Finally, I saw someone to ask for directions, but when I followed them I ended up in what appeared to be a fancy drawing room with no other exit. It was nothing like a hospital.

By now, I was panicking that I’d been called for surgery while I had been wandering, and a little worried that T. F. F. would think I had run off. I was anxious because I believed this surgery was critical to my survival, and that I’d walked out on my last chance for life (surgery) as well as a renewed friendship that I no longer had much interest in. All I could think was, “It’s complicated,” but I did not want to explain why.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dream: Racing donkeys

[Afternoon nap.]

Someone was driving when I noticed he was about to hit the stop sign at the edge of the grass. It fell over, so I got out to restore it while explaining to the driver why I hadn't been able to make my mouth work to warn him. The bottom of the sign seemed to fit in a stand I found in the grass, and I set both on the corner. As I did, I noticed that the stand would fit perfectly into a compartment on a hitch on the back of a parked car, so I set both the stand and sign there instead. Something didn't seem right, and I realized that when the car drove off the stand and sign would go with it. That didn't make sense.

Somehow I was lured out of my apartment, which was taken over by sinister-looking boys. Through the windows they threatened me with lollipops, then threw them at me when I seemed determined to get in. I threw them back, wondering if they were poisonous or explosive.

I was terrified of them.

While I was walking behind a cow, a hand reached out from under its tail and grabbed mine. At first I thought little of this, but it held mine more and more firmly as the cow tried to lead me somewhere, I knew not where.

This happened several times with other animals, including a donkey. Each succeeding hand held mine more tightly, making each harder and harder to get away from. The animals, if that's what they were, and the hands were trying to lead me somewhere bad for me. I never found out where, although I was very curious.

With someone I was watching similar farm animals and camels burst into racing speed for a short distance, then stop. We analyzed their movements, which were coordinated and graceful and contributed to the surprising speed they attained. We learned it was due to the influence of alcohol.

I woke up afraid, especially of the hands.

Monday, December 21, 2009

That girl

I’m on the Pennsylvanian. As a result of being among the last one-third to board, I found myself next to a young woman who is one of those nervous, self-centered pieces of work you don’t want to find yourself next to. The train was clearly going to be full; by the time I got on, there were few empty seats left. She had all her bags piled onto the seat next to her and had settled in comfortably with earbuds in when I disturbed her peace by rudely tapping her to get her attention when she missed my initial hail.

“WHAT?” she exclaimed.

“Is anyone sitting here?” I repeated.

Instead of replying, she huffed and sighed heavily, collected her bags, and flung them disgustedly onto the upper rack across the way. Clearly, she had expected to have the only empty seat on the train to herself. Meanwhile, I smiled beatifically at the people in the line behind me, who of course were waiting for her and me to get out of their way so they could find seats, too. I had spared them from my newly discovered Center of the Universe.

I took my coat off and sat on it. Apparently, a cord must have been nearly touching her through her layered clothing, akin to the pea bothering the princess through many mattresses, because she abruptly suggested that, if I weren’t going to actually wear it, I put it overhead. “It’s . . .” within an inch of her person!

When the conductor came through to collect tickets, she seemed taken by surprise. As she rummaged frantically through her bag searching for tickets and ID, she jabbed me a dozen times or more with her flailing elbow, which, oddly, didn’t bother her given her sensitivity to touch and wasn’t supposed to bother me. Later, as she read and tossing her hair, it was all I could do not to say to her in the same nervously fussy tone she’d used on me, “Would you mind not shaking your head like that? Your dandruff and vermin are, like, you know . . .” Eventually, after I’d dozed off, she woke me up to trounce off somewhere, which gave me the opportunity to plug in my iPhone, which gave her the opportunity to harumph when she demanded her seat back. After that, I left her with her space and mine all to herself.

My Christmas wish for her: The maturity and the wisdom to understand that she is no more significant than the 7 billion other humans with whom she shares Planet Earth. And the few dozen with whom she shares an Amtrak car.

I’m not holding my breath.

All aboard the Capitol Limited

I’m on the train from Chicago to Pittsburgh, where after a wait I’ll catch another train into Altoona. If all goes well—it sometimes does—I’ll arrive in about 12 hours. I preferred the old days of the direct route, the Broadway Limited, but there you have it. In these days of the convenience of 24-hour shopping and the handheld smartphone, the direct route has been eliminated, a tactic that makes life worse, not better, well, at least for me. Although I suppose some could and would say that 24-hour shopping and smartphones aren’t really a step forward, either. I’m on the fence.

I was lucky to get a seat on the Superliner’s lower level. There are two great things about this: (1) you don’t have to drag your luggage up the steep, narrow stairs, and (2) you don’t have to negotiate the same steep, narrow stairs at all hours of the night to use the downstairs facilities, a more important factor for me when I had 2.3 pounds of deadweight fibroid flattening my bladder. I’m finding another benefit now—so far, there have been only one or two others here on the lower level, depending on the stage of the journey. (We just picked a third person up.)

There seems to be a high number of urchins aboard tonight. Two in particular have caught my attention: Levi and Rose. I know their names because they’ve been running around, blocking the steps, and bumping into people, and their ineffectual father keeps admonishing them by name, loudly, and giving them orders, both of which they ignore. When told to sit, they did, but that lasted for less than a minute, about the same as the dogs I’d seen ordered to sit and stay at the veterinarian’s office the day before. Earlier, the same man had told me that he was going to be first into the café car because his kids need to eat, spoken as though their lives depended upon it. Most parents who travel with their children on the train seem to know the “rules”—bring plenty of entertainment, food, and drink. Clearly, no one had filled him in, and he had not figured it out on his own. Another reminder that parenting doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

The other person I noticed was a nerdy young man, perhaps 30, reading a photocopied article and penciling in notes. I caught references to Kierkegaard and something about the Christian religion’s basis on faith, not philosophy—my awkward and perhaps inaccurate paraphrase. What would he have said if I had observed, “That’s a rather narrow viewpoint of Christianity, don’t you think?” Philosophical though he may be, he didn’t ignore his bodily needs, making at least two trips for food—clearly not an ascetic philosopher.

I started to write a letter and before I knew it, my iPhone was showing the time change and the train was nearly to Ohio. Probably by 11:30 p.m., I was sound asleep, having woken up a few times to adjust position, but not waking with an urgent need to go. I was startled when the conductor tapped me awake outside Pittsburgh, and almost as startled to notice that more people had boarded without disturbing me. Here at the Pittsburgh train station, waiting for the Pennsylvanian to Altoona, I’m mostly startled to feel refreshed. Here’s another recommendation for successful overnight train travel: earplugs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Parting shots

During a mid-afternoon CNN program, one of the pundits being interviewed said emphatically, almost indignantly, "The Tiger Woods story is now a story for People magazine, not a story for the news magazines." He'll get no argument from me. So why is it the topic of a panel on CNN? A panel that admits this?

Of all the important issues that could and should be engaging our minds, capturing our emotions, and challenging our imaginations, we are reduced to gawking at a golfer and his infidelities.

Accenture, the consulting firm, dropped Woods, prompting the question, "What does golf have to do with business consulting?" The answer is, of course, nothing—unless the idea is that some c-suite executive somewhere is supposed to see Woods and think, "Tiger's a winner. Accenture must be a winner." If the c-suite learns about and chooses a consultant based on its sports celebrity spokesperson, why are we surprised so much of American business is a mess?

Years ago, in a previous work life, we the people (employees) received a memo from the partnership that would have been breathless if e-mail and paper could respirate. The gist was that we're excited (as excited as dry consultants, accountants, and actuaries can be) to announce that we've bought some of that exorbitantly priced commercial air time during the Super Bowl to promote brand awareness of the firm.

We the people weren't quite on board with the excitement. Like virtually every employee in the country, we felt overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated, and here we are, encouraged to be enthused about millions of dollars spent on a Super Bowl commercial—not for the beer, junk food, or consumer products traditionally beloved of football fans, but for business consulting services that only a handful of viewers would have the power to authorize, even if they were interested. A handful who, if they weren't at the game or watching it at some exclusive gathering, were, like everyone else, at home with clicker/remote/changer in hand, ready to take a booze or biology break. True, many watch the commercials in hopes of seeing something mildly creative, clever, or amusing. I'm not convinced that this is where or how your better executives start to form or solidify their opinions of potential consulting partners—except perhaps as nonstrategic spendthrifts.

I could be very wrong, of course. From my perspective, the c-suite may as well be an alternative universe inhabited by bearded Spocks and be-daggered Uhurus.

With that in mind, I'm off to a place that, if not home, is more comfortable—and more habitable.

Merry Christmas and happy new year.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden


These photos are from a Friday trip with J. to the the Chicago Botanic Garden to see Wonderland Express, about which I knew nothing. The walk through Chicago in natural miniature was followed by dinner with another friend at Don Roth’s Blackhawk in Wheeling and an evening of art and conversation over coffee. A walking tour of Tuscany or Scotland would be grand, but in the meantime life, or at least my life, doesn’t get better than this.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Thanksgiving week plus in review



In his travels, J. had spotted a sign for Settlers’ Day at Sand Ridge Nature Center in South Holland, so off we went last Sunday, the 22nd. Traditionally, this event is held the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Settlers’ Day is a little hard to describe. We missed most of the planned activities, which I’d guess were geared toward families. When we arrived, we checked out a wall of photos from the event 35 years ago, featuring Girl Scouts and the dual names of the now-married women. The photos looked familiar—the glasses, the hair, the way the color had faded—and I told J. that those girls are now about our age, give or take a year or two. It struck me again how like a lifetime ago that period seems to me, yet sometimes how like the most vital part of my life.

Much of the visitor center’s back room was devoted to vendors, including wildlife photographer Joe Nowak. I bought an amazing pencil holder from his neighbor while a horde of little beasts delved into crafts at a long series of tables across the way.

Outdoors several tents and stands had been set up. At one, people dressed in what seemed to be an odd mix of Revolutionary War-era garb were roasting long spits speared through numerous birds over a pit, while pots in another pit simmered with what one man, obviously not the cook, thought were succotash and other vegetables.

For some reason, nothing else grabbed me until I arrived at the Civil War, a small display of replica guns (with one original, a carbine), shells, balls, swords, Bowie knives, and paraphernalia such as binoculars. And, of course, hard tack. One of the men was talking to a boy about balls, cannons, canisters, and the like, so I suggested he describe the virtues of hard tack. When he mentioned weevils floating to the top of the coffee in which the hard tack had been dipped, the boy scrunched his face and turned away. A few harmless insects were more horrifying than all those mangled and severed limbs and decapitated heads.

I found that these guys recounted the horrors of war with great relish, gloating over the technological advancements that made it possible to maim and kill more and more men in more and more terribly efficient ways. He described the effects of canisters with tremendous enthusiasm, as well as the effects of soft lead bullets on bone; instead of breaking cleanly, which could be set, the bone shattered or split along its length—hence, as he pointed out, the necessity to resort to amputation.

While I was there, I checked out three rehabilitated red-tailed hawks in a nearby cage and heard the story of how a female with a damaged wing escaped, crawling along the ground until a staff person nabbed her with a sweatshirt. I know why the caged bird doesn’t fly.

As the program was being shut down, we went for a very brief walk and discovered tombstones along the trail—part of the day’s “wagon train hikes.”

And so, after some fruitless driving around and discussion, we backtracked and ate at Outback.

For Thanksgiving I roasted a 2.75-pound turkey breast and steamed/heated a few basics, while J. caught up on sleep during Some Like It Hot. I am pleased to report that, to date, no one has fallen ill, not even Hodge, who knocked over the trash so he could lick the turkey breast package.

Saturday the 28th dawned in the 30s, but heated up into the unseasonably warm 50s. At last we made it to Lincoln Marsh in Wheaton. The people who live nearby are fortunate to have this perfect spot for walking, with a bike path at hand. Within moments of heading down the trail, I regretted not bringing binoculars as I watched birds flit in the trees and bushes ahead.

Lincoln Marsh is not big, which I think made it feel manageable to J. He was fascinated b y the rustling of the grasses in the wind and other small sounds that are now out of the range of my damaged hearing, so I left him behind to enjoy them. Except for the occasional passing train or jet overhead, the area is surprisingly quiet, with very little ambient traffic noise—quite the idyllic spot, lovely even in the starkness of late fall.

I came to a place at the water’s edge across from which a pair of mallards was floating. The moment I sat, the pair changed course and set sail straight for me. My guess is that some visitors ignore the “do not feed the wildlife” rules. I’m not one of them, so my disappointed ducks had to resort to dabbling in the water.

Another duck had hit the water further out with a splash, then had started to quack harshly, sounding very like Burgess Meredith as the Penguin in the old Batman TV series. The original pair seemed startled by her abrupt arrival. By the time J. caught up with me, they had disappeared into the offshore grasses. I was whispering this to him and wondering what had become of the third duck when a mighty row of splashing and quacking broke out from the direction of the offshore grasses. It sounded like quite an altercation, and I half-expected a duck corpse or two to float out belly up at any moment. Gradually, all three reappeared, alive and well, the pair still inseparable and the third putting distance between herself and them. I couldn’t help anthropomorphizing based on what I’d observed—the second female was obviously a spurned mistress, desperately making one last attempt to break up her lover’s union. But the first female was standing (swimming) by her man, who was undoubtedly horrified that he’d ever let that harridan into their lives. Their discomfort at her arrival was palpable, and the tussle in the grasses sounded fierce. It was not an amicable split.

And you thought all ducks have to worry about are a few predators and guys with guns.

I spotted a woodpecker in the trees, but while I was trying futilely to take a photo, both J. and I heard an insistent tapping above us. Overhead, a second woodpecker intently pecked at some small upper branches. Walkers who came along paused as J. took photos, but even when they moved on apologetically, the bird remained unfazed and unmoved, ignoring all of us. When I moved around to the other side, I felt dead wood detritus raining on my head and face. At last the woodpecker flew off, but not because it had deigned to notice us.

Time was running out, so we walked to a nearby overlook with a little dock below—as it turned out, the perfect place from which to take photos of the sunset over the water. Two jet streams were being etched in the deepening blue of the sky overhead, while long, wispy pink clouds were reflected nearly perfectly in the marsh’s still waters. How could anything like holiday shopping and bustle compare to this moment at this place, where one could almost imagine the world when it was younger and less spoiled?

After a detour (closed roads having become a suburban feature here), we went to downtown Wheaton, making stops at It’s Our Earth, Graham’s Chocolates, and La Spiaza. This last is a Spanish café where the menu is written on the cabinets in chalk, and a bumper sticker says, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.” The cream and other necessities are arrayed on a vintage stovetop, artwork hangs on the walls, and coffee quotations adorn the privy. The young woman at the counter was friendly, helpful, and quirky, there’s live music on weekends, and the lighting bright enough to offset the early dark of November. I liked it.

At some point, I had observed that Geneva is 11 miles west of Wheaton. Little did I know that J., prompted by a co-worker, had developed a burning desire to visit Geneva. After a detour for photos of the old Wheaton courthouse (now Courthouse Square townhouses and condos) and a little back-and-forth (“Are you sure?”), we were on the way to Geneva, which, from the east, is at the bottom of what is called a hill in Illinois. Geneva looks like the quintessential Christmastown, USA, with frame house-like shops on streets decorated for the holidays. Outside one was an old, heavy-framed bicycle like the one my dad rescued from a junkyard when I was four or five years old, covered with large, softly muted vintage or vintage-style lights. For the nostalgic who remember Christmas less for shopping and more for the festive atmosphere, places like Wheaton and Geneva seem to be havens of respite.

Our first stop here was at the Graham’s café, which offered an opportunity to get another cup of pumpkin ice cream. When J. observed my choice, he bought me a pint for later. Mmm.

A man came in with two boys, who started to run up the stairs to the second floor with their goodies. Dad, who must have had a back or leg injury, told them to come back. “I don’t think I can make it up there,” he said. The second boy paused in his upward flight to say, “That’s okay; you can stay down here.” I did not catch Dad’s response, probably because he didn’t seem to have one. While he contemplated the independence of his young sons, we ate our ice cream by the unlit fireplace and admired the little touches that made the room interesting, like the tile patterns painted in the corners. I wonder if those two boys, and the other children and teenagers, will recall Graham’s fondly when they children of their own, and whether such places—combination contemporary café with WiFi/ice cream and sweet shop—will be around in 20 years. I wonder this because I’m guessing that so little of anything I remember remains, whether chain or family-owned shop.

We found Graham’s Chocolates a few houses down. I didn’t opt for a third pumpkin ice cream, but I did pick up a few more peanut butter cups. J. did, too, because later he told me how good they are. I could not agree more! I sense that there will be a second trip to Geneva in the future.

I hinted that a third visit to Bavarian Lodge would work for me. I think it’s the beer varieties that keep drawing me back. Our server from two weeks ago, he of the slyly left dessert menu, recognized us. He pointed out the irony of a German menu whose only soups were devoid of meat; he always has a comment. This time, he couldn’t talk us into dessert, even to go, although J. relented and asked for the menu, then didn’t order anything. Each of us is getting better about this. It’s unfortunate that our waistlines and scales aren’t rewarding our restraint (or attempts at it).

And so home, and home.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dream: Anxiety much?

Five days off, one day back to work, and already I've relapsed into the habit of falling asleep early, waking up in the wee hours, and nodding off lightly to have dreams filled with anxiety. In this edition, I was lying naked but wrapped in a blanket (as I actually was) in a strange bed, trying to sleep. This is where the line between reality and dream blurs.

I froze when the door opened, hoping not to be seen by the intruder. It proved to be my brother, who crawled into the bed next to me while I contemplated the strangeness of this strange place. I could see outdoors into the night.

Later, shaking with her irritation, my aunt asked me how I had missed hearing the phone ring. I listened to a long, rambling, almost incomprehensible message from HR about how I'd never received formal permission to take these three days off and how I would be subject not just to pay withholding and disciplinary action, but to dismissal as well.

By now, I sensed that everyone was angry with me.

I was on a train platform for the next stage of my journey when I realized the train not only was on the opposite track, but was going to pull out momentarily. Leaving everything behind, I ran up the stairs to cross to the other side. Once I was there, children ran down the stairs in front of me. I cursed them for slowing and blocking me, although they kept well ahead of me, and I knew I could not catch up with them.

The platform emptied of people abruptly as I arrived, so with a sinking feeling I knew the train was about to leave, and I marveled at myself because I had not brought my luggage.

I woke up weary.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Feed me"


"I haven't been fed in six hours. If I had opposable thumbs, the ASPCA would be here right now."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dream: Around the bend

In a recurring dream scene, I returned to college to find that the campus and the neighborhood were utterly unfamiliar. The dormitories had become Borgian labyrinths, modern and strange, yet dark and cluttered. Outdoors I expected to find the usual bland streets and city lights, but, as I usually find, there was a magnificent oceanscape and natural area, just a few blocks away. As always, I wondered why I hadn't spent time there back then, although I hadn't known it existed and wasn't sure it actually had. I mourned the lost opportunity.

Some friends and I went to a restaurant in a crowded block of storefronts that looked more like San Francisco than Hyde Park. Someone drove me and others home in a yellow convertible roadster. When she parked in a narrow alley, I could feel the car inching forward after she had gotten out, refusing to stay put. She noticed it, too. I called for help, but the others had left. She and I managed to stop it, and she drove it forward onto what looked like a hilly country road in Pennsylvania, around the bend. In the twilight, the car suddenly looked pink.

The car's refusal to behave, the changing landscapes, and the altered color combined to frighten me. I felt like I must be in a virtual funhouse, happy one moment, terrified the next.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Dream: iPhone addiction

While I was visiting family, they offered to take me for a ride in the country. V. took the wheel of the Jeep, which she never does. We drove across the hills in a way that struck me as improbable. At one point the grass turned into a dirt road around a bend, but V. stayed on the corner grass, giving us a bump.

Fighter jets flew in formation overhead. A few would have seemed strange, but there were enough to indicate something big was happening here. "In Pennsylvania"? I thought in disbelief.

We came to a cliff overlooking an artificially rectangular lake that was an unhealthy green. We could see an enormous helicopter and a smaller plane submerged, but I was told they had been there for years. By now some of the fighter jets were flying full speed into the water, transforming into dark-green submersibles just before impact.

As we looked down the strangely sheer walls into the lake, we spotted what we thought were bodies, but although they looked dead we became aware that they were alive.

To my surprise and shock, CC threw my iPhone into the lake, which appeared to have the effect of killing the bodies that hadn't been dead but now were. How we could tell this I don't know. I felt guilty for their deaths, but mostly I wanted my iPhone back. Neither CC nor anyone else seemed inclined to take responsibility, and I felt devastated even as my waking mind wondered whether a saturated iPhone would work.

The lake lurked as the the most disturbing aspect, a chiseled, post-industrial, post-apocalyptic morass, apparently filled with human and mechanical victims—our final destination after an amazing ride among the lovely green hills.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A river runs through it


On October 17, J. and I got a late start to the Morton Arboretum, so after the obligatory visit to the gift shop there wasn't a lot of time left for exploring. We drove to the other side and stopped briefly at Lake Marmo, then continued on until we found a new spot for us, one that instantly fell in with—a bridge over the DuPage River. Rivers, streams, creeks—I love them—their sound, their movement, their travels, their sometimes primordial loveliness. They remind me of a fairy tale I read as a child, where the story mattered less to me than the meadow or stream where it was set. They remind me of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Robin and John Little battle above a forest stream, and Robin and Friar Tuck duel through it. Although located in California, that stream embodied my imagining of the mythical magic of a Sherwood Forest that never was. I wish I could recall the name of the fairy tale book; I can never get enough of the movie.

At this point, the DuPage doesn't run through old-growth forest, and, from what I could see, the banks are tangled and drop off steeply, so here is not the place to dip your feet in or to cross staffs or swords. I'm reminded of the Little Juniata River, which runs past Logan Valley Cemetery, where my parents, maternal grandparents, and sundry relatives are buried. In midsummer, the woods are beautifully, painfully green, and the creek burbling and cheerful. When I found a tiny leopard frog many years ago, I thought I would never be much happier than at that moment. I told my dad about my walk and my find, and he, ever the pragmatist, said, "Who knows what's in that river these days?"

Nothing like Dad's down-to-earth wisdom to slam me back to reality.

He was right, of course. When I take the train through the heart of Pennsylvania, underneath all the lushness of late May there's plenty of evidence of the state's place in the Rust Belt—decaying works scarring the hillsides; runoff tunnels spewing into the rivers and streams; rivers and streams turned unnatural shades of opaque brown by decades of industrial abuse. As I've mentioned before, one of the best parts of my childhood trips to Pennsylvania was when we'd stop at our favorite springs, where cool, clear, wonderful water flowed from fissures in the rocks. We'd fill up cups and jugs after drinking our fill straight from the little stream, all the while knowing that the water would never again be as good as within the first few seconds it splashed out of the cliff's side.

But, not long after my memory, we ceased to stop because all the springs had been closed, with warning signs posted—due to coal mining runoff and pollution, that marvelous, seemingly pure water was no longer fit to drink. Maybe it hadn't been for years.

I was still pretty young, and my disappointment proportionally great. For me at the moment, the world changed from a magical place full of wonders such as pure mountain water to one that been degraded, even ruined.

Fairy tales weren't true after all. I grew up.

That was in the 1960s or early 1970s, when wading into Lake Erie meant getting entangled in ropes and ropes of algae, only to be stared at by the remorseless eye—or eye socket—of dead fish; when after a walk in the rain while wearing a bathing suit I'd feel my skin burn from the acid that came down with it; when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. I would like to think we've learned from the lessons of DDT, dioxin, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us, but for every step forward, there seems to be at least one back. Aquatic creatures, endangered or not, from the St. Lawrence River to the Sea of Japan suffer from systems loaded with toxins. The postcard-perfect Bay of Bengal has become a cesspool of rusting metal and toxic waste from unregulated ship salvage work. Seafood lovers are warned which species to avoid if they don't enjoy a little mercury with their fish. Seabird chicks on the most remote islands routinely die from ingesting small bits of plastic brought to them by their deceived and hapless parents.

That's not to mention climate change and melting sea ice, which has affected us before we can even come to a consensus that it's real.

All that may seem a long way from the DuPage River as it glides through the Morton Arboretum, but really it is not.

Water is fluid. Through rivers, above- and underground, rain, snow, glaciers, melt, and a hundred and more means, water from here is bound to end up there, along with everything it picked up along the way. Together with air, it's both a vital and shared resource. The droplets of dew on this morning's roses could be miles away in a week—in another country or another continent, up in the atmosphere, down under the ground. Every drop is sacred. That is no fairy tale.

On November 1, we returned to the Morton Arboretum, shopped a bit, and checked out the coffee photography exhibit—more proof of how connected the people of this planet are. We thought we had plenty of time, so when the older woman driving the tram told us there were no more tours this day; "the sun is sinking fast," this idea kept nagging at me. I checked the time and told J. we had about an hour and 40 minutes until sunset. Wishing to be more precise, thinking of the driver's words, and unconsciously aware of the sun's low beams, I checked MoonPhase on the iPhone. It was only then that it hit me that, because of the time change, we had only 40 minutes—and counting. So we hightailed to the arboretum's west side, where I wanted to see the river near the "Plants of the Ozarks," close to the underpass under the highway.

We passed two cyclists who had parked their bikes and were sitting on the bridge over the river, looking into the setting sun, and parked by a marshy area of tall grasses, where a closer look revealed a number of half-hidden ducks. We weren't hidden, though, and the ducks subtly veered off through the grasses and congregated a little further from the parking area. If either of us spoke a little too loudly for their comfort, one or two would quack even more loudly in protest.

Leaving the irascible ducks in peace, we backtracked along the main route to the river and took the trail westward along its northern shore (before it curves north) when we noticed rustic footbridges in that direction. I wanted to see them, and I was fascinated by how, to the east of the vehicle bridge, the unruffled river barely flowed, yet underneath the bridge and beyond it swirled and poured in a small torrent.

As I crossed the first rustic bridge parallel to the river, with J. behind me taking photos, I wondered what the relationship of this stream was to the DuPage. When I arrived at the other footbridge, this one crossing the river, and looked downstream, I spotted another vehicle bridge—and it finally occurred to me that that was where we'd drive the week before. No need to hurry back to the car if we wanted to get to that spot again—it was right in front of us. The north-side trail had looped to follow a tributary, so we crossed the footbridge to the southern edge, where there was no trail, our feet crunching loudly through layers of leaves until we ended up at the other vehicle bridge we'd crossed last week.

Not realizing at first that there was no way over the tiny tributary (although the unbroken line of tall grasses that outlined its edges gave me a clue), we headed away from the river and promptly flushed a great blue heron from the tall grasses. J. tried to photograph it in flight in the growing dusk, but it moved too swiftly. See it land in a leafless area of a tree at the edge of the woods, I took the camera from J. and snapped some shots of what was now a large vertical silhouette perched on the bare horizontal branches. It flew down at some point that I missed because I flushed it again, a little closer this time. It took off into the descending darkness, illuminated partly by the nearly full moon.

Unable to cross the tributary, we returned the way we had come, by which time a security vehicle was on the prowl. Unfazed, a pair of lovers stood on on a bridge in the twilight under the moon, pressing lips and bodies. Ah, love, or lust. Or, ideally, both. It was the perfect time and place for it—as long as security overlooked them.

At the car, we disturbed the almost invisible ducks before we took off in search of dinner. The week before, my handy iPhone application had led us into Glen Ellyn, where we ended up at Santa Fe, featuring a Mexican menu. Afterward, we crossed the street to the Bells &Whistles Snackery, where tables with local historic photographs shared space with Pac-Man console for children. It looked like a great place for families who are only slightly retro in their tastes. We ordered French press coffee, which ended up pressed all over me. The woman serving (the owner or manager, most likely) handled the little mishap efficiently while telling us the story of French press coffee, then brought us another pot strong enough to grow hair on my chest.

This time, the iPhone application came up with the Bavarian Lodge in Lisle, so that's where we aimed for, more or less. J. opted for the last of the Oktoberfest pig roast, while I chose chicken paprikash, washed down with a large bottle of Samuel Smith's organic strawberry ale. I would be dangerous (and happy) if I could get my hands on that every day.

A review I read later said the women of the reviewer's party complained that the salads were poor and the food fattening. So I'm going to make a suggestion—if you want crisp, dark greens and healthful menu selections, excise "Bavarian" and "German" from your vocabulary right now. Family-style suburban German restaurants are not the place to cut calories. I didn't get this body from fast food, but from the German immigrant diet—meat and potatoes.

We went back to the Morton Arboretum a third time primarily so J. could pick up bulbs for his pots, this time driving around the other side in the growing twilight.

The arboretum was a family estate for a very short time, as these things go, before it was donated for its present purpose. Still, while walking under the trees and along the DuPage, while flushing birds, I thought about how marvelous it would be to grow up with a river at your doorstep, a beautiful setting for playing and picnicking, and later for courting—in peace and privacy. I'm happy the Mortons chose to share their slice of heaven with the rest of us so we too can live and dream and watch the world flow by.

2009 is the Year of the River.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hawkeye

This morning at South Shore Drive and 56th Street I heard the autumn crows cawing in fine form. As I turned onto the sidewalk along the park, something flew up in front of me; my impression was of a mourning dove, although I hadn't picked up the characteristic whrrrr! of its takeoff. When I looked up, I was surprised to see that what I'd flushed was a small hawk.

I've heard of hawks in Jackson Park/Wooded Isle, but have not seen one except perhaps high in the sky. Here was one perched in the tree in front of me, so of course I couldn't find the iPhone in my bag as I searched frantically and wished for a better camera (and that I weren't on the way to work). As I hunted, I couldn't tell if the bird had flown off or was still there looking at me quizzically. Finally, I dug out the iPhone, input the code, launched the camera application, and took the best photo I could with what I had.

The hawk flew to the ground. Irrationally, I thought it might be injured as it hopped awkwardly around, so I walked toward it, then it took refuge on a lower branch of a bush. Probably feeling threatened by my persistent interest, it flew off. When last I saw it, it was skimming the grass, then soaring high overhead. I still wondered if it had a leg injury—another one of my impressions, like that of a mourning dove.

Fly free, friend.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dream: Halloween vampire

A well-dressed man held a group hostage in an elegant dining room at a mansion. They may not have known it, but I could tell he was a vampire. If they didn't comply with his wishes, which were unknown to me, he would perform unspeakably gruesome acts.

He pointed to what looked like an ordinary coffee mug and handed a girl a twig, almost like cinnamon bark. She, under his control, dropped the twig, a drug or poison, into the cup, although part of me wondered how he would force the people to drink it. I knew him to be evil, though, and in my mind I saw all of them tortured and dying if they drank what was in the cup.

I don't know if I was the girl, or if I was an opposing power who controlled her, but she tipped the cup so its toxic contents slowly and quietly spilled out. The vampire seemed unaware, and I felt certain she would not be caught or punished.

With the cup, the balance of power seemed to have tipped in my favor.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dream: Stray man and cat

A handsome young man seated at a table with his growing family kept looking up to the stairs to the attic, where his pretty young wife sat with another woman, perhaps her sister. Teasingly, yet meaningfully, the wife would tell him to mind his dinner. Like me, she knew he was interested in the woman. I sensed a playful but real tension. The next time I looked at the women, I realized the companion was just a girl, perhaps even an older teenager. It came to me, too, that the man supported his family through petty crime.

The man left to meet another man; together they went in search of a particular cat. But the cat eluded them, and they became transfixed by a different cat, which they caught. It did not seem to mind. I doubted that either cat was really an animal and wondered what their game was. They knew what they were doing and had something in mind. I was a little afraid for the men, for although they were petty criminals, they were not evil at heart.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The now and the then



In his answer to the 2005 Edge question, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” Kai Krause articulates exactly how I think about the past, present, and future. I’m feeling less than philosophical about the “now,” however, because today started less than ideally. A lot less.

I had decided to celebrate the end of a difficult week by leaving early and stopping at Argo Tea for a breakfast wrap. At a little past 7 o’clock, I walked out into a driving wind that was scuttering sheets of water northward down the street. I thought about waiting a few minutes indoors, but I did want to leave early, and I couldn’t count on the wind or the rain letting up soon. I found myself blown toward 55th Street (the closer bus stop) because the wind was swirling mostly from the south. By the time I had walked to 55th and Hyde Park Boulevard, of course both wind and rain had dissipated into a drizzle with a bit of a breeze.

But during that eight-minute walk down two and one-half blocks, a gust had broken a rib in my favorite everyday umbrella. Grrr.

Although it’s a little further away, I prefer the 56th Street stop because it’s in the park with a view of trees and the Museum of Science and Industry, the stop itself is crowded, and as it’s an earlier stop on the route the buses are less crowded, too. But I would have had to have fought a powerful head wind three-quarters of a block and then a slanting one in the open the rest of the way. So I was blown down the path of least resistance toward 55th.

Where I not only discovered that the wind had broken my umbrella, but within moments a crazed man, or a fabulous facsimile of one, thrust his face into mine, muttering odd things about sainthood and finally throwing in a pitch for money. I wasn’t his only target; he besieged the male half of a young Asian couple, the only other people around. A few minutes later he came back for a second go at me, this time with a straight leap into the saintly rant and no interruption for a pitch. There’s no feeling that compares to being trapped under a bus shelter in the rain with a wide-eyed, self-proclaimed (I think) saint.

My pencil lead broke as I was writing this. Yes, the “now” was going to be a day of small annoyances.

This “now” seems to be one of those times when my highest aspiration is to be a turtle, with head pulled firmly into shell (there’d be no fooling me into peeking out). So this is a good time to forget the “now” and remember the “then,” in this case, last Saturday the 17th.

For years I’ve wanted to visit Starved Rock State Park, after I read about it in either the Chicago Tribune (back when that paper had content of interest) or a local magazine. I thought I’d mentioned it to J., but apparently I hadn’t because he’s been bringing up a trip there as a new idea for the past few weeks. He’d never been there, either, and his late mother had piqued his curiosity with her fond recollections of it. So we set Saturday the 17th as the date to go. And we did.

I met him again at the Homewood Metra station, after which we made a detour to Caribou Coffee. He had his cup and enormous vacuum bottle filled, meanwhile contributing to Amy’s fund. I opted for a bathroom visit and a pumpkin cooler. Next came the tricky part—finding the entrance onto the expressway. The Google Maps text explanation seems a little off to me, and the entrance itself is tucked away almost as though it were meant to be missed. The brightness of the afternoon sun also glared off the iPhone screen, making it almost impossible to see. But, after I had him turn the car (the little blue dot on the map) around, J. spotted the ramp, and away we went.

I feel like this has been a dreary autumn, but even as we angled southwest down the highway, the clouds continued to break up into interesting patterns, with the sun breaking through enough to give me headache as I peered at the iPhone screen. The more sun, the warmer the air—it was turning into the perfect fall day for a walk in the woods and a little bit of an adventure.

Part of the way is along the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, designated such on August 24, 1984. This strikes me as a fabulous idea, allowing the many towns along the way their historic and industrial due. J. noticed a sign for a radio station dedicated to tourist information, so he tuned in. As I watched our blue dot skimming along on the map, I felt a teeny bit like an explorer when I told him, “We’re going to cross a river shortly.” This proved to be the Fox, known to me mainly for its propensity to flood (making its banks the ideal spot for a Mies van der Rohe monstrosity).

Probably more so than the Corridor, Starved Rock is a well-loved attraction, drawing millions of visitors a year—not all, I suspect, from Illinois. If J. and I recall correctly, Starved Rock was on ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich’s short list of state facilities to close or curtail, which amazes me. Here you have millions of people who want to visit, and I noticed that the towns along the way tout their proximity to it. A different radio station is dedicated to its tourists. It’s reasonable to assume that these local economies benefit from Starved Rock’s visitors passing through, dining, shopping, perhaps even spending the night as Starved Rock Lodge is often fully booked. The park drew J. and me to an area we otherwise would have had no reason to visit. What would cutbacks at the park have meant to how many people? What good could come of cutting its funding and services? Cut off nose, spite face—perhaps I’m missing some of the details, but that’s how it seems to me.

Starved Rock State Park is still fully functional, but the first sight in the visitors center made me sad—the enormous cross section of the trunk of an elm dating from before the Civil War that had succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the early 2000s. To the lower right, you can see a black-and-white photo of the living tree in its prime, when, the exhibit notes, it sported one of the largest crowns in the country. Oh, to have such a tree under which to while away free time in the summer and upon which to look and ponder in the winter.

We took a quick walk through the gift shop and exhibit that were to close in a few minutes at 4 o’clock and picked up a map and advice on where to go. We had about an hour and three-quarters before dark, so the woman we spoke to steered us toward French Canyon, which she thought we could manage in the time left, or possibly Starved Rock itself. She alluded to slippery footing at French Canyon, but I couldn’t quite tell what to expect.

It turned out to be a gorgeous spot, a place like I might expect to find in parts of New York.

At first it looked like I wasn’t going to make it into the canyon at all. It wasn’t that it was hard, and those in good condition and with sure feet could bound about fairly easily. I’m not in any condition, but what holds me back is a combination of physical weakness and emotional fear. With a little difficulty, I made my way down the steps, some steep, leading into a lower canyon, like a vestibule, where a heavyset woman sat with a stroller (occupied or not, I couldn’t tell). The footing was angled and slippery and seemed treacherous to me, and when I tried to go around her, I ended up grabbing the stroller to steady myself—not a very smart move!

French Canyon itself was up a little waterfall and around a wall of rock, so I couldn’t see it. The woman with the stroller told us that it was lovely, and everyone returning seemed impressed. As I stood there, I thought about how I’d wanted to come here for years, how I’d finally gotten the chance, and how upset I would be later if my weaknesses and fears, both real, kept me from experiencing the joy of the moment or seeing something that should be within my reach. I also saw with painful, stark clarity that if such tiny feats are difficult for me now, they will cross the line to impossible when I’m older—perhaps in five years, maybe ten. My time is shorter than I care to know.

For once in my life I decided to go for the gusto. It’s easy for me to laugh at myself because it really wasn’t that hard. But I have pain and moments of weakness in my back and legs, and no confidence in my body or its abilities, and so I was afraid and had to overcome that fear. The memory of falling on my front teeth last year doesn’t help.

But, using both hands and my rear as a stabilizing platform, and getting all of them dirty, I wound around the woman and stroller, used the worn human footprints as steps up the mini-waterfall, and emerged into one of the loveliest sites I can imagine, at least in Illinois—a tiny, steep, narrow canyon darkened by the remaining leaves on the overhanging trees and tinkling with the 45-foot fall of water at its end.

I could see immediately why Starved Rock is popular. And popular it was on this autumn day, as a group of adults and adolescents descended on us as we were about to venture forth, as a young couple stood at the base of the waterfall, as another young couple set up a tripod and camera—as people came, expressed their wonder, and left. Except perhaps on the coldest, bleakest midwinter day, I doubt one could find solitude at French Canyon—or anywhere else at Starved Rock.

J. noticed that getting down the worn footprints was trickier than he expected. For me, descending is usually much more difficult than ascending, and the downward slant of the notches added to their slippery precariousness. By now, I had impressed myself with my teeny feat of daring, so I moved a little more confidently—but not without engaging hands and rear when necessary.

Next we headed toward Starved Rock, but when J. spotted an almost picturesque bridge, we followed it, thus being detoured toward Lovers Leap. A “leap” implies height, so we found ourselves climbing—or descending, depending on the immediate terrain—what felt and looked like interminable stairs. From comments I’ve read since, these boardwalks and steps are an innovation implemented to stem the increasing erosion of the park, which is primarily sandstone. It’s not hard to picture the damage millions of feet a year over many decades might do to such a landscape. In this area, at least, the rule is not to leave the walk to wander off through the woods. Starved Rock State Park is being loved to death.

J. came upon an overlook of sorts, although I pointed out that it wasn’t labeled Lovers Leap (or anything else) and that the river wasn’t visible, as promised. I heard laughter from below and spotted flashes of colorful clothing between the branches and leaves. “That’s the Lovers Leap overlook,” I said as decisively as I could, based on intuition. This platform offered a treetop view of a variety of conifers. As the trees grow, it will be more of an eye-to-crown perspective.

Now we headed toward the voices, flashes of clothing, and hints of river—if I remember correctly, Lovers Leap was slightly below the conifer spot. This overlook is below a dam and across from a point where the river splits. On what appeared to be a large flat stone island, hundreds of gulls had congregated, and hundreds more wheeled over the water below the dam. At first I thought a large object in the water was an enormous lone bird such as a swan—I had no sense of size or perspective—but a look with my binoculars revealed that what I’d taken for the “swan’s” back was a rock, upon which stood a great blue heron, its head tucked toward its wing if not quite under it. Although we stayed for at least 10 minutes, if not more, the heron never budged. Either it was sleeping, or the river’s fish were onto its sly ways.

Unfortunately for us, it was too early in the year for bald eagles, but soon, soaring above the confusion of gulls, came a flock of giant birds big enough to make the gulls look like sparrows. Even with the binoculars, I never got a good look at them—they were always flying away by the time I could get the glasses trained on them, so I saw them mostly from behind, once or twice a little more from the side. My impression was of short bills and legs, big bodies, and outsized bills. Indeed, my impression was of pelicans. PELICANS? In Illinois? I’d seen pelicans only once before, during dinner near Pompano Beach in Florida, when they landed and stood on the pylons. That was almost up close and personal, while here they flew en masse in the middle distance. I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t shake the impression of pelicans. Later at home I found sources online that mentioned October sightings of flocks of 25-30 American white pelicans at Starved Rock.

I’m still not certain. But maybe I’m not as bad a birder as I thought.

By now the witching hour was approaching, so we started to descend all those steps we’d walked up. At one particularly steep step, I couldn’t bring myself to take it. I froze. J. set his bag down along with my purse, took the binoculars I handed him, and held out his hand, although I was afraid my ankle or knee would give and I’d fall on top of him. Then I heard a sound, which I finally realized was his coffee from his tilted cup spilling onto the ground. While he turned his attention to checking if anything important had gotten wet, somehow I took the step just like that. I surprised myself, then felt silly for freezing in fear again.

Partway down, J. hinted he wouldn’t mind taking a brief detour to Starved Rock, but by then it was just a few minutes before sunset, and I wondered, as I often do, why someone as impractical as I am still manages to have common sense when others don’t. We speculated on the unlikely presence of wolves or coyotes, but I learned later that there are no dangerous animals, including venomous snakes, at Starved Rock. How disappointing. Don’t bobcats wander through Wildcat Canyon? I suppose millions of visitors a year serve as a deterrent to larger predators, although the wanderings of the animals aren’t limited to the trails and stairs.

Having avoided darkness and nonexistent predators, back at the visitors center I used the women’s room while J. sated his incurable need to stimulate the economy singlehandedly in the gift shop. As I left the ladies’, it occurred to me that I’d walked around in the chilly air for two hours without thinking about a bathroom or having an urgent need to get to one. Thank you, Dr. M. and team.

Next on the agenda was something I’d seen on the online calendar—Irish storytelling around a fire at 7 o’clock. I warned J. I probably couldn’t last for more than 15 minutes in the cold—the temperature had dropped precipitously after sunset—but as it turned out I was able to hold out for almost an hour.

After circling the Lodge down the road and becoming a little confused, we found the storyteller, Trish Kelly, at the top of a circle of chairs around a smoky fire. As she waited for more people to appear, she told us that she’d lived in the area all her life and had spent a lot of time clambering about Starved Rock—she may have worked there at some point. She mentioned numerous bones she had broken, multiple times in a few cases, from her ankles and elbow to her jaw, as well as cameras, binoculars, and other valuables dropped and lost in the park. Although I doubt she knocked herself out at French Canyon or on the stairs to Lovers Leap, still, I used the story of her injuries to pride myself on my bravery, such as it was.

As the group stabilized at around 15 to 20, with some continued comings and goings, she regaled us with the story of her adoption from Ireland as an infant, with J. interrupting her to find out that he’d been within 20 miles of her birthplace, and how she’d become a storyteller. She mentioned that she knew no others, which makes me want to contact her and connect her to Bill Watkins. As she warmed up—so to speak—she slyly worked in her first encounter with a ghostie at the home of a childhood friend. She showed us a poster-sized photo of Hegeler Carus Mansion, where she works, and told us that no one had thought it to be haunted—until the night her office lights would not stay off, and a female voice bid her, her friend, and a La Salle police officer “good night.” The audience seemed skeptical, but perhaps the fire crackled a wee bit louder in a momentary silence.

Slipping into a discreet Irish accent, she told the tale of the fearful son of a fearless ghost hunter. I can’t remember his given name, which also rhymed, but the father dubbed him “Rigor Mortis the Tortoise” for retreating into his shell at the first sign of a supernatural presence. Rigor Mortis the Tortoise dislikes this nickname, thinking it will hinder any potential relationship with a girl he might meet whose description sounded suspiciously like our storyteller.

It was at the end of this tale that my chattering teeth and shivering body finally got to me, and I whispered to J. that I had to leave.

I was a bit skeptical about the story of her adoption from Ireland, I told J., although it’s quite likely true. “With storytellers, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy,” I said. “I don’t mean that she’s lying, you know. She’s telling a story.” There was a bit more silence than usual at this point, I felt, so I added, “Besides, there is one thing I know to have been a blatant lie.” “Oh?” “Yes. When Rigor Mortis the Tortoise was frightened and the hairs on the back of his neck stood . . .” dramatic pause “. . . that was a lie. Tortoises don’t have hair. Aha!”

He seemed relieved and wondered if the young men of the area appreciate her and her talents. “How do you know she’s not married?” I asked. “She wasn’t wearing a ring,” he replied.

Hmmm. He wasn’t held so rapt by the stories that he didn’t notice these important details.

We drove around the Lodge’s extensive, segmented parking lot again, looking for and finding the restaurant part, then walked under a long, lighted archway toward dinner.

The Lodge is suitably rustic in a strangely elegant way, with a fireplace the central feature of the busy lobby/living room, where numerous people were hanging out, socializing over coffee or reading. Later, I found the lounge and patio in the back, the former also full of people, some watching a flat-screen TV that didn’t quite blend in with the wood beams and décor.

We must have arrived at the restaurant not far ahead of the last seating because we were among the last to leave, shortly after 9 o’clock. I ordered chipotle meat loaf—comfort food with a twist—while the more adventurous J. picked, I think, bluegill (not sure), which he’d never had before. I can’t comment specifically, other than to say it looked and smelled like fish. For dessert, he asked for pecan pie, which our server explained, in apologetic tones, was served in a cup. We didn’t know what to expect, but the pie crust was a cup rather than the conventional wedge. Perhaps that meant it was bought vs. homemade, but it didn’t seem to matter to J., who approved.

After a trip through long, narrow hallways to the front desk lobby, where an older couple was playing a board game to the splash of a koi fountain, and a brief (very brief) detour through downtown Utica, we finally headed home. I provided my usual navigational advice up front, but after a few miles I fell asleep—a great help to the equally tired driver, I’m sure.

When finally I could keep my eyes open for more than a few moments we were already deep into city lights, and the world of French Canyon, Lovers Leap, river pelicans, and Rigor Mortis the Tortoise already seemed a millennium and a million miles away.

Diaper Deck at Argo Tea

The women's room at Argo Tea (Sears) features a Diaper Deck. Here are descriptions of the visuals and the accompanying text:

Standing baby is about to set something flat down, presumably on the Diaper Deck.

LAY TOWEL DOWN.

Baby appears to be suspended in midair by a belt through his undies.

FASTEN STRAP.

Baby falls headfirst.

NEVER LEAVE BABY UNATTENDED.

Standing baby throws something in the trash.

DISPOSE OF TOWEL.

I finally realized "towel" means "diaper," which is odd as it is called a Diaper Deck.

My attention, however, was distracted by the baby who does it all—lays out his own towel (diaper), fastens himself in but falls off headfirst anyway, then recovers enough to dispose of his own soiled towel (diaper), which you can understand—you might soil yourself if you abruptly fell headfirst.

In all four visuals, clearly the baby has been left unattended. The lesson seems to be that if you leave baby unattended, he'll remove and dispose of his own diaper despite massive head trauma. Interestingly, he doesn't seem to have figured out how to put a clean one on.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Spring into fall



With the cooler, even cold temperatures of what seems like a premature fall, and distance from my surgery and permanent separation from Ignatius the tenacious fibroid, my energy levels have risen. During the past year or two, I seemed to spend several hours of every weekend in a torpor of deep napping. I still doze off every now and then, but usually not for entire wasted afternoons at a time. With my shoulder (impingement syndrome) feeling better after a couple of bad days earlier in the month, this weekend I was able to collect and toss the trash, clear junk off the coffee table, stay on top of the dishes, clean the bathroom, vacuum, and take care of laundry. It may not sound like much to a normal person, but for me it was quite an amazing feat. This doesn't mean, of course, that the place is straightened up, clean, or presentable.

Last Sunday, the 4th, I met J. at the Homewood train station. But I didn't meet just J. He called to tell me that G., the disabled man he drives to church and Caribou Coffee, was still with him because, when he had tried to drop him off, they'd found the house deserted and locked. Because someone was expected at 2:30 p.m., we went to a bagel place to kill the time. G. could have come with us—we were headed to an art fair at Swallow Cliff Woods—but J. would have had to drive north, then south, then back north again. Waiting worked out, and G. even got a bowl of chili out of it. He's diabetic and sometimes seems to have wildly fluctuating glucose levels, so J. is reluctant to provide him with anything other than coffee for fear it will have an effect on his numbers. Chili may not be healthful, but I figured it wouldn't make his glucose spike, either. He enjoyed it, and I appreciated feeling free from guilt.

Finally, we took G. home, then made for Swallow Cliff Woods via Wolf ("Woof" in J.'s lingo) Road. Along here are still some cornfields, old farmhouses, decaying outbuildings, and remnants of rural culture. Parts of it could pass for southern New York or the flatter bits of central Pennsylvania. Sadly, however, more corner signs have sprung up advertising lots for sale—that open field bordered by trees is probably doomed to become another strip mall because there just aren't enough of those in the Chicago area.

Further north, although I am not sure exactly where, we came across a place where the fields had been converted into a McMansion development. The houses are so large that J. thought surely some of them must be apartments. But no—I'm certain they are single-family homes. I can't fathom why people choose to live in enormous houses on relatively small plots of land squished together. For the money, I'd rather have a more modestly sized house on a few acres, with a little breathing room outdoors as well as in. The style of these dwellings added to their strangely mass produced ostentatiousness—from the glimpses I had of the materials and look, I thought they were intended to mimic European country chateaux. That is, if country chateaux were clumped together on dimes of land in suburban subdivisions. A man's home truly is his castle—minus the estate.

After a few wrong turns here and there—thanks to Google Maps on the iPhone, at least we avoided driving into cul-de-sac traps—we arrived at Swallow Cliff Woods. The sun was peering out intermittently, throwing a little cheer and warmth across the field where the artists had pitched their tents.

After picking up some honey, J. settled in at a tent where what he called "fuzzies"—hand-crafted Christmas decorations and the like—were sold, while I wandered ahead. As happens periodically, I found myself tempted to buy a block of amethyst—it looks so magical, and reminds me of my late aunt—but as also happens I resisted. Instead, I headed for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County tent, where they were attempting to find people to recruit as volunteers. I had to break it to the friendly woman that I'm unable to serve, but we had a good talk about invasive species and what volunteers do. I mentioned Volo Bog, which is touted as the only quaking bog in Illinois. In a show of competitiveness, she hastily pointed out that portions of one of their bogs also quake. J., who had appeared, duly noted one of the places she mentioned as a good spot to visit.

The find of the day was Joe Nowak (For the Love of Nature), a wildlife photographer who prides himself on his unretouched photos, taken with a 35mm camera on Fujifilm. His photos are amazing—a red-tailed hawk illuminated by a ray of sunshine, a great horned owl so blended into the tree bark that it takes several efforts to find, a deer scratching its ears with a hind hoof. He and his wife told us that the owl photos are possible thanks to a woman they call the "owl whisperer"; she has an uncanny ability to sense and spot owls and their nests even while driving full speed down the highway. She'd found the camouflaged owl on a golf course and alerted them. His photos and their conversation were delightful.

You can't visit Swallow Cliff Woods without walking up the old toboggan run stairs. For some people, this means making dozens of trips up and down in the pursuit of fitness. For me, one round trip, with many rest stops on the way up, then broken by a walk in the woods before heading down cautiously, tests the limits of my worn knees and aching back and lungs. Later, on the long way down, we were passed, back and forth at least four or five times, by a determined woman who almost bounded effortlessly. From the bottom we watched her slightly splayed stride, which looked easy. An older man, who also made the round trip several times, did so much more laboriously, soaking his shirt with perspiration. That was me after one trip up.

This time at the top we veered down a path to the left instead of taking the main trail straight ahead. While more level and less of a challenge to walk, it was more interesting visually, with tree-covered ravines that reminded me of New York and Pennsylvania. This seemed to be the way less traveled, a little more hushed, except for a few people like us walking along and the lone cyclist who couldn't, wouldn't, or didn't read the sign prohibiting bicycles and who flew toward and past us with a cheery whoosh.

I remember the summer evening we were at Swallow Cliff Woods after dark, when thousands of fireflies lighted intermittently, transforming the familiar into the magic. Now the fireflies are long gone, having taken summer with them.

Later, we undid all the good we'd done our bodies with dinner at Hackney's in Palos Park.

The following Saturday, the 10th, J. called me in the morning—unusual for him. I deduced correctly that he'd worked overnight. He wanted to go to Bonjour, and we arrived in time for him to order the breakfast special—Madame or one of her helpers even threw in a drink sample and a miniature croissant. While we chatted, I amused myself by watching people walking away from the neighborhood's annual book fair with bags, boxes, and carts of books. (The next day, I encountered a young woman on the Flamingo's elevator who "just wanted to get some groceries" but had succumbed to the allure of the printed word, buying a bag full of bargain books that was clearly weighing her down. "Now I have to go back," she lamented. "For food.")

While J. mailed his taxes, I shopped the biography and poetry sections. I found a two-volume biography of John Adams, a volume of Catullus, and some other treasures. I saw, but didn't buy, a multi-volume poetry set inscribed in spidery writing with a woman's name, "Bryn Mawr College, 1903." I doubt many of my college books, not nearly so beautifully bound, will resurface in such fair condition at a 2085 book sale.

While I cleaned the bathroom, I let J. sleep for an hour or so, the off we went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. We shopped; checked out the orchids, which strike me as ranging from sexy to sinister; and walked around the nearly dead rose garden, the English walled garden, and the waterfall. The walled garden reminds me of The Secret Garden, naturally. Oh, to have a private walled garden retreat where magic at least seems possible. Walled gardens and waterfalls—where dreams are real, or reality a dream.

This time, we found Blind Faith Café without too many detours. The menu had changed, so J. chose a Native American-inspired entrée while I opted for black bean tostadas, both vegetarian. We also picked up baked goods, etc., to go. He'd commented earlier that some of the wall quilts seemed to have disappeared, while I noticed that the merchandise—T-shirts and the like—were missing. J. had better hold onto his old Blind Faith Café vase, as it could soon prove to be nearly one of a kind.

And so home, tired, sated, and happy for a time. Outdoors, among the trees, I come alive.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Let the Fantasea begin

On 24 September, after an al fresco dinner overlooking the river at Rivers, a friend and I took a cab to the Shedd Aquarium for a members' preview of the new oceanarium show, Fantasea.

I didn't follow the renovation of the oceanarium, so I didn't know anything about it. In some ways, I still don't, because we didn't walk around it afterward. Much of the work, however, seems to have been focused on making Fantasea possible vs. making wholesale changes to the visible and/or aqueous parts of the exhibit—at least, from what I could see from my seat next to the new railings between seating sections.

When Ken Ramirez joined Shedd in the late 1980s as assistant curator of marine mammals and training (he's now vice president of collections and training), he said that the Shedd would never put on marine mammal shows (implication: like SeaWorld), only educational presentations highlighting the whales' and dolphins' natural behaviors, performed on cue. I'm sure I'm not making that up because I seem to recall talking about it with several docents at Lincoln Park Zoo. We even may have discussed it with Ramirez himself when he served as a guest dinner speaker at the 1993 AZAD conference we hosted. I saw the presentation a few times and noticed, or think I noticed, that music and a little showmanship crept in over time, but it remained primarily educational and plain.

Never say never, however.

Now it's definitely a show. A show complete with video, music, costumes, staging, lighting, and props. All that is missing are dialogue, plot, and curtain-call roses for the female lead, a young girl selected from the audience (possibly a privileged person's daughter, pre-selected and rehearsed, judging from her, shall we say, flair for the dramatic). I'm getting ahead of myself, however.

As we sat and waited for what our rear ends told us was a very long time, a lot of important-looking people wandered into the other seating section—the aquarium's board of trustees, which was holding a meeting afterward. I asked my friend how I can get a seat on the board; it looked like a good way to prop up my sagging confidence. She told me to have and donate lots and lots of money. It's that simple. That's really too bad, though—don't my lots and lots of wisdom, insight, and vision compensate for my lack of funds and connections? Anyway, seated in front of the VIPs were "special guests," a couple of elementary school classes.

We were shown some videos, one highlighting Shedd's history. Perhaps an older native Chicagoan might have recognized some of the people pictured (who, in their day, probably had and donated lots and lots of money). My friend disliked the music, which managed to combine a New Age sound with a funereal rhythm, all cranked painfully loud.

The next video captured everyone's attention, showing the beluga whales' return trip from Mystic, Connecticut, on a FedEx cargo plane. Placed into slings, lifted by crane onto a truck and then presumably onto the plane, flown, and trucked again like so much freight, reassured by their handlers, and finally released into their pool, the belugas surely wondered what they had done to deserve this and when the nightmare would be over. I may be anthropomorphizing, but I can imagine only that these intelligent and emotional animals must find being packaged and transported bewildering and stressful, even if they have experienced it before. This video was so touching that some audience members seemed to shed a few tears. Not me, of course.

An introductory video excited us, especially when we saw the red-tailed hawks.

A staffer came out to introduce the preview, warning us that Fantasea is a work in progress and that the animals may choose not to perform their natural behaviors on cue. Like actors (and co-workers), even trained animals may not feel like co-operating. At this point, the young girl lead was selected from the board's side of the audience and given a giant glowing Fantasea logo necklace.

Let the Fantasea begin.

The cast of Fantasea characters includes a sea lion, a rockhopper and a mini-flock of Magellanic penguins, beluga whales, two red-tailed hawks, and the stars of the finale, the showy and popular Pacific white-sided dolphins. The supporting cast consisted of humans dressed to resemble, in a stylized sense, their animal counterparts. Ahead of the hawks, a feathered human "flew" in along a ceiling track; before another act (the dolphins? Now I can't recall), three people sporting bowlers and umbrellas dropped in via trapeze swing contraptions. Between acts, video showed strangely dressed people swimming and ambulating through surreal, almost psychedelic environments, while the girl lead turned on her necklace and apparently directed the action with a little help from the spirit guides.

As for the animals, the sea lion performed some imitative flipper waving, but, as my friend dryly observed, his best trick seemed to be swallowing prodigious quantities of fish. It's all positive.

A man dressed in a penguin-style wet suit appeared, carrying a rockhopper under his arm. When he discovered the Magellanic flock of three or four in a box on wheels, he pointed them out dramatically to his rockhopper companion, who seemed nonplussed. The Magellanic penguins proved difficult to entice out of their box (I suspect penguins are like flamingos—if you can persuade one to move, the rest will follow). The man set the rockhopper down, leaving the bird to hop up our aisle to the amazement and delight of the crowd (especially those close enough to touch it). I can't remember much else other than the man retrieving and tucking the rockhopper under his arm again.

The belugas performed much as they have in the past, perhaps a little closer to the audience and a little more flair in the cues from the trainers.

After the flight of the human hawk, a woman dressed in a quasi-Robin Hood outfit appeared with a red-tailed hawk on her fist. The hawk flew from the seating side to the opposite island. A similarly dressed man appeared with a second hawk for the audience to see more closely, but his hawk was having none of it, bating and falling off the glove repeatedly.

The show wrapped up with the Pacific white-sided dolphins, who, like the whales, spyhopped, flopped, leaped, and flapped their way to an ovation, the most enthusiastic of the evening.

The girl returned the glowing necklace with more dumb show, and so Fantasea ended.

Afterward, the hawk handler told us the birds are blind in one eye—that's why they're nonreleasable—while we commented on the difficulty of indoor flight for even a fully sighted raptor. To a couple of our questions she responded that certain ideas didn't fit into the "story line." Here she lost me.

Story line?

The concept behind Fantasea is to connect the visitors to the animals. We guessed that the trainers and others, like the flying human, filled the role of spirit or animal guides, although I'm not sure that most, or many, average visitors would catch onto that—it wasn't clear.

My opinion of Fantasea is colored by my childhood and my experience. I wasn't raised on the Disney diet, and I didn't learn to anthropomorphize animals. They weren't furry variations on humans; they were more interesting to me for the things that made them different from humans and each other, such as their adaptations, behavior, and interrelationships. A cat was more than cute and cuddly; it was an effective hunter, capable of strength and speed. In every house cat I see shades of lions and tigers. What I do not see is a singing and dancing Disney character or even Sylvester the Cat. My experience as a zoo docent reinforced my perceptions. That's why I see Fantasea from a different perspective than the Chicago Tribune critic, who praised its "thrilling moments and truly eye-popping production values." I'm quite sure most of the audience would agree with this assessment, not mine.

From my skewed viewpoint, the show seemed lacking in a few areas. For example:

Story line. Aside from the girl running from point to point with her periodically glowing Fantasea necklace and meeting the guides and animals, there was no story line. The connections that are supposed to be at the heart of Fantasea made little emotional impact; there were no "ahhh" moments that I noticed, except perhaps a bit of surprise when the rockhopper hopped up the rocky steps. In addition, the red-tailed hawks didn't fit the program. In nature, these animals would not be found together, but at least the sea lion, whales, penguins, and dolphins share aquatic environments and adaptations. While the red-tailed hawk may be found in coastal areas, it's not an emblematic water raptor in the same way the osprey or even bald eagle is. The one's short flight and the other's brief appearance seemed tacked on; they didn't seems to be an integral part of the barely discernible story line.

Animals. How can a show that features six species be said to be short on animals? With the backdrop, bright lights, garish video, blaring music, kitschy costumes, props, girl guide with glowing necklace, and human shenanigans, the animals got quite lost in all that sensory overload. The focus is on them such a short time and is disrupted by so many human interactions that they become almost ancillary to their own show.

Education. With the emphasis on "connection," little in the show provides education or even an attempt at it. To me it seems connections are made and formed with species that we understand, respect, and relate to on some level. All this requires some knowledge acquired through education. At the end of Fantasea, I knew no more about why should I want or feel connection with the sea lion, penguins, belugas, hawks, or dolphins than I had before. Not even the simple point that we all depend on clean water was made. You might learn more at—dare I say it?—SeaWorld.

Shedd has more than SeaWorld to compete with—nonstop action movies with sophisticated animation that makes anything possible, games, virtual reality, facebook, texting—our attention spans seem shorter and more easily diverted than ever. As long as we don't love simple pleasures anymore and need constant and greater stimulation, a mere educational animal presentation doesn't cut it. That's a shame, because all the video, music, lights, and staging detract from the heart and soul of the show and from what's important—the animals.

I also wondered about the animals, especially the rockhopper penguin. I've read that Antarctic penguin species (compared to their temperate climate counterparts, like the Magellanic penguins) do not fare well in temperatures that are even moderately too warm, becoming prone to disease and death, yet here is an Antarctic species paraded in air that's at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer than its optimum range. It wasn't until I'd slept on it, though, that I realized what bothered me more—that the rockhopper was treated like a prop. To me, this sends the wrong message; to form a connection with wild animals, we first must respect what they are, which is neither stage prop nor pet. Rockhoppers aren't objects to be tucked under the arm and carried about like a clutch purse. The thought of it disturbed me even in my sleep.

For all my hand wringing, however, supplemented by that of my friend, perhaps the best commentary came from a little boy I'd noticed early in the evening because he was wearing a St. Thomas the Apostle School t-shirt. After the show, his mother encouraged him to go talk to the trainers. Ignoring her, he spread his arms wide and ran away up the steps, saying, "I want to fly like a hawk."

For at least that brief moment, he'd made a connection.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In today's mailbag

I found a Quo Vadis Textagenda daily planner, a Rhodia No. 14 pad, a teeny Rhodia No. 10 pad (I'd heard of it, but assumed it was a myth), and a gorgeous Clairefontaine notebook with a textured red cover, all courtesy of Exaclair, Inc. Vice President of Marketing Karen Doherty. Although I'm not an expert, and I'm also terrible at keeping a schedule, I'm going to break the Textagenda in at work over the next couple of weeks and write a review. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Life at street level

Saturday, September 19, I invited J. over for an end-of-summer dip in the pool. It’s been a cool, cloudy September, and with the neighborhood urchins back in school only a few hardy residents have been coming out to do a few laps. The sun, sinking toward the south, now hides behind the building most of the day, so there’s nothing for sunbathers to bask in. The pool, once crowded and noisy, is empty and quiet now.

The pool’s water is warm, but the breeze can be nippy on wet skin. J. finds it hard to get into the water, so he lowers himself slowly, while I start to shiver and my teeth to chatter when I get out and the air hits me. I noticed that a young woman who jumped in for a few laps scurried inside after a brief rub with a towel. There’s no drying off naturally at sunset when the 65-degree Fahrenheit air is blowing.

Dried off and warmed up, we decided to eat before J. continued on to work. He mentioned Western Avenue, which seemed too far to me under what felt like time and energy constraints. We settled on Calypso Café—not his idea of new and adventurous, but at least we hadn’t been there in a while, and the menu is pretty varied.

This trip also gave me a chance to see what was left of Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop—which is nothing, just a very clean excavation, with no sign of construction that I could tell. Ostensibly, a clean site presents a better picture to potential investors than a doomed building, although I wonder who’s buying or lending right now. As I told J., it looks to me like the University of Chicago wanted to flex its muscle and show the neighborhood it means business.

To me, this raises the question of what business the university is in, exactly. Given the number of times they contact me by phone, e-mail, and mail to plead for funding, I would think they’re focusing on their core mission, which I think would be education, research, and medicine. On the side, however, they can’t seem to resist the real estate business—owning and managing the local shopping center, buying property and providing vague explanations, and now buying and redeveloping the old Harper Court.

J. asked me if other big universities carry so much weight in their neighborhoods. To his surprise, I laughed. The University of Chicago is a flea compared to, say, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

I like Ann Arbor. From the bed and breakfast where I stay, I can walk to countless local boutiques and shops, like Peaceable Kingdom and the People’s Food Co-op and Café Verde. For those students who require their suburban comforts, Borders and Starbucks are right off the main campus. But my favorite, even now that many of the brick streets have been paved over, is Kerrytown, a quaint and quirky shopping center where you can find so much variety at the shops or the frequent farmers’ market. At Kerrytown, I feel like I’m in a small village artisans’ market—something that the “college town” of Hyde Park sorely lacks. So much here is spread out and is purely utilitarian; many of the limited storefronts are dedicated to salons, dry cleaners, locksmiths, optometrists, dentists, and the like. A great boutique like Parker’s Pets (akin to Kerrytown’s Dogma and Catmantoo) is isolated on a boulevard, away from other shops in an area that has little to draw pedestrians. Open Produce and The Fair Trader are also wonderful additions to the area, but they’re far from the heart of the university, and students and staff would have to go out of the way to shop there—with little else nearby to browse except a dollar store.

Now imagine Parker’s Pets, Freehling Pot and Pan Company, Bonjour Bakery and Café, Toys Etcetera, The Fair Trader, Istria Café, and Open Produce all on one or two blocks. Throw in a movie theater and even a small venue for folk and world music nearby, and you’ve pictured downtown Ann Arbor. If the university is going to micromanage Hyde Park, can’t they come up with a master strategy and vision that’s as conducive to community and participation as Ann Arbor? Even the 55th Street side of the Hyde Park Shopping Center, with its landscaped courtyard and arts, garden, and book fairs, is a step in the right direction.

My understanding is that a mixed-use high-rise is planned to dominate Harper Court. Perhaps density is ecologically “green” and the best use of urban space. I’ve noticed, though, that high-rises don’t foster community in the way that clustered storefronts and courtyards do. Imposing and bulky, often with little open space, high-rises seem distanced from their surroundings. They don’t entice the neighborhood to gather. Much of urban social life happens at street level, spilling out from restaurants, pubs, taverns, cafés, shops, and three flats, not from high-rise hulks.

Nowhere in Chicago is this more evident than in Lincoln Park, where the main streets like Lincoln and Clark, Armitage and Diversey, are filled with people shopping, eating, drinking, and hanging out in front of the most popular places.

By contrast, the primary commercial street near the University of Chicago is 53rd Street, where many of the most interesting shops (including those that were once in Harper Court) have disappeared, including, for example, the Chalet (replaced by a chain) and the import store (owner retired and moved). Because of the proximity of Kenwood Academy and for other reasons, the police discourage loitering, so what makes Lincoln Park sociable, popular, and successful is considered a threat in Hyde Park. Even men playing chess are dangerous, at least according to those who had the chess tables at Harper Court removed years ago, driving the rowdy players over to Borders and Harold Washington Park, where they continue to disturb the peace with their intent stares at chess pieces.

I’d be happy to be wrong, but unless the street level of a high-rise complex is engaging in design and offers something for many, the university’s plans don’t seem to add all that much to the development of community except a modern face. Unless there’s something really compelling at that level, I suspect most of us will still be at the park watching the chess players, at Promontory Point soaking up rays, or indulging in a croissant at Bonjour, and still wishing there were some place to go and some place to hang out in Hyde Park.