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.


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


Baby falls headfirst.


Standing baby throws something in the trash.


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.