Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dream: My aunt's house

I was at a combined high school-college reunion, interesting because I was the only person common to both. I could not get anyone to notice or talk to me; it was as though I were invisible or did not exist. After making countless efforts to participate, I gave up, deeply unhappy and disturbed.

It was then I realized I was in my aunt’s house, which I had always found to be mysterious. I remember, as though it were an actual memory, seeing alpine meadows around it, although it was at the bottom of a hill in town.

In past dreams, just as I was leaving I would remember that I needed to check out the upper floors of the house that I hadn’t seen in years and the mysterious views of the land around it. By then, though, it would be too late, and I would have to leave. The places and views were always out of reach. This time, although I felt the urgency of time, I started to explore the house.

The parts I saw were strange, but not in the way I remembered or imagined. When I looked out any window, I saw the same view—a black rock canyon dotted by many cave openings at which stood middle-class people dressed in middle-class clothes. They did nothing but stand there, apparently peering out—just as I was doing.

I came to a floor that consisted of a wide, muddy, oval track—strange, but not the type of strangeness that I expected. I knew I had to wake up when I couldn’t find the views I thought I remembered or the visions I had hoped for.

As I woke up, I began to think of my aunt’s house as a variation on the TARDIS.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dream: Road to joy

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish imaginings from memories. I’m glad of this. It pleases me that I don’t know whether a strongly felt recollection is only a blip of the brain that never happened.

In a variation of a recurring dream, I’d traveled so far up Route 20 that I’d found where it ended in one or more trails leading into the woods. Down one trail lay the home of family friends. It was so remote that we had rarely visited them. Whenever we left, knowing that we would not return for a long time, the place had seemed to disappear into the woods and out of sight, like a sylvan Brigadoon. To go there with my parents had been a rare treat; to return there as an adult would be a thrill.

As I stood at the head of the path, I could recall how marvelous this place had made me feel, with its unreal quiet and timeless, mythical serenity. I wondered why we had not come here more often, although I knew that you can visit such a place only on its terms.

I couldn’t remember any details, but I could sense them just beyond my comprehension and reach. I was happy that I was about to arrive, but I knew that I never would.

When I woke up, I realized there was no such place and never had been. But my memories of it are powerful, and I long to experience those feelings again.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is this irony?

From "Paying the Experienced Hand Less" at The Daily Dish:
I am a patent lawyer with a background in biochemistry. Most of the business people at my clients don't understand what I do, what the technology is that I am working on and generally look at us as being lawyers with "propeller" beanies on our heads and pocket protectors in our shirts. They can't judge me on what I actually do for them, generally, in the legal sense. No one can really judge the proficiency of my work product at the time it is delivered - it has to "bake" for many years before any actual decisions are reached at the US Patent Office. They can - however - judge how "good" something looks. Do I use correct grammar and punctuation? Do I use words that they can understand? Do I format my letters and applications in a clear manner that screams "organized and authoritative"?

They judge me not on what I obtain for them through my legal skills - they judge me as a copyrighter or a graphic designer. It is the hardest thing for me to teach my younger associates that they should spend as much time on their grammar and punctuation as they do on their legal research and brilliant legal positions. In the end - we get judged by our attention to detail more than our legal acumen.
Shouldn't a patent attorney who takes pride in correct grammar and spelling and emphasizes their importance know the difference between "copyright" and "copywriter" (and "copywriter")? It's a common mistake, but I don't know why. The difference between "right" and "write" is clear.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dream: Demon spawn and the steps to nowhere

While I was with a friend or relative, she asked me to help her carry her two babies, as they were becoming a heavy burden.

I took the carrier, which turned out to be an open-ended denim sling with a handle, designed similarly to a fire log carrier. I was surprised to see that the babies were stacked one on top of the other, and both were precariously hanging out the carrier’s ends. Somehow this was my fault, and if something tragic happened it would be my responsibility.

I took one of the babies out. It was an odd infant, with a large, bald head and a tiny body. I began to feel uncomfortable. I took out the one underneath, afraid of what I would find. It was alive and had an enormous head full of thick black hair, but almost no body. Neither looked like any baby or human I had ever seen, and I was filled with a silent horror. These weren’t anyone’s children. They looked at me precociously as I asked myself what they were.

I tried to go up steps in a house, but they kept changing. They didn’t connect from level to level. I would reach the top of one set and be stuck, unable to reach the next set, which would be suspended near the first at an impossible angle. I was trapped. Again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Cherry picking communications (and tweets)

In this Gizmodo article, the author takes the TSA Twitter team to task for flippancy. While Americans are debating the extent of fourth amendment rights and videos of travelers having to tolerate gropings from TSA agents of a nature generally reserved for spouses, partners, and friends with benefits, Gizmodo quotes the TSA Twitter team's tweets:
#TSA Travel Advice for Pilgrims: Clothing with large buckles and blunderbusses at checkpoints could cause delays. #holiday #travel #security
#TSA Travel Advice: Be on the lookout for turkeys with “fowl” intent. #holiday #travel #security
followed by a few bizarre responses to other tweeters, shown on the Gizmodo post.

In the comments, "Blogger Bob," purportedly a TSA tweeter, responds:
Hey Gizmodo - nice way to cherry pick the tweets. Seeing yesterday was the busiest travel day of the year, I tweeted far more than I usually do. I tweeted mostly travel tips and peppered them with some really intentionally corny Thanksgiving jokes. And yes, there was some two way communication. Is it a bad thing for a government agency to sound human?
If "Blogger Bob" is the genuine article, then his response throws the TSA's standards of professionalism into even greater shadow. A public relations or communications pro knows that the media and the public do cherry pick any organization's messages, like heat-seeking missiles intent on finding those that are incendiary, wrong-headed, or, in this case, juvenile and inappropriate to the situation and the nation's mood. People focus on and remember poorly chosen messages as well as moments of poor leadership. For example, how many have not forgotten George W. Bush's "heckuva job" comment as FEMA floundered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina under Michael D. Brown? Solid communications are the common norm, while gaffes are rare and noteworthy. It's not hard to figure out why people do take note; out-of-tune messages stand out, especially in circumstances that are themselves a test of our collective temper and temperament.

We expect a toy maker to be clever, cute, creative, and charming in its communications—until there's a recall because of faulty or even dangerous design. Then we expect them to speak to us in a way that conveys a blend of corporate professionalism, empathy, and humanity. Flippant comments and adolescent humor don't cut it.

The TSA is charged with striving to keep us safe during our business and leisure travels. They require our full cooperation as they scan, grope, and search us in their mission to protect us from the acts of terror that we fear and dread. The least we should require of the TSA is that their communications, which are part of their public face, and their communicators like "Blogger Bob," convey the gravitas that demonstrates their appreciation of and commitment to that public trust. The TSA needs professional communicators, not standup comics.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dream: Band on the run

I was standing up with the Beatles, all four, who were performing live. As with all my dreams, I found myself there suddenly and didn't know why or what to do. i tried to keep to a small side area I thought to be off camera. I could imagine the resentment if I appeared to mar the reunion.

After an uncomfortable time, I noticed there was an audience, a congregation at a synagogue. I was their rabbi and was expected to play a traditional instrument. I may have surprised myself by being able to, unusual for me in a dream.

At a banquet hall, I walked past a table where TB was seated. He was quiet, but his companions were discussing girls' names, coming up with all kinds of dreadful contortions. The only one I could think of was "Anne," so I suggested it casually without appearing to notice him. TB stirred, seemed to look at me, and to my shock threw in his contribution: "Diane."

Outside, I saw an entire orchestra roll by, each member strapped to an appropriately sized single wheel. I marveled at the wonder and incongruity, then noticed a violinist for whom it seemed especially dangerous. Some threatened others by rounding corners at too much of a tilt. All were riding toward an apocalyptic sky.

It was then I realized I, in my form as the musical rabbi, was supposed to be leading them.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Dream: Who moved my theater?

I was at a high school reunion, where each of us had received a gift, probably a stapler. I left for a while, and when I returned to the table the gift was gone. For some reason, I was disturbed into outrage over this trivial loss and demanded that the hotel staff help me, but they pointedly ignored me. I was beside myself.

As part of the reunion, we boarded a bus that headed west on 55th Street/Garfield Avenue in Chicago. Our destination was a theater, where we watched a musical that seemed to be part Big River, part Show Boat, and part Dreamgirls, with the main story revolving around a African American singer married to a Caucasian man in the 1960s.

The bleacher seats we were on started to move, and the scene changed to an outdoor view of the Chicago River and a church in winter. I looked behind and saw tracks through a back window, so I suspected the entire theater was on a track and could be moved to change the scene, but I was mystified by the view of the river from that location. I sensed that the theater could be moved to any scene and that there was more to this mystery than moving within the limits of physical tracks. This, and that it was occurring in Chicago, where I had not attended high school, bothered me, and I woke up frightened and fascinated.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dream: Gothic college adventures

During a rare afternoon nap, I went back to college, was victimized by an administration prank, pushed flatboats that were underwater further underwater, noticed I had nothing with me, realized that skipping a year I would be graduating with strangers, listened to the agony of a boy in love, and horrified my mother with my apparent lack of underclothes. Busy afternoon.

I was back at college for a fifth year, this time because I had skipped a year. A couple of boys and I were waiting in a small Gothic-style room, where we heard strange voices and witnessed strange movements. At last a door opened behind us, and a dart flew past us and landed with a hard thwack in the opposite wall. Although it had come from behind, I knew it was no supernatural agency because somehow I had seen the dart thrower—a boy from my high school. Even more odd, the college boys who couldn’t have seen him either and who had never been to my high school recognized and named him. As we tried to open various doors, all locked, to escape, they told me this was all an administration ploy to see how stressed we would be about filling out forms. Forms?

I finally forced one door open and found another door beyond it. To my relief, it opened to the outdoors. Water flowed down the steps, and a flatboat passed and disappeared under the flow as it went downstream. Tiny voices from another boat, girls from high school, implored me to push them under and over as they were stuck. Without seeing them, I did, and felt guilty.

I wondered why I was here and had taken a year off. I would graduate with strangers, I thought, which I regretted.

In a hallway, I encountered a boy from college who was a year behind me, standing in front of a door. Although he talked to me, it was as though I were not there. He poured out his affection for some worthless girl who would never notice him, while expecting comfort from the invisible. I had little to give as I had none for myself.

I found myself in a room with a long table, where the scene looked like an elaborate 18th-century banquet. At a sideboard, I bent slightly to pour coffee and heard a gasp behind me. Without looking, I knew it was my mother, horrified by what she perceived as my lack of underclothes under my skirts.

I wasn’t wearing skirts.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fun with subtitles

My hearing is bad, and I don't hear consonants (21 letters of the alphabet, if you count "y") as well as an unimpaired person, so when I started to watch the Granada Television Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett, I was happy to have the subtitle option. How could I have known how much subtitles would amuse me? After seeing countless mismatches between what is spoken and what is shown, I wonder how subtitles are generated—by computers that "hear" very literally and with no powers of comprehension or discretion, or by humans with equally limited powers? (My bet is on computers.)

Here are just a few examples from just a few episodes, with the spoken word or phrase first and its subtitle following:

genteel ruffian = Gentile ruffian
squalid rooms = scrawled rooms
five and tuppence = five crumpets
cigar ashes = cigar action (insert Bill Clinton joke)
foolscap = fools kept
Flaubert = Flabare
Jabez Wilson = Jay Beards Wilson
Hezekiah = Ethic Guya
Da Vinci = De Vinci
signature writ large = signature at large
trampled underfoot = trouble underfoot
place me in the dock = place me in the dark
hansom cab = handsome cab
period of mourning = period of morning
small brougham = small broom (Watson's transportation to the train station! Perfect for Halloween!)

Not only am I relishing the performances of my favorite actor to portray Sherlock Holmes, Jeremy Brett, but I am gobsmacked by the nonsensical phrases that appear to roll off his tongue and those of the other characters, including the "Gentile ruffian." Now imagine the deaf who don't have my ability to hear most of the dialogue and therefore to parse the subtitles. While it seems reasonable to me that the young woman running through the house is shouting frantically for "Alice! Alice! Alice!" surely the deaf must wonder what signifies her calls of "Ours! Ours! Ours!"

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Change instills in me apprehension and discomfort, but lack of changes creates a more chilling effect—depression. To me, depression is the anxiety and fear not that life is bad, but that it will always be the same, that there will be no more "bends in the road" to anticipate. Some changes lead to a downward spiral, but many, perhaps most, are more positive. It seems easier to avoid the bad than to cause the good.

It's a little after three o'clock on a sunny, warm, nay, hot afternoon in October, summer's final curtain call. Change is all around. The chlorophyll is fading, leaving behind mixed palettes of yellow, orange, red, and brown. The trees in front of the Flamingo green two weeks ago, are casting more leaves than shade. The management has put out the annual call for the removal of air conditioners. Dragonflies no longer rule the day, nor fireflies the night, yet the pesky housefly still pesters the people who dine al fresco.

That was J. and I yesterday at Bonjour, where we ate breakfast before going to Morton Arboretum. We had gone there last Sunday, then on to dinner at Bavarian Lodge in Lisle, but we arrived late in the afternoon and spent a little too much time in the gift shop. A pre-sunset walk around Lake Marmo under overcast skies had yielded a few hints of color here and there.

This day promised to be sunny and warm. My knee (suspected torn meniscus), which had been feeling better on flat land, had taken a turn for the worse Friday, keeping me half awake most of the night. When I woke up early, it was all I could do to get to the bathroom on it, so I went back to taking meloxicam and to wearing a knee stabilizer. I envisioned sitting in the car, being unable to walk down any of the arboretum's trails, and hindering J. from seeing as much as he could.

Praise be to NSAIDs and stabilizers. As I wandered around the annual Columbus Day book sale, it occurred to me that my knee, unstable and painful for the previous 24 hours, was back to functioning at 60 percent. Walking may not be wise, but how could I not walk among the trees and waters on a sunny, 81-degree October Sunday? As I said, praise be to NSAIDs and ACE. Even after a mile or so of walking, the swelling was noticeably less.

My favorite spot for walking at the arboretum is along the DuPage River, and this was the perfect afternoon for it. Having to walk slowly i in such a place on such a day is no bad thing. Although there had been a line of traffic on both sides to get into the arboretum (one woman, far along in pregnancy, got out of an SUV's back seat with another person while it was in line, presumably to make a dash for the bathroom), and the parking lots were full to overflowing—understandably, Chicagoans can't get enough of this last burst of fine weather ahead of five to six months of dreary—we encountered only a few groups of people along the river and a few more at Lake Marmo, where our trail led. More splotches of color were evident, especially around the lake, and in places the tall grasses shimmering under the low sun show display their own kind of beauty.

I would love to have gone further, but one difference between my 20-year-old self and my current self is a new awareness that the body can indeed be broken and that I'd rather prevent that than have surgery or risk the ability to walk normally, without limp or pain. There's still too much of Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock, and Matthiessen I want to see.

We took the main route through the west side, where we found several colorful vistas—but little available parking. In most cases, we had to be content with taking it all in from the road. Fortunately, those behind us didn't seem to be a great hurry.

We wanted stop at Joyful's Café, but Yelp has the hours wrong—it was already closed—so we settled for a brief stop at Bello Tea in Downers Grove. They looked like they could use more business at 5:00 on a beautiful Saturday.

J. dropped me off at Argo Tea in the theatre district while he went to work. He didn't think it would take long. My Plan B had been to catch the bus at State and Lake if it looked to be a long wait. As I was sipping pumpkin chai, a breaking news alert popped up on my iPhone: a southbound #6 bus had run off Lake Shore Drive near the Stevenson Expressway ramp and hit a tree. Hmmm. I sent a text message to J., who called me a half hour later to say, "It looks like I'll have to work late—would you mind taking the bus?" Hahaha. (I found out later the accident had occurred earlier than the alert, at about 6:00 p.m., at which time we'd been enjoying the scenery from a logjammed Eisenhower Expressway.)

He picked me up at about 9 o'clock. As we headed past Museum Campus, we could see flashing emergency lights and lanes blocked by flares. Farther south, workers were sweeping lanes, which by then seemed clean of debris. I looked for the bus and signs of the unfortunately tree it had hit, but saw neither. We came upon the bus at the 31st street exit, being towed, its right front side caved in. Later I read that at least 35 passengers were injured.

J. got me home in one piece, then, after tea and cookies, he too made it home whole. There may be more visits to the arboretum, but already I can feel that some of the most beautiful of the changes are behind us, as well as the cast of the shadow of a long, cold winter of unvarying gray. Has it already been five months since I was last intoxicated by the scent of lilacs?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dream: Back to school

I was in a dark, oddly deserted apartment, where I noticed that there was no TV. I thought about my roommate, realizing that I'd seen her here only once, several days ago.

I was eating lunch at a picnic table with two boys I understood to be my friends, although they were ignoring me. Suddenly there was something I had to tell them. They didn't listen at first, but I felt immensely gratified when I did get their full attention.

"I just had a vision or dream in which my major was hiking and backpacking," I told them as though this were the most wondrous thing in the world, which to me it was, even as I mentally noted that I had not mentioned anything difficult, e.g., rafting. They seemed happy for me.

I asked the boy next to me for a tiny piece of the half chicken he'd just taken, but instead he gave me something from the scraps left behind. I felt distinctly unloved and unappreciated.

As in other dream, I recalled that I have a degree, and I was starting to realize that not only was my academic performance just as bad this time, but that I wasn't getting the degree I seemed to want, in hiking and backpacking.

That will teach me to sign up for Road Scholar.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dream: The drowning bridge

I lived on a flexible, rust-painted bridge that snaked its way around a large body of water. Just as I was thinking how fortunate it was that the bridge didn't dip underwater, I noticed that the end of it next to me was submerged and that I was clinging to a portion that was barely above water level.

I also realized that the bridge had an intelligence and will of its own and that I didn't know what it might do next. It seemed that the end was caught underwater, but I wasn't sure.

I became aware of a boy nearby hanging onto my parents' open back door and wondered if they'd adopted him. Determined to save him, I reached out, but he cowered from me.

I didn't know where they were, I realized.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dream: The watery apocalypse

I was under the desk at home, lighting matches and throwing them down. If the papers I was trying to light caught fire, I put it out quickly. It flared once, so I had to tell my dad, then I thought about getting a blanket.

I was in a very narrow pool in what could have been an industrial setting, swimming toward a woman who could have been a coach or a friend. I sensed that I was training for something big, even the Olympics, but the setting was all wrong—more like something from a Batman movie or a book than real life. I wanted to avoid the woman.

I had to go to the bathroom, but the toilets were lined up along the pool, and they were too high for me to reach, as though they had been built for giants, or I was very small.

Outside my elementary school auditorium, where I was waiting for a symposium to begin, I saw a man I recognized from HR, and he saw me. When he came over, I noticed that he carried a suitcase emblazoned with and realized I'd met him at another event.

I marveled at the idea that I was networking.

Inside the auditorium, the stage disappeared, and we could see Lake Erie as though through a window. The water was rising in impossibly shaped columns and in a cataclysmic tumult. The audience seemed frozen in terror, but I had to do something. The end seemed near.

At the administrative office, I found the staff going about business as usual. Through their windows I could see an idyllic sunny summer day. I ran to a door to the outside, opened it, and saw more sun. I recalled the horror in the auditorium and wondered which universe was real.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Labor Day free beatings

Summer's heat has dissipated, and now a few more trees have joined my beloved but ill horse chestnut (brown from a fungal infection) in deviating from the deep greens of summer. It's been a subtle change, but lighter greens, yellows, and other shades are starting to appear, and the young maples by the parking lot have already dropped most of their leaves, leaving them even more bare than the poor horse chestnut.

If that were not enough to herald summer's end, there was this poor dead dragonfly, forever grounded.

On the first, JT and I went to Lookingglass Theatre for Lookingglass Alice. I didn't know what to expect, but it was as charming as the cast of five plus crew could make it, with appearances by many of Lewis Carroll's dodgy characters and by a stuttering nebbish named Charles Dodgson. Although the parlor seemed conventionally Victorian, the rabbit hole was an acrobat's hoop, and so a modernized, yet true evening of Alice began. By the end, the little girl who chides her stuffed animals seems to have been transformed into a young woman—a transformation that seems more melancholic than joyful. As with Anne of Green Gables, I'm reminded of Samuel Clemens' admonition in Tom Sawyer: "So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a BOY, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a MAN." To me, the history of children, with their lives and unknown and limitless possibilities before them, can seem more interesting than the story of adults in whom, whatever else may be unique about them, we recognize too much of what we have become—a known, familiar entity.

After J. returned from his eventful trip, we went to Bristol Renaissance Faire Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend. The first day's clouds spat drops of rain at us randomly in defiance of my assurance that rain wasn't in the forecast. I bought CDs to add to the collection I already don't listen to and a DVD to replace the VHS version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. We watched some of the games, then checked out the Black Pearl (jewelry), where I wistfully thought about how much I'd already spent and the fact I don't need more earrings. Still . . .

On the way out, we passed a costumed young woman saying, "Does no one want to deflower this girl?" (presumably a flower seller). I heard her; J. did not.

We made a mad dash to Apple Holler to get there before the 7:30 closing—and just made it. Rose took a shine to us, or seemed to, and strongly suggested we ask for one of her tables the next day.

On Labor Day, we set out a little earlier, arriving in time for the joust. I lost J., who was off buying pretzels, so I sat on the ground by the fence among the children—the only spot left. He arrived later and kept walking around. As seems to be my lot, I found myself in the section whose champion was the evil knight, Sir Morrick (sp.?) of Saxony. Even if he had not insulted us as "putrid sacks of meat," we'd have known he was evil from the vivid purple scar running down his cheek from his eye and from his jet-black hair.

While Sir Maximillian couldn't stay focused on the games ("I'm flirting with the queen!"), Sir Morrick won them, growing more unsportsmanlike and belligerent with each one until he slugged his squire, drawing blood from her face. (Maybe he was trying to give her a matching scar.) As I told J. later, I went to a joust, and a World Wrestling Federation bout broke out. The upshot was proclamation of a "joust to the death," to be held later in the afternoon. Despite his vile loathsomeness (handsomely packaged though it be), Sir Morrick posed patiently for photos with fans after he returned to cool off his horse. Maybe he's not such a bad guy after all.

Ray Pena and his raptors were next—a pair of adult Harris hawks and 3-1/2-month-old gyrfalcons. He also called out his 11-year-old pointer, who seemed loath to leave the shade of the pavilion, but finally plopped in the dust of the arena. It's hard to picture her hot on the trail of prey.

If I remember right, a kestrel demonstrated mantling, which was a crowd pleaser. Pena explained, then demonstrated, the differences between hawks (slow flyers, catching prey on the ground) and falcons (fast flyers, catching prey on the wing). The female hawk caught the lure, while the male, as Pena said, "watched like a hawk." The falcons were fabulous, swiftly diving at the lure and somehow not catching it on the first few attempts. Once rewarded, hawks and falcons tore voraciously into their freshly thawed meat, so it was amusing to watch Pena and his assistant smoothly but cautiously slipping the hoods back onto the highly aroused birds.

After watching the sledgehammer strength game, in which a thin, wiry man outperformed his brawnier predecessors, we returned to the Black Pearl, although I was just as determined not to buy anything—until I saw the sugilite earrings.

As she was fond of purple and intrigued by anything uncommon, my aunt Marietta loved sugilite. Once when the Library of Congress was closed to all except researchers, she went in to look up what little published information there was on sugilite. Among her gemstone necklaces she had one or two of sugilite, although it's pricey as these things go. I couldn't help myself—I bought a pair as a tribute to her. They were relatively inexpensive because they're veined with copper and aren't beautifully translucent, but they are a rich pinkish purple.

As we crossed the boardwalk bridge over the turtle pond, a young woman with a scourge offered "FREE BEATINGS!" to passersby. J. didn't notice her, either.

After a cloudy start, the day had turned perfect, and so it was a lovely end to the faire (except for the loser of the joust to the death, presumably). Rose claimed us in the queue at Apple Holler, where we satisfied ourselves with more apple-themed food.

And so back to the free beatings so generously provided in the contemporary world.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dream: The island

I was looking at an island full of animals, each a single example of its species. All off them stood or lay around, looking exhausted or helpless. One, a cat or hyena, appeared to be emaciated.

To my surprise, they showed no interest in interacting with one another. Surrounded by prey, the gaunt cat/hyena seemed unwilling or unable to move.

Among the animals was a tarsier that looked out of place on the island’s sands, out of the trees. It seemed especially vulnerable.

Abruptly, a kudu attacked the tarsier, carrying it off. All of this was so out of the natural order that I watched in shock, feeling a separation but not a detachment.

I was afraid to watch, but couldn’t help myself. The kudu didn’t know what to do with the tarsier and kept licking it, although it did appear to want to eat it. The tarsier made no effort to escape, appearing to be resigned to its fate.

I felt horrified and inexpressibly sad, as though witnessing part of an apocalypse.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dream: The unwelcome guest

I was hosting a reception at a reunion when a woman came in and made herself at home without a word. I may have tried talking to her to find out who she was and why she was there, but her actions and silence inflamed me into an irrational righteous anger. I screamed and drove her out. She didn’t make a sound or acknowledge me.

I returned to the room, which now seemed like a kitchen, and wrote a nasty note to her. When I tried to deliver it (how could I know where?), I found the room of one of my oldest friends from elementary school, but I hesitated to knock. I wasn’t sure of myself.

After leaving my note with indignation, I returned to the reception room/kitchen and found the business card-sized invitations. They consisted of two lines labeled “a” and “b.” I discovered the one I somehow knew had been sent to the mystery woman. The “a” line was addressed to her. The “b” line expressed a heartfelt hope that she would attend the reception from which I had so angrily and crudely ejected her.

It was from my dad.

I had just revealed myself to be an irrational, cranky fishwife to someone my dad knew and liked well enough to invite to the reception. I wondered if she were confused and surprised by the vitriolic reception she’d received and what she would think of my poor father, who had invited her with such warmth.

I wondered about what is wrong with me that I could act so.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bristol Renaissance Faire

Refreshed after a full day and night at work, J. wanted to head up to Bristol Renaissance Faire on August 22. After a haircut and a stop at Istria Café, we set out a little after two o'clock. The traffic imps smiled upon us the whole way, except for a short snarl around the Loop. It's often been such a bad drive that I forget how easy it can be, too.

Once there, we picked up the note cards he'd ordered, then wandered around more or less aimlessly. Work and lack of sleep have drained him, while my only excuse is what had become Chicago's 9th hottest recorded summer. nothing enervates me like heat and humidity.

I thought we might see something at the lists, but at the moment the event was the melee, during which children (including some children of adult age) take on some official defenders, using padded weapons. When the defender touches you, you run back to the line and give your weapon to the next person. It looks fun—I suppose the kids are wise enough to enjoy the game more than mind the heat. I suspect the kids nearly always win—their numbers are always greater, and perhaps the odds are stacked in other ways.

We were sitting (my idea), and I was admiring the view of a pond and a great bird—a heron?—flying over it when a handful of costumed men appeared and fired their muzzle loaders. We hadn't seen them before, so we drew nearer to listen. One of them explained the evolution of the muzzle loader, beginning with a manually fired stick contraption stuffed with missiles like pottery fragments. Its main purpose was to induce "shock and awe," but neither lasted long as people realized that they didn't do much damage. He talked about the mechanism and the various improvements and calibers. Fortunately for the heron-like bird ("and your carriages parked yonder"), they fired only cloth. Both rounds were very loud, except for the second gun, which misfired the second time. These weapons are not noted for velocity, range, or accuracy, although the real point was to be able to pierce plate armor at a little distance. It made me think of an episode of How the West Was Won, in which a party discovers a Confederate soldier who doesn't know the war is over. If I remember right, one of his weapons is a muzzle loader. They are impressed by the speed with which he can reload, and they count the seconds between rounds as they pinpoint his location and surround him—but not before he has killed one or two of them.

As we wandered and shopped and checked out the entertainment, we saw a young woman taking a photo of a very buxom friend in the typical bosom-enhancing costume. She hesitated, then said, "I don't need a zoom lens for THAT!"

Although cooler than the previous day, the afternoon was warm and so humid that I noticed that one man's calves were soaked in sweat. Just as we were getting ready to make our final round and leave, about an hour before sunset, I noticed that the air suddenly felt fresher, almost bearable. It was the first sign of an autumnal turn in the weather.

As we usually do, we went north to Apple Holler. This part of Wisconsin strikes me as a strange place. The faire is in a wooded area with ponds; much of why I like going to it is for the feeling the area gives me, of trees and sun and summer and even the past, my past. A little north and across the way, a stack belched white smoke at a furious rate, forming an enormous low-lying plume in the still evening air, while to our left, the sun was painting the sky many subtle shades of pink, purple, and blue over the fields and pastures. Indeed, I90/94 cuts like a scar through what otherwise would seem to be bucolic countryside, attracting box stores and chain restaurants. Even parts of the frontage road feels like a world away, although you can still hear and see the expressway's relentless traffic.

Not far from the exit for Apple Holler, I noticed a billboard for another restaurant four miles further on and wondered if it's been there for awhile or is new competition.

If so, Apple Holler seems not to have suffered. After we fed the "sweet" goats, as J. calls them—even the big billies who bully the smaller nannies and young ones with their bulk and horns—and did a little shopping, we found the restaurant nearly full 45 minutes before closing, with a table for 10 forming the queue in front of me. We had a good dinner complemented by flavored apple cider, then came out to find a couple of the goats on their bridge, silhouetted against the deepening evening sky. The air really did seem to have freshened—the first hint of autumn to come.

And so home for me, and back to work for him. Yes, work. Overnight. It's beyond my understanding.

Dream: Being human

Clearly I’ve seen too many adverts for Being Human on BBC America. They’ve crept into my dreams. However scary it may be, it’s no more horrifying than everyday life.

I saw a high school classmate receive an assignment, with different groups to complete different parts. While I witnessed everything, I missed what I was supposed to do. I went to the group I knew to be mine, but I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me. The more desperate I became, the more they ignored me. I didn’t know the consequences of my ignorance or inaction, of there were any. Intense frustration washed over me.

That wasn’t the Being Human part. That could be any day, every day . . .

Monstrous beings—vampires, werewolves—were being pursued through the city by a hunt club. Not entirely visible, they fled hounds and horses. Their flight led the club into the track of an oncoming train. I couldn’t bear to look at the carnage. When I finally did, however, I saw that the train had cut cleanly through part of the lead dog’s face, so that it was in three-quarters profile, with no gore as though it were a paper cutout. I realized that the rest of the tableau must be like that. They were now frozen in place in time, caught in pursuit, with parts of their being slashed harmlessly and painlessly away. Yet I could sense infinite sadness in the lead hound, and the same sadness overcame me.

When I woke up, I realized that what I’d seen had not been a hound or even a dog.

It had been a fox.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tight fit, or a missed photo opportunity

While I was walking toward the rail overpass at 55th and Lake Park Avenue, someone coming from the opposite direction said something about “stuck” to his companion. This proved to be a Budget rental truck, the top of which was scraping the underside of the overpass (clearance 11’10”). As a University of Chicago police car blocked entry from the west, two young men sat on the ground, one on each side of the truck, probably trying to let air out of the tires.

It was at least 20 minutes later that I realized I should have taken a photo of the wedged-in vehicle. And too bad there’s no photo of the driver’s face when he realized what he’d done. One of the first rules of driving a high-profile vehicle: Know your clearance and plan your route!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The dog days of summer, 2010 edition

While there were no barbecues in the works for the weekend, J and I did picnic at Ravinia during our annual homage to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. The primary guest was John Prine; you could tell that Garrison is in awe of him. It was one of the best APHC shows I’ve heard at Ravinia.

Despite the predicted heat and humidity, the next morning, July 4, we set out for Starved Rock. On this trip we even managed to get to the Nodding Onion while it was open for brunch (we had eggs Benedict). We made a brief stop at the visitors center so I could pick up the Chicago edition of 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles and to get advice from one of the volunteers. I knew I wanted to see Wildcat Canyon, and the man we spoke to recommended St. Louis Canyon as well. He hinted that the waterfalls would not much to look at because a week had passed since the heavy rains. I noticed a number clipped to his name badge and asked if it represents his hours of volunteer service. It does, since the center opened several years ago. If only Lincoln Park Zoo’s management had shown as much pride in its volunteers.

If you can ascend and descend stairs (lots of them), you can get to Wildcat Canyon. At the bottom of the last set of stairs, there’s a bit of a muddy area to cross, which for a change I walked over confidently while J hesitated and crossed tentatively. It didn’t help that, with the heat and humidity, we were soaked with sweat. I hate being soaked with sweat.

Ever looking for a better angle, J took off his shoes and socks and waded into the pool under the waterfall. He didn’t take a shower like the screaming children (and a handful of adults) already there, but he did get as close as he could to the falling water without getting his camera wet.

At 70 feet high, the waterfall at Wildcat Canyon is the tallest in Starved Rock State Park and is well worth all the steps and sweat. In hindsight, I should have stepped into the pool myself, but I remember wondering if it would be possible to dry off in the damp air.

The rain-forest weather didn’t seem to have deterred many. While most visitors were picnicking in the flat park area near the visitors center, we encountered a goodly number of people on the trail and stairs. On the return trip from Wildcat Canyon, not far from the center, we ran into what in the woods constitutes a throng—20 to 30 people. looking at a spot to our right. Two spotted fawns were on the incline, possibly wondering what they’d gotten themselves into. A few people tried to lure them closer to the trail with hand gestures hinting of food (false promises), but fortunately the fawns’ instincts kept them from getting too comfortable around the humans; they seemed curious but skittish. Meanwhile, you would have thought there were no suburban deer problem, judging from the interest the group showed in these two. Youngsters of most species are invariably appealing, I suppose.

I left J and his camera behind in my haste to return to the climate-controlled building. The outdoors had become too much like a sauna. Little did I know that this weather would last at least another six weeks.

J. appeared, and we took a break at the center, which included refilling our water bottles at the fountains, which might not have occurred to me in my overheated condition if I hadn’t seen some boys doing it.

Next up: St. Louis Canyon. This is a pretty easy walk with some steps. By now, the skies had clouded (with no lessening of heat or humidity), which, we soon found, had brought out hordes of hungry mosquitoes. This time I had remembered the spray, which I used liberally.

At the canyon, someone had thoughtfully placed a board across the mud and water to make it easier to cross. A family was playing in the water, including a girl. They left, and another family appeared, this one with a small boy who wanted to wade into the water and under the waterfall. He started in, but his nervous mother wouldn’t let him go more than a few feet because she seemed unsure of the depth. I told her about the older girl who’d been in it before and had to describe her height and how the water had come on her. Soon she caved, telling me that he had been misbehaving all day anyway. He stood under the waterfall and screamed. And screamed. And screamed. Then he stubbed his toes on some rock underwater, but, like most children, he returned to having fun after a brief cry. I felt pleased that I’d played a small role in his delight.

The time of our dinner reservations drew nears, so we went to the lodge. We were soaked, ripe, and unpresentable, so we bought T shirts at the gift shop and changed in the restrooms. At least that solved the upper half of the problem. The menu had changed, but the menu was just as comforting as usual.

I’d taken July 5 off, so we went shopping for me—to Best Buy for a television and a DVD/VCR combination and to the Apple Store for a backup hard drive. Although running out of time to meet an obligation, J. set up the TV and stand for me. Thus have I caught up to 2003 or so. I don’t recommend such stressful activity (shopping) for a day off, but it has had its rewards. After some tortuous dealings with Comcast, I now have high-definition stations like Science and PBS. And I’ve rediscovered Life on Earth, an abbreviated version of the series I have on VHS. VHS!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dream: Return and return again (not the poem)

I dreamed about TB again, although I seem to have put the details out of my head as soon as I could, or as soon as the tedium of work could. In this one I had at long last gained his attention—not his fixed attention or interest, but at least I wasn't invisible.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dream: Ducks in a row

While looking out the kitchen window at home, I saw my dad pulling a red wagon followed by what I thought was a mechanical duck. I wondered what kept it following him so neatly—a magnet? A string? By the time he'd turned down the middle row, I'd caught up with the wagon, which was now followed by a line of live ducks, most of them young. I couldn't tell what kept the ducks in line and so attached to the wagon. I felt compelled to scratch them under their bills, which some but not all tolerated.

Although this scene seemed inexpressibly charming to me, suddenly I wanted to move me and my dad into a shared two-bedroom apartment. I found one for $1,300 a month, which I thought we could afford between us. My own actions made me sad, and I missed the ducks and their parade with my dad.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Late spring at Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago

Lured by stories of a Grèvy's zebra birth and other happenings, fellow former docent and Ark editor JT and I met at Union Station for a trip to Lincoln Park Zoo. My borrowed camera and rusty skills don't do the animals justice, so I recommend that you pay them a visit if you can—soon, before they're all grown up. After all, the Grèvy's zebra foal is the first edition since 2001.

We strolled the Children's Zoo gardens, where not much was in evidence. At last, a resplendent male wood duck sailed past the beaver viewing window, his colors glowing like jewels in the midday sun. You'll have to take my word for this; unbeknownst to me, the camera had flipped itself to TV mode, so all the photos I thought I was taking were black.

The highlight inside, however, at least to me, was this pair of walking sticks engaged in arthropod love. As a child, I was always thrilled when my brother or I (usually him) would find walking sticks in our yard, often on my dad's tool shed, where they were easier to spot. They fascinated me, even if they did no more than take a few steps and look like a stick clinging to a shed.

At the Lion House, elderly Afghanistan leopard Christian was taking a catnap. If you want to see animals in action, early morning/late afternoon/evening during summer hours are the best times.

At the Primate House, the black howler monkeys demonstrated their prehensile tails, wrapping them around nearby branches as a stabilizing anchor. One hung by its tail over a food dish, leaving his hands free to rummage through the goodies. Don't make the mistake one visitor did—those small monkeys who share the exhibit are not baby howlers; they're Goeldi's monkeys.

As usual, the black-and-white colobus monkeys were lined up on a branch, quietly digesting in dignity, even as the Allen's swamp monkey juveniles wrestled and raced their way around the exhibit.

At Antelope/Zebra, the star is Enzi, the Grèvy's zebra colt, who was lying down when we arrived but then untangled his gangly legs to nurse. When his mother, Adia, went over to the exhibit door to investigate keeper noise, he followed her, but turned around and walked a little distance away from the safety of his mother's side. JT pointed out to him that, if they were in Africa, his mother would not allow him to be so bold.

The white-lipped deer were taking a rest. For one thing, I imagine it takes energy and resources to grow a rack like that, still in velvet.

The Bactrian camels were shedding. The Bactrian camels are always shedding.

One of my favorite animals, the Sichuan takin, couldn't decided whether to take a bath, check out the visitors (or the foliage), or scratch his face, so he did all three in a cycle, playing with something in the water (perhaps an aerator) that probably wasn't intended for takin enrichment. He butted his impressive head against the green wire around the edge, giving us a good look at his face. I gather that the combination of strength and agility makes takins potential escape artists. This guy is among the more charismatic hoofed animals of the collection.

New on exhibit at the Small Mammal-Reptile House is the caiman lizard. I didn't get a photo, but he's beautiful, a bit like a combination iguana and small dinosaur with a huge head. I'm told he's a snail eater.

The bats were more active than usual; perhaps their feeders had just been refilled. Nearby, this sand cat was relaxed. I apologized to him profusely for accidentally letting the flash go off. Within five minutes he was up and about, looking almost like a tiny house cat with an oversized head.

This is a young African dwarf crocodile, one of five produced by the recently deceased R1 late in his long life and his younger mate and occasional sparring partner Maggie. Sure, it looks sweet now, but you wouldn't want to meet it in a few years.

At the Bird House, the tawny frogmouths demonstrate camouflage. I almost missed the one lying down. Like many owls, they blend in with tree bark, but they aren't owls—they're in the nightjar/oilbird order. Think of the superbly camouflaged whippoorwill, which you may hear but rarely see.

This snowy egret gave us a good look at its slender form and elegant plumage. While I might understand the appeal of their feathers as adornment, I can't conceive of how men slaughtered them en masse in cold blood for the sake of greed. J and I have seen them in the wild, so to speak, at Volo Bog, where there was a small flock a few weeks ago.

When the European stork isn't dropping off babies to expectant parents, it's tending its own nest. These three chicks hatched in late May, along with a cinereous vulture chick.

Happy Father's Day to the storks and all the zoo parents.

19 June 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Black water thunderstorm

In seven years, I've never seen the lake turn black from the thunder clouds above.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The nightmare that never ends

The BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is sickening, beyond the fact that 11 men died needlessly, leaving bewildered and bereaved families behind. I’ve avoided most of the news and photos about it because it makes me ill. Not simply upset or disturbed, which are natural reactions, but physically ill. Ill for the Gulf people whose hardships seem never to end, for the wildlife whose mute suffering speaks volumes, and for the environment that won’t recover in my lifetime, or those of generations of descendants.

My protective shell is imperfect. There’s so much news, most of it bad, that some gets through. Today I saw a Yahoo News headline about sea creatures congregating near the shore, while birds soaked in oil crawl off into the marshes, never to be seen again. That image alone breaks my heart. But my heart is a small thing in a sea of loss and despair.

In the early hours of the morning, I dreamed as though from a future vantage point that the well was never contained, that in time the oceans turned to oil, then the earth. It wasn’t just me who was helpless to stop it. It was all of us.

Right now I don’t care whose fault it is or who is accusing who of what. I want it plugged so that not one drop of oil ever escapes from it again. I wanted it plugged or diverted now, not in a few months when possibly—possibly!—relief wells may—may!—alleviate the volume. I want all the best engineering minds to focus their theoretical thoughts and practical experience on this singular calamity. I want it fixed, and then I want those entrusted with power to make sure this, and anything like this, can’t and won’t happen again.

I want the suffering to end, for life to go back to normal, for birds to go back to raising their young, not crawling off in anguish to perish miserably.

I want us to break our cycle of addiction to oil and other dirty energy.

I want the clean world we’ve never had.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Memorial Day

J set aside Memorial Day to visit his paternal grandmother’s grave, which he’d learned is in Saint Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles. After a sunny early morning and stormy late morning/early afternoon, he picked me up.

Saint Adalbert Catholic Cemetery is enormous, larger than I would have expected. If you hadn’t known the northwest region of Chicago was heavily Polish, you’d have only to try to read the names on the thousands of tombstones. There are non-Polish names—J’s grandparents’ included—but I didn’t see many during our brief drive toward the section he’d been told to look for, or later on the way out.

And you can’t miss the names because so many graves aren’t marked by basic, flat, in-ground stones like those of my parents in Pennsylvania. The cemetery is dominated by a wealth of impressive monuments, statues, and crypts. Later we noticed a monument seller conveniently located across the street. Also across the street there’s an expansive florist shop. J noted that the Polish seemed to have done very well for themselves.

As it turned out, his grandparents are buried in a section of modest flat markers, his grandfather’s adorned only with his WWI service and a cross. We didn’t notice any other family markers nearby. He doesn’t know why they came to be buried here, other than that they were north siders and Catholic.

Given the size of the cemetery and the occasion, I was surprised not to see more people or more flags. On Memorial Day, the cemeteries where my parents and my aunts are buried are filled with flags, placed by a local organization at the grave of each veteran. There are a lot of veterans in the central Alleghenies.

Our next stop was the Chicago Botanic Garden. By this time, the weather had turned perfect, but the grounds were nearly empty. After a jaunt around the Rose Garden and a brief rest on a bench, where every mosquito in the vicinity zoomed in on me and my legs, we walked to Evening Island and the carillon, both of which I’d see only in the distance. Stupidly, I had never realized that you can walk there. Why I thought it was a forbidden place I cannot explain.

A robin flew in front of us to a small tree, carrying something large in its bill. I was trying to point it out to J when suddenly, from a nest in the crook of the tree, three mouths shot up. The robin made an attempt to stuff them, but perhaps either intimidated by their insistence or our presence, it flew back toward the water, where it seemed to have found a good spot for foraging. The moment it left, the mouths withdrew into the depths of the nest—just as J had gotten his camera and lenses sorted out. He hadn’t seen them. And, while he was fiddling with his backpack, a chipmunk crossed in front of us. I teased him that someday he’ll have his camera out taking photos or videos of some mundane thing, while bears, mountain lions, eagles, and other creatures line up behind him, out of range of his lens, to watch and laugh. He also missed some large birds (herons?) flying overhead, but at least he saw and photographed the red admiral I pointed out on the leaves of a tree.

He thought there would be a carillon concert, but they start in June. Our timing was perfect, though—the 7 o’clock hour chimed just as we were approaching.

In the berm between parking lots, J noticed a bird that I couldn’t identify at first. It was head on, and the colors weren’t true in the shade. As he was snapping away (and mentally debating getting out the big lens and tripod), an adult robin hopped over and shoved something in the other bird’s maw. Our mystery bird was a fledgling robin. Through the large lens, I could see its pinfeathers. It was at that awkward stage between infancy and adulthood, neither helpless nor mature—the avian equivalent of a gawky teenager. The parent soon wandered off, but Junior continued to stand around expectantly.

Walker Bros. Original Pancake House was closed for the holiday, but I (for one) got my fill of comfort lasagna at Rosebud of Highland Park, which made me sleepy for the long ride home. I felt strange after the long holiday and variable weather.

And so back to the inanity.

31 May 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Work day at Chicago Portage National Historic Site

And now for something completely different . . . a more-or-less quick trip west on the Stevenson to Harlem and 49th, where you’ll find the Chicago Portage National Historic Site, one of only two in Illinois (Lincoln’s home is the other). Here La Salle and Père Marquette walked, they say, as of course did generations of Native Americans before them. Just as Europe had its trade routes, so did native North America. A sign along one of the trails notes that designated burr oaks are believed to be more than 200 years old.

We arrived at around 9:30 a.m., a half hour late, looking for work. One lone walker seemed to be there to admire the scenery, so I made an executive decision and took off down the paved trail, where I hoped that we’d run into the crew of Forest Preserve District of Cook County employees and volunteers there for a work day, during which necessary work is done to maintain the preserves. In many cases, this seems to involve removal of invasive exotics—I pictured pulling garlic mustard, which I’d assumed they’d show me how to recognize.

Just as J wondered if we’d gone the correct way, we came upon the group, a couple of the men armed with chain saws. They weren’t here to pull garlic mustard. No, they were cutting down a stand of buckthorn that ran from the trail to the stream and that was keeping the forest floor in perpetual shade in spring, summer, and fall. Others were lopping off branches or using hand saws to cut the larger limbs down to size. Yet more were dragging off the trunks and leafy limbs to brush piles, where they will be burned in the future.

Buckthorn, introduced from Europe, is an invasive species that offers no benefits to our native wildlife and chokes out the native plants that otherwise would add to the diversity our animals and birds need. It’s too dark under a buckthorn stand for wildflowers to grow or, I suppose, for native seedlings to take root. Buckthorn also hosts the soybean aphid; from its name you can guess how much farmers love this little pest. Its sale/purchase/cultivation has been banned in many areas, including Illinois and Minnesota, but it’s too late. It has a pervasive presence in the forest preserves and some parks and is especially widespread in the northern two-thirds of the state.

We introduced ourselves all around, and an FPDCC employee recognized us from an art fair at Swallow Cliff Woods. J remembered that we’d talked about Volo Bog, so he mentioned our visit there and how far away it is. They asked us if we were passing through; we said, “No, we’ve come to work.” They seemed surprised but pleased, and asked us how we’d found out about the work day. When I said I’d seen it on facebook, they seemed even more surprised and delighted. It sounds as though not everyone thinks the facebook presence is effective. Maybe it’s just me, but we’ve gone to a few events, including this one and the art fair, because I’d seen them on facebook. It’s an easy way for me to get timely, information in one place about my different interests. I don’t have to work as hard or think to look for information.

For the next hour and a half I dragged, lopped, and stacked what seemed like a never-ending supply of buckthorn branches and trunks. A busload of high school students arrived to help for credit; at one point someone told them that if they didn’t behave and get to work, they wouldn’t get any. The arrival of so many hands, including young men who wanted to show off by dragging heavy trunks singlehandedly, seemed to spur the men with chain saws. When I looked toward the stream, I could see the sky, and light was dappling the ground below. We had two large piles, possibly three, and fallen trunks and branches littered the ground. And still the men kept cutting. All this was in one small area. I wondered how much buckthorn was left and where.

We learned quickly that buckthorn has that name for a reason. When we weren’t in danger of hitting ourselves or others with limbs or trunks or being rammed by the enthusiastic high schoolers who, like most kids their age, were oblivious to those around them, we were stabbing ourselves on the thorns that grow along the shrub’s trunk. Gloves would have helped with handling the limbs and the loppers, but weren’t necessary. Unlike us, however, the kids had come prepared.

I’d been in pain most of Friday—the result of standing most of Wednesday at National Senior Health and Fitness Day—and hadn’t slept well Thursday. My lower back hurt more than usual. Before we’d gone to the work day, I’d known my endurance would be limited. The heat and humidity of the day, even among the trees, didn’t help, nor did the horde of mosquitoes that decided to go after, of all places, my hinder. I did as much as I could and left at 11:00 for the car, while J was determined to soldier on until the noon conclusion.

While returning along the trail, I’d noticed that my brother had called and left a voicemail, which he never does. It proved to be four seconds long and soundless. I called him to confirm that was nothing was wrong; when he didn’t answer, I raised an eyebrow. His daughter at home said he was out shopping. I raised the other eyebrow. It turned out to be one of those phantom calls that happen when some part of your anatomy manages to knock against the right button to make a call. While I was talking to him, still on the trail, I exclaimed, “Oh! I have to go!” I’d spotted the iridescent blue black of a bird in one of the bushes off the trail—but I didn’t disconnect quickly enough to switch the iPhone to camera mode and get a photo before it flew off. Not that it would have been a good photo . . .

I was hoping I could claim that I’d seen an indigo bunting.

J’s car, parked in the sun, felt like a damp oven. How anyone can leave a dog in that kind of heat, which builds in only a few moments under the sun, astounds me.

I ran the air conditioner for five or ten minutes, turning it off when he called and told me it would run the battery down. He promised to leave a little earlier, so I tried to find a place nearby where I could use the bathroom and sit comfortably.

Alas, Harlem Avenue is not foot traffic friendly, and I was at the end of my reserves in the heat. I walked only a about a block, to a Shell station, where the attendant said there was no toilet paper. I mentioned facial tissues as a substitute, but she said, a little too quickly and happily, that they don’t sell any. They carry beer for the road, but not a traveling convenience like tissue. Hmmm. I bought each of us flavored water and returned to the car, sitting in the shade of the driver’s side and enjoying the occasional slight breeze that wafted through.

At 12:15 or so, J appeared, saying he’d seen a brilliant blue bird in the treetops after he’d crossed the bridge over the stream—possibly near where I’d seen it. He swears he saw white and is unconvinced of my indigo bunting identification. I’ll never know.

Next, having bought croissants at Bonjour but not eaten them, we headed to Riverside Restaurant for a taste of Bohemia, then to Riverside the town for a walk along Salt Creek, where we encountered mostly robins, butterflies, and a pair of mallards. Outside the forest preserve, Riverside itself seems to be a charming town, with lots of park space and picnic and seating areas near the water.

There are a few more work days scheduled at Chicago Portage this summer. It’s a good way for a soft office slave to break into a healthy sweat, meet people, enjoy the forest, and even see a colorful bird or two. J would like to do it again. Try it. You might like it.

29 May 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010


Two women discussing a friend:

"She's living in a place where you take the Obama sticker off your car."

Dream: In which I earn a degree without remembering

I was watching boys I’d known in high school performing at my college, which confused me. That they were playing the part of dogs controlled by a man at center stage confused me more, but as an audience member I responded enthusiastically.

One of them, TL, called me over and handed me a request to pick up his medication. I began wandering the labyrinthine halls of a rundown Gothic building with scratched wooden doors that were missing locks, trying to find what I guessed to be a formulating pharmacy. I understood that this errand wasn’t important to the boy and that he’d wanted me to go away, but I also knew that the request was for asthma medication. I kept hearing, “Asthma: Life or death.”

Finally, after having almost blundered into a secret research lab (one of the doors without a lock), I came away with two bottles of medication. The only bathrooms I could find were filthy. I thought about a couple of people I’d seen and wondered how they could have come to be here. They shouldn’t and couldn’t be here, but here they were.

I looked up to find DK staring at me as he was coming down an incongruous escalator, but in an epiphany I realized I no longer cared and that somehow I had earned a graduate degree in political science. I couldn’t remember a single course. I’ve done it again, I thought, squeaked out a degree without having learned anything.

At some point, now or earlier, I was walking along a highway and up a ramp toward home. The ramp suddenly blended into a grassy, rock-covered hill with no signs of highway or pavement in any direction.

I felt more lost than ever.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kankakee River State Park

As I took Metra to Homewood and walked to Blueberry Hill Pancake House to meet J, I started to get the idea the day might prove to be steamy. It was overcast and looked like rain, but the forecast was for afternoon sun. And a temperature of 89 degrees F.

When he arrived, we ate half a breakfast of champions, boxed the rest, then went to pick up something he thought he’d forgotten but was actually in his trunk. On the way, we stopped at Heritage Health to pick up something for a little picnic. After fueling at Caribou (something iced for me—already steamed), finally we left for Kankakee River State Park.

Past Frankfort on Illinois Rte. 45, the vista opens up onto farmland that in some inexplicable way is more attractive than much of that further downstate. Perhaps it’s the use of tree lines and fences, or the nature of the houses, although the land itself is just as flat and monotonous. We passed a traditional white frame church set close to the road, a small cemetery beside it. It was like seeing something from another era, perhaps that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, tangible yet not quite real.

Further on, a sign led us down a side road, where a building that looked new—dirt was still piled up in front—was divided into a café and an aquarium store. The combination would have seemed odd anywhere, and, in an area where the main retail venues seem to be gas stations (something has to power all those John Deeres), I wouldn’t have thought of a burning need for either a café or an aquarium store. Alas, neither was open yet—perhaps they’re still in the throes of getting started. Too bad; the café looked like a potential gem.

Closer to Kankakee, we made another detour, this time to Office Max to replace the car charger I’d bought for the iPhone. At this plaza, two of the biggest stores, including a Petco, had pulled out, leaving behind only the marks of their old signs. The parking lot was mostly empty, with only a handful of cars in front of Office Max. The three male employees seemed happy to talk to anyone. Noting my Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie shirt, one asked me if I’m a conservationist. We talked a little about the Gulf oil disaster, and I left him with something new to research—dead zones. It was a well-stocked, bright store, but the empty storefronts and parking lot reminded me of South Shore Plaza less than 20 years after it had opened to great fanfare. I wonder if this place has been hit especially hard by the recession, if something bigger and better had come along nearby, or if it had been in trouble already for other reasons. And if it will make a comeback, or if it’s turned the corner on the road to nowhere.

I wonder how the café and aquarium store will fare.

Driving around this area is interesting, especially as you cross the river. Just as Wauconda made me think every small town should have a feature like Bangs Lake, this area made me think how fun it would be to live near a river—a clean, wide river with banks that aren’t shored up by concrete, where the current is fast and free.

The Chicago River does not count.

Kankakee River State Park is long, with many designated hunting and fishing spots. As we crossed a bridge over the river, we spotted stone supports for another bridge in the stream—but no span across them them, only some trees of respectable size atop them, rooted in the rock piles. A world without people indeed. We drove into the fishing area on the other side to get some photos. Walking along the water’s edge, we could see why swimming in the Kankakee is not allowed—the current is swift. Even a great swimmer wouldn’t want to be caught in it, plus there are other hazards, like undertows. Its fast flow fascinated me, so unlike that of most of the small rivers around here, the Chicago, the Des Plaines, the DuPage. I thought I may have overheard someone say that the Kankakee was at or close to flood stage, but I was doubtful. Still, it flowed, carrying a log rapidly, relentlessly in its current. Will that log ever touch land again, or will it spill out into the Gulf, along with millions of gallons of oil?

We drove to the visitor center, where live animals (turtles, fish, snakes) and stuffed (mostly birds) help to educate people. One beautiful heron, a sign explains, met its fate when it became entangled in fishing line. What a horrible way to go. Leave only footprints, take only memories (or photos).

We crossed to the other side, where a bridal party was having photos taken. We walked out onto an observation deck, then over a wooden bridge and partway down a trail. In our wanderings we found Smith Cemetery, full of eroded limestone markers from the mid-1800s, many of them for children. One marked the grave of 10-month-old twins, Gay and Jay, who died 10 days apart. The heartbreak . . . someone had filled around the flat stones in the ground with cement, I suppose to protect them, although they are still at the mercy of the elements. I couldn’t help but cringe when a little girl walked on the stones with their worn and increasingly illegible writing. Soon Gay and Jay will be unnoticed by visitors, although the stone marked only with LOVEABLE remains sharp for now.

As we came close to the picnic area, J. suggested we eat before seeking the trail to the waterfall. By now, it was about 4 o’clock, so this seemed like a good idea. I retrieved the bag from the back of the car only to discover that it was coated with oil. Not long before when I had checked, everything had been find, but while we were walking and the car had been parked in full sun, the plastic container with the salad, humus, and pita had warped open, spilling olive oil into the bag. Nothing was beyond salvaging, but what a mess—not quite the relaxed picnic I had imagined.

We realized Rock Creek was across the street, so we parked and found the self-guided trail—except I didn’t realize the significance of the numbers until we had already passed most of the markers; then it occurred to me they corresponded to the comments in the printed guide. I plead tiredness.

This isn’t a particularly difficult trail, although near the beginning the incline was muddy and slick. It passes through trees, then becomes more open where it parallels the creek. At one point, the guide notes, it was a former landing strip, so here it’s paved.

Not too long after we had come into a more open area, I exclaimed in a whisper without thinking, “BEAVER!” A beaver was waddling in front of us, a little off trail. At the same time a group of perhaps 8 to 12 people was headed toward us, trapping the beaver between our groups. The other group respectfully gave him a wide berth, but he didn’t seem to appreciate their sheer numbers. He stopped, turned toward them, and indicated his displeasure through body language and perhaps sound. They sidled around the side of the trail closer to the creek while we hung back, although he seemed less impressed by the two of us. As the other group passed, I said to a man, “They said to look for animal tracks, but not the real thing!” He said they too had never expected to see such a sight.

He was missing a chunk from the right side of his tail, and for some reason—perhaps I am anthropomorphizing—I had an impression of age and perhaps stress and disorientation. Although I have no idea of how he would have returned to the water, which from what we could see runs between cliffs, presumably he’s more familiar with the area geography. It’s sad to think that the beaver was hunted and trapped to near extinction; this one seemed vulnerable behind its bravado.

Soon after, J spotted a baby snake little bigger than a pencil. Unlike the beaver, it quickly disappeared into the grass.

We could see the creek through the trees and could hear what I thought were the falls. Further on, we saw that the rushing sound came from mini-rapids. There’s no swimming in Rock Creek, either; while it’s no Niagara River, it isn’t the shallow, peaceful creek I’d envisioned, either.

We came upon a couple of paths that branched off toward the creek. J took the first cautiously. They led downward to rocky platforms overlooking the creek. He said the first came to the edge of a cliff, which made me decide not to press my luck, especially as the falls weren’t visible from there. I steeled myself for the other one or two, and ultimately was rewarded with a great view of the waterfall. Don’t expect even the modest height of Starved Rock’s canyon waterfalls; this is a modest creek drop-off. It’s lovely and worth the little climb down, especially if your ability to balance when nervous and tired is better than mine. After taking photos, we relaxed a bit on a bench above and dug out our little bottles of Off! as the mosquitoes made their presence and hunger felt.

On the trail back, we were passed by a boy and two girls, teenagers, on horses; they were from a nearby camp. I’d like to see the world from horseback.

In the parking lot, J set up his monopod and took photos of the waxing moon. Used to my own blurry attempts, I was surprised to see that he’d managed to some of its features.

Our next stop was Blue’s Café, a diner that’s probably less throwback and more relic. We managed to get in our meal before the 8 o’clock closing time and to get pie to go. Then we detoured to Dairy Queen, where it was warm enough to sit at the picnic tables outdoors. I can almost picture the Dairy Queen on the road I used to take to Armor, in New York, 35 years ago.

Ice cream at sunset in a river town.

How much better can it get than that?

22 May 2010

Monday, May 31, 2010

Voyage to Volo Bog

Perhaps appropriately on a day set aside to see the only quaking bog in Illinois with an open center, the day dawned gloomy. It wasn’t wet or especially chilly, just overcast and gray.

After a late breakfast at Bonjour and some plant and compost shopping at the neighborhood’s annual garden fair, we set out. I didn’t have much hope that we’d arrive before the visitor center, housed in an old barn, closed at 3:00 p.m., and any hope I may have had faded quickly as we came up on the congealed traffic on the Kennedy Expressway (an oxymoron). There’s a traffic sprite that senses when you especially need traffic to flow smoothly and consequently snarls traffic and your plans. After more than an hour of crawling, traffic eased, yet at no point could I see any reason for the holdup other than the usual construction signs, barriers, and equipment. No workers present, at least that I could see. The point at which traffic speeded up appeared to be no different than any of the billions of other points along the way. That accursed sprite.

Finally, but too late, we were north of Lake-Cook Road in less crowded country. Further north, we came upon four enormous greenhouses, fronted by sculptured shrubs, a place called Atrium Garden Center. As we continued, we saw numerous garden centers, nurseries, and landscapers, including one “wholesale to the public.” People in McHenry and environs must take gardening very seriously.

The country closer to Volo Bog retains some of its rural charm, and not far away a sign at the end of a driveway leading to an older farmhouse advertises “farm fresh eggs.” A temptation if I had had room in my refrigerator. Sigh.

At last we arrived, nearly two hours after setting out. The visitor center was closed, but I picked up information outside the entrance, and so we set off on the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail.

This trail, which I had covered in the mid-90s with a group of volunteers from Lincoln Park Zoo, begins on a boardwalk over the surface of the bog. I remembered what to expect, but behind me I heard J say, “Whoa!” as the walk listed a bit to one side. Ahead of us a couple in late middle age were taking it very slowly. J and I discussed how deep the water might be. We suspect that you’d just get wet if you fell in, although it would be hard to haul yourself out if the bottom sucks as hard as saturated forest mud can (I’ve had athletic shoes sucked off). J marveled at the hinged construction, while I thought the boardwalk is looking worse for wear than I remembered. At one point further into the vegetation I think it morphed into recycled plastic. Across the open water we spotted large white wading birds, and along the walk we found curly-leafed plants, some mushrooms, and a type of flower with one white petal shading prominent sex organs. These aren’t the kind of plants you’re going to find in any garden center.

At the end, a yellow warbler called, his red-streaked breast visible through binoculars. ON the ground below, a Canada goose family blocked the path, while a second family obstructed the way to a viewing platform. We didn’t go to the platform, but as we drew closer one parent, then each of six goslings, then the other parent methodically and unhurriedly dropped into the water as though their movements had nothing to do with our approach; they had been planning a swim anyway, their attitude conveyed. It was a brief foray; they circled the little pond and came back out on the other side of the deck. See how casual that was?

We crossed over to the longer Tamarack Trail, which is supposed to be a 2.75-mile loop. The entire area is hopping with bird life; I spotted a flicker a few minutes into the trail, and then a bird I still haven’t been able to identify (I’m not a good birder). We spent a lot of time listening to and photographing it. In this area and a little further down, we got a good look at the white wading birds, one or two of which obliged us by flying. Black legs, yellow bills—I’d guess snowy egrets.

Past here, the trail veered a little away from the water, and we started to feel like we’d walked a fair distance. It was about then that we came upon a half-mile marker. .5 mile; that’s all we had walked. So far, this had been an easy walk, but I’d felt every inch of it.

In these tamarack woods bursting with birds and other life, we heard a lot of odd sounds, clicking, whirring, chirping, creaking, and the like. I thought I heard an odd sound now. Then, to the right, we saw a pair of sandhill cranes slowly and gracefully fade from view into the vegetation before J could dig out his camera. Here, birds don’t seem to flee in a panic—they just move slowly away, not wasting energy.

The trail continued through open and wooded areas, usually somewhat close to the water. By the time we came to a plastic boardwalk across the bog, which I thought must signal the beginning of the end (but didn’t), I was dragging.

This boardwalk was a bit of a challenge. For one thing, as the signs warned and as I immediately experienced, it’s slippery. I cut back on my speed, not wanting to do a split across it. This walk is also warped, whether from heat or other causes, so it twists a little like something in an Escher painting, with one side higher than the other in several places. It wasn’t a long walk across, but a tiring one between the small steps and the constant adjustments in balance (whether truly needed or not).

At some point we saw a 1.0 mi. marker. Unreal! At Starved Rock, we would have earned a view of the river or a canyon by now.

So far we’d met only one group, an extended family that had backtracked and ran into us not far from the trail head. Now we heard a huffing and puffing behind us, and a middle-aged endomorphic jogger passed us. He wasn’t in either bad or great shape, but we were surprised when he passed us again what seemed to be a short time later. We speculated about where he must have parked his motorcycle.

I wasn’t feeling any perkier, and we weren’t even at the 2.0 mi. mark.

A sign by a side trail promised a viewing platform, I couldn’t see it from partway along, and J, who went further but not far enough, didn’t find it, either. At one or two vantage points, a crude bench offered a good place to rest and take in the scenery. Ahhh.

Close to the en, perhaps even past the 2.5 mi. mark, a series of benches in a V shape seemed to form a mysterious theater under the dense canopy of the trees. I’d like to find out if they’re used for presentations or the like. Perhaps they’re part of a forgotten druid ritual. We sat briefly in the dappled shade looking out at the trees and grasses glowing in the low rays of the western sun.

Regretfully passing the farm-fresh eggs, we sought out Wauconda and Lakeside Inn. Downtown Wauconda is centered on Bangs Lake, which looked lovely against the setting sun, even captured by my iPhone camera. Small towns everywhere might benefit from having a similar feature that draws people and encourages a sense of community and well being.

Dinner consisted of fattening comfort food and fascinating conversation at the next table. Three women and two men carried on a lengthy discussion about the weather, the rain, and the horrors of flooding. From the little I know of this area, this didn’t surprise me.

Meanwhile, the live entertainment had arrived, two musicians, one of them blind. The servers and his performing partner steered him through several doorways as they brought in their gear. They started to sing shortly before we finished our meal.

By now, the people at the next table had exhausted the weather as a topic. Someone said, “Is that the black guy?”

“No, he’s a blind guy.”

“I thought the black guy was playing tonight.”

“No, this guy’s a blind guy.”

“He’s not the black guy?”

“He’s a blind guy.”

(Doubtfully): “He’s not a black guy who’s blind?”

And so on, like a Danny Kaye routine minus the snap and humor. I wondered if black musicians are so rare in these parts that “the black guy” is enough to identify a specific individual.

Toto, we’re not in Chicago anymore.

15 May 2010