Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Relics: Turning the TV antenna

If you remember TV antennas, read about my experience with them here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How to meet an introvert

If you're an introvert like me, take Sophia Dembling's quickie survey on how introverts like to make connections. Go directly to the survey here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Relics: Mail chute

A couple of years ago in "Please Mr. Postman," I marked the prolonged passing of the blue mailbox, no longer needed in the age of text messaging, mobile phones, and social media. Before USPS started carting the Chicago boxes off to rust at the central office (where I saw what seemed to be thousands lined up, with nothing to do and nowhere to go), another type of mail collection method had fallen into disuse—the mail chute.

The first mail chute I saw and used was at 200 South Riverside Plaza in Chicago, at my first job. The chute ran down the wall across the hall from the word processing room on the 37th floor. People still used it then, in 1983. Walking past it, I would be startled by the sudden whoosh of an envelope falling down the chute, presumably on its way to a collection box. Sometimes, however, someone would ambitiously stuff, say, a 9" x 12" envelope into the chute, which had the same effect as some boxes do in trash chutes—it would "gum up the works," as my dad might have said.

I don't recall if the mail chute was still in use when the company relocated to 203 North LaSalle Street in 1986. A contemporary blend of glass, steel, and atrium. this building probably didn't have anything as quaint as a mail chute.

The Flamingo, which opened in the late 1920s, has a mail chute, although it's closed off on the floors. I have no idea where it may have ended, as it's west of the elevators, while the mail collection box in the lobby is on the north wall across from the elevators.
Cutler~Mail~Chute~Co.
Rochester, NY.
Cutler~Mailing~System
Authorized by P.O. Dept.
Installed under the Cutler Patents

Note that it's not just a mail chute and mail collection box, but a <em>mailing system</em>. Product pretentiousness isn't a contemporary invention.

Find out more about the history of the Cutler Mail Chute Co. and the mail chute system at the National Postal Museum site and, of course, Wikipedia.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Relics: Superman's changing room

Once upon a time, all Clark Kent had to do to summon his inner Superman was to pop into the nearest telephone booth, tear off his glasses (not in the careful two-handed way recommended by opticians), and rip open his shirt. (His tailor must have made a mint replacing buttons while wondering who were these women so eager to get to the nerdy reporter's chest.)

Telephone booth? Back up. What's a telephone booth?

Like many things associated with the traditional telephone, the phone booth is almost only a memory. Aside from Clark Kent/Superman, who needs a phone in the relative privacy of a booth when, with our smart phones, we can chat openly about our hemorrhoid surgery or latest squabble with a friend right on the bus or at our restaurant table? Access to the world is in our pockets.

The last time I used a a phone booth or pay phone was in 1999, when I called a cab after my high school reunion. It was in a decaying shopping center across the road from where I used to live, and quite possibly was the only one for miles around. The last pay phone I recall seeing in Chicago was here where I live. It lasted for a few years after I moved in, but has been removed; it wouldn't have been worth it to the phone company. I have seen a pay phone recently; it was at Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana, attached to one of the buildings the attendant told us had been built during the Great Depression. I'm sorry now that I didn't take a photo or check out the cost of a call, but it did seem to be in good shape. I wonder how much action it gets from the hunters and the visitors to the sandhill cranes, or if it's even functional.

Mobile communications alone didn't kill the phone booth or pay phone, although they're clearly the primary cause of near extinction. In cities like Chicago, they were already on the endangered list, placed there by the activities of neighborhood drug dealers and other criminal types who used them to conduct business. Community members petitioned the city to have these gang and criminal magnets removed.

For fans of the classic films and TV shows, phone booths and pay phones have long been associated with crime. Calls made from phone booths and pay phones could be threats, demands (often for ransom), warnings, information dumps, or pleas for help. The dangling public phone handset became a poignant, then cliched theme. Now, having said that, I can't think of any examples. I do remember that in Strangers on a Train the Farley Granger character has a fatal conversation with his pregnant, cheating wife on a pay phone.

Other movie characters also flocked to booths and pay phones, including reporters—which could explain Clark Kent's predilection for them. In a film or radio program, when a big story broke frenzied herds of frantic, aggressive reporters would race to the nearest booth or pay phone to call the story in. Having gotten the scoop, the lucky ones who arrived first could gloat over their unlucky brethren, whose continued employment often depended on being able to get through to the newsroom first.

As I remember them, phone booths and pay phones came in a variety of styles, including indoor and outdoor, full sized or half, fully or partially enclosed, or open (for example, a pay phone stuck on a wall, as at Jasper Pulaski). When I was a child, a local pay phone call was a dime; later it went up to a quarter, then 30 cents, then 50 cents or more. For a toll (long-distance) call, you'd put in so much change for so many minutes. Each time you were running out of time, an operator or, later, an automated voice would tell you to deposit more or hang up. If you didn't have more change, you'd find yourself cut off abruptly soon after the warning. Those who use their mobile phones for personal chats could learn some of the succinctness imposed by the pay phone.

A pay phone played an important role in my life. My college dormitory had two pay phones off the lounge. Before I got a phone installed in my room, I spent a lot of time in those booths calling my mother collect and pretending not to be homesick. I imagine phone booths and pay phones have absorbed a lot of very interesting and very mundane conversations and history, just like mobile phones today.

For a look at phone booths and pay phones, and some of the holdovers, check out the Payphone Project, featuring the sometimes creepy photography that abandoned human creations can inspire. The Payphone Projects quotes a recent Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story:
The American Public Communications Council, a trade group representing about 800 independent pay phone operators, said about 425,000 pay phones remain in the United States today, down from 2.2 million in 2000.
According to Wikipedia, as of June 2011, there were 327,577,529 mobile phones in use in the U.S. alone—more than there were people.

I suppose Clark Kent has long since found an alternative changing room.

Update: Chris Burdick on Facebook:
I thought I was the last non-cell phone person, but a woman just used the pay phone near where I'm sitting. The woman dialed a number, the phone gave off a loud fax machine shriek, and the woman backed away in terror.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Me on Black Friday

During the annual Black Friday shopping event, Americans spend money they don't have on things they don't need and that don't make them happy or at least happier, just poorer and more unsatisfied. Then, like Charlie Brown, they wonder what happened to the spirit of Christmas.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Washington Irving on Poets Corner (Westminster Abbey)

I passed some time in Poets Corner, which occupies an end of one of the transepts or cross aisles of the abbey. The monuments are generally simple; for the lives of literary men afford no striking themes for the sculptor. Shakespeare and Addison have statues erected to their memories; but the greater part have busts, medallions, and sometimes mere inscriptions. Notwithstanding the simplicity of these memorials, I have always observed that the visitors to the abbey remained longest about them. A kinder and fonder feeling takes place of that cold curiosity or vague admiration with which they gaze on the splendid monuments of the great and the heroic. They linger about these as about the tombs of friends and companions; for indeed there is something of companionship between the author and the reader. Other men are known to posterity only through the medium of history, which is continually growing faint and obscure: but the intercourse between the author and his fellow-men is ever new, active, and immediate. He has lived for them more than for himself; he has sacrificed surrounding enjoyments, and shut himself up from the delights of social life, that he might the more intimately commune with distant minds and distant ages. Well may the world cherish his renown; for it has been purchased, not by deeds of violence and blood, but by the diligent dispensation of pleasure. Well may posterity be grateful to his memory; for he has left it an inheritance, not of empty names and sounding actions, but whole treasures of wisdom, bright gems of thought, and golden veins of language.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A gathering of cranes

On Sunday, November 13, I met J. at the Starbucks near the Homewood train station, where we began our trip to Jasper Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana. Here each November and December thousands of sandhill cranes congregate on their way south to Georgia and Florida.

As with some of our visits to other state areas, most of the journey was pretty straightforward until the very end, at which point we couldn’t figure out where or how to get in. We ended up on gravel roads, with no sign of an observation tower or, more urgently, a loo. Finally we parked in a small lot and walked back toward the road, where J. flagged down a passing car whose driver happened to know exactly where to send us. What a relief—in every sense. I have to admit that every step of this quarter-mile walk was excruciatingly painful for me thanks to the worst sciatic flareup I’ve had. (By Monday night I wouldn’t be able to walk and would have to take a cab home from work.)

At last we found the cranes in a nondescript field, the primary feature of which seems to be the lack of human habitation and farming activity. I haven’t read much about the habitat here, but it must offer a comfortable food supply, for the herd of cranes had been joined by another herd—one consisting of several dozen impressively sized deer. It was hard to tell which herd the observers, which ranged in age from under 8 to about 80, found more interesting. Don’t suburbanites see enough deer in their backyards? There’s something special about seeing them in the “wild,” as it were.

In my state, I’d forgotten to bring my binoculars from the car, so I didn’t get a good look at the flock; they kept their distance. I’m not sure how J.’s photos will turn out.

Then, about an hour before sunset, more cranes started to fly in, in groups of about six to eighteen. They kept coming and coming and coming, tapering off only as the twilight deepened, many flying overhead, delicately silhouetted against the sky and croaking in that eerie way sandhill cranes have. When I’d first walked up, I had heard them before I’d seen them.

Not for the first time I thought about how the country must have been 200 or 300 years ago, when some bird congregations could number in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Now the only limitless species seem to be the European house sparrow and the European starling. Even so, the little groups coming in for the night were a wondrous sight.

I had been surprised by the number of people spending their Sunday with the cranes (although several seemed to be keeping up with various football contests) and by how many, like J., stayed until it was too dark to take photos or to see the cranes.

On the way back we stopped at a restaurant where we seemed to be the only patrons, a place that still offers a smoking area (still used, judging from the pervasive odor that I’d hoped to forget someday).

Like much of Illinois, Indiana is flat and featureless. I’ve always been glad to book trips on Amtrak trains that pass through Indiana primarily during the darkest night hours, when all that can be seen are the circles of light at countless stations, warehouses, depots, parking lots, and small businesses and industries. That’s true elsewhere in the east, but at least a place like Pennsylvania can boast forested mountains and burbling (if polluted) creeks. Earlier, while passing the trailers (singles and doubles) and the decaying farm houses and deteriorating barns, I thought of all the beautifully maintained, neat farmhouses and barns nestled on bucolic lanes we’d passed in Wisconsin and I could think only one thing:

Cows must pay better than corn and industrial farming.

Monday, October 10, 2011

More adventures in America's Dairyland


During our first trip to the Baraboo area of Wisconsin, J. bought a $35 state park permit that expires at the end of the year, so use it he must. That’s why we ended up on I94 to Wisconsin again, this time centered on the Prairie du Sac/Sauk City area.

Thanks to Yelp for iPhone, on Saturday morning we landed at the Blue Spoon Creamery Café, where you order and get a number, and your meal is delivered to your table. While J. stood in the short line, I sought the outdoor seating that I’d read about—Blue Spoon has three terraces overlooking the Wisconsin River, and I found a perfect spot on the middle terrace, with lovely views of the river and the railroad tracks.

Railroad tracks?

Railroad tracks run between the lowest terrace and the river, but, judging from the height of the weeds between the rails and the nonchalance of those who strolled by occasionally, they seem to be abandoned—a perfect Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project. Somehow the rails added to the scene’s interest. I wondered when a train last rumbled behind all those buildings on Prairie du Sac’s main street.

After lingering for a long time over breakfast and coffee—who wouldn’t in such a perfect spot and in such perfect weather?—and getting coffee beans to go, we stopped at a tiny farmers market on a lot between two buildings across the way. Because of its sie, the offerings were slim but surprisingly varied, from produce and cereals to jewelry and a locally roasted coffee. Which meant more coffee. I have enough to start a small business.

The next stop was next door at the J. S. Tripp Memorial Museum. The Tripp has a large collection of preserved birds, donated years ago by taxidermist Ed Ochsner. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to a golden eagle, which looked like it could have carried off whole villages. It’s mostly feathers, but they make its head look almost as large as a human’s. The saddest pieces were the tiny spotted deer twins and baby ducks.

The museum features a working Royal typewriter with round keys. The proprietor told us the kids try to type on it like they would on a laptop and are surprised by the force and effort it takes to punch the keys. His view is that manual typewriters required so much movement that carpal tunnel didn’t become an issue for those pioneer typists—it’s the small, repetitive motions that cause or exacerbate CTS.

Near the typewriter is a proof press(se) with wood type, along with samples of newspapers partly in English, partly in German. In addition to photos, furnishings, clothing, knickknacks, and the like, the museum, like others of its kind, features Civil War arms and regalia. These exhibits make me think that, if there isn’t one already, there should be a database of history museum and historical societies’ holdings—not just, say, those of the Smithsonian and other large institutions. It sounds like a formidable undertaking, but with Internet communications, digital cameras, and database and other technology, along with agreed-upon standards and willing volunteers, it could be done. It probably comes down to time, money, and value. A formidable undertaking indeed.

As we were getting ready to leave, our new acquaintance pointed out a winery across the river, halfway up the hillside—another reason to consider returning.

Finally we left for the next destination, National Bridge State Park, getting lost a few times along the way. We did pass a few cows here and there, but not as many as I might have expected in America’s Dairyland. I’ve seen more in New York and Pennsylvania, albeit in spring and summer.

At Natural Bridge State Park, we saw a middle-aged couple returning from the trail and asked them how far to the bridge. The man answered in time, not distance, saying it was about five minutes away and telling us that they’d learned there’s a cure for everything in plants (signs along the trails indicate how Native Americans used various plants medicinally). His tone was at the advanced end of skeptical. He must not know where aspirin and quinine come from.

An hour plus later of slowly climbing up a long, steep, eroded trail and stairs to an overlook and taking many photos, we were skeptical of his five-minute estimation. After a while, we ran into people evidently on the return trip who told us the bridge wasn’t much farther. I was at a point where I wondered if I could get back down the steeper, narrower parts of the trail, or if I was going to have to be carried or, more likely, airlifted out. Not that this is an especially difficult trail for most people, who strolled past us on their way out, but my knees and ankles don’t appreciate the physics of even slightly steep descents, especially when the trail is narrow, tilted, or eroded unevenly. I was very glad to have worn hiking shoes and to have brought a trekking pole—I needed both.

At last we arrived at the natural bridge at about the same time as a couple coming from the opposite direction. From these people and others, we learned that the trail forms a loop and that we must have taken the longer way around. When I mentioned that my knees don’t like steeper descents, the male half commiserated with me—that’s why they’d taken the shorter, easier way.

The bridge, the largest in Wisconsin, was lovely and impressive in the afternoon sun, but it saddened me to see the silly graffiti carved into it. We’re not talking Shakespearean sonnets, just juvenile “Rick rules” and “Jordan and Jillie” type graffiti—nothing anyone wants to see now, let alone 500 or 5,000 years in the future. I’m sure this has been going on for countless generations.

After a prolonged photo session, we continued down the trail, which descended in several places, although not as sharply. After about 10 minutes or so, we could see and hear signs of the parking lot through the trees. We really had taken the long, hard way—and I’m glad we did, and that I did without complaint. I proved something to myself.

A middle-aged and an elderly woman approached us and asked a few questions. I firmly told them to veer right. I was thinking that if they went left, they would end going a really long way around another loop the trail had led to. J. was beside himself and after they left (veering right) insisted I was wrong. I realized we were talking about different splits and that he was correct—they had gone the wrong way. So I hustled after them, surprised by how far they’d already gone up the wrong trail. They were already thinking of turning back or perhaps had—I’m not sure—and I felt guilty as I watched the older woman gingerly pick her way down. I stayed in front of her so at least I could steady her if she couldn’t make it. I tried to explain my error and apologized profusely. The younger woman said they were starting to wonder and she didn’t blame me—she thought there should have been directions. We had found a sign—as we were returning. All’s well that ends well, and neither I nor the older woman had to be rescued!

Next on the list was Aztalan State Park, an hour and a half away—that is, if you know where you’re going. There were long stretches during which the cellular network disappeared, which made the various map apps useless. We did pass some points of interest, including what appeared to be a church in the middle of nowhere. According to a sign, which J. noticed in passing (twice), it was a church museum. I’m not sure it was open. It’s one of those roadside oddities that might pull you in if you have time and and an interest in the unusual.

I did break J.’s heart by insisting we bypass Rustic Road (Lane?), which might have worked as a route, and might not have. I’m convinced he’s a sucker for marketing and was hoping to find something especially picturesque on a road called “Rustic.” I thought we’d see more frame houses and tidy yards. While the rolling hills aren’t quite the equivalent of Pennsylvania’s Central Alleghenies, overall the look is similar, only neater and more affluent.

As we were passing through a small town that I thought (hoped) had to be close to Aztalan, somehow J. spotted a coffee shop called the Daily Grind. How his radar picks up coffee shops while he’s driving I’ll never know, nor do I want to know. We stopped there, ordered drinks, and crossed the threshold into the connected pottery shop.

AFter a few more miles and false turns. we arrived at Aztalan around 5 o’clock, an hour later than I’d expected. At this time, we could experience this historic site with its restored Mississippian mounds in the waning daylight. First, J. couldn’t resist spinning a wheel to power playback of an educational recording about the site, while I cranked an old-fashioned pump connected to a drinking fountain. I wasn’t thirsty, but was fascinated to witness the result of my labor come out of the fountain and the excess disappear into a drain in the earth. The water had a taste, as water close to the source often does.

It’s not something I think about often, but there is something marvelous about working and seeing the effort tangibly rewarded. As so little is left that requires labor—even the simple task of dish washing for most is delegated to a machine—I wondered if that’s part of why gardening, scrapbooking, crocheting, and other manual arts have surged in popularity in the online age. It’s physically and spiritually satisfying to create something by hand—or to tease water out of the ground. As a novelty, it felt great. If I had to do it for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bath water every day in every kind of weather, I wouldn’t be so enamored.

We ascended a couple of the mounds, which overlook a strangely featureless landscape. It’s not flat like much of Illinois, but nothing stands out, except the mounds and palisades, and the lines of trees. Only a few visitors were about when we arrived, and the dog walker and kite flyer disappeared before sunset. Not seriously, I wondered if the local sprouts used the mounds for sledding, and J. said, “Until hand reaches out from within the mound . . .”

As the sky grew darker, the colors became less distinct, and the scene more somber. It seemed a good time to leave the mounds and their histories in peace, undisturbed.

More misdirections and an urgent stop or two at gas stations, and we were in Lake Geneva, where we had reservations at the Baker House. The fine weather continued into the evening, and people seemed to be wandering about in search of a party. At the Baker House, the atmosphere was almost busy, loud, and crazy enough for the Great Gatsby. J. was disappointed not to get a table in one of the elegantly appointed rooms, but the enclosed porch, while close to the musicians, was almost calm.

After a little walk near the lake, finally we headed homeward. Although it should have been a two-hour drive here, it took more like three to four, including a half hour nap in the parking lot of a doggy day-care center. A full, full, rewarding, and exhausting day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chain O Lakes State Park


For a good couple of hours, right until we were halfway through Barrington Hills, Saturday’s destination was a mystery to me. I hadn’t quite heard the name and knew only that it was northwest, generally toward Volo Bog and Moraine Hills State Park. We made a few wrong turns and a few stops, including Fratello’s Hot Dogs, which has to be one of the best hot dog/hamburger joints I’ve stepped into—including strawberries in the strawberry shake.

At last I understood we were headed for Chain O Lakes State Park, about which I knew nothing. Having a name in mind made navigation easier, although the jaunt through Barrington Hills was an education in itself, an exposure to a way of life nearly as alien to me as almost anything I could imagine on another planet. Because we got off track so many times, I told J. I envisioned the local police being inundated with calls from nervous property owners about the 2004 blue Toyota Corolla pulling uninvited into their posh driveways. Even when we’d backtracked to the correct area, Google Maps us to the back gate for Chain O Lakes, which was closed. As J. suspected, we zigged when we should have zagged.

At last we arrived, at around 5 o’clock—leaving enough time to check out the little store and to look around a bit. We took the first and most obvious trail we found, which led into the woods. We headed in the general direction of what we thought was the nearest lake other than Grass Lake, which is where we’d parked. At one point, we emerged from the woods into the yard of a trailer at a campground, where a mix of expensive and not-as-expensive trailers, some basic pop-up (tent) campers, and a handful of pitched tents were ensconced in neatly delineated grounds. The place looked full or nearly so, and a pair of little girls raced past us joyously on their little pink bicycles, giggling and screaming. Enjoy it while you can—that obliviousness to the cares of life will never come again, at least not for me.

With some directions from a helpful camper, we found the road, crossed it, and made our way back to where I’d thought we should have gone. I rarely trust my instincts, although sometimes they’re right. Not always.

After passing through another campground, this one a little less upscale than the first but almost as full, we came to the colorful shores of Turner Lake, where it was really hard for me to deny that summer is over and autumn is here. While the trees are not at the height of color, and there’s still some green mixed in, the few photos I took are clearly autumnal. I wonder if I’ll have this much difficulty accepting winter when its time comes. I did find out later that Turner Lake isn’t part of Chain O Lakes.

By this time, it was getting too late to do much more exploring, especially as we took a few false turns walking and ended up needlessly wandering through more of both campgrounds than was necessary. An elderly woman at one of the better trailers told us the trail went into the woods at the next spot, and we made it back to the parking lot in a combination of twilight and moonlight. After trying to figure out if there was a way to walk around Grass Lake and shopping at the store (and depriving some camper of chicken and dumplings soup), J. tore himself away.

While driving through Fox Lake, we decided to check out Dockers for a potential future visit. When we found it, J. spotted fireworks across the lake, and I noticed a swan surrounded by an entourage of Canada geese. While the inveterate extrovert chatted with the only people sitting outside at Dockers, a couple, I sat on a bench near the water and watched the fireworks and the waterfowl in one of those perfect moments that soothe my fretfulness.

The plan had been to eat at the haunted Ole St. Andrews Inn, but when J. saw a Walker Bros. in Lake Zurich that was still open (with only one other group of patrons), there we landed for a delicious and ghost-free end to a lovely fall day.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Relics, or the times they are a-changin'

Fifty years isn’t even a wink in time, but a lot has come and gone in what I hope will be a little more than half my lifetime. Before I forget them, I want to recognize some of these bygone (or altered) things, products, services, and brands I’ll tag “relics.” Like so much in human history, they’ve been relegated to the landfill of cultural history by advancing and emerging technologies, fluctuating economic conditions, and fickle popular tastes.

I’m going to focus on things that were an accepted part of everyday life for many years, such as full-service gas stations, not fads or failures. They illuminate my past and evoke memories of a time and world that might seem as alien to a person born in 1990, or even 1980, as my dad’s adventures with animal-powered transportation were to me.

In honor of the beleaguered United States Postal Service, I’ll start with the one-color, non-sticky postage stamp. The last time I bought these that I can remember was when 55 cents would send up to two ounces. I still had hopes that some publication somewhere would accept my short story “Justice,” which in the 1990s was too disturbing for the editors of the even the edgiest publications I contacted, but today seems tame. These stamps, the workhorse of USPS for many years, were printed in one color on uncoated paper with no backing; they weren’t self-adhesive like today’s stamps. To affix one to an envelope, you wet it with a sponge moistener that office supply stores used to sell, handy for invitations and other large mailings, or you licked it. Either way, if you got the stamp too damp, it would crumple or stick to your fingers, or both. If you tried to peel it off, possible with today’s crop of sturdier, coated, self-adhesive stamps, it would tear or even disintegrate. Collectors could try to get them off envelopes by softening the glue using steam, a process I’ve never tried. You’d use a similar technique if you were nosy and just had to know what was in an envelope.

I assume it’s just as cheap, if more wasteful, to print self-adhesive stamps in color on backing, such as the one-cent American kestrel stamp, making the one-color glue stamp obsolete.

For the record, the 55-cent stamp I used to mail “Justice” was issued on July 11, 1995 in Boston, Massachusetts and featured Alice Hamilton, MD, social reformer, in green. The other day I found some in a pencil box. Mystic Stamp sells a single mint stamp for $2 and a mint sheet for $220—both of which are more than “Justice” has earned.

If you have a stash of old postcards, check out the one-color stamps. Most likely you will never see their like again.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Owl Prowl at Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve

Last Friday a Thorn Creek Woods Nature Center volunteer left me a voicemail that that evening’s Owl Prowl was off due to rain, postponed to the 16th. As we talked to our guide and others, we learned it wasn’t the rain so much as the result of it—muddy, slippery trail conditions, especially as part of the trail passes through a floodplain.

The volunteers had quite a spread of materials, from handouts to illustrated bird books open to pages about the species we were to hope to hear and/or see—the eastern screech owl, the barred owl, and the great horned owl.

We waited a while for latecomers and no shows. As we were about to set off, a couple with a teenage daughter said she wasn’t feeling well and they’d have to drop out. From the look of her, either she had cramps (I know the feeling), or she’d watched one too many gory horror movies set in the woods and didn’t think setting out on a hike at twilight with a bunch of strangers was a good idea. With our leader and trailer, there were about 14 of us. Surely only the most observant of owls would notice us!

It was past sunset when we did set out. Our guide tried to teach us to use our peripheral vision to look ahead, yet spot trail obstacles like tree roots, fallen trunks or branches, and steps, as well as to look beyond the most prominent foreground objects in the waning light, to use three-dimensional vision to see in the distance in the growing darkness. That I could do, but I couldn’t keep my head and my eyes directed up. Even with looking down in daylight and seeing everything clearly, I tend to walk trippingly—and I’m still plagued by a fear of falling while walking. I did try, though.

At a second stop, our guide tried to show us how to walk more quietly {“stalk” Native American style) by putting the outside ball of the foot down first rather than the heel and rolling the foot in. I tried this, too, slightly more successfully if not consistently. It’s tiring if you’re not used to it, as she pointed out. I also found it’s hard to coordinate all these different ways of doing things—stalking with head up, using peripheral vision, looking into the distance while being aware of the immediate surroundings and obstacles. I’m afraid I lapsed quickly into my usual head-down shuffle. No matter—neither the owls nor anyone else in the woods was fooled.

At one point, most of us heard a branch snap to the right, which we agreed must have been a deer. J. began whispering that there’d been news about eight escaped convicted killers—as though that would make me nervous.

At one point, J. and I are certain we heard a “hoo hoo” or something similar in the distance, although our leader had not. I looked up and around and took in the tangle of branches, leaves, and mysterious shapes against the sky, which seemed brighter than I would have expected, but didn’t see any owl shapes or movements. When we stopped, our leader would do a fair impression of owl calls, but if any owls were about they weren’t fooled into giving up what they were doing to return the calls. I was reminded of a visit to Starved Rock State Park earlier this year. While I was waiting along the trail for J., out of the near silence a great horned owl (I think) began to call from a spot not far off. After several calls, spaced widely apart, they ended as abruptly as they’d begun. I couldn’t have told you the distance or direction; they seemed to be disembodied in the stillness.

As we walked I noticed my night vision is not as good as I remember—but then my memory could be faulty. At a few points, not always in the thickest or darkest patches of woods, I began to be overcome by a feeling of panic because I couldn’t see anything and of vertigo, that the world was tilting and that I was going to lose my balance. Blind and unbalanced—just what you want to be when walking in the woods and over narrow boardwalks and bridges in the dark.

We had been asked not to bring flashlights, which would disrupt our night vision. Our leader and trailer each carried one for emergency use only. That’s why I was surprised when now and then I seemed to see a bit of light coming from behind me, just a flash, enough to help me get or keep my bearings or to see the person in front of me. At times these flashes or hints of light seemed like the disorienting visual tricks that sometimes accompany a migraine, and they made me feel almost queasy.

We walked back relatively quickly and noisily, with many calls of “step!” and “tree root!” for the benefit of those behind. Despite the difficulty I had seeing at times and the resulting disorientation, I was amazed by how bright the sky remained nearly two hours after sunset but before moonrise, which would have been obscured by the cloud cover anyway.

After coffee and cookies and just as we were about to leave, we learned what had really happened to the preserve’s north bridge, which is out and is being rebuilt. I’d assumed that it had become rickety and precarious with time and weather; even now, the remaining south bridge exhibits unevenness and a disturbing tilt. It came up in conversation that the north bridge had been in better shape than its sibling and was being replaced only because someone using tools had systematically dismantled it. One young woman with blue-streaked hair exclaimed grimly, “They’re lucky I didn’t see them because I’d have killed them.” That seemed to be the universal sentiment. I’m trying to imagine what nasty impulse could have prompted such a destructive outburst of energy, which had to have been carefully planned, coordinated, and executed. The perpetrators haven’t been identified.

If only the owls, deer, coyotes, and other animals could talk. I assume they can’t use tools.

After running a quick errand in Park Forest, we settled down to a late dinner at the Chicago Dough Company—not pizza this time, just sandwiches. What a relief. I’m ashamed to say I could not have taken one more step.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A break in the action

After five and one-half months back in action, I felt keenly the need for a break, so on Monday at 7:30 a.m. I boarded an Amtrak train for Ann Arbor. After an hour or so in the cafe car, I came back to my seat to find I had a rather large neighbor who begrudged me elbow room. Luckily he detrained at the next stop with a sarcastic comment about a nice trip or nice day. The rest of the journey was uneventful—except for the long final leg which, due to signal problems, was taken at a steady 15 miles per hour, making the start of my vacation two hours late.

I didn’t have any specific plans so I spent the next few days:
At Conor O'Neill's
  • hanging out with friends
  • checking out stores like Ten Thousand Villages and the Peaceable Kingdom
  • dining at Conor O’Neill’s with a long-time email list friend I’d never met (I couldn’t bring myself to try Guinness straight, so I had what they called a “black velvet,” Guinness and cider) and at Zingerman’s Roadhouse (macaroni and goat cheese, with an heirloom tomato salad)
  • enjoying my room and balcony and the balcony off the dining room at the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast
  • checking my work BlackBerry until it suddenly stopped receiving email (when I returned, I figured out that removing and reinserting the battery fixes this problem, but too late—I assumed everything was under control!)

I didn’t take many photos, but here’s one of the kind of architecture I like and the kind I don’t like, right across the street from one another. Guess which is the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and which the new police station.

I also took a bad photo of one of Ann Arbor’s fairy doors. This one is looking slightly neglected. Does the fairy world go as ours goes? Are they facing hard times, too?

Thursday’s midday train had been canceled due to track work, so my hostess provided me with an early breakfast, graciously drove me to the train station at 7:15 a.m., and sent me off with homemade banana bread. This was another uneventful trip, late but not as much so as the first.

It got my attention
While we were passing through Portage, Michigan, I spotted a red Smart Car hauling a giant green teacup emblazoned with “ChocolaTea.” The train was traveling much faster than the car, and my iPhone wasn’t fast enough to take a photo. But the folks at ChocolaTea were kind enough to send me photos of this phenomenon on request. Oh, to have a shop like ChocolaTea in my backyard! But the budget says just as well I don’t!

Now I need another vacation.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Encounter at Thorn Creek Woods


For Labor Day, I convinced a somewhat reluctant J. to meet at the University Park Metra station for a walk in the nearby Thorn Creek Woods Nature Preserve.  Before setting off down the trail (a different one than before, closer to the road), we decided to go on the Owl Prowl advertised on a flyer posted along with others by the parking lot, as well as the Garlic Festival in October. (Alas, the Owl Prowl would be postponed a week due to muddy conditions.)

To  me, the autumn equinox, not Labor Day, is the harbinger of fall, but some leaves are starting the process of fading to the browns, yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. Those on the ground are undoubtedly a mix of last year’s and this. The Flamingo pool will be closed on the 12th. Summer feels over before I knew it had begun.

This was a great day for a walk, not hot, not chilly, not wet. Periodically the sun peeked out to cast a lovely play of rays and shadows among the leaves. A stiff, persistent wind had been rattling around Hyde Park, but at Thorn Creek Woods it was relatively still except for sporadic moments when it would abruptly pick up as though in the vanguard of a storm, but then it would just as abruptly die down. That on-and-off wind rustling through the drying leaves also reminds me of fall.

Aside from a few birds like robins and a chipmunk or two, the most interesting life forms we found were a variety of mushrooms growing on the trees, ranging from beige white to red orange. I missed these last; J. is the mushroom whisperer. I wish he knew how to find slime molds, too.

Perhaps because we’d started out on the further trail, it seemed to take longer to get to Owl Lake, with J.’s chats with fellow walkers and stops for photo opportunities and  my need for sit downs combined with the greater distance. Finally, my energy flagged and my lower back said, “Enough!” so we turned back short of the lake—probably just short, too. We were to be rewarded, though. This time J. spotted deer to our right. At first I saw just one, but based on the supposition that you rarely see just one of a herd animal like the white-tailed deer, I found the others that J. was already photographing. This little group, perhaps a half dozen does and juveniles, were spread out a bit.

I was sidling down the trail, thinking I’d passed the last deer, when something to my left caught my attention. It was a buck. It was a young buck. It was a young buck in velvet, bloody strips of skin hanging from his spikes down his face and nape. He was just off the trail, no more than six to eight feet from me, and he looked almost as startled as I felt. I restrained an exclamation, and he restrained an apparent urge to charge.

I broke the spell when I whispered, “Come here,” hoping J. could get a photo (he did, but not a closeup). Clearly realizing I wasn’t talking to him, the buck turned and picked his way through the undergrowth, eating some of it voraciously like the young animal he appeared to be. Growing antlers takes a lot of energy.

I’d never seen a buck in velvet, even one with starter spikes, and am sure J. never had, either. That alone made the trip and the walk worthwhile.

At the Chicago Dough Company in Richton Park, we were treated to a pleasant surprise—a buy one pizza, get another free deal. We walked out full of dough and with lots of good leftovers as well as an extra pizza.

And so ended the last holiday weekend until Thanksgiving, set in the heart of cold and darkness when the short, relentless gray days do not beckon me outdoors so temptingly but when hot chocolate and great books call me.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wine and Wildflowers

On Thursday after work and a brief trip to the dentist, I met JT after work for Wine and Wildflowers at Lincoln Park Zoo, a garden party to benefit Garfield Park Conservatory. While waiting, I amused myself by watching these great black wasps among the flowers.
Great black wasp

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dream: Gothic college


I was in a dormitory room at college, unpacking and wondering a little why I was there. Something attracted my attention, and I looked out two sets of glassless windows like those found in some neo-Gothic buildings. An angel or Cupid or similar figure was swinging back and forth flush to the opposite wall on a long, black, flat pieces of metal. Despite its benevolent aspect, I felt something was wrong. I sensed the figure and the motion increasing in malevolence, then I saw it aim an arrow at me discreetly, a physical impossibility given its plane and angle. I woke up as it released the string with a strong sense that I should be dead but also that I should have been able to duck the arrow. I was still frightened by the sense of evil.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Day at the Dells

Right after a 40-hour work week and 8-hour work day, there’s nothing like a 4-hour (plus) car trip to rejuvenate the wearied mind and senses. At the end of countless miles of mesmerizing orange-and-white barrels and tags along I90 lie Baraboo, Devil’s Lake State Park, and Wisconsin Dells. The distance, about 200 miles, is nearly the same as from my old home in Hamburg, New York, to my extended family in the Altoona, Pennsylvania area. Forty years ago, with breaks for a meal and to collect mountain spring water before it became too polluted to drink, the Altoona trip took an interminable five hours. I remember well my back seat plaint of “Are we there yet?” and resisted the strong temptation to resurrect it, especially as Google Maps helpfully tracked the apparent slowness of our progress north and west, and my sciatic nerve sent searing pain down my right leg to make sure I knew it wasn’t happy.

The International Crane Foundation
After a short but intense rest and a soak in a whirlpool, I was ready for the first destination—the International Crane Foundation. I knew about the ICF from my work as a docent at Lincoln Park Zoo, but somehow I’d forgotten about it. Right now, the main road leading to the ICF is closed for repairs, so we went in via County Road A. Even while getting out of the car, I noticed a number of eerie calls that aren’t in the usual repertoire of the wildlife and domestic stock typical of farm country. As we wandered and listened to some of their vocalizations, I realized how effective they could be if used in an alien invasion film.

Many of the cranes were in the middles of their enclosures, alert but not concerned about their human admirers. The Siberian crane pair, however, was at the very back, where we couldn’t get a good look at them. After a few minutes, though, they’d had a good look at us and didn’t like what they saw. First the male, followed by the female, approached us stiffly and threateningly, every posture, movement, and sound expressing displeasure. The woman in the visitors center had told us cranes are territorial and aggressive and had asked us not to intrude on their space with so much as a camera lens. We didn’t have to. We got the full show by standing quietly and behaving. After they came to the fence and put on their threat show, they remained wary but had lost the intensity of their interest.

The showcase habitat features the endangered whooping crane, whose plight I recall from childhood when only a handful remained. On one side of a pavilion, you can relax in the shade and watch a 20-minute video about them and the use of ultralights to train young birds in the ways of migration. On the other, a roomy seating area overlooks a wetlands where a pair was foraging in the water. While there is no obvious barrier, a guide said there’s a drop-off  that the cranes know about.

Unlike their Siberian cousins, the whooping cranes seemed unconcerned about either us or the group on the official tour that had caught up with, then bypassed us. At first hidden behind the grasses and reeds, they waded out into the open water, approaching the seating area at times, then wandering back behind the grasses, all very nonchalantly.

I lost track of how many of the 15 crane species we saw, although it was most of them. The crane enclosures are distributed along trails bordered by a messy array of wildflowers (or weeds, if you prefer your flowers bred, hybridized, and given a cute name followed by a registration mark). Bees, butterflies, and others couldn’t get enough of what I think is gayfeather. They remind me of how much I would love to have a butterfly garden.

It was almost one o’clock when we left. The day had dawned cloudy and rainy, but by the time we’d arrived at ICF, the rain had stopped, the clouds had cleared, and the sun had made its appearance. In less than an hour, the day had transformed itself from disappointing and unpromising to perfect.

Perfect weather for a Duck. An Original Wisconsin Duck.

Original Wisconsin Duck adventure
Call me sheltered, but I’d never heard of Ducks as either amphibious military machines or tourist attraction, but they’re part of the draw to Wisconsin Dells. I didn’t have much time to read about them and didn’t know what to expect.

On the way to the Original Wisconsin Ducks, I pointed out a young man sitting on a chair next to the highway, seemingly doing nothing more than getting a tan in an especially noisy, barren spot. I wondered that he couldn’t find something better to do and a better place to do it. It turns out he was working. More about that in a bit.

Also by the roadside, we noticed signs indicating one-way Duck trail—and soon spotted an actual Duck lumbering down the trail and stopping to wait to cross the highway. That was my first glance at a Duck and how they operate. It wasn’t long before we found its home base.

Each Duck seats 20, and once one fills up and drives off, another takes its place. We were near the head of the line when an empty Duck arrived. The few people ahead of us conservatively sat in the middle seats, perhaps afraid of getting wet, but I pushed J. to the front right-hand seat. From here we could see the Duck’s dashboard, with exposed crossed wiring. The war industry had no time or use for aesthetics or niceties. We could also see a control for bilge water. That, the life vests overhead, and the overall shape of the Duck were the only indications from inside (on board?) of the vehicle’s amphibious nature.

Time to board! I’d told J. driving (piloting?) a Duck could be the perfect retirement career for him, but it looked like fairly hard work to manipulate all of the mechanics while trying to elicit laughter for a series of corny jokes. We learned later that Duck drivers are college students who undergo six weeks of training. No Duck for J.

Into the dells we went, including Fern Dell, where the already pleasant temperature dropped several degrees. The combination of rocks and trapped moisture on which the ferns thrive acts like a giant air conditioner. With the play of the sun and shadow, the rocks, the lush green of the trees and ferns, and the brisk air, I thought I was in heaven—except, of course, for the roar of the Duck’s engine, which kept me grounded. So to speak.

With a splash and spray that made me happy I’d steered J. to the front seat, the Duck entered the Wisconsin River with its amazing sandstone bluffs. With the woods, water, and bluffs, I could be happy living here, I thought, even as bigger, faster boats jetted by and set the Duck to rocking.

Between corny jokes, our driver/helmsman pointed out where in 2008 heavy rains had raised the level of Lake Delton, causing it to rise and break through a weak spot and to empty into the river, taking several houses with it. I remembered seeing video and the concern about what was to be done and whether the area could recover. Lake Delton refilled quickly and on this calm day little resembling the raging torrent of rushing, roiling water in the video. The bank opposite the breach shows how high the river rose when all that lake water suddenly poured into it; the earth looks like it was hit with force and churned quite high above our heads. For the observers, it must have been both a frightening and an awesome experience (in the true sense of that overused expression).


After a leisurely cruise on the river, the Duck clambered over a sand bar into Dell Creek. Next we entered Lake Delton, which was full of vacationers, tourists, and locals. The dire predictions didn’t come true, and people like us continue to pour in and pay to enjoy the river, the lake, and the dells. I often wonder about the many situations that seem bad in the present, but worked out okay or even well in the long term. For all the gloom and doom I grew up, many things today are better or at least no worse. For example, the Great Lakes may be threatened by zebra mussel and Asian carp, but they’re cleaner than they were when I was a child wading among clumps of slimy algae at Hamburg Beach. And, we’re making the effort to save species like the whooping crane rather than let them follow their cousins the dodo and the passenger pigeon into oblivion.

Back on land, the driver stopped twice to talk to young men sitting along the Duck trail. The first proved to be the idle fellow I’d pointed out from the highway. Our driver asked  him about his Barbie doll order and other fetishes and told us to wish the other guy a happy birthday. He said they earn $20 an hour for sitting around. My guess is that they’re Duck spotters, paid to coordinate the movements of the many Ducks on land. Where were these cool summer jobs thirty years ago in western New York?

On the return trip, the Duck passes through a couple of narrow gorges, Red Bird and Black Hawk, with only four inches leeway on either side. I was tempted to reach over and try to touch the rock. We also stopped to admire a few deer dining just off the trail. “They’re so lifelike, aren’t they?” our driver said. One even drooled happily. It was then someone noticed the deer had companions—up to a half dozen wild turkeys. I said something about the convenience. Our driver peered thoughtfully and said, “It’s amazing what they can do with electronics.”

Near the end of the tour, he stopped the Duck to pass out booklets and postcard packets, explaining that Duck drivers are students (sorry, J.) and that through a program they earn the money from the booklets and postcards we tourists buy from them (guilt trip!) for $2 apiece. What a deal! J. had his wallet out immediately. Someone asked where he was going to college; he answered, “Boo U.” Someone scoffed at the name, so he told us that it’s the nickname for Baraboo University—I guess the scoffer hasn’t heard of cutesy college nicknames! Someone asked a tough question: “What are you studying?” judging by his embarrassed reaction. He confessed that he hadn’t actually started college; he had just graduated from high school. As we were about to exit, I couldn’t resist asking him if he even has a driver’s license. “Yes,” he informed me, probably praying I wouldn’t pinch his cheek. “I have a commercial license.” Well, at 18 he’s at least two up on me—I’ve driven neither car nor duck!

The Cheese Factory
Our next planned destination was Devil’s Lake State Park, but as we drove through the area admiring the updated, upscale 1950s motel chic, we decided it might be a good idea to refuel. Along the main strip, the choices seemed to be limited to chains and greasy spoons. Then I spotted The Cheese Factory, a cute house strangled by a jungle of flowers. I didn’t have a chance to look it up on Yelp or anywhere else and didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t expect an Austrian host or a vegetarian menu. It couldn’t have been more perfect. J. ordered barbecue tofu and a chocolate Coke (there’s a soda fountain), while I settled on red, white, and blue ravioli—the “blue” being bleu cheese. We ordered two cheese sandwiches (recommended by Rachel Ray) to go and topped off our mid-afternoon snack with generous slabs of princess cake—oh, the lemon butter cream frosting!

Devil’s Lake State Park
Stuffed, we made it to Devil’s Lake State Park, although it took a while to figure out where to go and where to park. I’m fairly certain we’re not ready to ascend to some of the park’s upper trails. Instead, we took the easy Tumbling Rocks trail between the lake and a hillside covered with boulders of lavender-and-lichen Wisconsin quartzite. On the path J. spotted a millipede just like the one he’d found at Starved Rock, this time getting some photos of the little guy, whose feet clung to my hand like Velcro. Tickle tickle. Around us, even in the growing dusk under building clouds, among the picnickers, the scene took on an almost alien beauty. All I can say is that folks in this part of Wisconsin have a lot of lovely outdoor choices. I’d stay in only in the worst of weather.

And so we set out on the long drive home, with a rainbow to guide us for about 20 to 30 minutes. In Janesville we picked up subs at a Stop n Go and dined al fresco in a pavilion under the stars at the Janesville visitors center.

And so home after a long, wonderful, and memorable day, from cranes to Ducks.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Take me to the faire



Work and weather permitting, J. and I set out for Bristol Renaissance Faire after a stop at Bonjour. This time we ended up on 41 in lieu of the Tri-State, which (1) didn’t slow us down as much as I would have thought, (2) J. found a less tense drive, and (3) didn’t cost anything. Because we were earlier than usual, we went to Apple Holler first, where a sign announced that there were a couple of days until apple picking began. A woman behind us seemed incredulous that picking would start so early, but  one of the young women assured her that these are a small, tart variety (presumably for cooking). She seemed to accept that explanation somewhat grudgingly. And they call Missouri the “Show Me” state.

Both of us ate about one third of our lunches, by which time the sun seemed out to stay. At the faire, we scored the last of the front row bench seats for Adam Winrich’s fire whips show. and afterward J. picked up tips from a professional insulter while I explored the Black Pearl. We didn’t plan or do anything in particular, or at least I didn’t. J. bought memberships to Friends of the Faire, and we were given a tour of the garden. Nice group. We were told they have quite the appetites.

I decided Highland Park would be a good stopping point and discovered that it’s the home of Bluegrass (a restaurant), where I’d been been once before earlier this year.

When I opened the car door in the parking lot, I heard what sounded like hissing coming from the car. That’s one of the problems with hearing loss; the angle and distance of a sound changes its character dramatically. Even as I asked J. what the sound was, thinking it was a leaking tire, I got out and realized it was the deafening song (whine) of many, many cicadas, or dogday harvestflies. They sing in the evening here, too, but not in such quantity over such a sustained time. On facebook, Morton Arboretum had asked something like: “Cicadas—sweet sound of summer or really annoying?” Not surprisingly, the answers were divided. My guess is that your response depends on the density and volume of your resident cicada population. Hyde Park: Sweet sound of summer. Highland Park: Really annoying.

Bluegrass can be crowded and noisy, and I adore dining al fresco, so without thinking I’d opted to sit outside to enjoy the cicada chorus in the twilight. Their song wasn’t as intrusive as the din indoors. What I hadn’t considered—I don’t know why—was the army of other six-legged creatures that couldn’t leave us alone, including mosquitoes, gnats, and flies. I retrieved some spray from the car, which staved off some but not all. Poor J.

He went with barbecued bison ribs, while I ordered ribeye (rare) with bleu cheese crust. Mmmm. More leftovers.

At the Flamingo, I watched the Doctor Who episode, “The Waters of Mars.” Afterward, I realized, I needed a drink and a shower. Both made me nervous.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Dream: The office

I had a new job where I worked at a desk that was side by side with others, like those of Mary and Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Although management didn’t like it, we kept rearranging them like my college roommates and I used to—facing each other, at right angles, and so forth.

I seemed to be doing well, although I worried a great deal about approvals. One day when I was wearing a favorite dress (in reality, one that has been donated because the style is too young for me), I was horrified to notice in a mirror that, while it didn’t show anything else, somehow it was sheer enough to show that I was wearing a bright white bra. I was mortified, but no one seemed to notice. If they did, they appeared to accept me rather than judge me. I felt strange and wondered how long it would last.

I went home and found that a man who’d been haranguing people in the street was looming in my front window, still shouting, but not at me personally despite the proximity. When I went around the corner to the front door, where he would not be able to see me (unfocused as he was), I found three strangers huddled there, also trying to escape him. Did they think it was natural to walk into a stranger’s house under the circumstances? I accepted this and talked to them. I don’t know why we were afraid of being observed by the man’s unseeing eye.

Warren Dunes State Park


After much waffling about whether to take the train to Homewood or to ask for a ride, finally I opted for the 11:42 train, after a break at Café 57. My back demanded stops on the way over to the station, so I couldn’t get to the 10:42 in time. After a brief stop at Caribou Coffee in Homewood, we set out for Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, Michigan, or so we thought. As we approached the Hinsdale oasis, something in my pain-addled brain recognized that I shouldn’t be seeing a sign for O’Hare Airport. Hesitantly I said, “Are we going the wrong way?”

We were.

We turned back to the south suburbs and northern Indiana, where I90/94 sports a plethora of those eyesores we call billboards, touting mostly fireworks, adult clubs, and casinos—perhaps Indiana’s biggest tourist draws? One fireworks seller, Krazy Kaplans, saturates billboard space, with some stretches of interstate littered with a half dozen plus Krazy Kaplans ads staggered on both sides of the highway. I can’t guess their effectiveness, but I can judge their aesthetics. They’re an ugly, tasteless blight. Billboards are bad enough, but cheese ads slapped on ubiquitous giant signs presents an unbroken visual affront. Once again I thought of an early 1990s drive through Virginia with my aunt, who said billboards had been banned, leaving us to soak in the untainted greenery topped by blue skies without a Krazy Kaplans sign—or 12—to scar landscape.

With the lost time and unplanned detour, the backup in northwest Indiana, the time zone difference, a rest stop, a detour to look for a round barn, and a stop at a winery that was about to close and the Lark and Pear, a lovely and quaint toolshed café that was closed, we arrived at Warren Dunes State Park around 6 o’clock Michigan time.

We meandered about a bit, then J. set out to conquer the big dune. I wish I could have, but I’m already in enough pain. I sat in the car for about 20 minutes, noticing that the sky had become cloudy and the formerly hot and oppressive air cooler and comfortable. This was my idea of perfect beach weather. I took my shoes off, found a towel in the trunk, and made my way back to the water’s edge, where I stuck my feet in, then my calves. Brrr, but not as cold as Lake Michigan on the Chicago side. The temperature didn’t deter a lot of people from plunging in, several fully clothed.

For a while, I watched the ring-billed gulls at the water’s edge, where I’d guess they were hoping for something edible to wash up. I loved seeing gulls acting like shore birds instead of avian rats, nagging for and carrying off scraps of human trash.

The beach at Warren Dunes is surprisingly clean—I saw only one cigarette butt—and the sand finer than the beach here at 57th Street. Even at 6:00 p.m., I was surprised that the large parking lot was more empty than not, and only a few people were left dotting the beach. Those who weren’t picnicking were ascending the dunes or, in the case of many of the children, sliding down from the top. I wondered if I would have had the nerve to try. I’d like to think I would have, all the while suspecting that I wouldn’t.

While I sat there, the hidden sun reflected off the clouds through a break, and I remembered what it was like to live east of Lake Erie, to see sunsets instead of sunrises, to feel the cooling effect of the wind blowing across the water. I didn’t feel homesick—I think it has been too long—but for a moment I felt at home.

J. returned flushed from his exertions. Shortly after, flies made their presence known. I’ve never grasped how such small invertebrates could produce such painful bites with no teeth, but I felt like my legs were being stabbed by tiny but effective lancets. Crepuscular flies are nature’s way of saying it’s time to go.

We headed back on Red Arrow Highway toward one of the restaurants we’d seen earlier, Soe Café. I loved this place. It feels like it’s set in the woods, and the enclosed porch allows you to enjoy the trees and twilight minus the biting bugs. The food (bread with olive dip, potato bacon soup, Maytag bleu cheese burger, and meatloaf) was perfect, and so was the rich coffee from Kalamazoo—so rich I used four packets of half and half. Again I felt at home as the sky stayed light until well after 9:00, just like at home. I thought of my apocalyptic dreams, in which the sun shines on the garden and Virgil’s ash tree like early morning although it’s 10 at night.

Strong coffee couldn’t keep me awake, even as we returned to an earlier time, so to me the long drive seemed unusually short. But at least I gained an hour on the way back. Net-net = 0.

As we got close to The Flamingo, we saw quite a parade of police vehicles with lights flashing, probably at least 15, with the three or four that pulled off and headed west on 55th as we came up. It looked like we’d missed the crime of the century. J. negotiated his way through them and parked, then asked an officer cruising the parking lot on a four wheeler about the commotion. He said he was told that they routinely clear out the park at the 11 o’clock closing. I’ve see one or two cars and some cycles or four wheelers pass through at closing, but not in force like this. I’d guess he meant on summer holiday weekends, when the potential for trouble peaks. But I don’t know.

And so ended a happy if pain-filled day.

Friday, July 1, 2011

June 30, 2011: When all hail broke loose

Midwestern thunderstorms frighten me. Perhaps I took The Little House on the Prairie books too much to heart, but one day after I’d been in Chicago a while, I began to imagine that the winds blew harder the lightning streaked brighter, and the thunder boomed louder than at home in western New York. When I thought back to the storms at home, I remembered mostly what we called “sheet lightning”—no visible streak, just masses of clouds flashing with diffused light. Sheet lightning would never strike us, I believed. Living in a trailer, I was more afraid of wind.

Since living by Lake Michigan, I’ve paid more attention to the weather—at first, not by choice, but because some weather systems demanded attention, swooping in from the west to drive out the sunshine. Sometimes it’s just a cloud or two blotting out a little of the light or a freshening breeze; sometimes it’s an entire front visibly advancing, not unlike the onslaught of the crystalline entity in “Silicon Avatar” (Star Trek: The Next Generation). Sometimes it’s a milquetoast of a thunderstorm. It flashes, booms, blows, and rains a bit, then moves over the lake, leaving no ill effects behind except for a few drenched joggers and dog walkers.

Then there’s the storm of June 30. The unpredicted storm of June 30.

When I came home, I thought about changing for the pool. Even as I walked, a few clouds rolled in, and something in the air changed, but I was still considering it because there were no severe weather watches or warnings from the National Weather Service. I looked, but I didn’t see any predictions of what was to come. I was tired, though, and thought I’d wait until an evening when it didn’t look quite so much like rain.

Between 7:30 and 8:00, it seemed to be getting darker than it should have been for the time of year and day, even with an overcast sky. That’s when I noticed the cloud front above.

Wow.

By a little after 8 o’clock, the sky had turned a midnight blue. That’s when I heard and felt it.

Hail hitting the windows.

It bounced off so quickly that I couldn’t see how large it was—probably not that big—but the relentless racket made me afraid that the windows would break. The rain, right behind the hail, blew sideways from the east, with some even getting between the window panes. The two trees in front of The Flamingo tossed.

Being alone, I was starting not to like this.

After what seemed like a long time, but was probably at most 10 minutes, the hail stopped, although the rain banged against the glass almost as loudly. Between the hail and rain, and with a little anxiety mixed in, I gave up on watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and headed for the bedroom. The lightning continued for what seemed like hours.

The next morning, I saw many small and a few large tree branches down, including a significant one from the tree across from the bus stop. Overall, the damage didn’t seem that bad at first, although later I saw more large branches that had been torn off trees.

When I came home that evening, I could see from a half block away that the gate at The Flamingo had been covered with caution tape. As I passed by to go to the front, I could see why—one of the two pines along the sidewalk had been uprooted and then had fallen across the cabana roof, denting the edge slightly. It’s the first storm casualty I’ve seen in the garden.

Later, I learned the storm hit only select areas, including, unfortunately, the Garfield Park Conservatory, where the damage is described as “catastrophic.” If you can, please do what I did. Make a donation today to help with the cleanup and repairs and whatever needs to be done to save the plants, especially the ferns.

Monday, June 27, 2011

[Not Ferris Bueller's] day off


Continuing Friday’s theme, I met JT for a visit to another Chicago institution, this time the Field Museum of Natural History. First, however, we walked through a gray drizzle from Union Station to Lou Mitchell’s, where we were greeted with our choice from a bowl of doughnut holes to help sustain us during the short walk from the door to a tiny booth.

Lou Mitchell’s is the kind of throwback that once was a staple of the American experience and still is in select small towns and older neighborhoods in cities like Chicago—a diner, a greasy spoon complete with booths, counter, stools, and older waitresses who may never have thought of themselves as the more upscale “servers.”

While we both chose savory dishes (me, a sour cream omelette with tomato and bacon), we also asked for a pancake on the side. You can’t have a proper breakfast at a greasy spoon without a pancake. But the griddle was out of whack! Quelle tragèdie! Soon they did get it working but not in time for us.

Shortly after 9:30, we caught the 130 bus to Museum Campus. With my ongoing back spasms, exacerbated by any time spent standing, I’d intended to make it a somewhat short day. But with temptations like SUE the T. rex, The Horse, and Whales, it was not to be. Instead of cutting the visit short, I settled for frequent, long sitting spells that temporarily placate my lumbar region.

I don’t want to say much about the special exhibits so anyone in Chicago reading this in passing can go and form their own impressions. Both are outstanding, and The Horse is perfect for someone like me who, as a girl, lived, breathed, and dreamed of the horses she would never have and so settled for following horse racing (No Le Hace, Secretariat) and equestrian events. and reading every book on horses she could find, from the Golden Guide to the Black Stallion and Chincoteague and Assateague Islands series. Like most museum exhibits, The Horse was broad, not deep, designed to whet appetite rather than satiate it. I nearly missed the main reference to the horse in literature, to Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, which was at a child's eye level and hard to spot. If you want to learn a little about the horse as food, shelter, clothing, entertainment, worker, machine, and even therapist, don't miss it at the Field—it closes in August.

I'll say even less about Whales, which, beached and dead, became an integral part of the Maori culture. Although the exhibit is focused on the whale in Maori life and in the New Zealand ecosystem, interactive exhibits cover fascinating details about whale voices and language, their evolution from land to sea mammals, and their amazing physiological adaptations to aquatic life and, for some, ocean depths.

The Horse and Whales are the kind of exhibits from which you emerge feeling like a richer, better person who has experienced generations of culture and wisdom in just a couple of hours.

It's nearly impossible to visit the Field without paying your respects to SUE the T. rex, the tweeting dinosaur that dominates the north end of the main floor. It's as though 67 million-year-old bones could have a personality, even an attitude. Much new information has come out about dinosaurs and T. rex in the past few decades (SUE wishes that you didn't know that, like her/his bald eagle descendants, she/he wasn't above scavenging much of the time). For example, we've repositioned our museum specimens with their tails held straight out like banners, acting as counterbalances, instead of dragging uselessly on the ground. We've scoffed at the many misconceptions held by previous generations, but I wonder if our present paleontologists and their conclusions will be a source of scorn to our smarter descendants as they discover yet more, either in the field or in the lab. I doubt that SUE will ever become a vegetarian, and who doesn't see little dinosaurs in the big featherless heads of newly hatched altricial parrots. I wonder, too, what else we will learn about these not-so-gentle giants. Meanwhile, she swings her head down toward you, flashing her ghastly, toothy grin.

Still stuffed from breakfast, we bypassed the long food line at the Corner Bakery for the shorter one at beverages and desserts. This gave my back another reprieve and both of us a chance to enjoy the view of downtown to the north. I'm used to looking in the other direction now, to the south toward Museum Campus.

After the break, we saw Waking the T. Rex: The Story of SUE (not to be confused with O), which is in 3D, perhaps to reflect the largeness of her life and her not-so-final resting place. Her speculated history sounds more difficult and painful than you might think. She (or he?) suffered numerous injuries as well as an ailment I can relate to: arthritis. SUE is believed to have died at age 28, although she survives in her way 67 million years later, in movies, on T shirts and souvenirs, on Twitter.

Now if scientists could figure out her gender . . .

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ravinia redux


After receiving a reprieve from work, J. was able to go to Ravinia with me for A Prairie Home Companion. After a brief stop at Treasure Island for supplies and at Bonjour for sandwiches, he graciously agreed to drive, a boon to my knackered back.

Despite the string of slow traffic south of Addison, we still had the time and freedom to make a quick stop at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where the Rose Garden is in bloom, along with with a number of brides. This (the blooming roses, not the blushing brides) was a rare treat for J. because he usually misses them by a few months (see: Work). After having seen flowers covered by hundreds of honey- and bumblebees one day at Morton Arboretum, I was disappointed to spot only a lone bumblebee, who wouldn't stay still long enough for me to get a good photo. (It doesn't help that I can't lean over very well or very long.) What really made my day, however, were the cedar waxwings I glimpsed in the bushes. I spotted one by its yellow tail tips and got a great look at them as they flitted about. One of our most beautiful birds. J. missed them.

After J. took a fruitless spin around the gift shop, we made it to Ravinia just before the train did, and while he picked up his ticket I parked in a spot near the path that catches some shade (when it's sunny) and a view of the screens if not the stage.

Shade wasn't needed on this overcast day, which almost became cool enough to require a light sweater. Thoughtfully, J. rented chairs, which I have to admit is a lot easier than sitting on a blanket on the ground. One day into my fifties, and I'm already making concessions to age. I don't like this.

As usual during the Chicago-centric show, J. disappeared for long periods, to shop at the gift store and to take photos and video before and during the show. He returned, I suspect, mainly to refuel on Pirate Booty, falafel, cheese, tuna sandwiches, and cookies.

With comfortable weather, good music and storytelling, and an obvious dearth of mosquitoes, I could have asked for no more to fend off the post-birthday blahs.

Friday, June 24, 2011

(Not Hawaii) 5-0


I celebrated the descent into the second half of a century quite appropriately by developing debilitating back spasms last week. Jodi, the health center nurse practitioner, told me that it wouldn’t have taken a great strain to send my back over the edge. Indeed, the spasms began about six hours after I’d vacuumed and replaced a chair mat. And my mother didn’t believe that housework was bad for the health. I know better now.

Since last Wednesday, I’ve woken up, rolled out of bed in the approved way, and felt the spasms kick in immediately. I get it. My back doesn’t tolerate standing. Walking and sitting are all right most of the time, but my back doesn’t take to waiting for buses, stopping to admire museum or other exhibits, or washing dishes (yes, the old-fashioned way). I’m guessing vacuuming is on the same list, although I’m going to to have do a manual override on that preference. Life goes on, just not without pain that remains undaunted by prescription ibuprofen and muscle relaxant.

On this day I met JT at Lincoln Park Zoo, where we were treated to an insider’s view of the Nature Boardwalk, from native flowers and other plants to fish and birds. I would have loved every moment except for the acute, nonstop protest from my lumbar region against the slow pace and the stops to smell the roses (really, to admire the cone flower and other wildflowers). By lunch time, I was ready for a prolonged sit down.

Just before we started the walk, we’d observed a trumpeter swan pursue and peck at a tiny family of tiny ducklings. One even went under to escape the wrath of swan.

If you haven’t seen the boardwalk yet, I encourage you to add it to your walking list. While it’s still scraggly in its youth, it’s quite lovely, and if you’re careful and observant you’ll catch native beauties like the purple cone flower and eerie, otherworldly sounds like the call of what we think is a least bittern hidden under all the foliage. To the impatient jogger who gave us a brusque warning as she flew by—maybe you should worry less about your physique and more about your spiritual well-being and social skills. Are you surprised enough to be annoyed when people are casually strolling the Nature Boardwalk? Did you notice It’s not called the Nature Jogging Path? But shouldn’t complain. I’m glad that I don’t work with you and your Type A self-importance.

After lunch on the Patio at Cafe Brauer, my back finally decided to relax a bit (unlike the jogger), so we visited the gorillas, three of whom had ventured outside on this pleasant, overcast, slightly cool day. After a while, they all headed in. Perhaps they had heard something.

At the Brach Primate House, baby white-cheeked gibbon Sai demonstrated his increasing independence, leaving Burma’s clutch to practice his swinging skills. She’s more willing to let him go now, even ignoring him while she focused on grooming Caruso.

Remember “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”? They also sleep during the day. They are also more advanced in years than I am, so they’re entitled to their cat naps.

The European white stork was huddled in the nest, which it’s close to outgrowing. Human children who are said to “grow up so fast” have nothing on most birds, including storks.

In the McCormick Bird House, the black-winged stilts appear to be nesting. The tawny frogmouths look like they haven’t moved since January. The snowy egret fluffed his handsome plumes as he took care of an itch. In the free-flight area, we saw some newcomers, including a pheasant and a pheasant pigeon. I was reminded of the pygmy goose that is really a duck.

At Regenstein African Journey, Maggie the West African dwarf crocodile was out of the water, although with her back turned to her admirers. A pygmy hippo was soaking in the water, at one point displaying an impressive set of teeth. A visitor thought it was a baby. The pygmy doesn’t get the air time on cable that its larger relative does.

And so to RJ Grunts for the tuna trio and a shake.

Not a bad birthday at all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memorial Day and leader of the pack


When you’re working, holiday weekends seem like a good time to get away. And they are, if you’re headed somewhere that isn’t a major draw, like a family reunion—depending on the size of your family. If there’s a place you want to go because you have a little extra time, everyone else wants to go, too. Count on it.

On Sunday evening, we walked through Aurora, Sac, and possibly Kickapoo Canyons at Starved Rock State Park. I say “possibly” because I didn’t see a sign or a distinctive canyon, nor did I know what I was looking for. This evening wasn’t crowded. In an hour and a half or so, we encountered far more mosquitoes than people.

With all the spring rains, the waterfalls at Starved Rock are running, but the trails are muddy, messy, and slippery in places. I gave my new hiking shoes a good workout and found they really are waterproof as long as you don’t step in too deeply. Water balls on the surface, just like on a duck’s back. I felt more grip in the tread and more confident, with less fear of slipping or falling. I slid in the mud a few times, but not as often or as badly as with walking shoes. The confidence level helped, as long as it didn’t blossom into overconfidence. I could focus more on the scenery and less on my fear of falling—that is, until we got to the boardwalk.

We recognized the boardwalk from a previous visit and walked toward St. Louis Canyon as far as the orange cliff we’d seen before that bears the wounds of ungraciously carved graffiti. Perhaps these people consider themselves the modern equivalent of cave artists. It was getting dark in the thicker tree stands, so we turned back,

I noticed the boardwalk had felt slick on the way out, but now it seemed doubly so. Maybe I was tired. J. kept telling me to go slowly, which I did—but not slowly enough. One moment I was Homo erectus; the next, I was Homo flatonmyarseus. I fell in the fine tradition of comedic pratfall; my feet shot up as my butt smacked down. It was the classic banana peel. I would pay to see a video. I scooted over to the edge so I could get traction in the dead leaves and stand up, grateful that no one but the great outdoors and its inhabitants had witnessed my fall from grace—my first at Starved Rock. On a boardwalk. Sigh.

For J., Aurora and Sac didn’t hold quite the same interest as some of the other canyons because you’re walking above them, not in them. I don’t know if there’s a bottom trail, but I should look into it. I liked walking on the bridge that spans the waterfall and looking down at it, almost as though I were the source. I love the sound of the small waterfalls in these small canyons. It’s robust enough to be heard before the falls can be seen, but of course isn’t the deafening solid roar of a monster like Niagara Falls.

The sunset on the Illinois River did captivate him, and a pair of bikers listening to music that hasn't been on the charts in 30 years.

When I compare the photos from Memorial Day weekend to those from Mother’s Day weekend three weeks earlier, I’m struck by how lush the woods had become. I have it in my head that the midwestern world is in full bloom by early May and am always surprised when the world remains sparse and bleak yet a while longer, until two to three weeks into May.

On Memorial Day, cars circled the Matthiessen State Park parking lot like vultures that can’t find a place to land—it was that packed. Over at Starved Rock, where the road below the lodge was flooded, cars lined the upper approach almost out to the highway, and the lots at the Starved Rock trail heads were full. Everyone was out for the holiday.

At last we found a spot in the lot by Illinois Canyon, which is a lovely walk with a stream running parallel to the trail and until it curls around. Most likely we didn’t make it to the canyon, which I’m guessing would require crossing the stream. We weren’t quite dressed for it, and a girl assured me the water was “c-c-cold.” We did come across a trickle of water running down the rock face like a mini-waterfall tinkling into a tiny lake.

A little way past where the stream curved, a toddler crouched by the water while his father stood nearby and watched him entertain himself by throwing stones into it and playing. If that wasn’t a child’s idyll, I can’t think of what would be. And so much more than staring at or even interacting with electronics. Just sunshine, clouds, water, trees, plants, and stones on a perfect spring day. Even the mosquitoes seemed to hold back in the sunshine.

This time, we ate in Utica at Canal Port. We found the main street through town not just dominated by motorcycles, but completely taken over by them. At are our next stop, Foothills Organics, they told us that’s the norm for the warm weather months. The bikers who weren’t downtown, at Mix’s Trading Post, or cruising the twisty ups and downs of Route 71 had congregated at the gas station off the I-80 exit.

Move over, Marlon Brando.