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.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I can see clearly now?

This has to be the foggiest spring I have seen. When I look out the window at work sometimes I see nothing but a white mist. It reminds me of the “Remember Me” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Trapped in a warp bubble created by her precocious son, Wesley, Dr. Crusher discovers that her universe is shrinking when on the view screen all she can see is an enveloping blue mist. When I look out and see nothing but that white fog, I feel vaguely disturbed, claustrophobic, and trapped, as though that mist defines the confines of my world. I think I understand “thick as pea soup” now. Of course, it’s even worse when I’m on a plane that’s flying through it. Pilots use instruments, but really how can anyone fly a jet without being able to see all around? I couldn’t manage it emotionally.

That said, May 8 has to have been the most perfect day to date this spring—partly sunny, warmer, not windy—the picture-perfect spring day that, at least in Chicago, rarely happens. A great day for a hike at Starved Rock State Park.

Saturday had not been promising. It was damp, drizzly, and dreary. We’d arrived late in the afternoon and, after a few false stops while driving around, had taken the steps down to the river trail where there’s an old bench overlooking the water and a derelict boat upside down against the shore. The sun made a weak appearance shortly before sunset, but it wasn’t enough to lighten the setting or the mood. We walked until we’d worked out which way we should go to reach Tonti Canyon. It was beyond reach this late in the day, but at least now we were sure to find it. After all this time, I’ve finally (I think) figured out where everything is and how to reach it.

In the parking lot, J. spotted two masked rascals raiding a trash bin in the dusk. As we passed them, they looked at us dolefully, then casually ambled off in different directions. It’s rare that I see a raccoon that isn’t doubling as a roadside pancake.

The next morning looked better, with sunnier skies and more comfortable temperatures. As the morning wore on, puffy clouds broke up the bright blue skies. That’s what spring should be. Chicago just doesn’t have enough days like that.

To get to Tonti Canyon, we followed the same river trail as we did last July 4th on the way to Ottawa and Kaskaskia canyons, this time from a different parking lot, and missing amorous snakes along the way. This is as easy as a path can be except for the tiny but solid stumps sticking straight up that trip up even the wary, like us.

At the point the trail turns inward away from shore, we heard an indescribable noise that sounded like the hum of a mother ship idling. As we crossed a bridge, I realized it was coming from the frog mating frenzy below. Dozens of frogs seemed to be seeking opportunities, although most didn’t appear to be successful with their choices. I wondered about gender disparity. A good-sized dead fish floated along the surface, looking like a sizable snack for any scavengers lucky enough to snare it, for example, a pair of trash-raiding raccoons.

We came to a spot that seemed like a canyon, but with no waterfall. I was so tired that I was ready to quit, but after sitting on a log for a while to recharge I realized that a couple who had passed us with a dog had not returned, making me think (not entirely logically) that they had gone to and hung around the canyon. Then someone coming from that direction told us we needed to go just a little further. I hauled myself up, and we found it one quarter to one third of a mile from the the curve we’d stopped at; the running water we soon heard was a clue.

By this time, it was midday or past—not the best time to photograph water against a bright sky. Tonti sported two waterfalls, facing each other but somewhat offset. The prettier one to the right was on the sunny side, while the other was shadowed. We spent at least 45 to 60 minutes admiring them and taking photographs.

While we were snapping away, two couples appeared who wanted their photos taken. They were from the Netherlands, in Chicago for a medical conference. They’d heard about Starved Rock State Park on the Internet and had decided to spend their free time before the conference there. We saw them on the way back near the bridge, and in the water along the trail some turtles trying to sunbathe.

Along the river J. saw a “big earthworm” that he said was worth walking back a bit to take a peek at. I did, and he was half right—it was worth a look, even if it wasn’t an earthworm. Instead, it was a millipede, the first one I’ve seen in nature, looking a little worse for the wear. It wasn’t dead, as I thought; when I touched it with a twig, it reflexively curled around it. J. tried to take a photo, but it was too squirmy suspended in air, and I didn’t want it to plummet to the ground. I deposited it in a shaded, damp-looking area covered with leaf litter next to the path, away from the warm sun and any tramping feet—ideal habitat for a millipede.

We stopped at Mix’s Trading Post, which had become a hub of activity. I’d never seen so many motorcycles parked there before or so many people inside. I wanted to get a pair of moccasins. I soon found that my feet are too wide for any of the women’s styles, so sat on a chair in the aisle and experimented with the men’s varieties. I settled on the driving moccasins—also comfortable for walking, the blurb noted. J. pointed out the guard cat on a nearby seat, which the proprietor said is meant for the customers to use when trying on shoes. Catrina doesn’t care. She didn’t let being petted disturb her nap much, either. I’m skeptical about her efficacy as a guard animal.

We would have stopped briefly at Foothills Organics, but they appeared to be closed, perhaps for Mother’s Day.

And so, after a dinner stop at R Place in Morris, we came back to a world in which there are no waterfalls, only photographs and memories.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A bit of 2011 culture

I started my new job on March 28 and, just as I was getting used to the new schedule and routine, a nasty cold knocked me out two weeks later. Outside work, dozing off and falling asleep were becoming my only recreational activities.

I did manage to stay awake for a few cultural experiences. On March 30, J. and I met friends for dinner at Ras Dashen before crossing the street to the Broadway Armory for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch. Aside from the venue name, the space seemed perfect for a dark, spare, echoing look at contemporary war—in Iraq. A storied regiment, Black Watch finds itself a writer’s object of study even as its members recount their observations about their American counterparts. Like making movies, war seems to be a matter of waiting, but with a tragic ending. The starkness of the space reflects the raw emotions the men of Black Watch feel as the war inexorably draws them in and then as the writer, who has seen nothing, tries to draw them out. You had to be there to understand and to know death.

I’d like to be more interested in current movies, but the ongoing crop of action, comedy, reality, and franchise retreads leaves me cold. That’s why I almost missed Jane Eyre. Granted, like most movies now it has been done before. In the version I’ve seen most often, baby-faced Orson Welles does the honors as jaded man of the world Edward Rochester, while Joan Fontaine keeps her lips pursed, her feelings repressed, and her heart open. That Jane Eyre is memorable for a strong performance by Peggy Ann Garner as little hothead sinner Jane, a pretty turn by Elizabeth Taylor as the sweet but sickly Helen, and a cloying but good showing by Margaret O’Brien as Rochester’s coquettish ward (and daughter), Adèle.

While the 1943 Jane Eyre was shot primarily and noticeably within the confines of a sound stage and lot, the 2011 edition is more expansive (and expensive), beginning with a distraught young woman running across the haunting, perpetual twilight of the moors, which may be the best feature of the movie. The rest is almost as claustrophobic as the earlier version or the mad woman’s confinement. For all his wealth, worldliness, and travels, what we see of Rochester’s world is as narrow as Jane’s.

Aside from the brooding open-air cinematography, I didn’t find much to recommend in this Jane Eyre. There’s less focus on Jane’s childhood and the influence of her “education.” The child actors aren’t as important to the movie, and their performances are weak. I found myself missing Peggy Ann Garner’s explosive farewell to her aunt (Agnes Moorehead). Adèle appears tangentially only, speaking French because she’s French, and apparently no one needs to know what she’s saying. She’s there because the plot requires it but what her presence reveals about Rochester’s character is lost. Even Rochester’s supposed intended bride flits through without making an impression. The only character who does is Mrs. Fairfax, the housekeeper, because she’s played by Judi Dench, who is talented enough to pull off such a weak role with aplomb. The man who, along with his sisters, takes Jane in is also noteworthy, but mainly because his appearance is jarring, his personality tightly wound, and his relationship with his guest awkward and forced.

That leaves Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and Rochester (Michael Fassbender), a pairing that has as much chemistry as two inert substances. Jane lacks a distinctive personality, substituting white-faced teariness for controlled emotions. Rochester, who should be bitter, brutal, and enigmatic, seems to be doing his fairest impression of a 1980s sensitive guy in touch with his feminine side. Their pairing, the dynamics of which should be at least a little disturbing, is about as interesting as that between two Yuppies circa 1987. Passion of feeling there is not, especially that passion that makes the Victorian society of literature so compelling. I wanted to like Jane Eyre, but it needed to be more than a movie with pretty scenery and attractive faces rushed through without life or context.

Fast forward from the Industrial Age to the Machine Age and beyond for Death and the Powers by Tod Machover (music) and Robert Pinsky (libretto). This time—perhaps ironically, given the subject matter—the performances outweighed the subject, and the repetitive movements of the Crow-like robots held more interest than either the torturous music or stilted libretto. Strangely, nothing about either music or libretto evoked the monotonous, regular, stifling hum of the machine, despite the use of that word, no matter how awkwardly, enough times to make me grind my teeth reflexively. The music is more random than a well-ordered machine (whether industrial or computer) could make it, although perhaps a machine could create a mood—any mood. It wasn’t even irritating.

In a weird anachronism in this futuristic world of blended man and machine (technology), people still read newspapers, and the print press is still powerful. Neither my hostess nor I quite understood where that came from or what it was supposed to mean. In the age of technology, the conventional notion of the press is obsolete has been for some time. What was the point?

The robots were cute, the set decor different if a bit too reminiscent of a disco, and the performances good. Sara Heaton as the daughter was exceptional, which the audience appreciated. But it’s going to take something truly awful to unseat Death and the Powers as my least favorite opera to date.

Doctor Atomic is modern opera executed beautifully, with music that evokes emotions and a libretto that fuses poetry and arguments into a thought-provoking vision of the apocalypse, before and after. Death and the Powers seemed to be words and notes signifying nothing.