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