30 December 2005

Rediscovering the New Yorker

I guess I have been a New Yorker subscriber for more than 22 years—since studying fiction writing with Larry Woiwode, who gave all his students William Maxwell’s writing advice and made us feel that the goal of publishing in the New Yorker was both impossibly lofty and ultimately attainable.

In college in the early 80s, some of us used to rail against the old-fashioned typeface, the impossibly long articles, the dull poems, the lack of a “letters to the editor” section, and the in-crowd tone as offensively undemocratic. But we read it anyway, even if some weeks we managed only the cartoons, or one of the two or three short stories, or Pauline Kael’s movie reviews. It was no secret that we wanted to be in that in-crowd.

Through persistent exposure, I eventually became a reader of the articles. To my surprise, those immense clumps of prose turned out to be interesting. In talking with others about my changed view of the articles, I’d always mention a long piece in which I was completely absorbed until I realized I was reading about the New York sewer system. It floored me that I could have been captivated by such a thing.

Last month, we got ourselves The Complete New Yorkeran electronic copy of every issue since 1925. This afternoon I finally had a chance to track down that article. Turned out to be a 1986 piece by Bill McKibben called “Apartment,” in which he explains in detail how electricity, heat, and water enter a New York City residence, and how sewage leaves. It runs from page 43 to page 91 and is quite fascinating, even 20 years later. Perhaps more so now, because you can see the origins of some of Bill McKibben’s future preoccupations. The 20-year-old advertising is also fascinating: Volkswagen encouraging you to take a trip to Germany to pick up your vehicle, Talbot’s including a coupon for you to subscribe to its catalog (6 issues a year!), notoriously bitchy Leona Helmsley guaranteeing that your suite at the Palace will be perfect.

Since then, the New Yorker has of course changed. You rarely see articles of that length anymore; bylines now precede the articles; there’s only one piece of fiction per issue; and they print letters now.

Hey, I’ve changed, too. After all, it’s been 20 years. Part of the treasure of The Complete New Yorker is perusing its evidence of how we’ve all changed.

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29 December 2005


This movie, directed by Michael Mann, is all surfaces. I looked forward to learning something about Mohammed Ali, about whom I knew nothing, so it was disappointing to find this film to be more like a music video (or string of them) than a biopic.

There’s nothing wrong with the performances. Will Smith is fine; sometimes his resemblance to Ali is almost creepy. But, beyond depth, the movie lacks connective tissue. It’s one damn thing after another. You don’t feel a why behind anything. Ali becomes a fighter. Why? He converts to Islam. Why? Etc.

So I don’t especially recommend it. But if you have the remotest interest in Ali, do see When We Were Kings ; this is a terrific documentary about the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire.

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Theater Thursday at Improv Kitchen

Theater Thursday is a project of the League of Chicago Theatres. Every week (on Thursday!) the League promotes a particular theater by sponsoring free appetizers and (usually) an opportunity to meet the performers after the show.

So far we’ve been to two of these events. A few months ago we saw Copenhagen at the Timeline Theater, near us on Wellington off N. Broadway; we thought the play was good, but the performance didn’t impress us so much. Tonight we checked out Improv Kitchen, which is also in our neighborhood, but north, on Clark.

Improv Kitchen is an interesting concept. It’s sort of like dinner theater, but it’s improv and it’s TV. That is, you sit at a table with a big video screen on which you watch the performance. And, periodically, the performers watch (and listen) to you, as when they do the standard improv “Give me a location” type of thing.

It was a nice evening, and I certainly laughed at some bits, but though we’ve enjoyed episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I don’t think we’re the target audience anymore for improv. We tend to look for more polish, which is probably beside the point for this kind of entertainment. We're expecting theater but getting something closer to standup, and requiring more goodwill (or lubrication).

The food was OK, not great. Decent green salad, crab cakes a bit bland (but nice remoulade), tasty veggie rolls (vegetables in phyllo over mushroom sauce—this was our favorite), the fish in the fish tacos a little dry, the “homemade” sorbet a little off in both texture and taste.

OK, so the food wasn’t that good. I wanted to like this place more than I did. Still, worth checking out at only $10 for the show.

"Pure Fiction" in the Chicago Reader

Used some unplanned time off this afternoon to read the Chicago Reader’s “Pure Fiction” feature: seven short stories, filling Section 1 from cover to cover. All of the stories were decent: readable and compelling, and the editors seemed to take pains to make sure each of them represented a distinct slice of modern life. When I was all done, though, I realized that each story was about the main characters’ lack of control over what happened to them, from an aspiring country club tennis pro who recounts the disaster that ruined his third-rate athletic career, to a kid who can’t get himself to tolerate peanut butter. None of the characters in these stories succeeds in getting control over much; none of them manage to overcome the key thing they’re concerned about.

So I find myself wondering if this is a new trend. It’s not a very pleasant one: stories with characters who don’t change. You want characters to change; it gives you hope that you can change.

Certainly, reading seven stories in which characters don’t change is a bummer. Still, I’d particularly recommend Hilary Frank’s “Arachibutyrophobia,” which is, I think, the best story of the bunch, packing the most genuine complexity. And also the well-done “How He Leaves,” by Sigers Steele, where the surprise of the story is more about how you come to feel about the protagonist than about what he does or doesn’t do.

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27 December 2005

The Man with the Golden Arm

I heard the title The Man with the Golden Arm long before I ever read the book or saw the movie. It’s a beautiful, evocative title, but it also makes you think of something grotesque: a man with a shiny prosthetic. When I got older, and knew the story centered on a junkie, the connotation became even more disturbing: an arm jaundiced by the hypo. I was never much into addiction stories and Nelson Algren’s book (purchased as a shiny new softcover back in the early 80s, when I was spending the greater part of my college loan money on the creation of a private library) sat on my shelf for more than 20 years.

But I’ve since moved to Chicago, where Algren is a Very Important Writer, so prejudices against drug stories have taken a backseat to getting up to speed on the literary aspects of the city I’ve come to love. (Whether this determination will extend to James T. Farrell, whom I’ve heard called one of the worst writers in the history of the English language, only time will tell.) Also, we saw the movie recently, which stars Frank Sinatra as the junkie Frankie Machine and Darren McGavin (remember The Night Stalker?) as the pusher who gets himself killed, causing trouble for everybody.

The movie is something else. It opens with Frankie, a dealer in neighborhood poker games, returning to the old neighborhood after a stint in rehab, determined to change his life. You feel you’re seeing every possible drug cliché enacted on the screen: the sleazy pusher, the addict who wants to kick but can’t, the wife who enables the addiction, girlfriend who loves him enough to help him quit, the way the whole world seems to conspire to push the addict toward relapse... What’s amazing is realizing this movie invented those clichés. It’s definitely worth seeing.

It turns out that the book is quite a good read, though the story is grittier than the one told in the movie. Algren locates the source of Frankie’s addiction in his WW2 service—he was wounded and got hooked on the morphine that eased the pain of his injury. The novel also makes clear, though, that in spite of his friends’ admiration and awe of his Purple Heart, Frankie was no hero. A grunt’s grunt, he remained three years a private.

While the novel tells the story of Frankie’s several attempts to kick the stuff, what we get out of it is the tale of a loser in a community of losers, people the American dream has left behind: small-time swindlers, dwellers in fleabag tenements, drunks, and sweet girls who can’t get a break. Amid the sad detritus of this universe, located around Chicago’s West Division Street, Frankie Machine shines like a star, with his big talk and his talent (the “golden arm” refers to his sure skill dealing cards, which he hopes to transfer to playing the drums in a big band).

Still, his life spirals downward. And although the drugs are central, you can’t help feeling that if it weren’t morphine that did Frankie in, it would have been something else. At bottom, he doesn’t believe he’s worth saving; one of the achievements of the novel is that you end up feeling they’re all worth saving, not just Frankie, but also his grimier fellows. Algren draws his characters with such vividness that he takes you beyond pity and amusement to pure empathy.

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18 December 2005

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain just might be the most romantic movie of the year. It’s got star-crossed lovers and fabulous scenery. The main characters’ lives are entirely ruled by their feelings, although they never speak of them directly—certainly they never use the word love. Ennis (Heath Ledger) hardly utters any words at all, but even voluble Jack (Jake Gyllenhall), whose face nakedly betrays every emotion that passes through him, never says “I love you.”

Of course, they’re guys, so that may explain it.

Ennis and Jack meet as young men, cowboys guarding sheep on Wyoming’s remote Brokeback Mountain. It’s an idyllic, passionate summer, but the job ends early and they separate: Ennis to his fiancé in Riverton, and Jack back to his father’s spread.

In different states Jack and Ennis separately marry and have children, but Jack periodically visits Ennis for “fishing trips” during which they relive that first summer on Brokeback Mountain. Realistic Ennis is unable to abandon his wife and children—and later, after he’s divorced, his dreary and stolid daily life—for an unpredictable and likely dangerous full-time existence with Jack. Ennis can’t forget how he saw a murdered gay rancher when he was a child; he’s sure they’d be found out and killed if they took such a step. Ennis doesn’t know they’ve been found out already—by the boss at Brokeback Mountain (that’s why their job ended early) and by his own wife—regardless, you sense Ennis is right. In the landscape of this movie, there is no place to hide.

Like a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton, Brokeback Mountain makes you feel the consequences of being unable to live your desires; of believing you have no choice but to suppress your true feelings in order to survive. And it makes you ponder the value of surviving on those terms. Or not. Not everybody can.

Go see this movie.

And bring a lot of tissues.

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11 December 2005


Truman Capote has written such beautiful prose that it’s hard to believe he was a son of a bitch, but Capote persuades you. Much has been said about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tour de force performance; more probably ought to be said about Catherine Keener’s marvelous portrayal of Harper Lee.

What struck me most, though, was the juxtaposition of a pathologically narcissistic Truman Capote with the murderer Perry Smith, who seems to be a sensitive, thoughtful person and yet was responsible for the dreadful carnage at the Kansas farmhouse that is the subject of Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood.

So we’re presented with a considerate fellow who’s a vicious killer and a selfish son of a bitch who’s a Great Writer. When the killer is executed, we’re (guiltily) relieved because he was scary—we didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand himself—but when we find out from the closing titles that Truman Capote died in 1984 from the complications of alcoholism and never completed another book, we’re glad.

While the narcissistic artist is a commonplace, we don't like him.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I don’t remember when I first fell for Robert Downey, Jr. Maybe it was his star turn in Chaplin (1992); maybe even his appearance in the otherwise forgettable Soapdish (1991) (forgettable, that is, except for the introduction of the knockout Elisabeth Shue). The attraction isn’t about good looks (though his looks are just fine), but presence. He projects irrepressibility: you sense a complicated inner life, and in spite of an often self-deprecating and consciously clumsy manner, there are moments of remarkable physical grace. I realize I am describing his achievement in Chaplin, but I see similar traits in most of his performances.

On the whole, Downey, Jr.'s filmography isn't so impressive, but he typically makes the duds worth seeing. The other night we went to the well-reviewed but poorly hyped Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and had a blast. The movie is a knowing riff on noirish private eye stories, buddy movies (on which writer/director Shane Black is an expert, having created Lethal Weapon), and tangled plotting. Along with Robert Downey, Jr., it stars Val Kilmer, who is also a pleasure to watch.

(I seem to have a soft spot for good actors who make hard-to-understand career choices—sometimes it just takes just one splendid performance (like Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone) to make me a fan forever.)

As Anthony Lane points out, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a movie that could be annoying, with its loopy storytelling and nudge-nudge-wink-wink narration, but we weren't annoyed at all. In fact, we may have winked back.

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08 December 2005


It’s been a long time since we stopped in at Bandera, but not because we didn’t enjoy the food. In fact, every time we pass by its second-floor location on N. Michigan Ave. we generally reminisce wistfully about how good the food is there. We’ve only been once, and had the rotisserie lamb (specialty of the house) and a wonderful salad. Both terrific, but generally we just don’t feel like we can afford fine dining; we tend to gravitate toward cheaper restaurants. It’s silly, because Bandera’s not that expensive, but we go out to eat so much that we don’t want to make such places a habit.

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Light Lesson

One thing I’ve learned this year is not to buy my lighting at lighting stores. Lighting stores are for browsing. They are way too expensive to buy from, and the selection is often limited. It may seem scary to buy such significant household items sight unseen (except for a thumbnail photo), but the price difference is such that even with hefty restocking charges for returns, it’s worth buying online.

I’ve mentioned Lamps Plus before; most recently we made a purchase from Affordable Lamps.com: this chandelier, which we are even happier with than we expected.

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19 November 2005

Seu Jorge @ Millennium Park, 19 September

One of the many reasons to love Chicago is Millennium Park, particularly the free concerts that run all summer long at Frank Gehry’s astonishing Pritzker Pavilion. The acoustics are great, and the visuals are particularly awesome. To the left of the stage is the stunning architecture of Michigan Avenue, truly gorgeous at sunset. By the time the setting sun fades, the house lights are registering similar effects against the pavilion’s steel surfaces.

We didn’t attend as many of these concerts as we would have expected this summer, but we did catch a few. One of these was Seu Jorge, the Brazilian musician who first entered the consciousness of many North Americans when he was featured in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou last year, singing David Bowie covers in Portuguese.

The concert took place on the cusp of autumn solstice, as part of the World Music Festival, and we got there 30 minutes late, but the free concert lasted at least another hour. You can’t beat listening to beautiful, sensual Brazilian music at twilight. Some people were dancing at their seats.

Seu Jorge left the stage after a series of wonderful numbers we’d never heard before, and a band of young percussionists stayed behind to entertain the audience. These kids were fabulous, not just drumming, but directing the audience to accompany them with claps. The audience, in trying (and failing) to keep up with the complex rhythms generated on stage, gained a fresh appreciation of the talent involved.

To our gratified surprise, Seu Jorge returned after some 20 minutes, and did a long encore that encompassed several David Bowie songs in Portuguese. As the concert finally ended, we felt like we were floating, and drifted out of the park toward our bus stop, completely content.

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16 November 2005


I chose to read this novel in part because of the reputation of its author, Australian Peter Cameron, but mostly because of its title. As a child I had a predictable fascination with the very small and very large; Andorra was a target of this fascination because it is the smallest country in Europe. As a voracious encyclopedia reader, I must have learned something about Andorra back then, but nothing has stuck with me except the fact of its size.

Which really has nothing to do with this novel, except that the smallness of the country somehow lends credibility to the almost Kafkaesque oddness of it as described by Mr. Cameron. The description is just this side of believable, even in contemporary times, even in Europe—as if reality is different in a small country.

You read this finely written book in good faith, turning pages because—while the first-person narrator is somewhat distant and opaque—you buy into the story: someone has gone away to a remote place to get over a great grief. For a time you don’t know what the grief is, and then you do, and you start to sympathize with this cold, opaque character.

Chinks begin to appear. Other characters don’t see the protagonist just as you do. Some of them are unreasonably fond of him; others develop a surprising antipathy. You don’t understand why, but you go along. And then, finally, you realize your sympathy was misplaced.

If this is a spoiler, so be it. The novel’s “surprise” ending is entirely unpaid for. While there are things to admire about Andorra, I don’t recommend it. When I closed its covers what I felt most was annoyance.

In reviewing other responses to the novel, I see I may have missed something by taking it so literally. But I'd argue that this shallow story—however clever—hasn't earned such multilayered readings.

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12 November 2005

Romeo Romeo

Romeo Romeo is a perfect destination if you’ve just been to a show at Davenport’s in Wicker Park and didn’t have dinner yet. Since Davenport’s doesn’t serve food and has a two-drink minimum, you are a little woozy from having downed two drinks on an empty stomach, and you’re ravenous.

This is a good thing, because Romeo Romeo doesn’t stint on portion sizes. For example, the Tortellini (with spinach and pine nuts) Grosso appetizer would satisfy some people as an entrée, and is—in any case—eminently shareable. And pleasing: rich, creamy, yet interestingly flavored. Also pleasing is the Caesar salad, which incorporates some unusual components: fried capers, bits of hard-boiled egg, and croutons made of polenta. Actually, the Caesar is more than pleasing; it’s amazing.

Entrees we’ve tried include the Melanzana Parmigiana (eggplant parmesan) and Diamond Jim Spaghetti and Meatballs. The eggplant parmesan was fine; nothing special. The spaghetti and meatballs, though, were quite wonderful. The large, dense meatballs, while not as peppery as one would expect from the menu description (“pepper studded”), are made chewy by bits of mozzarella. The result is surprising, in a good way.

The atmosphere at Romeo Romeo is crowded and loud, but the service is pleasant and attentive, and both times we visited we were lucky enough to get seated without a reservation. The menu—perhaps best characterized as improvisations on standard red-sauce Italian—is interesting enough that we look forward to returning and trying other items.

But we will probably always start with the Caesar and get the meatballs on the side.

1415 N. Milwaukee
773 . 227 . 6636

Sunday through Thursday
5pm to 11pm
Friday & Saturday
5pm to 1am

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Chicago Turkish Festival

All summer, and intermittently through the fall, Chicago’s “Under the Picasso” program hosts a series of ethnic festivals. Polish, Chinese, Thai, Mexican…you name it. While we haven’t attended all or even most of them, the Turkish festival (typically held for a week in mid-September) is a favorite. Aside from the usual lunchtime fashion shows of traditional dress and folk dancing demonstrations, this festival features market stalls run by visiting Turkish merchants who bring along employees to demonstrate their crafts. In front of one booth offering intricately decorated Turkish ceramics, a man paints a platter with tiny brush strokes. In front of another booth, a woman sits at a loom, her fingers moving faster than your brain can comprehend. A merchant tells you a single rug takes nearly a year to complete. Watching the remarkable detail (slowly) emerging on the loom, you believe it. A market stall specializing in imported delicacies offers free samples of Turkish Delight.

Festival food is often a chancy proposition, but Turkish Festival offerings are of a higher order. Most of the booths are run by decent Chicago Turkish restaurants, including Cousins and Turquoise. Salads, typically chopped small with lots of tomato and cucumber, are fresh and flavorful. Lots of grilled meat (in the form of kabobs) is available, served with rice or in a sandwich. There’s a café serving Turkish coffee; you can sit at one of the little tables with your small, beautifully painted cup and imagine you’re in Istanbul. Nearby, a booth sells Turkish ice cream, which we have yet to try, as the queue is always longer than we have the patience to endure.

We’ve visited two of the Turkish Festivals so far, and it’s become a standard by which we measure the other ethnic/cultural festivals we attend. You want some feeling of authenticity—not just kitsch; you want good characteristic food; you want to learn something. It’s rare and wonderful when a festival meets all three expectations, as does the Turkish Festival.

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Great Meals in Albany Park

The question becomes, can you have a bad meal in the Middle-Eastern mini-neighborhood surrounding the Kedzie Brown Line stop? I suppose anything is possible, but so far it seems rather unlikely. There’s Noon-O-Kabab, the much-celebrated (since its Check Please! appearance) Persian place, where the dilled rice is wonderfully savory, the kabobs are tender, and the borani (spinach, onions, and garlic in thick yogurt) especially delicious. There’s Semiramis, a newer Lebanese spot with a particularly good chicken special and excellent falafel. And next to the really splendid Nazareth bakery (which, in addition to exceptional baklava, offers a range of traditional sweets), is the simply named Salam, a Palestinian place with zero ambiance, friendly service, and generous amounts of terrific, cheap food. (Three of us got full on one combination plate.) We have yet to try City Noor, which was recently awarded an LTH Forum Great Neighborhood Restaurant sticker, and which has the characteristic Egyptian soup melikheya—which my husband grew up with—on its specials roster, but we’re confident we have something wonderful to look forward to.

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27 September 2005

Migratory Bird Sighting

Walking through Bryant Park, Victor said, "Look, a crowned sparrow!"

It was a bird with a striped head. But its bill was pointy, not chunky like a sparrow's. "No, it's a thrush," I said.

Home again, I did some research on the Web. Not a sparrow, nor a thrush, but this. According to the Cornell School of Ornithology's All About Birds site, ovenbirds live in forests and eat insects, but ours was grazing for crumbs under a cafe table.

Must've been just passing through, as we were.

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26 September 2005


Since rejoining the full-time workforce a few weeks ago, I’ve been struggling to adjust. One difference is that I’m repeatedly finding myself part of a throng. This is hard for me because I’ve long abhorred crowds.

It hasn’t always been so. I commuted to school on the New York subway during rush hour throughout my teens; I don’t remember it bothering me a bit. One summer I held a series of jobs handing out employment agency flyers on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, opposite the Public Library. Now that’s a place for throngs. And after I got my driver’s license, I’d sometimes drive into Manhattan during the morning rush, savoring the very adult (to my mind then) experience of being stuck in traffic.

But I’ve changed. Probably I’ve lived too long away from big cities. I don’t like walking close up behind people. I like to walk fast, which is itself a city thing, but difficult to do in a throng. Victor has long made fun of my “New York walk,” which kicks in when I feel too pressed in by others. I’ll get my legs pumping and dart in and out of the mass of pedestrians, angling for a clear path; an open vista.

A throng is more than simply a crowd. It is a swarm—a mob with a direction. You feel yourself to be a tiny droplet in the great wave. Or—if the throng is approaching from the opposite direction—you feel yourself to be in danger of submersion. As if you could be forced to go somewhere you don’t want to.

It’s no problem, I suppose, if you have nowhere to be, like my teenage self, sitting in rush hour traffic on a Tuesday morning. But if you do have a destination, particularly if you’re late, then it can be unpleasantly surreal. The whole world is in your way, and no matter how many times you say, “Excuse me,” other people remain impenetrable obstacles. The goal—whether it’s a movie theater, a restroom, or your bedroom at home—comes to seem both desperately important and nightmarishly unreachable.

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Spider Season

Since we took out our storm windows and replaced them with screens last May, our bedroom’s bay windows have been supporting families—no, whole villages—of arachnids. There pickings must be rich four stories above Lake Shore Drive, because some of our spiders are quite large. Often we’ll wake up in the morning and notice one right at the center of its web, like a picture in a children’s book. We also notice the victims: stuck, smothered in spidersilk.

Luckily, I’m not scared of spiders, and have a live-and-let-live attitude about them. That is, I have a live-and-let-live attitude about them when they stay where they belong, on the outside of the window. Those which find their way indoors tend to meet an unhappy fate, unless they’re very fast.

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Encounter with the Quincy L Stop

You haul your luggage (not to mention your ass) up flight after overpainted flight of exterior stairs on Wells and Quincy (after some alarm—how will you get to Midway on time?—on encountering a “do not enter” sign in front of identically overpainted stairs closer to Adams), and after the noise and frank ugliness of the street (no streetscape can survive an elevated train), you step into a charming former world. The token booth (or whatever you call it in Chicago—in New York, it would be a token booth) is fronted with blond wood, nicked throughout, sure, but easy on the eyes. You look up, and see a ceiling that's either intricately molded plaster or painted tin.

Maybe the best part is, no more stairs. The quaint wooden platform awaits, and—in a moment—so does the Midway-bound train.

For more information on the Quincy/Wells station, which is the only restored station in the Loop, click here.

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17 September 2005

Colaptes auratus on South Wacker Drive

Nature again. Walking to my office the other morning along South Wacker Drive, I saw a Northern Flicker on the sidewalk in front of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. After several classic double-takes—I was so struck by this gorgeous, red-moustached bird just sitting on the concrete as if protecting a tiny pile of eggs—I realized it was quite dead, just beautifully preserved, and wondered how it had got there.

Of course all creatures die, but we don’t usually see the deaths of wild ones (unless we’ve caused them). Live wild creatures are pretty quick to gobble the dead ones up.

I’ve heard of migrating birds dying from smashing into the glass windows of skyscrapers, particularly at night. So that might be what happened. After a bit of Web research, I find that there’s a Chicago organization dedicated to helping bird victims of the glass-window aspect of human encroachment on the planet.

Now I wonder if the bird was just stunned, not dead. If stunned, I imagine it shaking itself out of its stupor in the midst of the swarms of pedestrians passing the Mercantile Exchange at rush hour, and suddenly rising back into the sky, unnoticed by anyone except as a little red dash in their peripheral vision, quickly appearing and just as quickly gone.

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12 September 2005

Butterfly Season

Nature is sometimes evident in the oddest places. As I was pondering what to write about tonight, a Gaper’s Block item reminded me of a recent source of acute pleasure. Chicago is being visited by masses of Monarch butterflies. Gaper’s Block pointed to this news article, which explains that drought can be a boon for these creatures, which like hot, dry weather.

All I know is that in Millennium Park (where I have found myself several times in the past couple of weeks), it is impossible to miss these startlingly beautiful creatures. They’re the more striking in such an urban environment. You see one hovering around some flowers in a planter, which is not so strange, but then it flies off, high (you can’t help but follow it with your eyes, it is so purely attractive), so that its only backdrop is the elegant skyline of Michigan Avenue.

Completely incongruous, which is perhaps what makes it such a smile generator.

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11 September 2005

The Constant Gardener (Movie)

Well, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were plenty of raves, but my idol Anthony Lane at the New Yorker wasn’t too keen on it. On the other hand, I just read John LeCarre’s novel this summer, and totally loved it, so it was hard to conceive of missing the movie, especially one with such a fine cast and a serious director.

So the verdict is: decent. I laughed, I cried. No, I think I just cried. A lot. But I have a hard time seeing how anyone who has not read the book could possibly understand this movie. Although various plot elements were simplified (enormously), there’s a level of context that’s entirely missing. Nonreaders would probably find Justin and Tessa’s relationship movie-conventional: they meet, hop into bed, follow great sex with commitment and marriage; then little cracks appear in their union, grow into larger cracks, and she dies, leaving him to mourn what might have been.

I am going to try not to comment on the missing complexities, because that’s simply inevitable in a movie of a novel, especially a novel as densely layered as The Constant Gardener. But it’s harder to forgive the omission of LeCarre’s acute moral sensibility: Justin’s transformation from a fairly superficial (though unfailingly polite) civil servant to—first—an appreciator of passionate advocacy (by appreciating it in his wife) and—finally—a hero for a cause.

The performances in this movie were very good, although I wasn’t always delighted with the casting. Ralph Fiennes is a splendid actor, but he wears his emotions so much on his face that it’s difficult to see him as the imperturbable diplomat. I kept wishing Alan Rickman had this part—or someone else who keeps his inner turmoil inner. Rachel Weisz was fine as Tessa and Danny Houston was appropriately icky as Sandy Woodrow.

Recommendation: if you’ve read the book, be prepared for less. If you’ve not read the book, be prepared to be confused.

Recommendation, take 2: Read the book. It’s a great love story, a thriller, a spy novel, and enlightening (and scary) about the impact of multinational pharmaceutical companies.

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29 August 2005

The Bicycle Thief

Let's say it's maybe 1947 and your country lost the war, and you're poor as hell, and it's been more than a year since you've had a job. You've got a wife and a young son (he's maybe ten years old and works in a gas station) and a baby at home, and not that long ago you had to pawn your bicycle so your family could eat.

Then, out of despair, hope: you're offered a job putting up posters. But you need a bicycle to get this job. So you and your wife pawn your bedsheets to get your bicycle back. You start your new job, which you're not terribly good at, but maybe you'll improve, and before the end of your first day, your bicycle is stolen.

Can things get worse? They can. You can search all over Rome for the bicycle, not find it, then confront the thief, but be unable to prove it's him. You can turn into a bicycle thief yourself, out of desperation, and be caught by a mob, shamed before the eyes of your young son.

If a picture of misery can be beautiful, then this is it. The Bicycle Thief was directed by Vittorio di Sica.

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26 August 2005

New Yorker Festival, Coming Soon

The 5th New Yorker Festival will be held in a few weeks and yesterday at noon tickets went on sale. I was psyched to buy tickets for readings by Michael Chabon and Stephen King, but I guess a lot of other people were, too. Though I was at my laptop at 12 sharp, I couldn’t manage to make a successful purchase. A message said tickets were not available. Same problem with tickets for the special screening of Nick Park’s new Wallace and Gromit feature. So after several attempts I got tickets for other events and then waited an hour to try again.

You can guess what happened then. SOLD OUT! Boy was I bummed.

But not TOO bummed. After all, I have tickets to see Edward P. Jones and Marilynne Robinson, Richard Dawkins, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a panel of smart people remembering Auden. And we have tickets to see Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out on Broadway the same weekend.

I love going to NYC as a tourist.

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25 August 2005

Just Read: The Coffee Trader

This novel by David Liss was a quick read. It takes place in Amsterdam in the 17th century, during the birth and early childhood of corporations, stock exchanges, and futures trading. The protagonist is a commodities trader named Miguel Lienzo, of Portuguese Jewish extraction, who is in the process of recovering from a financial disaster and soon grows to hope that trading in the little known new commodity called coffee will make his fortune. There are a variety of intrigues that keep you turning pages, and plenty of interesting tidbits about the little-known culture of the “hidden Jews” of Portugal (in previous centuries many Iberian Jews had become Catholics to avoid execution by the Inquisition; many of these conversos privately maintained their Judaism as best they could while adhering to the forms of Christianity in public), the position of women, and the cosmopolitan culture of Amsterdam at that time.

The writing is mostly efficient, with occasional infelicities. But this is not a novel to read for the pleasure of its prose; in The Coffee Trader, the plot’s the thing.

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23 August 2005

A Resurrection

I first heard of the renaissance of Bryant Park years ago (the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation (BPRC) formed in 1980), but until today had not had an opportunity to experience it myself. I was delighted and bemused to find this civilized and calm oasis in the midst of the perennial midtown rush.

The park, on 42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, behind the iconic New York Public Library building, is no longer the disaster area I knew in the mid-70s and early 80s. When I was a kid in New York, Bryant Park was a place you didn’t go if you knew what was good for you. The “Park” part of its name was as empty of meaning as the “Hills” in “Forest Hills” (and the “Forest,” too, for that matter). It would have been more aptly called “Bryant Don’t-Go-in-There.” I am not sure what I thought was inside—probably muggers and drug pushers, the bogeymen of my childhood and adolescence.

Bryant Park was so much to be avoided that I remember walking past it (as I often did, on my way to and from the 7 train stop on 42nd between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) quickly, with my face averted. (A survival skill from a New York childhood: Never make eye contact with those you fear, or they’ll find out you’re scared.) I even remember having nightmares about it—the bogeymen reaching out for me through the iron fencing surrounding that bad place.

Since 1980, the BPRC has made a miraculous transformation. Stately avenues of London plane trees provide shade and thousands of little dark green folding chairs (like those in Paris’ Tuileries) are scattered throughout. There are a lovely fountain, attractive gardens, a lush expanse of lawn, and free wireless Internet access, attracting thousands of office workers during and outside the lunch hour. The park offers concert series, outdoor film screenings, and cultural programs. There are also restaurants, and multiple kiosks selling food, drink, and even flowers. Its excellent Web site provides information about its history, management, and events.

It is wonderful to see a public park developed and maintained with such care and thoughtfulness. Good parks are one of those things that make a city worth living in.

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22 August 2005

The Underneath

A remake of the 1949 noir Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak (which I have not yet seen, though I’m adding it to my Netflix list), Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath is the story of Michael Chambers, a young man who returns home years after a sudden departure to escape gambling debts. His mother (Anjanette Comer) is about to marry an armored truck security guard, his brother keeps his distance, there’s tension around the dinner table, he finds out his former girlfriend, Rachel, is dating a thug…in other words, things start off pretty dark. And stay in dark territory, as Michael accepts his stepfather’s offer of a job at the armored truck company (alarming his brother, a policeman) and sets out to pursue Rachel.

Rachel at first rejects Michael’s overtures, telling him, “Don’t call me, don’t talk to me,” but when he takes her at her word, she starts pursuing him in turn. Then, without warning, she marries the thug, Tommy Dundee. Dundee eventually breaks in on a tryst, and to divert his suspicion Michael tells him that he and Rachel were actually discussing his idea to rob an armored truck.

As you can imagine, the movie gets more noir from there. You’re never sure who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. Things that seem straightforward aren’t. For example, Michael’s brother David, who seems to dislike him for being a slacker, and not supporting their mother enough when their father died, is himself no great model of thoughtfulness. After he presents his mother a pair of earrings on the morning of her wedding, there is a short but awkward pause. Then she smiles and says, “They’re beautiful. I’ll have to get my ears pierced.”

The movie is fraught with flashbacks, which don’t do much to make things clearer. And yet its effect lingers. I still catch myself trying to figure out who knew what when—which events were accidents and which were planned, and by whom.

This 1995 release stars Peter Gallagher (who also starred in Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape) as the prodigal son; with Adam Trese as his brooding brother David; Paul Dooley as his mother’s new husband; Alison Elliot as Rachel, the girl Michael left behind; Elisabeth Shue as Susan, the girl Michael just met; and Shelley Duvall as a nurse.

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21 August 2005

Babette's Feast

This is a lovely fairy tale of a movie. Most of the characters are archetypes—two beautiful, saintly sisters (as beautiful in their old age as in their youth), a stern pastor, a suitor from the world of society, a suitor from the world of art, a sinning but well-meaning flock. Babette herself is not an archetype but a character, a person. Which makes her mysterious. You are never sure just what she’ll do (what everyone else does is entirely predictable).

The story takes place in a remote area of Denmark, in a small, pious community led and perhaps established by the sisters’ father, a pastor. The sisters, in spite of their beauty, remain spinsters, devoted to God and their father; and after their father’s death they continue his work, caring for the aging members of their dwindling community. Babette, a French refugee, arrives on their doorstep bearing a letter that attests to the hardships she has endured (her husband and son were murdered) and the fact that she “can cook.”

What follows shows this to be the understatement of the century. Her day-to-day contributions are appreciated—if little understood—by the sisters, but it’s the dinner referred to in the movie’s title that enables the sisters to understand they’ve been harboring an artist in their home.

Based on an Isak Dinesen story, Babette’s Feast is not only a literary pleasure, but a visual one. The Jutland village, with its cluster of cozy houses around a narrow and unpaved path, seems to arise out of nowhere, in a land of gray sky and gray ground. In the grocery, as Babette chooses among the colorful vegetables you wonder how far they must have traveled.

I thought I’d seen Babette’s Feast when the movie came out in 1987, but I was mistaken. If I had seen it, I wouldn’t have forgotten it.

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Can you ever accuse someone of being selfish without exposing yourself as—after all—selfish? Even if you’re not complaining of a selfishness that affects you directly (i.e., “Mary won’t give me a ride to the mall, ergo, Mary is selfish”) but purports to be about someone else (e.g., “Mary won’t give Helen a ride to the mall, ergo Mary is selfish”), isn’t it still really about you? Because why aren’t you giving Helen a ride to the mall? Does calling Mary selfish just help repress your own suspicion that it’s you who’s selfish? And if you do give Helen rides to the mall, then aren’t you just wishing Mary would take her so you don’t have to? What is that, if not selfish?

If you take Helen to the mall twice a week, it may not be unreasonable to wish that Mary would get off her lazy butt and help, but being not unreasonable doesn’t mean unselfish. The wish still comes from self-consideration.

The word selfish comes up when we see a need—in ourselves or others—go unfulfilled. It’s uncomfortable to see a need go unfulfilled. There’s a tear in the fabric of the world that needs mending. We want to see it mended. But in fact there are billions of tears, and few of us could bear going through life mending every one of them we encounter. We have our own weaving to do. So we blind ourselves to some of it, compartmentalize some of it, assign some of it to others (whether they know it or not), and attend some of it ourselves. We decide which needs we are going to attend to; likely we decide our own needs come first.

It’s a self-centered, even cruel process, but—like triage—pragmatic and necessary. I’m not saying (with Ayn Rand, for example) that selfishness is a virtue, or that altruism is a farce, but simply that all our choices—if we’re honest—are somehow informed by self-consideration. Part of what keeps the world turning is the fact that the nature of self-gratification is so various. We all want to be happy, but typically part of that is feeling important—valuable­—in some way. Because feelings of value are generally tied to the good opinion of others, we have plenty of motivation to not only do well, but do good. Helping others provides satisfactions that can be lasting and profound.

But we still choose how we get those satisfactions. Selfishly.

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19 August 2005

On Being Green

Before we met, Victor killed a cactus. In college, a spider plant died in my care, a plant which—I’d been assured—is impossible to kill. I even killed one of those air ferns.

(Don’t ask me how.)

When we moved in together back in 1991, Victor and I were reluctant to add any other form of life to our household. Cats made us both itch and sneeze and dogs were too much of a commitment at that point in our lives. And we were both still smarting with a guilty sense of our inadequacy with regard to plant life.

Years later, after we’d relocated to Columbus and had bought our own house, we were at Victor’s mom’s place in Los Angeles admiring its greenness. There are potted plants scattered throughout her condo, lined up outside her front door, and overflowing her balcony. We told her we wished we could have lots of plants like that, but our plants always died.

“Mine die, too,” Victor’s mom said. “I just replace them. Nobody knows the difference.”

Sometimes a revelation is so stunning, it really is like a light bulb goes off in your head.

Since then, we’ve always had plants. Some of them live a while, too.

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18 August 2005

Boys Only

Victor and I were talking to a colleague this evening, and she mentioned that her family sells fireworks in Indiana and Ohio. It turns out that her brother, cousins, uncle, and father are all in the business.

She is an environmental scientist. Her sister is getting a PhD in biology at Brown. “Funny how the girls didn’t go into it,” Victor said.

She shrugged. “If I’d shown any interest when I was 11, I’m sure they would have welcomed me.”

Her family’s fireworks business extends beyond sales. Her brother and cousins design and execute public fireworks displays for municipalities and institutions. Does that sound fun, or what? She just shrugs.

Maybe pyromania is a guy thing. I think of how Victor gets so excited by fireworks—the prospect of them and then the detonation of them. To me they’re pretty enough, but typically my aversion to crowds is enough to keep me home or at the movies on July 4th. I’m not crazy about the noise, either. And lately I’ve started to think about how odd it is that we celebrate important occasions with the sights and sounds of conventional warfare.

Her father, retired, now travels to China with her uncle yearly to inspect plant practices and foster relationships with fireworks manufacturers. (Isn’t it funny that we’re buying fireworks from the folks who invented them more than a thousand years ago?) He asked her if she wanted him to bring anything back for her.

“I want to go to China,” she said.

“It’s good to want things,” he said.

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17 August 2005


Sometimes Victor gets on my case for all the arty and foreign movies I order from Netflix. Admittedly, sometimes they are hard to watch. We couldn’t get through even fifteen minutes of Last Year at Marienbad, and Breaking the Waves almost had us throwing things at the TV. But other times the “good for us” stuff is better than we could have expected.

Nashville is one of those. I added it to our list because I’d seen it referred to as a classic, but I wasn’t anticipating anything great. Seventies country music, southern city, Karen Black… Didn’t seem like a very promising combination.

Boy was I wrong. Nashville—which tells the stories of at least a dozen characters in its 160 minutes—is terrific, managing to capture not just the essence of Nashville, TN (having never been there, I’ll have to take that on faith), but the essence of the 70s.

The multiple stories are connected by proximity, yet they highlight the absurd self-involvement of most of the characters. A BBC documentarian (sans cameraman), played by Geraldine Chaplin, tries to insinuate herself into the country music scene (with little success). A soldier on leave (Scott Glenn) indulges his obsession with a great country singer (Ronee Blakeley) by stalking her (she doesn’t notice). The third wheel of a folk trio (Keith Carradine) is such an incorrigible womanizer that he’s picking up the phone to call his girlfriend before his lover of the moment (Lily Tomlin) has walked out the door. A third-party politician we never see is running for president on a platform that decries the National Anthem (nobody can sing it) and the demographics of Congress (too many lawyers). His advance man (Michael Murphy) shrewdly maneuvers apolitical musicians into performing at a rally for the candidate. A music industry lawyer (Ned Beatty) pines for a first-time stripper who is really a waitress who wants to be an Opry star (Gwen Welles). Only she can’t sing.

Nashville tells many more stories, but one of the amazing things about this movie is that—while they unfold coherently—the stories never quite link up or lead anywhere. Hollywood trains you to expect them to—the young wife (Barbara Harris) who abandoned her husband to come to Nashville and get famous ought to hook up with…someone; the grieving uncle (Ed Wynn) ought to teach his feckless niece (Shelley Duvall) a thing or two about love and responsibility; the grinning, self-effacing son (Dave Peel) of the country star Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) ought to come into his own somehow.

None of these things happen. Instead, the movie ends with an explosion of violence smoothed over by music.

Which feels exactly right: American, seventies-ish, and 100 percent Country.

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Calling All English Majors

I came across this editorial by Garrison Keillor in today's Chicago Tribune. In it, Keillor skewers political pork and Republican self-dealing, and defines "the English major community" as a special interest group that has yet to flex its political muscle. He suggests we go ahead and flex, proposing "public libraries as a tool in the war against terror." Here's my favorite passage:
How many readers of Edith Wharton have engaged in terroristic acts? I challenge you to name one. Therefore, the reading of Edith Wharton is a proven deterrent to terror. Do we need to wait until our cities lie in smoking ruins before we wake up to the fact that a first-class public library is a vital link in national defense?
This is what I love about Garrison: folksy and ridiculous, yet absolutely correct.

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Puffin Love

If you're like me, you love puffins. You know, those big-billed, clownish birds, the penguins of the North. In the summer of 2000, Victor and I spent a week on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia--a destination selected solely for its proximity to puffins. We did get to see some puffins, though not as close up as I would have liked (for that, I had to move to Chicago and visit the Lincoln Park Zoo, which--in a dark and rather stinky building--displays Atlantic Puffins, Tufted Puffins, and several relatives, including Common Murres and Razorbills).

We came home with some wonderful souvenirs: a coffee mug decorated with iconic puffin images, a tee shirt with an embroidered puffin, and a magnetic memo pad (suitable for grocery lists) with a puffin photograph on every page. Over the years, though, the puffins on the coffee mug succumbed to too much rough treatment by the dishwasher, the tee shirt faded and shrank, and the memo pad ran out of pages.

So I've been in the market for puffin stuff. In the past several months, I've occasionally cruised the Web for sources, with no luck. Recently, though, I came across a site that's actually called Puffin Stuff. While I didn't find mugs or tee shirts to catch my fancy, I did find some magnetic memo pads featuring a nice photo of two splendid specimens on top, and a pale watermarked image of a single puffin below. (Imagine my joy!)

They arrived just yesterday and they're perfect, except...

The pad says "Maine" on top. Which I didn't notice when I examined the product online. (Probably didn't fully magnify the image, in my excitement at finding a pristine puffin photo instead of an icky-cutesy drawing.) I've been to Maine several times, but mainly to Portland. I've never seen puffins there.

To rectify this, I guess we'll need to plan a puffin-seeking Maine getaway.

Now, if I can only get Victor to agree with my impeccable logic...

16 August 2005

House Sparrow Eats Moth

For the second time this summer, I saw a house sparrow going after and wrestling with a large moth. I thought that sparrows--with their seed-cracking bills--stuck to grain, but a little Internet research reveals:
[t]he House Sparrow's diet is diverse: seeds, nuts, berries, buds, insects, scraps.
Still, I had never thought of the house sparrow as a hunting-type critter, but rather a scavenger.

I was pleased to find this British fact sheet about the first bird I ever watched. When I lived in Seattle and worked for an engineering firm, I'd take breaks in a little park beside my downtown office building. A host of little brown birds chattered away in the park's manicured bushes and--seeing them day after day--I became fascinated (probably because I was unhappy in my job, and the sparrows seemed so busy and content). That Christmas Victor presented me with a field guide, and after several days of study I managed to figure out that the little brown birds I'd been watching for months were house sparrows.

Because it's a nonnative species, most U.S. information on the house sparrow is pejorative. I remember being outraged the first time I came across a field guide description of female and immature house sparrows as "streaked dull brown above, dingy white below..." (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region). The same volume goes on to note the species' "shrill, monotonous, noisy chirping." The supposedly scientific Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to the female as "dingy brown all over." In Peter Mattheissen's otherwise splendid--if grim--polemic Wildlife in America, house sparrows are taken to task both for their repetitive song and for their habit of foraging in horse manure.

The Brits, on the other hand, take a more objective stance, referring to the female house sparrow as:
...paler and lack[ing] the grey crown, white cheeks, black bib and eye stripe, and chestnut brown nape [of the male].
Sparrow song is described as "Non-stop cheeping and chirping."

(A far cry from "shrill, monotonous," and "noisy.")

But then, house sparrow populations in North America are huge and getting huger; these birds are variously blamed for crop depredations and declines in native songbird species. In Britain, the house sparrow is itself inexplicably declining (by more than 60 percent in the past 30 years).

Funny how this bird can prosper so in strange lands while dwindling in its native territories. Maybe we should release representatives our own troubled native species--bluebirds, owls, woodpeckers--overseas, see if they can do as well.

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15 August 2005


Sometimes you want to see a movie just to be contrary. Such was the case with Duma, which we saw last weekend. I'd heard that Warner Brothers hadn't even wanted to release it, but a 3.5-star review from Roger Ebert led to a limited Chicago opening.

Director Carroll Ballard has made a specialty of animal movies, starting with Never Cry Wolf, in 1983. Perhaps no other filmmaker takes animals so seriously--so much on their own terms--while staging their interactions with human beings.

The story--about a young white African boy named Xan who adopts an orphaned cheetah cub--seems farfetched, but the film is based on fact, as told in How it Was with Dooms, a young adult picture book written by Xan with his mother. The movie doesn't provide much detail about what it's like to raise a wild animal--Duma behaves pretty much like a housecat, only bigger, and able to run a hell of a lot faster. When the cheetah is nearly grown, though, Xan's father impresses upon him that Duma must be returned to the wild soon, or he will never be able to survive on his own. After a series of events, Xan embarks on a solo mission to take Duma back to the wilderness. This adventure is the heart of the movie.

Like most animal pictures, Duma is likely to be billed as a family film. Certainly, there is nothing to exclude children over a certain age (very young children might find some scenes frightening), but there is also nothing childish about it. The key themes of love, grief, and survival are explored with grown-up thoughtfulness and depth, and I don't know any adults to whom I would not recommend this movie.

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Lighting Quest

We've been wanting to improve the lighting in our apartment for some time, but have been deterred by cost. We found loads of things we liked at Lightology, but the cost of the equipment combined with the cost of the electrician's installation was prohibitive. For example, I got an estimate of more than $2,000 just to buy and install undercabinet lighting in the kitchen.

After I emphatically admired this chandelier at a party in Lincoln Square Saturday night, a couple of friends tipped me to Lamps Plus, a west-coast chain with an extensive online catalog of reasonably priced lighting options. Sunday morning found Victor and me in bed with my laptop, poring through pages of ceiling lights and cheap halogen torchieres (we thought these had been forever banned because of the fire hazard).

In the end, we ordered fixtures for the entry hall, dining room, and kitchen. They should arrive in a couple of weeks. Wish us luck!

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Korean Festival

We've gotten jaded about neighborhood festivals, having attended close to a dozen this summer. This weekend's Korean festival didn't really light our fire, although we did get to see some kind of Korean martial art where the combatants try and wrestle each other to the ground while holding onto the other guy's belt. The street food wasn't that fabulous, and it's the street food I looked forward to, having read in Saveur some time ago that Seoul has the world's greatest street food. We ate at Dal Paeng Yi Restaurant, on Bryn Mawr, where I was excited to order the "Broiled Mandu (Korean Style)"--never had a broiled dumpling.

As it turned out, "broiled" was a typo. The dumplings came boiled. Quite a disappointment.

Luckily, there was no such miscommunication over the bibimbop, which was fine, though nothing special.

(Victor pointed out that bibimbop is pretty hard to ruin.)

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