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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