31 July 2009

10,000 Birds

I was trying to confirm whether I'd seen a cedar waxwing or bohemian waxwing this morning over at the Jarvis Sanctuary, and came across this interesting blog as a result of this very helpful post. Nice to have a look at what really serious birders are doing...

Me, I'm pretty happy with my cedar waxwing (and catbird, and purple martins, and immature robins, and even house sparrows).

30 July 2009

Reading on My iPhone

So I recently got an iPhone, which I'm satisfied really is the greatest thing since sliced bread. What's the greatest part? Oh, it's hard to choose: surfing the Web on a street corner, to find out whether the restaurant I'm thinking about going to is any good; using built-in GPS to make sure I'm walking in the right direction; being able to instantly find out whether my bus will arrive within the next 10 minutes; having access to my complete calendar wherever I go...let alone email and telephone functionality. It's like a tricorder on Star Trek (which seems to do just about everything), combined with a communicator, but it's real! And it's cool!

Plus, I can read books on it. So far, I have read HG Wells' The Time Machine and am in the middle of The Jungle Book. Reading on the iPhone is easy and fun (some of the reader applications have page-turning visuals and even sound effects), and best of all I don't have to carry an extra book around. If you know me, you know I love books, but the convenience of this device is just amazing. When I think of the pain in the butt it was to haul War and Peace around...

Also, am crazy about iBird Pro, a field guide app. Not only does it eliminate the need to lug a field guide along when birdwatching, but it plays bird calls. Totally cool!

Anyhow, I'm just enchanted with my new device. A bit too addicted to the Scrabble app, though...

All right, all right, I've joined Facebook...

And it is really distracting.

21 July 2009

The Counter

Victor and I were on our way to a show when we passed by this new(ish) outpost of California-based The Counter, a burger joint. I hadn't heard of this place before, but our decision to stop was somewhat influenced by an ad posted several hundred feet east on Diversey claiming Oprah had called it "Best Burger."

Do I watch Oprah? No. But for some reason I imagine she knows her burgers.

So we tried it. The build-your-own-burger concept is way fun: you get a checklist and choose everything from meat (beef, turkey, veggie, chicken) to toppings (options include various cheeses, vegetables, and relishes--up to four of these are included), to premium toppings (such as sauteed mushrooms, bacon, or avocado--these cost another dollar each), to buns. We built one burger and chose their special burger of the day (or was it month?). We weren't so crazy, as it turned out, about the special burger of the month--it was a lamb burger, which sounded intriguing, but--who knew?--we don't much like lamb burgers. We built ourselves a burger with corn and black bean salsa, sprouts, avocado, tomato, and sauteed onions. Perfectly cooked and quite delicious. We had a side of fries and onion strings. The fries were fine, but the onion strings were excellent, if greasy. Beautiful crunch.

So. Not a virtuous meal, but very tasty. In future, we'd share a burger. (Even the smallest--1/3 lb--burger was plenty big.)

Pizza Roundup

So in the past few months, Victor and I have finally been to a few of the trendy new pizza places in town--spots that boast 800 degree coal- or wood-burning ovens that produce authentic Neopolitan pizza.

Trendy and new? I'm afraid we are rather behind the curve. They were trendy and new; they are now a Chicago institution.

Closest to us is Sapore di Napoli, which was the first one we tried. We ordered a Margherita pizza and liked it: particularly the tasty sauce. Not NYC pizza, but a nice alternative.

My painting class was very close to Spacca Napoli, so I went there once without Victor and had a pizza marinara (no cheese), which I thought was delicious. But yesterday evening Victor and I tried the Margherita and the one with mushrooms and sausage--we loved the crust, which was nice and chewy, but the tomato sauce and cheese were surprisingly bland.

And a couple of weeks ago, we checked out Coalfire, which recently made some list for best Chicago pizza. Our verdict: okay. Nice crust, but the sauce (again) didn't turn us on.

Wanted to love these places, but just...didn't.

On the bright side, we'll be in NYC this weekend, and I'm sure we'll be eating some real pizza.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The fact that we saw this movie Saturday night and I'm only mentioning it now indicates something. Not that it was bad. No. On the contrary, the movie was fully engaging.

But quite forgettable.

It did make Victor want to peruse the book again, and so we learned that someone has borrowed it and not given it back.

I hate when that happens.

Assassin Tango

I think this is what they mean by "vanity picture." I have seen it described as Robert Duvall's tribute to tango, and the tango is, in fact, the best thing in it, but tango would have been better served by a movie showcasing tango, rather Duvall's moody acting.

20 July 2009

Million Dollar Quartet

We saw this show last night. It's one of those productions that seems designed to be a hit--how can you go wrong with a show about an evening that Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis make music together?

By presenting bad impersonations, no doubt. But in this case, the impersonators are superb, and the audience was mesmerized. While listening to old rockabilly songs was fun, I was most reminded of my fondness for Johnny Cash (the performer portraying him was particularly good) and today I have been listening to his gravely voice for hours (iTunes makes that easy).

Not much more to say about the show. Thin plot, but you don't go to see Million Dollar Quartet for plot. The music is just terrific. Absolutely recommended.

17 July 2009

The History Boys

I went to this show without much idea of what to expect. Certainly I'd heard of it, and knew it had been a hit in New York and made into a Hollywood movie, and I knew it had been consistently sold out in Chicago (since the Timeline Theatre probably holds fewer than 80 audience members, selling out is not the challenge it might be), but I hadn't been thrilled by a couple of previous Timeline productions, so when the person at the ticket desk remarked that the production would be three hours long, my heart sank.

In the event, the play's length was no hardship. It's a spectacular--even thrilling--production, with terrific performances by the entire cast. Creative staging makes for a particularly involving show; while most of the action occurs in a classroom (situated in the middle of the theater), the boys' dorm rooms are reproduced in two levels at one end of the theater (so you see them retreat there when they leave class), and an upper-level set at the other end of the theater represents the headmaster's office and other out-of-class locations.

The subject matter of the play, is perhaps well known: a young history teacher is hired to help a class of grammar school boys get admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. While the boys are bright and competent, they face stiff competition from those who have been groomed from birth for attendance at the elite universities. Their young teacher, Irwin, suggests that--rather than focus on memorized facts--they should seek to entertain their examiners, so as to stand out from the crowd, by proposing unlikely ideas (whether or not they believe in them), and backing them up. Ultimately, Irwin calls the value of truth and sincerity into question.

This brings him into direct conflict with the boys' other (and beloved) English teacher, Hector, who valorizes and romanticizes Truth, which he finds (and insists the boys find) in poetry and literature that he challenges them to learn by heart. He is fond of paradoxical pronouncements; e.g., that schools are the enemy of education. He detests what Irwin is teaching the boys.

Frankly, I found the philosophical debate pretty uninteresting. It's something of a false argument: truth wears more than one dress. Instead, what was interesting was the action of the play--the behavior of the boys and their teachers in class, and the intimate dramas that unfolded. While I might not have been lit up by the play's intellectual content, I was lit up by my belief that the characters were (intellectually, spiritually) lit up.

Some great music, too, which was utterly unexpected.

Altogether, a terrific show.

16 July 2009

What's So Great about Lurpak?

So Victor and I were in one of the nice neighborhood grocery stores I've started to trek out to (it was Andy's Fruit Ranch, on Kedzie near Lawrence), and noticed this Danish butter.

I should say right out, I'm a butter lover. You won't find margarine in my house; my mother can insist all she likes. Nothing will convince me that butter is bad. Luckily, Victor agrees with me on this, though for cooking we tend more toward olive oil than butter as a sauteing medium.

So after years of buying Land o' Lakes, or whatever organic product was available (when we were feeling flush) or whatever was cheapest (when we weren't), we decided to splurge on Lurpak, which we had seen before, and heard about (as in, "I knew it was a decent supermarket when I saw Lurpak in the cooler"), but never tried. When I saw the price (something like $3.69), for a moment I imagined it was cheaper than the more run-of-the-mill stuff I was used to (for which I've gotten accustomed to paying around five bucks), and then I realized that the Lurpak package contained only a half pound.


Still, we splurged. And it was good.

How good? Well, despite my fondness for butter, I'm not a connoisseur. There are doubtless specialized terms that demarcate the boundary between the good and the really good. One thing, though, is that it's remarkably creamy. Just out of the refrigerator, you can spread it on toast without much trouble (as opposed to a stick of Land o' Lakes, which is damned hard when it comes out of the fridge). It tastes great on toast.

But, finally, not great enough to spend almost twice as much for it. I might buy it again when we expect houseguests--guests we expect to serve buttered bread. Otherwise, when I'm feeling flush I'll buy organic.

15 July 2009

Five Guys

We weren't intending to go to Five Guys. We were on our way to meet friends at Bar Louie in Oak Park, and as we were parking the car, I noticed the Five Guys sign across the street. Here's how I've heard of Five Guys: a mention of their great fries in TimeOut Chicago recently (can't find it now), and listening to two friends dish about the place. They turned to me at one point and said, "Have you been to Five Guys yet?"


"Oh, you have to go."

So when we pulled up across the street from one, it seemed like kismet.

It's a retro little place, kind of like a Johnny Rocket's but without so many tables. Like any fast food joint, you give your order at the counter and get a number. There aren't too many choices: burgers, hot dogs, fries, grilled cheese (for, I suppose, the poor vegetarians whose omnivorous friends have dragged them along). But burgers automatically come with a host of toppings that many places charge for: sauteed mushrooms and sauteed onions, for example. And you can add other toppings just for the asking.

So, in a way, the Five Guys Burger is a burger version of a Chicago hot dog, if you want to eat it that way. And if you do, it's a very rewarding burger: messy, but tasty. Plus, the fries are hands-down the best fast-food fries I've tasted. Skin-on, crispy, potatoey.

Not to be compared with a steakhouse burger, or even a bar-and-grill burger--it's a different entity. But for a quick, $5 bite, this is a great addition to our burger options.

I guess I should be glad that there isn't one too close to our home.

Follow the Fleet

Last night, tired after a solitary evening putting away groceries and chopping vegetables, I put this DVD into the machine, and almost immediately started smiling. There is something about Fred Astaire--especially Fred Astaire singing (even more than his dancing, I think), that evokes a world of ease you can't help but want to sink into.

And then when Ginger Rogers joins him--well, if you can still worry about things like credit card bills and the state of the healthcare system, more power to you.

The movie is, truly, not much. A lot of good songs, sung and danced by a quartet of lovely people skating over a very thin plot. But there are particular charms--not least, the music of Irving Berlin. (Gershwin and Porter get so much attention, it's easy to overlook Berlin.) Also, a small role for a very young Lucille Ball, who apparently got an early start at perfecting the dumb look.

Still, it's Fred who makes this movie. Not from singing talent or dancing talent, but from sheer likability--when his face fills the screen, and he winks or even raises his eyebrows, you're in on the joke and out of whatever minor discontent you were in.

13 July 2009

Oedipus, by The Hypocrites

Several months ago, Victor and I saw The Hypocrites' production of Threepenny Opera, and I was smitten. So when I realized Oedipus was closing this past weekend, I quickly got tickets for one of the final performances.

I was not disappointed. The Hypocrites are one of the most successfully inventive theater companies I have ever encountered. Plenty of theater companies have energy and creativity, but The Hypocrites really push the boundaries of what's possible--innovative staging, self-referential jokes, and frequent anachronisms. I call them successfully inventive because (like 500 Clown), they manage to effectively convey the source material's central themes and leave us profoundly moved by those themes, in spite of self-conscious theatricality and avant-garde gestures.

Next season, I think we're going to subscribe.

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal

This show, the most recent concoction by Chicago's 500 Clown troupe, closed this past weekend at Steppenwolf, where it was playing as part of the venue's Visiting Company initiative. If you missed it, too bad for you, because this was a terrific production.

I always find 500 Clown a little hard to explain. First of all, there aren't 500 clowns, only three. (Although, in this production, there are five; plus a small cortege of musicians.) Secondly, they aren't just clowns. The wonderfully talented performers sing, dance, act, perform death-defying leaps... The clownishness isn't only physical; it's also verbal. They sometimes make me think of Monty Python, sometimes the Marx Brothers, and sometimes Looney Tunes. (It doesn't surprise me that at least a couple 500 Clown members are going to be involved in this fall's Goodman Theatre production of Animal Crackers.)

The previous 500 Clown shows I've seen took an established work (Frankenstein, Macbeth) and retold it. Because clowns were doing the retelling, threads of the story inevitably got lost or knotted, but to me the brilliance of 500 Clown productions is that somehow via jokes, digressions, pratfalls, and death-defying leaps, they manage to convey the most central themes of the source works, profoundly moving the audience as a result.

Although I consider myself an enthusiastic fan, until this production I didn't know that 500 Clown's members could sing. Boy, can they sing! 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal is a musical, with clever, irreverent songs written by John Fournier and performed mainly by the remarkable Molly Brennan. While the show took Bertolt Brecht's Man Is Man as a jumping-off point, not much is left of the original source. Instead, what we have is a cabaret show--with hints of vaudeville and many interruptions, digressions, pratfalls, and death-defying leaps--that persistently nudges around concepts of identity: changed identities, what it costs to maintain your identity, under what circumstances you're willing to give your identity up.

High-energy, high-creativity, highly recommended.