Archives for category: Chicago


This winter has been colder than the last several winters. That fact has engendered an odious amount of discontent among area residents– and visitors. I’ve attempted to counter this tiresome culture of remonstrations and gnashed teeth by repeating a quote from Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen.

Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær. // There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Admundsen led the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole. They achieved their goal in December, 1911. Not satisfied, he repeated the task at the top of the world in 1926 and reached the North Pole. Roald knows cold. But I fear he may be a bit esoteric for contemporary audiences. And besides, everyone knows that explorers are crazy.

So let me transcribe this conversation among a group of Canadians I happened to overhear. We were all drinking coffee at The Roasted Bean at the Mirage. They were waiting for the first morning session of HDAW. For point of reference, it was -5 in Chicago on the same day and the entire city was shut down. It was 65 and sunny in Las Vegas, but that’s beside the point.

My wife called this morning to tell me it’s -42 in Winnipeg.
What are your kids doing?
School.
Oh yeah? The kids have school then?
Yeah, my son was at hockey practice at 7 o’clock this morning.
Oh yeah?
Yeah. He had a game last night at 8 and was back at practice this morning at 7. He’s got another two-hour practice tonight at 8:30.

Minus-42 and it’s just another day. Schools open. Two-a-day hockey practice and travel plans for a weekend tournament in balmy Minnesota. So, seriously, Chicago. Put on your hat and shut your yap.

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8:07:26 AM

The official race review for Big Shoulders 2013 was titled “Splitting the Uprights”. This reference to the first week of Bears football really was about the perfect conditions on Ohio Street Beach. The National Weather Service had issued rip tide warnings for the Thursday and Friday leading up to the Saturday swim. On Saturday, amazingly, the winds died. The sun came out. The water temperature came in at a wonderful 72°F. The morning air temperature started in the low 70s and ended in the 80s. The water was glass– calmer than I have ever seen it. Much calmer than last year. And then this morning, the day after the race, the National Weather Service issued a fresh set of rip tide warnings. Friday: Scylla. Sunday: Charybdis.

Call me “Odysseus”. This year I came to the race as a veteran. I’ll admit to some degree of anxiety, but this year I told myself I’d done it before. This year was not just about completing, but about competing. Improving on last year. Hitting my goal time. Improving my position in the placing. It was also my only competitive event this year. I didn’t swim the State meet in Glenview. Or any other meet for that matter. This was it for me. And I wanted to do well.

I learned a lot from last year. I anticipated the chaos of the start and the importance of swimming straight– particularly on that first leg out to the breakwater. My sighting was better. I was able to draft for some stretches. My pace felt comfortable. Training and practice paid off.

Here are the numbers.

This personal best was 8m40s faster than last year. I moved up 91 places overall, 14 places in my age group. I pushed it on the last leg heading back to the beach, and I came out of the water looking like this.

9:32:30 AM

Again, I want to thank Whirl and my mom coming out early in the morning to cheer me on and take photographs. And another thank you to all my friends and family who gave their support over the year. I’m planning on doing it again next year.

Thank you!

I Had My Eye On You From The Start

After a few years’ hiatus, Whirl and I returned to Chinatown today to get some photographs of the annual dragon boat competition. Whirl was also interested in checking in on the possible peregrine falcon nest site we spotted earlier this spring. It was a gorgeous day and we both had quite a bit of fun. The races have expanded significantly since the last time we were down to see them.

I’ve posted the full set of race photographs. Also of interest is the faraway shot of Huff, the male peregrine falcon first sighted near the park in April and two photos of terns cruising the river.

Millennium Park Male
When late spring comes around, it’s not unusual for Whirl to invite me along on a peregrine falcon banding. I don’t work for the Field Museum. To be perfectly honest, I don’t work in science. But that being said, I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to tag along and experience what she does with the falcons firsthand. Today she took me to the Millennium Park site. The birds have nested several hundred feet up on the penthouse deck of a 30-story member of the historic Michigan Avenue street wall. The site has a commanding view of the city and Millennium and Grant Parks. Also of interest, the lobby of the building is trimmed in solid cast and green Italian bronze, with solid bronze doorways. This pair has an eye for luxury accommodations.

Whirl and I met up with Matt and Mary in the early morning and headed up to the penthouse apartment where Neal was waiting for us with his two children, Ethan and Olivia. Neal had brought his kids into the city the night before and had a sleep-over especially so they could be here to attend the banding. So after introductions and setting up the banding table, Matt, Mary and Whirl suited up in heavy clothing and helmets, armed themselves with brooms and headed out onto the deck to retrieve the chicks. Ethan and Olivia, still dressed in pajamas, stayed back with Neal and me to observe.

Pivot Dive I got on the camera and tried my hand at combat photography from the doorway as both adults immediately set upon the trio of scientists outside. Screaming, diving, strafing– the two birds seemed to be everywhere at once. Whirl makes this look easy. I assure you it is not. Fortunately, it just takes some time to get in the rhythm of what is happening and the patience to just keep shooting. As I like to joke in the era of digital photography, “film is cheap these days.”

So I kept shooting and pretty soon the team returned with four chicks, two males and two females. The banding went very well. In short order the chicks were fitted with their new jewelry, blood drawn, feather samples taken. Olivia produced an iPhone and shot some of her own stills and video of the chicks squawking inside the house.

Both kids were quite taken with the birds. They reacted with intense curiosity and a long list of very smart questions. They also helped Whirl find prey remains that were littered across the deck. From a certain point of view, aspects of studying predators can be a bit gruesome. The kids weren’t put off by any of it and stayed with us the whole time. Olivia wants to name one of the chicks, “Fluffy”. Ethan hasn’t quite decided on a name for the other one, yet.

Before too long, the team completed with the chicks and returned them outside to the scrape. The adults squawked a few more times and settled down with food for the chicks shortly after their return. They’ll be fledging before too much longer, and set out on their own lives. And then we’ll see what happens next.

Many Many Miniatures This morning I headed out of the house with my trusty camera early to catch the shuttle down to McCormick Place for C2E2. I didn’t go last year, but did attend the year before. The three-day Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo covers comic books, movies, television, toys, anime and video games. Artists, writers and celebrities come to discuss their projects with their fans while the show floor plays hosts to hundreds of exhibitors selling everything from collectable card games to steampunk fashion.

As in 2011, I decided on a one-day experience rather than three, and cherry-picked Saturday as the best of the choices.

I attended a pair of panels: the Patton Oswalt Q&A and the Ron Perlman Q&A. Patton Oswalt was basking in the glow of his extemporaneous fillibuster scene on “Parks and Recreation”. And despite the considerable amount of grief tossed his way by Brian Posehn on Twitter throughout the Q&A, Oswalt acquitted himself quite well. There were a number of questions about the scene from Parks and Rec, of course, and in the process he confessed that the whole thing was really a prank pulled by the other actors on the show. They just wanted to see how long Oswalt could go and never calling “cut”.

I met up with Farmboy and Princess after the Oswalt talk and we wandered around the floor looking for interesting things to look at. And I admit I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Natalie Dormer who was announced as attending. C’mon. Give me a break. She plays Margaery Tyrell on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”. Be honest, you’d want to get a look at her, too. But unfortunately she wasn’t there today; she’s scheduled to be on-site tomorrow.

So we settled for Ron Perlman. First of all. Perlman is a big man. I mean, you get that impression watching him on the screen, but to see him in person really drives the point home. He is a very big man. He spoke for some length about his career, spending a considerable amount of time discussing working with Guillermo del Toro, whom Perlman credits with much of his own success. Specifically getting a break with Chronos and then detailing del Toro’s ongoing campaign with studios to cast Perlman as the lead in Hellboy. And of course there were several questions about Perlman’s work in “Sons of Anarchy”– many of them pitched to elicit tidbits of information about the plot for next season. That tact didn’t prove particularly fruitful. One question did generate a surprising answer from the big man. Perlman confessed when asked about what his dream character, that he really would like to play Tevye in a stage production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Like last time I walked the floor between the panels and took in the environment looking for interesting things to shoot. I’ve published the full set of photos, but a few of my favorites from this year include:

Stanley Field Hall

Whirl has worked at the Field Museum for fifteen years. And every year for the past 62 years, the museum hosts a special event for its members. The research floors and special exhibits are opened up. Scientists and exhibitors volunteer their time to meet with the public and discuss their work. For the last five years, Whirl has been one of those scientists in attendence, supporting research in birds and insects. This year she put together a demonstration of her microphotography work in insects.

Indian Nephrite DaggerThis year, I invited my friend and colleague, Will, to bring his two daughters to the museum. I met up with them and the four of us spent the evening assisting the girls completing the biodiversity scavenger hunt. It’s a good list. You should try it the next time you’re at the museum.

  • Find an organism that has claws.
  • Find an organism that lives in trees.
  • Find an organism that uses camouflage.
  • Find an organism that is venomous.
  • Find an organism that lives in caves.
  • Find an organism that is green.
  • Find an organism that is nocturnal.
  • Find an organism that lives in a symbiotic relationship.
  • Find an organism that is being dissected!
  • Find a female scientist and ask her to name her favorite species.

What I particularly liked about the scavenger hunt is that it gave clear and meaningful openings to guests to engage with the researchers and vice versa. Larry Heaney, Curator of Mammals, used the item about animals living in trees to tell several fascinating stories about the unprecedented biodiversity of mice in the Philippines. Margaret Thayer, Curator of Insects, explained the symbiosis between the appropriately named ant plants of southeast Asia and the ant colonies who live in them. Mary Hennen, Collections Assistant, Birds, contrasted nocturnal great horned owls with diurnal peregrine falcons– her favorite species.

Molly at DinnerWill asked me to serve as tour guide for the evening. I took the girls to see the dissections being performed by Mammals. This year it was an anteater, a beaver and a porcupine. We visited Birds and Insects for some time. We were on our way to Reptiles to check out snakes, but along the way attention shifted to the Underground Adventure exhibit. When we completed the unshrinking process, the evening had come to a close.

It was fun to watch the girls take turns recoiling from the things they encountered, and then changing their minds and becoming fully engaged with what they were experiencing. We all had a lot of fun. I brought along the camera and took a few pictures, but I admit most of my attention was on the event itself and experiencing it with Will and his girls.

Blue Beauty Ratsnake
I am regularly amazed by the variety of events that occur at the UIC Physical Education Building. I swim there twice a week, typically on Sunday mornings in the 25-yard pool and Tuesday evenings in the 50-meter pool. The building itself is a little strange– really more of a conglomerate of various projects, expansions and remodeling than a cohesive design. The two pools bookend the building on the east and west. Between them stands a large, open space big enough for three full sized basketball courts. This two-story room has wooden floors and a wraparound balcony with a small running track. And it just seems there is always something new and different happening here. I’ve seen basketball tournaments, volleyball tournaments, dance competitions, and cheerleading tryouts. It’s regularly configured to support men’s and women’s gymnastics meets. And of course, there are regular swim meets and diving competitions in both pools. Add in regular practices for all of these sports, plus baseball and softball camps and you have a rather busy sports building.

But occasionally, something different rolls into the PEB. Something unexpected. Something like the Chicago Herpetological Society’s ReptileFest, the nation’s largest educational reptile and amphibian show. And when that happens– like it did this morning– I sometimes send Whirl a note about it. And sometimes she comes down to check it out. Like she did this morning. And we spend an hour or more wandering around the various exhibits talking about snakes and toads and lizards and turtles and monitors and iguanas.

Because nothing quite says, “Good job with that swim practice!” quite like the friendly grin of a crested gecko.

Juvenile Great Horned Owls 2 Yesterday I rode along with a few of my favorite Field Museum scientists to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. There were two reasons for the visit. Whirl, Mary Hennen and Dave Willard had been invited to the annual Chicago Bird Collision Monitors picnic hosted by the center, and Mary had an appointment with the center’s staff veterinarian, Dr. Jen Nevis. Willowbrook is operated by the DuPage County Forest Preserve and provides wildlife rehabilitation and education about the animals and ecological systems of the area.

Willowbrook takes in thousands of birds each year, many of them collected by CBCM. CBCM rescues injured migratory birds, and advocates for mitigating the urban dangers affecting migratory birds. They also collaborate with building management, architects and the public to prevent bird collisions. Dave is the Field Museum scientist who has conducted the bird collision studies supporting the Chicago Lights Out program and he works closely with Mary and the CBCM volunteers in his research.

All of this preface is my way of describing that the picnic was attended by collection of volunteers and scientists who knew each other from years of working together on a project they are passionate about. And I was able to tag along and listen to what they had to discuss.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon 3I brought the camera along. I decided that I would set aside my prejudice against photographing wild animals in captivity. And I’m glad I made that decision.

So far this season, Willowbrook has taken in three of the Chicago-area peregrine falcon fledglings for rehabilitation. Dr. Nevis had a number of questions for Mary about the fledglings and their behavior. In particular, Mary explained that fledgling peregrine falcons are not the best fliers at this age and will often stay in one place for hours. Often in poses that can appear quite distressing to someone who does not know otherwise.

After Mary answered Jen’s questions, Jen took us on a tour of the raptor rehabilitation facility where we were able to see how Willowbrook was caring for the peregrine fledglings and look in on some of the other current residents. I happily snapped pictures of each of the fledglings for Mary and Whirl in their spacious open flight chamber, as the first stop on the tour. The second stop was the highlight for me. Five juvenile great horned owls were rehabilitating in the second flight chamber. Perhaps somewhat to Whirl’s distress, my favorite bird-of-prey is not the falcon, but rather the owl. I could have stayed in that room watching them for all afternoon. They swooped from perch to perch in front of me. Wingspans of about four feet, and whisper quiet.

Juvenile Great Horned Owl In Flight 3Quite the treat. You will notice that one of the owls is afflicted by a retinal defect in the left eye. The center is actively looking to place this animal with a licensed facility, and were happy to see the animal flying about as actively as the others. I tried desperately get some good photographs of the afflicted bird to donate to the center and aid in the placement process.

Haymarket Affair Reenactment 13
Today is May Day. In many countries, May Day is celebrated as International Workers’ Day, or Labor Day. It is a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organised to commemorate the fight for the eight-hour workday. May First was selected to commemorate the people involved in the 1886 Haymarket affair right here in Chicago. And while America celebrates a Labor Day of its own — established as a federal holiday in 1894 under President Grover Cleveland — the date of May First was intentionally avoided. Instead Cleveland selected the first Monday of September. As such, Labor Day’s American celebrations are more low-key than the May First celebrations elsewhere around the world. I remember Labor Day as the end of summer — picnics, barbeques and the weekend the swimming pools closed.

I’m not going to even pretend to provide a summary of all of the social, political, and economic elements at play surrounding May Day other than to highlight that May Day has become an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement and the date is inextricably linked to local, deadly actions taken in Chicago 125 years ago. I encourage anyone interested in learning about the history of socialism, capitalism, anarchism, and organized labor to read about the 1886 Haymarket affair.

To honor the 125th anniversary, a full-scale reenactment was staged on the original site — a site less than a mile and a half from my home. Groups from all across the city came together to remind people of past labor struggles here in Chicago, and the need to work together in the present. The contemporary battles over collective bargaining in Madison, Wisconsin, Toronto and Iran cast long shadows over yesterday’s reenactment of the deadly Chicago events. Whirl and I attended the reenactment. I took photographs. We listened to the various speeches and toured the site. It was a powerful reminder to me about the awesome position of privilege currently held by contemporary American society and the heavy prices paid by those who came before us, that we might enjoy them. And while I disagreed with some of the more scathing polemic deployed by and against the labor movement, I know that the lessons are there to be learned and not ignored.

I do not think in the course of human events 125 years is a particularly long time. Yet the changes seen in the day-to-day lives of people as a result of these sorts of actions are widespread, powerful and oftentimes silently assumed. We would be wiser were we to remember that.

The Chicago Public Library has spearheaded the “One Book, One Chicago” program for ten years this year. Twice a year in the spring and the fall, the library selects a book for the entire city to read and then sponsors a wide array of events associated with the book. Discussion groups, guest lectures, theatrical productions. I’ve participated in the program at least once every year, and read books I would not have chosen otherwise.

The House on Mango Street, The Long Goodbye, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are four such unfamiliar books.

The Spring 2011 selection is quite familiar to me: Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I first read Neverwhere in the Fall of 2002. It was my introduction to the author. Since then he has become one of my favorites. Gaiman originally conceived Neverwhere as a television series, and later completed a novelization of the story that avoided the more unfortunate business of writing for television.

I describe Neverwhere as a modern-day fairy tale. I’ve heard it categorized as fantasy, “a postmodernist punk Faerie Queene,” urban fantasy, and “Narnia on the Northern Line”. Most of the action is set in the magical realm of “London Below,” a parallel environment alongside the more mundane — some might say real world, normal London we’re familiar with — “London Above”. Characters include knights, noblemen, rat-worshipers and an angel. I’m loathe to title him a hero so I’ll settle for describing Richard Mayhew as simply the protagonist. Richard quickly learns that no good deed goes unpunished and finds himself propelled alongside a wonderfully imaginative allegory for a more modern age.

Besides re-reading the novel, I participated in two associated events as part of the “One Book, One Chicago” program. Friday night, Whirl, T and I went on a Neverwhere-themed tour of “Chicago Below” exploring the Chicago pedway. Last night, Steamboat and Hurricane joined Whirl, T and me to attend the conversation on imagination and creative with Gaiman and Audry Niffenegger at Harold Washington Library.

At the top of the agenda was establishing a connection between the book’s origins and Chicago. Gaiman summarized what he’d written earlier in a letter:

It was a quarter of a century ago, about 1986. I had recently read a book set in Chicago called Free, Live Free by Gene Wolfe (he’s local to you; the Washington Post has said Gene Wolfe may be the best living writer America has) and I had started thinking too much about cities.

What I had started to think about was that some cities were also characters. Chicago was, in Free, Live Free. It was drawn in such a way that it had become almost magical, and was as much of a character in the book as any of the more human people who walked around in it.

The two authors exchanged anecdotes before taking questions from the over-capacity audience. The estimated attendance was announced north of 700 people. The auditorium only seats 385. It was crowded. I took that as a good sign. Gaiman told a hilarious story about the creation of Coraline, including a reference to some advice from Larry Niven to “treasure your typos.” I found the insight he presented about his fascination with the House on the Rock refreshing. Gaiman featured the House prominently in my favorite of his novels, American Gods.

Neverwhere made me a fan of Gaiman’s work. Having the opportunity to see him speak was delightful. It’s exciting for me to see the book featured so prominently by the library — for so many people to be exposed to an incredible, wickedly creative author.