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Madame Lily Devalier always asked “Where are you?” in a way that insinuated that there were only two places on earth one could be: New Orleans and somewhere ridiculous. — Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis 4

One of my first memories of New Orleans is reading the Tom Robbins novel, Jitterbug Perfume— but ‘memory’ is not the right word. Maybe ‘encounter’ is better. Or ‘introduction’. Considering that I’m talking about a Robbins novel about immortality, Pan and perfume, I’m tempted to use ‘preface’, ‘prologue’ or ‘preamble’. Robbins took me through the streets of New Orleans accompanied by a mysterious Jamaican beet salesman and his helmet of swarming bees. His name was Bingo Pajama. And ever since reading that book, I’ve wanted to visit this enchanting city.

Thirty years later, we did. 2015 marked the tenth anniversary of my brain injury and this year I made up my mind against returning to Las Vegas. I wanted to travel someplace new, some place I had never seen before. After considering a number of possible new destinations– including some overseas– we narrowed the field of possible destinations to the Florida Keys and New Orleans. I decided for New Orleans. I’m so very glad that I did. We had a fantastic time.

Once more, Farmboy and Princess joined Whirl and me for the trip. We stayed at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. Originally built in 1893 as the Hotel Grunewald, the hotel has seen a great deal of New Orleans’ history. The Grunewald was sold in 1923. New owners renamed it the Roosevelt Hotel in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s efforts building the Panama Canal had tremendous financial benefits for the city. In 2005, the hotel was damaged by Hurricane Katrina and closed indefinitely. During the closure, the hotel was sold, underwent complete renovations and modernizations. Much of the public areas– notably the lobby and the Sazerac Bar– were restored to the look of grand days of the hotel in the 30s and 40s. The Roosevelt Hotel reopened in 2009.

We began by listing things we wanted to see. We talked to friends and relatives for suggestions. Whirl works with a museum curator who is a New Orleans native. Through that contact, we received an extensive summary and advice. It was a start. By the end of a week or so the list had grown. By the time we landed in Louisiana, it looked something like this:

FOOD AND DRINK

  • Acme Oyster House
  • Antoine’s
  • Bennachin
  • Brennan’s
  • Broussard’s
  • Cafe Du Monde
  • Central Grocery and Deli
  • Clancy’s
  • Commander’s Palace
  • Domenica
  • Emeril’s
  • Fiorella’s Cafe
  • Galatoire’s
  • Gumbo Shop
  • Jacques-Imo’s Café
  • PJ’s Coffee
  • Parkway Bakery & Tavern
  • Sazerac Bar
  • Slim Goodies Diner
  • Verti Marte
  • Wink’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery

CULTURE

  • Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium
  • Audubon Park
  • Backstreet Cultural Museum
  • Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World
  • Buckner Mansion
  • Crescent City Books
  • French Market
  • French Quarter
  • Garden District
  • Pearl River Eco-Tours
  • Holt Cemetery
  • Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church
  • Jackson Square
  • Krewe du Vieux
  • Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
  • Langlois Culinary Crossroads
  • Leonidas
  • Magazine Street
  • Maple Leaf Bar
  • Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo
  • Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • St. Charles Street Car
  • St. Louis Cathedral
  • St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
  • The Moon Walk

MUSIC

  • Blue Nile
  • Frenchmen Street
  • Hi-Ho Lounge
  • Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar
  • Preservation Hall
  • Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro
  • d.b.a.

ACCOMMODATIONS

  • The Roosevelt Hotel

Twenty-one restaurants. Twenty-five cultural attractions. Seven music venues. One hotel. Four nights. Five days. It was pretty obvious we weren’t going to get to everything on the list. And we didn’t. But we did manage to do quite a bit while we were there and came away from the trip thinking we’d really managed to see something of the city.

Buckner Mansion 2

While it had been our intention to visit some venues for music, we never did quite make that work exactly that way. But what I can say is that music– live music– was everywhere. From the street musicians in the French Quarter, to different two- and three-piece bands in the hotel lounge every night to the piano player to the jazz three-piece at Commander’s Palace during brunch. Music was everywhere you went. And as much as I would have liked to seek it out explicitly, it still found me.

We arrived mid-morning on Wednesday to clear skies. It was apparent looking out the window that we were somewhere new. Even in winter, with much of the greenery gone, this was a different place. I thought maybe I had seen the Mississippi snaking along. I was wrong. It was one of any number of rivers and streams flowing through the area. We were out of the airport and quickly on our way to the Roosevelt. Checked in and looking for lunch. Off to the French Quarter.

While the hotel is not directly in the French Quarter, it is only a block away on the south side of Canal Street. We found New Orleans quite walkable. So we walked into the quarter looking for The Gumbo Shop— and right into Bourbon Street cliché. For the six blocks we walked along, I felt that perhaps we had made a horrible mistake in coming here. This was kitch and commercialism and no more interesting than any tired bar with dollar shots and tight t-shirts. Then we turned onto St. Peter Street and into a period film production underway outside Preservation Hall. A half block away from Bourbon and the entire vibe changed. It was a whole different place. And it was fantastic.

Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis 3The Gumbo Shop served as our entry into what became really an eating tour of New Orleans. I mentioned that we did a lot while we were here but we ate even more. And every meal was fantastic, starting with this one and the one immediately after. Coincidental to our trip, Princess’ parents were in town for a conference and had made arrangements for the six of us to have dinner at Clancy’s that evening. So with that in mind, we took the remaining couple hours of the afternoon to explore. We headed down St. Peter Street, took a left and discovered rows of fortune tellers and artists lined up. Whirl went to have her tarot read. Princess joined her. I turned around and suddenly realized I was standing in Jackson Square right in front of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France. That’s right. Sober, and with a belly full of gumbo I’d bumbled into the one Crescent City location I absolutely wanted to see– and I’d done it on accident.

While Whirl had her cards read, Farmboy and I went inside, and then wandered around Pirate and Pere Antoine Alleys beside the cathedral, eventually making our way across Decatur to the overlook of the river and the square. Princess and Whirl caught up with us after a while and we set back across the quarter exploring the shops along the way. I made a note of Cafe Du Monde for café au lait, beignets. For later.

Clancy’s with Princess’ parents meant more fantastic food and wine (baby drum with muddy waters sauce and shrimp, sweetbreads, bread pudding) after a long, slow cab ride from the hotel to the Audubon neighborhood. Our driver took us down St. Charles Avenue and we spent most of the trip admiring the antebellum mansions. We returned the next day, this time on the St. Charles streetcar to visit Magazine Street, take a guided tour of the Garden District before continuing on to the Carrollton Historic District for afternoon drinks at the Maple Leaf Bar and another fantastic dinner at Jacques-Imo’s (paneed rabbit with shrimp and tasso pasta, alligator cheesecake, fried boudin balls).

We wrapped up the evening with cocktails at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt. The four of us spent a couple hours talking with Andy, Andrew and Benji behind the bar. They made many delicious cocktails and capped off a great anniversary day with a flourish. Returning the Sazerac to its 1940s glory was one of the goals of the post-Katrina restoration work done on the hotel. Art deco decor, huge African walnut bar and the associated theater of serving absinthe.

Pearl River Swamp 3Friday morning came early. We booked a swamp tour along the Pearl River and the Honey Island Swamp to the north of the city. For hours we slid along among the bones of the swamp– winter had pulled back much of the greenery, revealing the structure of the environment in a way that we would never have seen at other times of the year. And while wildlife was comparatively scarce, we did see herons, kingfishers, egrets, turtles, osprey, wild pigs and a raccoon. Most striking were the artifacts left in the swamp from Katrina. We cruised past shrimp boats from the gulf that had been lifted by the storm for over ten miles to be left, wrecked among the oak and cypress. A small hut still hung up in the branches ten years later.

Lunch was New Orleans staples: the muffaletta sandwich from Central Grocery followed by café au lait and beignets at Cafe Du Monde for dessert. (Told you we’d be back!) We waddled across the street for a second visit to St. Louis Cathedral before touring the The Presbytère. The Presbytère is part of the Louisiana State Museum and holds two permanent exhibits. “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” documents the disaster, the aftermath and ongoing recovery. “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” offers a window into the annual celebration rituals of Mardi Gras– parade floats, costumes, and glimpses into the secretive social club society from which modern-day Mardi Gras krewes evolved. Both were powerful, informative exhibits and well worth the time we spent in them, providing context and structure to the act of walking through living history.

When the museum closed, we found ourselves once more on Jackson Square and explored more of the French Quarter on our way back to the hotel. Princess collected at least half a dozen different samples in her attempt to discover the perfect praline. Whirl found some decorations for our kitchen back home. I had a tummy ache. That night was another great dinner. This time at the John Besh restaurant, Dominica in the Roosevelt Hotel (paneed pork chop with paprika aioli & pickled carrots, sweetbreads, roasted cauliflower, gianduja budino). By this point you’re likely detecting a theme. There were a number of bridal parties in the restaurant and we learned from our waiters that it was quite popular to get married in the church across the street and have receptions in the Roosevelt.

Audubon Insectarium 4

Saturday was filled with more culture, starting with a visit to the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. This was more than appropriate given the amount of work Whirl does in the Insects department at the Field Museum. Several of her coworkers encouraged her to visit the Insectarium. Once she knew of it, there was no way we were going to miss it. The museum did not disappoint. Fantastic displays and an engaging staff marked this as one of the highlights of the trip. Farmboy commented that this was his very favorite item on the list.

We walked north along the Moon Walk to the bustling French Market. It was mid-afternoon and I wanted to try a French Fry po-boy sandwich. I found one along with some delicious beer, fried pickles and fried chicken at Fiorella’s Cafe. For dessert– and, as it turned out, dinner– buttermilk drops from Wink’s Bakery.

Immaculate Conception Church 7We hustled across the French Quarter to tour the Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church that afternoon. I am so very glad we did. It is one of the most singularly beautiful churches I have ever seen. A volunteer from the parish took us through the building and up into the choir balcony before the afternoon mass. I shot what I could, quickly and quietly, to try and capture the grandeur of the building. It was very clear to me why this church is such a popular wedding location.

You may be asking, “But why did you skip dinner Saturday night?” Simple answer: Krewe du Vieux. The first parade of the Mardi Gras season was Saturday night and we did not want to miss it. I know, the sacrifices we make for satire. Krewe du Vieux is the only krewe allowed to parade through the French Quarter. All floats are small, drawn by hand or mule. All the music is from live bands.

“With its theme ‘Krewe du Vieux Begs for Change,’ the group pondered a city, state and nation wrestling with transitions everywhere. What it found were confusing education mandates (with teachers of dubious moral character), dysfunctional city services, a bankrupting health care system, and legalized gay marriage (’50 States of Gay’) and marijuana (‘Toke of the Town’) sweeping the nation.” —David Lee Simmons

We met Art and Emily at the parade and spent the time before the arrival talking and joking around with them: comparing notes. It was also while we were waiting for the parade to begin that we learned of Winter Storm Linus– our flights back home Sunday night had been canceled. The storm was dumping nineteen inches of snow on the city. All flights into anywhere in the Midwest were grounded for the next twenty-four hours. But by this point in our trip we knew there were much worse places in the world to be stranded. Everyone we met knew it too.

After the parade we retired back to the hotel and tried to contact the airlines to look into alternate flights. That was fruitless. The best we managed was to arrange for a response at some ambiguous time later that evening– two hours or more. So it was back to Sazerac Bar. It was going to be a long night. Airline robots honored their promise and called us back with new travel arrangements. They were diligent calling us every ninety minutes or so starting at about 1:00 AM until 6:30 AM Sunday morning. Made for a good night’s sleep.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 2

We were booked on an early morning flight Monday through Charlotte, NC. Princess and Farmboy were booked on an even earlier flight through Miami. Whirl and I decided to stay put at the Roosevelt. Princess and Farmboy decided to book a room at a hotel by the airport. And with those arrangements made we thought of things to do on our extra day in New Orleans, Superbowl Sunday.

With a bit of “positive mental attitude” the concierge arranged a reservation for the four of us for the Jazz Brunch at Commander’s Palace. It proved to be the highlight meal of the trip: turtle soup, commander’s salad, cochon de lait eggs Benedict, pecan crusted gulf fish, black angus sirloin and egg, sugarcane & black pepper bacon, buttermilk biscuits, creole bread pudding soufflé, southern style pecan pie. It was delicious. Service was excellent. A three-piece band moved throughout the restaurant playing requests: trumpet, banjo, stand-up bass. After the meal we spent some more time in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 before making our way back down St. Charles Avenue and the hotel.

A brief detour to the casino on Canal and we were spent. Filled, content, happy and sleepy. We said our farewells. Princess and Farmboy headed for the airport hotel. Whirl and I settled into the lounge at the Roosevelt to watch the football game. The hotel had set up a couple televisions in the lounge and a small group of twenty people or so watched it together. By the time the third quarter began, we retired up to our room, watched the exciting finale, packed and turned in. Morning would come early and I was uncertain exactly what to expect for the leg home.

But as it turned out, everything went perfectly. No delays. No complications. We were home from a wonderful, fulfilling– and very filling– trip to the Big Easy.

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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.

Stephanie at the Mississippi

Whirl has never seen the Mississippi River. This seems like a horrible oversight when you consider the following facts: the Mississippi River forms the western boundary of Illinois for 550 miles; Whirl has lived in Illinois for nearly 18 years. I mean, it’s right there. It’s a huge river. It’s worth going to take a look at for just that reason alone. But, for whatever reason, she’s never travelled anywhere along its length. So when the assignment desk handed out the banding task for the two chicks nesting on top of a grain elevator in Savanna, she jumped at the chance. And then immediately turned around and asked if I wanted to come along and shoot.

So I took a day off from work and we got up early in the morning to catch the train up to Wilmette where we met up with Matt. After a quick stop to get coffee, we were off on a three-hour road trip across the state to Savanna. We travelled for a while through construction season along I-90 before heading off on US highways and quiet, rolling state roads. It reminded me that you don’t need to go particularly far to get completely out of the big city of Chicago. I tend to forget that from time to time, and it’s nice to be reminded every once in a while.

We gathered two more members of the day’s team from the local US Fish and Wildlife office. Eric and his intern, Jamela, joined us and we headed over to the Consolidated Grain and Barge elevator that sits directly on the Mississippi riverbank in Savanna.

As we waited for Jeff from CGB to arrive and provide access, Whirl took in the expanse of the river. The Mississippi is running five feet above normal and has flooded all of the river islands. In April it was running even higher and flooded into the town. Although we learned that the extent of the damage was mostly limited to a few business basements and that the business owners had sworn off FEMA assistance and resolved the damage themselves.

Matt Heads to the Office Jeff arrived and the team got to work. I was on the camera. CGB and US Fish and Wildlife installed a nest box on the elevator in February, 2010. A camera was added in February, 2012. Both of the peregrine adults are unbanded– a fact that has been proved many times by the nest cam– so my photo assignment was just to take some fun pictures and document the area.

Meanwhile:

  • Hard hats? Check!
  • Heavy jackets? Check!
  • Climbing ropes and harnesses? Check!
  • High-tech cardboard box for chick transport? Check!

So while Eric, Jamela and Matt headed up to the roof of the grain elevator, I stood on the riverbank with Whirl and tracked the two adults as they harried the well-intentioned chick-nappers.

Savanna Adult StallsPeregrines are noisy. When they are defending a nest, they are very vocal. They attract attention. Shortly after the trio went up to the roof and stirred them up, we were greeted by about a half dozen neighbors living nearby curious to see what was going on. Everyone we met was very friendly and happy to share their experiences with the birds. The town has really embraced them living there. I like to see that.

It was a cool and cloudy spring day. Matt and Whirl set up the banding table outside under a big shade tree. The banding went quite well. One male, one female. Although I do need to mention that when Matt brought out the needles to draw blood, the small crowd that had gathered around to watch quickly dispersed. I took a few pictures of the process and got a portrait of each chick before returning to try and get a picture of a killdeer in flight– a task that proved too difficult. I settled for a Great Blue Heron in flight. Bigger, slower target. Easier to get. Still a magnificent bird.

Great Blue Heron 3

Matt and Eric returned the chicks to the nest box. The adults calmed down and we headed off to get some lunch. At lunch we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Al, who also works for US Fish and Wildlife in land reclamation. Al took us to Hawg Dawgs, a biker bar with delicious burgers attached to Frank Fritz Finds of American Pickers fame. Over lunch– and for some time after lunch– Al spun story after story about his work, the town, the river, himself, college with Matt and just about anything else you could ask for. Al was great company. After lunch he took us up to Mississippi Palisades State Park north of Savanna. We climbed up onto the river bluff and took in the expanse while dodging huge swarms of flies and mosquitos.

After a quick stop at the flooded boat launch and the gas station to refuel for the trip back, we headed off for home.

It was a very good day.

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.

Spaceship Earth 3

Welcome to Gingerbread Epcot. Or as I like to call it: Experimental Prototype Candy Of Tomorrow. This year’s gingerbread project was a celebration of Spencer and Templar‘s trip to Disney World last January. In anticipation of the trip, last year we considered the idea of building Spaceship Earth from Epcot but realized too late that the structural properties of gingerbread need quite a bit of help supporting itself in a geodesic formation. But with a year to think about ideas, we happened upon a plan. We obtained a foam crafting ball as deployed it as the central core of the iconic Epcot structure: Spaceship Earth.

From there it was a matter of constructing a number of smaller structures to represent some of the various countries in the World Showcase around the big lagoon. We also added two other major Epcot attractions not associated with the World Showcase: Test Track and the octopus-shaped Living Seas aquarium.

World Showcase LagoonAs always there are elements of gallows humor in this year’s exhibit. Several of the gummi Imagineers have caught fire on the firework floats within the lagoon– and somehow a great white shark is swimming freely after hapless prey floundering near the promenade.

You know, another typical Christmas scene.

The prominent duck terrorizing gummi patrons behind Spaceship Earth is not named Donald as one might expect. This is a returning appearance of Atomic Duck one of our first gingerbread scenes years ago.

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.