Writings, photography, book reviews, dreams. You’ll find them here, along with some local travel spots (mostly Midwestern). Scroll, explore, ponder, and share if you like.
On Saturday, I witnessed a murder.
The Hemaris moths are gone (presumed dead), and all that seemed to be left are the skippers and an occasional monarch. On Saturday, though, a hungry painted lady appeared. I spent an hour or more trying to take photos of this favorite of mine, but I’ve noticed they tend to turn their wide rumps toward me. I try not to take this personally, nor the apparent glare of the skipper that landed on my finger as I raised the phone.
At some point after the painted lady landed on an upper branch, I noticed that it began to beat its wings furiously. I looked and could see only a bit of yellow-green against the purple flowers, but the painted lady seemed stuck. I broke the sprig off with the butterfly still attached. The poor thing went still, its poor legs curled up. I discovered the yellow-green thing had legs. I later decided it was a kind of well-named “ambush bug”—a formidable garden predator that doesn’t discriminate between pests and pollinators.
This was one of the few times I’ve interfered with nature—something I’d normally not do and would not recommend. I can only plead that I was distraught over being deprived of my colorful little friend. I was reminded that the butterfly bush, so full of life in August, when dozens of moths, butterflies, and bees flitted about, can also be full of death. I have complicated feelings about the murder (anthropomorphism) of my new painted lady friend, but I won’t go into them here.
Now, on this last full day of summer, the one creature I saw, a painted lady, flew off when I approached and didn’t return. Another plant down the path that was crawling with a variety of bees only a couple of weeks ago is nearly motionless, with only a few stragglers lethargically tapping into its flowers. There wasn’t even the chatter of birds to relieve the loneliness of the garden past its seasonal prime.
And so summer ends and autumn begins.
During the first half of August last year, I was thrilled to discover not only butterflies at Perennial Garden, but also the little fairy moths known as snowberry clearwings (Hemaris diffinis). I’d seen one of their cousins, the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) in Ann Arbor a few years ago, but never expected to see anything like them here.
I found that great, Eastern tiger, and black swallowtails; red-spotted purples; painted ladies; silver-spotted and fiery skippers; bees; clearwings; and even a hummingbird or two love a particular butterfly bush at the garden. This bush, which had been cut down to the ground after last summer, didn’t bloom fully until early to mid-August—I started checking as early as May! On my brief visits, I never saw clearwings, so I braced myself for disappointment.
I started seeing a few a couple of weeks ago Thursday. When I pedaled over the Saturday before last at 3 p.m., the bush was swarming with life. I noticed that among the snowberry clearwings a few hummingbird clearwings, with their fuzzy green upper backs, were making an appearance. I was in heaven. I love these guys—even after I noticed they were buzzing one another and throwing each other off choice branches of blossoms.
By Saturday there were fewer of the hummingbird moths under the increasingly cloudy skies. I was happy to have seen so many the day before.
I’d made one of the photos I’d taken the background image on my iPhone screen. I’ve changed phones since then, but I haven’t changed the image. I took a closer look at it—and realized that particular photo from last year is of a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). How did I never notice that? It had the species’ distinctive fuzzy green upper back and lacks the light band near the skirt. While bemoaning that I hadn’t seen any Hemaris thysbe at this butterfly bush, I’d been staring at a photo of one I’d taken a year ago. Brilliant.
Last Tuesday I left work early for a doctor’s appointment and managed to get to the garden by 5 p.m. I was happy to have this unexpected opportunity to visit my little fairy moths—especially since they live only a few weeks.
The bush wasn’t buzzing like it’d been on Saturday, and there weren’t any large butterflies around—but there were enough moths for me to get a few photos and videos, including one in slow motion. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner, except I am still trying to get a sharp closeup photo.
While I was standing watching a handful of moths flitting around, I heard a “bzzzzzzzzt” behind my head. I turned to find myself face to face with a hummingbird, separated by only a foot and a half or two feet of space.
As I was trying to get myself together (“Where’s the phone? Where’s the camera app?”), she buzzed around me to take a couple of quick sips at the bush. I have only these mid-distance shots and a memory now.
Now there’s only about an hour between the time I get home, change, get my bike out, and ride over, and sunset. By that hour, the Hemaris moths are few if any. The other day I was watching a hummingbird clearwing when a snowberry clearwing attacked it and carried it away.
I wish I could tell them there are plenty of blossoms to go around for the little time they have left.
In the United States you don’t have to go far to see a sign. Signs are everywhere. We have directional signs. Commercial signs. Warning signs. Not permitted signs. Educational signs. Monument signs. Signs tacked onto other signs. Confusing signs. Signs meant to clarify other signs. We even have doors, walls, and sides of buildings transformed into signs. If Saturnian neighbors were to descend upon Earth, they might note that Americans seem to be as inordinately fond of signs as God is of beetles (J.B.S Haldane: “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other . . .”).
When my aunt and I returned to Washington, D.C., from a pilgrimage to Monticello, Michie Tavern, and Ash Lawn in the early 1990s, she pointed out that the highway was unspoiled by billboards, per Virginia law. Drive through northwest Indiana on I-90 and as your eyes are assaulted by the bleakness of the ubiquitous power towers planted in the industrial landscape, they’ll find no relief in the onslaught of billboards—giant signs touting cheap fireworks (legal in Indiana but not neighboring Illinois), attorneys whose faces are blown up to epic proportions (Personal injury? Car accident? Custody issues? Mesothelioma?), “gentlemen’s clubs,” and other local businesses. (The biblical Daniel could have no idea how “Lion’s Den” would come to be used.)
All of these are in addition to the usual interstate signs—exits, speed limits, land endings and closings, construction (always construction), and other miscellaneous information a driver needs to know while navigating defensively among fellow drivers passing and weaving in and out of narrow lanes at 80 miles per hour.
Signs abound even in nature sanctuaries such as parks and wildlife areas. In addition to entrance monuments, maps, and trail signs, these may include rules, warnings, pleas not to feed the wildlife, and fishing and hunting restrictions. If you’re near a nuclear power plant, you’ll want to check out the signs telling you what to do if something goes terribly, terribly wrong. (Hint: Your burning flesh should tune into one of these radio stations.)
If you’re in the United States and you’re outside your home, chances are good you’re not too far from a sign. (It may be no more than the scrawled one taped to the office printer, “OUT OF ORDER. SERVICE CALLED.”)
Signs even lurk under your feet.
As we begin this journey at some point, remember:
During the summer, neighborhood residents can pay a fee to use the swimming pool at my apartment building. It’s a win-win, at least for those who can afford it. Families get access to an outdoor pool during the hot months. The building owners make a little extra money, or have more to pay for the pool’s upkeep. (Residents don’t pay extra.)
For the most part, the families are well-behaved. The children can be loud and rowdy, but that’s normal. I expect that.
Over the years, though, some families haven’t been so well-behaved. I noticed that when one woman with four boys arrived, they would take over the pool from west shallow end to east deep end, from north side to south side. Some of the other families, crowded out by five people, would collect their children and leave. It’s hard to have fun when you find yourself in the middle of someone else’s game (boys) or laps (woman). The woman, whose personality resembled Lucy van Pelt’s, never seemed to notice the disruption they brought. That obliviousness bothered me most. (To be fair, some families greeted her, so she was known in the neighborhood.)
Other parents bring younger children, then don’t supervise them. The area is full of hazards, including sprinklers that are easy for running kids to trip over, but they’re let loose anyway, come what may. Some run around screaming. A few who spot the local wildlife—often rabbits, sometimes baby rabbits—chase and terrorize it. My favorite was the trio who jumped up to grab the lowest branches of one of the struggling crab apples, then stripped all the leaves off. Bored with that, and with no parents in sight, they broke off the lower branches they could reach. I said something to them, but they stopped only a moment, then ignored me. (Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.) When I came out the next day, the devastation under the tree made it look like a major storm had blown through.
The other thing I notice is how much stuff people leave behind. Pool toys and noodles. Floats. Towels. Action figures. Bottles. Shoes and articles of clothing. Pool users leave something behind almost every day. When I was a kid millennia ago, my brother and I didn’t lose anything or leave it behind. We didn’t have much, and if you lost something you weren’t going to get a replacement or something else to console you.
This brings me to a different topic—the building’s bike room. For a long time it was full of bikes. I noticed many, probably most, of them had flat tires and other signs of neglect, like dust, cobwebs, and cocoons. Some remained untouched for years, presumably abandoned since tenant turnover rate is substantial. Except for the rust and grime of neglect, most appear to be in okay shape. That’s especially true of some of the abandoned children’s bikes. They’ve been there so long that the former owners must be in middle school (or higher) by now.
Every now and then management purges some bikes they can’t account for, but not all. Every time I see these still useful bikes hanging or lying there, getting dirtier and more banged up, I wonder if the former owners realized how many people would appreciate having one of those rusting conveyances. There’s even a bike shop in the area where teenage workers learn how to repair bikes while earning a refurbished bike for themselves. I’m floored by the waste, which was a luxury that only a few could indulge in not so many generations ago.
Bother the bunnies, trash the trees, waste what you have—there’s more where that came from.
Abandoned children’s bikes. Some still had some use left in them. Someone even left training wheels behind.
Abandoned by the pool. People leave stuff like this behind all the time. This disappeared after a week, probably picked up by the maintenance folks when they realized it wasn’t going to be claimed.
And, for good measure, three of the dozens of bikes abandoned on the University of Chicago campus. When I was a student, every day I wished for a bike. These folks? Apparently not.
These are a few of my favorite new things—rustic wood pencil holders from Got Wood? Workshop in Spring Hill, Kansas, via Etsy. You pick your wood. He makes the holder, sends you a photo for approval, and voilà—you’ve got mail. The one on your right, ordered first, is elm and sits in the living room. The one on your left is Osage orange and handles desk duty.
Check out Matt Plumlee’s bio and the Got Wood? Workshop logo.
(The flaming marshmallow ornament commemorates a 2016 stay in a forest preserve cabin, complete with two campfires and s’mores.)
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. New York, NY: HaperCollins Children’s Books. 2003. 176 pages. If there was one thing I loved about school, it was the Scholastic Book Club. I’m not exaggerating when I say getting the Scholastic catalog … Continue reading →
Thirty Indian Legends of Canada by Margaret Bemister. Illustrations by Douglas Tait. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre. 1997. 160 pages. In her preface to Thirty Indian Legends of Canada, dated September 15, 1912, from Winnipeg, Margaret Bemister notes that … Continue reading →
The Illinois legislature is trying to help phase out landlines, so this is a good time to talk about the relic whose descendant you may be holding in your hand at this moment: the old-school landline telephone as I knew it.
I was about five years old when my parents had a black wall phone installed over the desk that separated the kitchen from the living room. My mother was proud that I memorized the phone number instantly. The day I forget that 716 number is the day you can write “dementia” in my medical records.
As a rotary phone, even then it was becoming old-fashioned compared to the newfangled tone dialing phone introduced November 18, 1963. I felt like my folks were behind the times, but according to Wikipedia the rotary phone persisted into the 1970s with the majority of telephone subscribers.
We had a private line, but one of my new friends did not—shared “party lines” were cheaper. When I needed my dad to pick me up after a visit, the chances were good that when I picked up the phone I’d be greeted not with a dial tone but with the voice or giggles of one of the neighbors or their teenagers. If they’d heard the click and you didn’t hang up right away, you might get a wonderfully crusty suggestion that you hang up. If it seemed that they hadn’t heard the click, it was tempting to listen in—except there was going to be nothing interesting said. No Sorry, Wrong Number type opportunities on Pleasant Avenue.
When I got to college, I found the dorm house had two phone booths off the television lounge. AT&T offered phones at student rates, so somehow (I’ll never know how) I talked my parents into letting me get one. I must have been more of a talker in those days, or 34 years of business calls have soured me on phone chatting. I chose a pastel blue tone dial desk phone, which thanks to what I think was then recently introduced color-coded modular jack technology I installed myself by matching wires—one of my proudest moments. That phone went with me to my first apartment, although the phone number (which I have forgotten) didn’t.
At some point AT&T (or whichever Bell it was if after the breakup) sent a letter saying I could (or had to?) buy my phone. In the rotary days, you were a subscriber and rented your phone, but the phone company(ies) began to sell phones. I can’t remember what happened—whether I got tired of that phone or if I dropped and broke it (either is likely), and I bought a boring tan Trimline. My heart, if not my budget or my living space, really wanted an old-school cradle phone, perhaps not as fancy as this Design Line Early American model. I was stuck with the Trimline, however, and missed the solid bell ring of my first phone.
My next phone was a beige combination cordless with answering machine, so lacking in distinction that I remember mostly turning the little tape over. When I went shopping for it, I was disappointed to find the phone store was a thing of the past. Not only was the cradle phone no longer an option, but the office supply store phones were ugly and utilitarian, something more suited to a cubicle farm than a cozy home.
By the time I looked for my next and current phone, the office supply store options hadn’t changed much in style, although the color choices were more in the black, gray, and silver line. The answering “machine” is now digital. The phone docks in an upright position, so its footprint is more like that of the old candlestick telephone. It looks out of place on my Arts and Crafts-style desk. It would be more at home on the 1980s version of the USS Enterprise if the USS Enterprise had landline telephones. No one will feel nostalgic for this telephone in 50 years, and unlike cradle phones it won’t be sold on the 21st or 22nd century version of eBay or Craigslist.
At this point I have a landline telephone because I’m too lazy to switch from the DSL Internet access I’ve had for many years. I don’t use that phone often, although I still get doctor’s office reminders on that number, which I carried over from my first (shared) apartment. When I work from home, I realize how many spam/scam calls come in on that line. I can’t hear very well using it at normal volume, plus it costs an embarrassing amount of money every month. Although the Illinois rush to get rid of landlines is a problem for many, for me maybe it’s time. I’m never going to get that cradle phone after all.
(Also a relic: The sound of the landline telephone bell clanging loudly and all the household teenage zombies coming to life with a shout of “I’ll get it!” Now weird music emanates from their hand, purse, or pants pocket—that is, if they even get calls instead of texts. Remember the scene from Meet Me in St. Louis in which Warren Sheffield calls Rose long distance from New York City while the Smith family looks on and listens awkwardly? Those days are gone for good. Now it’s people on the bus or at the coffee shop or on the street corner who get to eavesdrop on your teens.)
My family didn’t travel for recreation. When we visited relatives, we stayed with one of my dad’s sisters, Mildred or Thelma. Even when I figured out that other families went on real vacations to Disney (ugh) or other attractions, I never thought about where they hung their hats at night.
Psycho, of all things, exposed me to that all-American icon, the motel or motor inn, with its outside doors and convenient parking. By 1960, though, even the Bates Motel had become a victim of the burgeoning interstate system, accessible only to those few who happened to stray onto the exit, say, during a blinding downpour.
Judging from the mid-century motels that remain open, someone still stays at them. I’ve spotted a few on the north side of Chicago as well as in a number of small midwestern towns. I can tell they’re old school because they tout amenities like air conditioning and color TV. Not just TV, but color TV. If today’s signs weren’t programmable, future generations might wonder at the “free WiFi” advertised at interstate exit hotels.
Years ago I spotted this old-school sign in Ottawa, Illinois, where “Lincoln’s voice was FIRST heard!” and a number of women worked themselves to death painting radium onto watch dials. Ever since I’ve wanted to stay there so I could take photos of the sign and enjoy some of that good old-fashioned air conditioning and TV (color not mentioned, but assumed). When I looked The Sands up, I found the rate—under $50—also looks like a relic from yesteryear, perhaps the 1980s. (Ice, however, is extra.)
Arriving at The Sands from long drive from Flossmoor, I didn’t think to look at the sign. After hiking at Matthiessen State Park and dining at the Lone Buffalo, I was too tired to look at the sign, although I had passed it at least three times by then. The fact that I didn’t notice the sign should have been a clue that something was up. Yes, imagine my surprise when the next morning I went out to take a photo of the beloved sign and discovered this:
The sign had been replaced! I sent my friend to the motel office to get the story, which varied a bit from this newspaper account. The sign was not the victim of changing fashions or tastes but of its own age and years of exposure to Illinois weather. It had become a hazard, perhaps ready to topple in the wind. If you look beyond the rust, you can see a crack between the bottom and middle pieces. The new less elaborate sign perhaps plays a sly tribute to its predecessor’s fate, depicting a tilted hourglass with the sands of time starting to run out.
What’s that you say? “What’s an hourglass?”